There Was an Unusual Drug Bust at the Vuelta Espana

6 Sep

Fairly or not, men’s pro road cycling has something of a, shall we say, reputation when it comes to illicit substances. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when news popped up Wednesday that a drug bust had gone down at the Vuelta España. But this wasn’t a typical episode of pharmacological performance enhancement. In fact, the racers weren’t even involved.

As the breakaway sped through the streets of Igualada, the finish town, Stage 8 TV’s helicopter-mounted cameras accidentally captured footage of a certain lush, verdant crop growing on a rooftop. The clip caught the attention of the Guardia Civil. “We began an investigation, which is still underway, and we have seized 40 [marijuana] plants,” a spokeswoman for the police force told The Guardian.

It’s possible the grow is legal. Spain decriminalized marijuana for personal use in 2015, in connection with a law that allowed private cannabis clubs. Even by criminal standards, 40 plants is not a large operation (a raid in Extremadura, Spain, last month yielded 22,000 plants). So far, said the Guardia Civil spokeswoman, no charges have been filed.

But that could change. While personal possession is legal, sales are not, and the arrests hint that the modest grow may not be a simple homeowner’s personal stash. Nine Albanian nationals were arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking (that’s a lot of growers for 40 plants). More ominously, one Spaniard was arrested on suspicion of human trafficking and violation of employment laws.

So there’s a dark undertone to what most media are treating as a light story, even if it doesn’t touch on the race. While the coverage might not be what organizers want, they’re certainly relieved to be only peripherally involved. Though, the generally lighthearted media response illustrates the way public perception of marijuana is changing—something a sport that struggles financially might want to pay attention to. If pro cycling could allow itself to grow a little less puritanical about sponsors, perhaps they might even find some new (legal) revenue partners.

Denver Residents Are Fighting for Bike Safety

15 Aug

Denver’s cycling community made it through the first six months of the year without a driver-cyclist crash fatality. That changed on July 12, when a driver at an intersection in the Valverde neighborhood, just south of downtown, struck and killed Scott Hendrickson, who died the next day. Not even two weeks later, another cyclist, Alexis Bounds, was killed when a dump truck made a right turn into the bike lane.

In the past, the aftermath of a cyclist’s death in Denver would likely have gone the same way it does in countless other cities: a quick and bloodless story in the local media, anger and calls for action followed by a gradual return to the numbing realization that little is going to change and traffic deaths are simply normal.

But this time, something seems different in the Mile High City. The response, including a revived Critical Mass ride, is louder and more sustained. Advocates are voicing a cautious hope that, perhaps this time, tragedy will lead to lasting change. 

Maybe the difference is the proximity of the deaths. Maybe it’s that Hendrickson was a well-known cycling advocate or that Bounds was out for her first bike ride after the birth of her second child. Maybe it’s that Bounds’s death occurred on Marion Street, just behind the Denver Country Club, where neighbors have been protesting plans to add a protected bike lane that would include the very spot where she died.

“She wasn’t the first person to get hit at that intersection,” says Rob Toftness, a Denver resident and bike advocate who helped organize last Friday’s Critical Mass ride. That’s partly why the city chose it for a protected lane. Toftness, who tweets from the handle @nosquish (as in trying not to get squished by a car) calls the opposition to the lanes “ridiculous.”

Whatever the case, the reaction has been as fierce as it has been swift. In an unusual shift, it’s been led in part by the local mainstream media, with coverage largely steering clear of the detached, clinical language often used in articles about such crashes. The Denver Post ran an editorial telling drivers to pay more attention on the roads, especially when around vulnerable users. But no one has surpassed influential local TV news anchor Kyle Clark, whose NBC affiliate station, KUSA, has done multiple stories about the crashes and the community’s outraged response. Clark’s own commentary has been sharp. “Arguing for aesthetic appeal while bodies are lifted off the pavement is a bad look,” he admonished in a blistering on-air editorial.

