After Peter Sagan became cycling’s new road world champion on Sunday, he took time to celebrate in the streets of Richmond, Virginia, before heading on stage for a podium ceremony and speaking at a press conference.
A couple of hours after Sagan donned the coveted rainbow jersey, a chaperone escorted the 25-year-old Slovak down a long corridor, behind black curtains, and into a large, nearly empty room in which he found a table with a bunch of medical supplies on it and, off to one side, a refrigerator locked with a long chain wrapped around it. The newly crowned king of bicycle racing was reporting for drug testing.
Cycling and antidoping
If there’s one sport most closely associated with performance-enhancing drugs in the past few decades, it’s cycling. But the sport is moving on from its dirty period, and it’s cleaner today than it has been in a long time, though still imperfect.
Thanks in part to new leadership at the sport’s governing body, the International Cycling Union (known by its French abbreviation, UCI), education, and improved testing, the sport appears to be getting cleaner.
In the run-up to the UCI Road World Championships, I was curious to know what a drug test entailed these days, and I asked the UCI if it would let me see how the tests were administered. It took a week to get permission, but eventually, in the middle of the elite men’s race, the UCI called me to the designated doping-control station, near the race’s finish line, where a couple of hours later Sagan and others would be making their way as well.
When I arrived, a UCI representative introduced me to Angeline Turin, the in-competition testing coordinator for the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF), the independent body mandated by the UCI to carry out the antidoping program in cycling.
The CADF tests cyclists in all disciplines, including BMX, cyclocross, track and road cycling, and mountain biking. It’s responsible for testing riders in the Tour de France, the Tour of California, the world championships, and other events registered on the UCI calendar. It complies with the World Anti-Doping Code, which aims to bring “consistency to antidoping rules, regulations, and policies worldwide” – and it has partnerships with antidoping agencies in many countries. The banned substances can be found on WADA’s “Prohibited List.”
Turin walked me through the antidoping protocol, the same process that the riders selected for testing go through, and here’s what I saw:
When I entered the convention center in downtown Richmond, I found these signs.
I met my contact, Angeline Turin, at the designated doping-testing station, normally a restricted area. In Richmond, this is where riders went to be tested.
Turin is the in-competition testing coordinator for the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF), and she agreed to show me, step by step, how the tests are conducted. She would sit with a CADF doping-control officer, or DCO, for a mock test, acting as if she were a rider selected to be tested. She would explain what normally happens along the way. (Of course during actual tests, journalists are not allowed.)
Riders who have been tested will be familiar with this form:
Turin explained that in these championships six riders were selected after each race to provide a urine sample: the race’s first three finishers and three other riders picked at random or targeted. How, exactly, are riders picked randomly? Sometimes it’s just a matter of picking numbers from a bag.
The list of selected riders is posted at the finish line.
A representative for the UCI told me that more and more target tests are replacing the random procedure. Target riders are identified based on information from different sources. For example, riders are sometimes selected upon recommendation of national antidoping organizations (in the US, a specific collaboration has been set up with the US Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado).
Because the recommendations are considered strategic, the UCI could tell me only that the CADF and the UCI had a “cooperative partnership” with USADA and that the agencies regularly share information about riders.
Other sources used by the CADF include other national antidoping organizations (NADOs), public authorities, WADA, and information received from whistle-blowers.
Chaperones are sent to the finish line to find the selected riders:
After races, CADF-trained chaperones locate the riders to be tested and notify them that they must go to the designated doping-control station. They present the riders with the In-Competition Notification Form, which they must sign on the spot.
Because there are often activities that riders must participate in between the time they cross the finish line and report to antidoping – including podium ceremonies and press conferences – chaperones must stay with the riders at all times. This close supervision helps prevent cheating.
The doping-control station at the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond: These places are normally off limits to everyone but riders and officials.
Once riders make it to the antidoping area, they are guided to a waiting room and sit with their chaperones until they are ready to provide a urine sample, at which point they report to the doping-control station and meet the DCO. DCOs introduce themselves to the riders and ask whether they have been tested before. The DCO writes down information about the rider on a “Doping Control Form.”
At this time, the rider and the DCO have started filling out the Doping Control Form:
This official from the Cycling Anti-Doping Federation (CADF) kindly agreed to participate in a mock test during my visit to the doping-testing station.
Her title is doping-control officer, or DCO. She runs the tests, which usually take 15 to 20 minutes. But note that in addition to testing riders’ urine, the CADF may draw blood samples. This is done for what’s known as the biological passport, the purpose of which is to “monitor selected biological variables over time that indirectly reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping substance or method itself,” according to WADA.
On the table were bottles of water, collection vessels, latex gloves, and kits.
The DCO instructs the rider to choose a “collection vessel” into which the rider will urinate in a designated restroom with a witness – usually a nurse or a doctor – of the same gender. In the restroom, riders are instructed to wash their hands, without soap, pull their shorts down to the knees, lift their shirt to the chest, and urinate into the collection vessel.
The witness must have a full, unobstructed view of the passing of the sample, so the witness must watch the athlete who is urinating. If the rider is unable to provide a suitable sample, the process will have to be repeated. Occasionally that means tests can last for hours.
Once riders return from the restroom to the doping-control station, they sit back down with the DCO, who checks whether the urine sample is suitable.
If the sample is suitable, the DCO tells the rider to select a “urine kit,” a box that contains two small glass bottles into which riders will pour their urine. The rider is instructed to check that the bottles are correctly labeled and that there is nothing inside them.
One bottle is labeled “A” and the other “B.” Later, after a lab analysis, if the A sample tests positive for a banned substance, the rider has the right to have the B sample tested.
The DCO uses a refractometer to check the urine sample. According to the UCI, DCOs try to measure the urine’s gravity, a parameter indicating whether the urine is diluted. If the sample is not good, the rider has to repeat the process.
The “urine kit” with two bottles, one for the “A” sample and one for the “B” sample.
The rider selects a kit and makes sure the bottles are sealed. Only the rider should handle the kit and its contents throughout the test, to help ensure accuracy.
It is important that each rider’s paperwork is correct, so extra care is taken to double-check each form for accuracy at the time of testing.
Scenes from a (mock) “antidoping control”:
Next, the DCO informs the rider to pour the urine into the bottles. (Yes, sometimes riders spill it, hence the absorbent mat placed in front of them.) Once the riders successfully pour their urine into the bottles, they cap and seal them until the bottles make a clicking sound. Then they turn the bottles upside down to make sure there are no leaks. Next, they place the bottles in plastic bags and seal them. The rider puts the bottles back into the box and seals that.
Finally, the rider boxes up his or her samples. It is important that riders handle all the test materials themselves. The DCO does not touch any of the materials.
That means only riders handle the collection vessel, their urine, the two bottles, and the packaging. They seal and pack the samples themselves.
The DCO then places the sealed kit in a refrigerator until it is time to ship it to the lab. This was the refrigerator used at the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond.
As long as the samples are stored properly, they may be sent a day or two after collection, Turin told me. Both A and B samples are sent together. Sometimes samples taken from several riders are sent in batches.
The lab analysis is carried out shortly after. If a rider’s sample tests positive for a banned substance, the rider will be notified and has the right to have his or her B sample tested. You can read more about the UCI’s antidoping program on its website.