The 93rd Tour de France starts on July 1st. Not there: Jan Ullrich. It was to be the culmination of his cycling career. Serious doping allegations ruined this plan. Are they actually scientifically sound?
"I've never cheated in my career," said cycling pro Jan Ullrich on Wednesday in front of the cameras. Those responsible for Team T-Mobile apparently did not believe him and suspended him, colleague Oscar Sevilla and supervisor Rudy Pevenage with immediate effect. The suspicion that blood supplies seized in Spain could have been provided for Ullrich - for doping his own blood - weighed too heavily.
The blood's ability to transport oxygen is particularly important for endurance sports such as cross-country skiing, marathons and cycling. The O2 transport capacity can certainly be increased in legal ways, such as with altitude training. The body compensates for the low oxygen pressure by forming more red blood cells, which can then bind more O2 molecules.
No means for spontaneous people: Epo
The current fashion trend in the doping business is to artificially help to increase the erythrocyte content of the blood. That would work, for example, with erythropoietin – called epo in jargon. This peptide hormone, which is mainly formed in the kidneys, stimulates the production of red blood cells. The human protein can also be produced in animals using genetic engineering and can then be injected into the athletes. At first it was difficult to prove the abuse. The epo scandal on the 1998 tour only came to light through a raid when investigators tracked down the preparations in the Festina team's luggage.
However, a detection method has been available since 2000. This distinguishes Epo produced in animals from endogenous Epo based on various sugar molecules that are attached to the molecule during its biosynthesis. The injection of foreign Epo can still be proven after a few days. A corresponding misuse during the tour is therefore rather unlikely - it would have to happen in advance in the absence of controls.
Such offenses in the training phase can never be ruled out, since the means of the control authorities such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) are not sufficient to ensure comprehensive monitoring. So an athlete training in seclusion can still exploit the loopholes in the control system, depending on how strictly his team sanctions possible abuse. Santiago Botero's performance explosion last spring, for example, aroused a lot of skepticism. After the 2002 time trial world champion spent his two years with Team Telekom in a gaping performance slump, he seemed to have found his old form again with the Phonak team, which had attracted attention several times. In connection with the current doping scandal, he was already excluded from his racing team at the beginning of June and announced that he would end his career - he has contact with Eufemiano Fuentes, team doctor of the Spanish professional cycling team Liberty Seguros and main suspect in the affair admitted.
With autologous blood doping to victory?
Own blood doping, which is now being accused of not only Ullrich but also more than fifty other cyclists, can hardly be proven in contrast to Epo. With this method, blood is drawn from the athlete during the training phase. With the concentrated and preserved blood cells, the athletes can then boost their erythrocyte contingent later in the competition. However, the athlete or his supervisor must plan this cheating tactic in good time, because it takes several weeks for the body to completely regenerate the volume of erythrocytes lost during the donation. The alternative for spontaneous dopers - the transfusion of foreign blood, regardless of whether from animals or humans - can be easily debunked: Special antigens can even be used to identify donations from relatives, if they are not exactly identical twins.
Measuring the hematocrit value serves as indirect evidence of blood doping. This parameter reflects the proportion of cellular components in the blood. A hematocrit of about 40 percent is considered normal. From a value of 50 percent, cyclists are banned from starting. The suspension is for he alth reasons because the blood becomes more and more viscous with increasing hematocrit values, and the risk of blood clots increases with additional water loss.
But cyclists with unnaturally high hematocrits are not convicted of doping – after all, there are large individual differences in the hematocrit profile. The values would only be an unequivocal indication if they stood out from long-term recorded personal parameters. However, such a technical control effort cannot currently be afforded. Even in competitions, only a part of the athletes is checked, mostly the first place winners and some randomly selected samples.
First genetic test brings clarity
The mere assignment of the found blood supplies is no proof of guilt against Ullrich. Only a DNA test can clarify whether the blood came directly from him or from another person. And even then it would still not be proven that the blood was stored for doping purposes. Alexander Vinokurow, who has also come under suspicion, has already undergone this test, Ullrich had announced that he only wanted to do it after the tour. Not a happy decision, as it turns out now.