“That piece was absolutely smoking,” says Jonathan Fertig, an architect and longtime vocal bike advocate in Boston who moved to Denver a year ago. “He held no bars.” Fertig co-organized Critical Mass with Toftness and created the spring’s Red Cup Project. Like other Denver riders, he’s fed up with the slow pace of change. The two cyclist deaths, so close to each other, struck a nerve that the 15 pedestrian deaths so far this year have failed to do.

It’s not that Denver ignores traffic safety for vulnerable users. Two years ago, the city introduced the five-year Vision Zero Action Plan, an initiative that spelled a plan to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians. “We think it’s a national-level model plan,” says Piep van Heuven, policy director for Bicycle Colorado. That’s in part because of a focus on arterial streets called a High Injury Network and on low-income neighborhoods that see higher crash injuries and death rates, like Valverde, where Hendrickson was killed. It also enumerated specific, ambitious goals for how many new miles of bike lanes and sidewalks Denver should build per year (20 and 14, respectively, in 2019, jumping to 25 and 20 in 2020).

Still, follow-through has been erratic. So far, Denver has just nine miles of protected bike lanes (the first lane, on 15th Street, was built in 2014) and 28 miles of buffered lanes. The long-sought two-way protected bike lane on South Broadway, a vital north-south connector, has faced years of delays since a 2016 pilot project.

Whether due to slow progress, exploding growth, or some combination of the two, reducing deaths and injuries has proved stubbornly difficult. With 45 traffic-related deaths already this year, Denver is easily on pace to surpass last year’s 61 such deaths, the highest in a decade.

Walk Denver gave the city a middling grade of C last year for its plan execution, which Jill Locantore, the organization’s executive director, chalked up to missed goals (her group awarded Denver an A for new bike lanes but an F for new sidewalks) and the fact that improvements haven’t focused on the High Injury Network. Most HIN roads are also designated as state highways, which makes for a complicated design process that includes the Colorado Department of Transportation. A recent Denver Post story noted that, even with vastly increased budgets, officials estimate it could take 18 years to fully build out its planned sidewalk and bike-lane network. 

Denver’s halting progress has led to criticism that Vision Zero is more for political optics than anything. I started to ask Fertig if he thought Denver had made adequate progress when he cut me off: “No, absolutely not. The mayor [Michael Hancock] has tended to talk a big game in the past and has consistently failed to deliver.”

But trends like population growth also represent an opportunity for meaningful change, says Eulois Cleckley, executive director of Denver Public Works. “We have a new generation of folks who put more value in traveling around in other modes,” he says. “This kind of aligns with where the city is going.” Cleckley, who was hired in December 2017, is the man most responsible for making these change happen. And area transportation activists are mostly encouraged, not only by what he says but his own personal habits. “He doesn’t own a car in this city, which is amazing,” says Fertig.

“Eulois has a huge job,” says Van Heuven. Cleckley restructured the department and has tripled the number of mobility staff in the past year. He says the city has built 184 miles of bike lanes (including the nine miles of protected lanes) and has 125 more planned for the next five years. This fall, Denverites will vote on creating a new transportation department out of public works. That kind of change could slow down immediate progress, but it could also create an opportunity to build a bike- and walk-friendly culture at the new department.

Cleckley also points out that infrastructure is just one aspect of Vision Zero. “There’s enforcement, there’s education ... a whole bunch of factors that make a city safe,” he says. Van Heuven points out that only about 40 percent of people have their minds made up about bike lanes—20 percent for and 20-percent against. “That 60 percent in the middle is important,” she says, “because they need to understand the why.” “The message [we need to send] is that, although this is change, it’s necessary, and we’re going to have to share [the roads],” says Cleckley. That may be a hard sell to some residents. Just days after Alexis Bounds’s death, one of the Washington Park neighbors opposed to the Marion Street bike lane was still unmoved. “All I care about is preserving the beauty of the parkway,” Patsy Brown told Streetsblog.

Talk like Brown’s leaves activists fuming. Toftness often tweets about delivery trucks blocking bike lanes and says that enforcement is largely nonexistent. As for education, “maybe you get 30 percent of people to change the way they drive, but 70 percent are still ripping right turns into the bike lane,” he says. “If there’s a barrier there that stops 100 percent of people, behavior will change.”

