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A world-renowned expert on the use of EPO to illegally enhance performance in sport has told procycling that Dario Frigo would have been "unlikely" to test positive even if the Italian had used several doses of the drug between the first rest day of the Tour de France and its conclusion in Paris.
Michel Audran is a member of the Science and Industry against Blood Doping (SIAB) organisation and recently completed a WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency)-funded clinical study on the use of reduced doses of EPO. Reacting today to the arrest of both Frigo and his wife, who is reported to have been in possession of 10 doses of EPO when stopped by police near Chambry, Audran outlined what he believes is a reliable and increasingly popular method of evading both the UCI's urine and blood tests.
According to Audran, the use of small doses of EPO restricts the drug's window of detection to around 24 hours or even less. International Cycling Union medical officials have previously stated that EPO showed up in their tests for between four and 14 days after usage.
While not wishing to speculate about Frigo's individual case, Audran admitted that the quantity of the drug seized by French police corresponded to his suspicions about how the banned hormone could now be used in cycling.
"The principle of using micro-doses of EPO is to maintain a certain haematocrit and haemoglobin level," Audran, contacted by telephone, told procycling. "My findings have confirmed to me that this is a very effective method and could be used during the Tour de France. Whereas, previously, a rider might artificially boost his haematocrit with EPO a week or more before the Tour, now he might still do that, but he will also top up with very small doses up to three times per week during the race. By very small doses I mean five times less than a 'normal' dose.
Audran then cited the hypothetical example of a rider with an "average" natural haematocrit of 42 per cent raised artificially to 48 per cent with conventional doses of EPO prior to the Tour de France. "Before the UCI introduced blood tests in 1997, riders were boosting their haematocrit by 10, 15 or even 20 points. I say that based on the kind of figures we saw in the trial of Dr Michele Ferrari. Consider that a 10 per cent increase in haematocrit translates into a six or seven per cent increase in VO2 max. Now, riders can no longer raise their haematocrit to above 50 but they can stay at 48 throughout the Tour with micro-doses of EPO - between six and 10 Ul/kg - twice or three times per week. It's a very precise method which enables you to basically 'pick' a haematocrit, roughly to the nearest point."
The final obstacle standing in the way of the EPO cheat, says Audran, is the UCI detection method introduced amid considerable fanfare in 2001. But small doses also mean a small probability of being caught, says the professor.
"The kind of quantities of EPO we are talking about will be detectable for around 24 hours after intravenous injection," Audran indicated. "In theory, this means that a rider taking a micro-dose of EPO the evening before a big mountain stage runs the risk of being caught if tested after the next day's stage. In reality, however, my research suggests that, with the fluids you lose in a big mountain stage and the stress exerted on your body, I am confident that there won't be enough EPO in your system at the end of the stage to trigger a positive test. That's why I'd be in favour of introducing urine tests on the morning of stages rather than at the end. "
Audran's comments will doubtless send shockwaves through a Tour de France caravan already reeling from the Russian Evgeni Petrov's exclusion from the race for a failed haematocrit test on Tuesday. Petrov returned to his home in Forte dei Marmi, Italy, in disgrace yesterday with Lampre apparently excluding the likelihood that the Russian's failed blood test could be explained by anything other than doping. Team manager Claudio Corti said yesterday that Petrov would not be welcome at Lampre-Caffita when he is eligible to return to racing, more tests permitting, in 15 days' time.
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