A Curious List

May 14 2011

Browsing L'Equipe by inkyIs there anything that triggers an “OMG LEAK” response more effectively than a clandestine list? Nixon’s enemies, law firm layoffs, and of course, financial information.

But the UCI’s Index of Suspicion leaked a few days ago is especially curious because all we have is metadata—scores that the UCI has made up ostensibly based on actual measurements. But L’Equipe’s intrepid journalists failed both in nailing down the specific criteria used by the UCI, or the data that were fed into these criteria to arrive at a given doping suspicion index score.

Strangely, we do have a fairly extensive set of data on what an index score of 4 might look like —and we have Lance Armstrong to thank for it. There are some hopeful assumptions in this assessment (namely, that the UCI even has an objective set of criteria, and that Lance’s ’09 data informed his ’10 score), but it’s still the best (only?) set of actual numbers we have.

And to my layman’s eyes, 4 doesn’t seem like such a bad spot to put Armstrong’s numbers. They are not especially high, but do show a stubborn consistency—perhaps even the “too normal” values that prompted the bio passport experts to propose hiding values from riders for a few months. There was also the mid-Tour hematocrit increase, much-trumpeted by amateur Internet hematologists as evidence of a transfusion.

But in many other ways, the list makes the UCI (and some teams and national governing bodies) look bad. There’s the obvious criticisms: how could this list get out in the first place, and why weren’t the highest-rated riders the most heavily tested? But more damning is efficacy of enforcement. If Popovych was the most suspicious rider at the 2010 Tour, and he’s been tied up in at least one investigation since then, how is he still riding?

As someone pointed out on Twitter (my apologies for losing the link), Alessandro Ballan has been suspended twice for investigations, is now pretty solidly linked to several transfusions, but still only rated a 5 on the UCI’s list. As more-successful-than-not Ballan likely had money to burn on medical assistance, I’m inclined the chalk this up to the skills of a good doctor, though it could just as easily be cast as a judgement on the ineffectiveness of the bio passport system.

The riders, who seemed to react the most negatively and immediately to the list, will likely be the least affected in the end. Cycling may indeed be all politics, but for the vast majority of riders—those that block the wind, carry bottles, and mark breaks—the difference between a suspicion level of zero and four, in data over a year old, will have far less impact than a reliable record of performance and a few big names willing to vouch for you .

The higher levels of suspicion—a total of 20 riders ranked 7 and above—are populated almost exclusively by almost-there contenders, and super-domestiques with a few major wins to their credit. While I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the older names had trouble landing a job in the future, the continued re-emergence of convicted dopers is a pretty straightforward indication that suspicion will never trump results.

So as pretty much everyone else has already pointed out, the damage from this list will fall most heavily on its creator, the UCI—just in time for them to decide that nah, one of the most historically effective national anti-doping agencies shouldn’t be allowed to operate independent testing at the Tour of California after all.

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3 Responses to “A Curious List”

  1. skippy 14 May 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    Deliberate plant by the UCI to cause all to take their eye off the ball ! Heads should roll for this but the “leaker” is hidden away amongst the haystacks that have been created since this time last year .
    As i pointed out elsewhere Mc Queasy and his posse are spraying bullets everywhere and i hope he saves one to play “russian roulette” . Like always others are left to clear up the mess !
    There are good and decent people working for the UCI but the “scum ” always rises to the top in a foundry and so they will be tarred by the same brush .
    Who riding the ToC needs UCI to protect them from the likes of USADA ?

    Read Ricco wants another go at the trough , but do we want any more ? Do himself a favour if he became abest selling author of ” How to beat the UCI at their own game” or some such bio !

  2. Jan 15 May 2011 at 4:17 am #

    While I agree with many of your points, I don’t think the Ballan – Popovych comparison is fair. After all, if I am not mistaken those values were based on the Tour de France, where Ballan may not have been doped to the gills as this was hardly his priority race while Popovych was a domestique in a team with several potential Top 10 finishers in the biggest stage race of the year. So by taking Ballan’s values from another part of the season, he may well have been given a higher number.

    Also, even if Popovych had a 10, the question “why is he still racing?” is easily answered: because even in cycling, a sport that does fight doping which other sports don’t, you can’t ban someone on suspicion. That’s the second part where the analogy to Ballan is wrong: Ballan was suspended by his TEAM, not by the UCI. So the fact that Popovych is still racing is hardly the UCI’s fault, but rather Radioshack’s. Then again, in a team where I have trouble pointing out anybody I believe could be clean, it’s hardly surprising they won’t suspend any rider based on suspicion. Otherwise, LA would not have been at the 2010 TdF which was kind of the reason for the team’s existence.

  3. cycling clothing 18 September 2011 at 8:13 pm #

    There are good and decent people working for the UCI.

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