To speed up the planning process, Fertig says some aspects of street design should be treated like architectural approvals. Planning boards and citizens can change things like building heights and facades, “but the thing that isn’t up for community comment is how many fire [escape] stairs you can put in,” he says. “Those are things we have to do, because code says this is what you do to make the building safe. It never made sense why we treat streets in a different way.”

With Cleckley and a handful of other cycling advocates newly in office, including several city-council members elected in part to solve Denver’s growth issues, such as transportation, things may be looking up.

Still, a lot more needs to happen. Mayor Hancock has to commit to specific actions in the Vision Zero Action Plan and support staff like Cleckley in the face of vocal opposition, says Locantore. Cleckley has to successfully navigate the public-works restructuring to create a culture where street design includes walking and biking as at least equal to cars. Denver’s populace has to come to terms with the fact that 75 years of car-centric transportation design will take time to rebalance—and must as the city grows—and accept that simply owning a house doesn’t give someone a special right to determine what happens on the public right-of-way in front of it.

But more than anything, more than the education and the restructuring and the politics, one change will make the biggest difference of all. “It’s time to build the damn bike lanes,” says Van Heuven.

The Chris Froome Ruling Just Broke Anti-Doping

4 Jul

Let’s be clear: most sports contend with doping issues. But it’s professional cycling that seems to have made the biggest mess out of them. That’s (again) the situation for the sport with the news on Monday that Chris Froome is cleared in his doping case.

Part of the problem with this decision is the timing. After keeping the public in the dark for nine months, cycling’s international governing body, the UCI, announced five days before the start of the Tour de France that it was dropping Froome’s doping case over his “adverse analytical finding” for salbutamol at last September’s Vuelta España. That finding was kept secret until it leaked in December, and the case dragged on long enough that it overshadowed the Brit’s win in May’s Giro d’Italia. It threatened to do the same to the Tour and race organizers were prepared to try to stop him from entering. (The UCI addressed the timing of the announcement in a press release by saying, "Whilst the UCI would have obviously preferred the proceedings to have been finalised earlier in the season, it had to ensure that Mr Froome had a fair process, as it would have done with any other rider, and that the correct decision was issued....The UCI prepared and issued its formal reasoned decision as quickly as possible in the circumstances.")

But the timing isn’t my main problem with the ruling. Instead, it’s the substance of the decision, and the impact it may have on the Olympic sports world. In short, it threatens the stability of the entire anti-doping system.

First, some background. Froome is an asthmatic, and uses a salbutamol inhaler, as do a number of other cyclists. Under the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) rules, the substance is legal for inhalation only (no pills allowed), but only up to a certain threshold, which is measured via metabolites in a urine test. Froome got into trouble at the Vuelta when an anti-doping test late in the race revealed he had twice the legal limit in his sample. From the beginning, Sky and Froome always maintained his innocence, and the team was quick to trumpet the UCI decision in a press release where Froome said, “I am very pleased that the UCI has exonerated me.”

According to those same WADA rules, when a sample exceeds the limit, it’s presumed that the athlete took more than the maximum allowed dose. In that instance, the athlete must undergo what’s called a “controlled pharmacokinetic” (PK) study to attempt to show that the elevated finding resulted from a legal dose. Essentially, it’s a single-subject excretion study where the athlete attempts to recreate the timing, total dosage, and number of doses from the day he tested positive. He then hopes that the result corroborates his initial test results.

But as WADA revealed in its press release affirming that it would not appeal the UCI’s decision, Froome never did the PK study because “it would not have been practicable as it would not have been possible to adequately recreate the unique circumstances that preceded the doping control.”

Instead, WADA and the UCI accepted other evidence Froome submitted that suggest his test result was within the permitted maximum dose. Essentially, Froome was allowed to successfully argue that it was likely he didn’t exceed the legal dose, even though he couldn’t prove it.

That is literally extraordinary.

The UCI did not detail (and apparently does not plan to detail) the evidence Froome submitted and what aspects were specific to his own physiology. (Reportedly, Froome submitted some 1,500 pages of evidence, among them a salbutamol review where the subjects of one study were dogs.) It doesn’t mention why Froome’s circumstances were somehow markedly different than other athletes—like Diego Ulissi—who were required to do the PK test. And WADA’s press release makes no mention of changes to future salbutamol testing.

So Froome’s case appears to be a massive departure from the process that every other salbutamol case in the last decade has gone through. And, based on evidence that the authorities won’t disclose, it is also apparently a unicorn: a one-off exception that doesn’t touch the foundations of the salbutamol test regime.

WADA has not known what to do with salbutamol since the organization was founded. The original WADA Prohibited List in 2004 banned salbutamol unless the athlete had a Therapeutic Use Exemption; even then there was a threshold beyond which a TUE didn’t apply. In 2010, they scrapped the TUE requirement but kept the threshold, essentially allowing any athlete to use salbutamol up to the that legal limit.

And while positive tests have been rare since 2010, the threshold has been challenged in academic research, which suggests that individuals can metabolize identical doses differently, and that criticized WADA for failing to account for factors like dehydration. Into all this comes the Froome ruling. You can bet that the next athlete to fall foul of the salbutamol threshold is going to reference the Froome case in his or her defense, both to get out of the PK study requirement and to attack the result itself as unreliable. They may even attempt to compel WADA to share the evidence Froome submitted.

More troubling, the Froome case sets up a blueprint for how to challenge any WADA test. Almost all of the substances on the WADA Prohibited List are detected with tests that have some kind of subjective interpretation. EPO, for instance, is detected using gel electrophoresis, which separates synthetic and naturally occurring EPO based on the size and charge of the metabolized protein molecules. To be declared positive, a certain percentage of the resulting isoforms have to appear in a certain range, and that range is down, somewhat, to interpretation. Biopassport testing is similarly down to expert interpretation of fluctuations in blood and hormone chemistry—patterns that vary not just because of doping, but benign factors like plane travel, racing and illness.

The Froome ruling now sets a precedent for future doping cases. If the protocol around the salbutamol test is wrong, or meldonium, to name a recent high-profile debacle, then it raises the question of whether other tests may be similarly flawed. And tests may not necessarily be protected by the fact of their establishment. In 2015, Irish track and field sprinter Steven Colvert was banned two years for EPO use despite questions over whether his sample met the criteria to be declared positive. A later report by Norwegian researchers further questioned whether the tests were reliable. Colvert didn’t pursue an appeal, at least in part because it was too expensive. But had Colvert had resources, a successful appeal might have upended the EPO urine test, despite having been in use for 15 years.

Ross Tucker, the author of the influential Science of Sport blog, tweeted:

Anti-doping authorities were never set up for expensive, protracted legal fights with deep-pocketed athletes. WADA’s annual budget for 2018 increased 8 percent, to $32 million. That sounds like a lot, but Froome alone makes a reported $5 million per year from his Sky contract (not including endorsements). He’s one of just a handful of pro cyclists who make enough for a high-dollar defense, but WADA oversees all Olympic sports, including those with athletes whose earnings dwarf Froome’s. Imagine if an athlete who makes tens of millions of dollars tests positive.

At the same time, WADA’s research budget has plummeted from almost $7 million a year in 2006 to $1.5 million in 2018. Those funds were gutted in part by expensive investigations like into state-sponsored Russian doping. But that research is also exactly the kind of thing they’ll need to defend—and improve—the testing standards.

The warning signs are already out there. Three years ago, the UCI pursued a biopassport case against cyclist Roman Kreuziger for nearly a year until dropping it literally on the eve of trial, citing “newly obtained evidence” that was never detailed. The UCI hasn’t successfully pursued a case since, although it just opened one against road cyclist Jaime Roson. Track and field hasn’t seen a successful passport sanction since September 2016.

Maybe the UCI has compelling, specific scientific evidence that supports the idea that Froome’s case is a one-off outlier and doesn’t affect the overall stability of the salbutamol testing regime. If so, they should detail it, and Froome should have no problem with that since it will help to bat down accusations of preferential treatment.

But if they don’t have that evidence and, instead, what Froome showed is simply that the test doesn’t work as well as WADA contends, then that’s extremely troubling. It’s not just about Froome, or salbutamol, or cycling. The entire structure of anti-doping rests on the presumption that the tests work as the authorities say they do, that the rules are the same for everyone, and that not only are cheating athletes caught, but more importantly that clean ones aren’t. If that’s not true?

Then WADA’s entire reason for existence is in doubt.

Andy Rihs, Longtime Pro-Cycling Patriarch, Passes Away

19 Apr

The BMC Racing team announced Thursday that its team owner, Andreas Rihs, died at age 75 after what the team called a “patient and valiantly endured illness.” 

Despite a tendency to defer the spotlight to his riders, Rihs was a giant in the world of professional road cycling and an irrepressible enthusiast for the sport. He founded the highly regarded bike company, BMC, and owned two successive teams at the top level of the sport that won two Tours de France, among other major events. 

“Andy was not only an owner and main sponsor of BMC Racing Team, but also a friend who enjoyed life and loved sharing that joy,” the team said in a statement. “With him, an exemplary visionary, an avid sports fan, a passionate cyclist, and a great supporter of sport has left us.”

Tributes poured in from current and former BMC racers and others in the sport. Jonathan Vaughters, general manager of the EF Education First-Drapac team, remembered their shared love of wine. George Hincapie, who spent the last three years of his career with BMC, recalled Rihs’s “joie de vivre” and said it had been an honor to work for and be friends with him.

Rihs was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1942. In 1980, along with his brother Hans-Euli, he inherited Phonak, a Swiss hearing-aid company owned by their father, Ernst. He grew its sales to almost $2.5 billion dollars per year, and the fortune he made helped fund his love of cycling. He made a substantial donation to help build the Velodrome Suisse in Grenchen, Switzerland—the site of numerous recent World Hour Record attempts. But Phonak (which now exists as a part of holding company Sonova), was also tied to Rihs's lowest moment in the sport.

In 2000, Rihs fielded his first pro cycling team, under Phonak sponsorship. The team quickly found success, culminating with Floyd Landis’s stunning comeback win in the 2006 Tour. But when Landis tested positive for testosterone, the title was stripped and the team, which had been set to continue with a new sponsor, folded. Landis, of course, would eventually play a central role in bringing to light an even larger scandal, revolving around Lance Armstrong. Another prominent American who raced for Phonak was Tyler Hamilton, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and was later stripped of that title and other results for doping. In the years since, a number of riders on the team have either been caught, accused of, or admitted to doping.

Rihs was only momentarily chastened by the Landis debacle, however. In 2007, he fielded a third-division team sponsored by the bike company he founded, BMC. Steadily, the team grew in size, roster and budget, and won a Tour title with Cadel Evans in 2011. Today, the team is one of the largest and best-funded teams in cycling.

Rihs was a member of a long tradition of wealthy cycling enthusiasts who own teams, dating back at least to patrons of the peloton, like Bernard Tapie, who owned the powerhouse La Vie Claire team in the '80s that got Greg LeMond his first Tour victory. Rihs’s recent company in that exclusive club includes owners like Mitchelton-Scott’s Gerry Ryan and the controversial (and now ex-owner) Oleg Tinkov. In recent months, BMC team staff had been quietly searching for a replacement sponsor, as Rihs and BMC were said to be reducing their longtime support. None has yet been announced for 2019.

Rihs was a constant fixture at races, eager to spend time with riders and staff, and often seen on his own bike. He delighted in supporting his riders. In many years, the Tour de France had a rest day in the Provence region, where Rihs would put the team up at his luxurious Coquillade hotel and winery, even when it was many miles away from where other teams were staying. Rihs would bring cases of wine to the races at times for the staff to enjoy and sometimes liked to laughingly refer to himself as the team’s sommelier rather than its owner.