Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Regarding Sergio

Sergio Henao at the 2013 Amstel Gold (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

Last year, after Nairo Quintana won a stage at the Tour de France, page views for the blog went up to frightening numbers, at least for me. People wanting to know who Nairo Quintana was came upon my post answering that very question, as Wikipedia entries and even major publications like The Economist quoted and linked to the blog.

Today, an almost similar amount of traffic is coming to the blog as people (especially in the UK) search for information and interviews with and about Sergio Henao, along with information about Colombian cycling, doping and any number of combinations of these search terms. And despite all this traffic, I find myself here, without a whole lot of knowledge or much to say about Sergio Henao. Because I really don't know much more about this than any of I feel like I'd be adding to the noise by merely weighing in with speculative statements. So I'll largely refrain (look at me, sounding like a politician, as though anyone was really waiting for me to speak up) from trying to say much of anything. Also, as I've said before, this blog doesn't really function like a news site. Others do this much better, and have the time and resources to cover the sport in that way.

But I'd like to bring up certain points and observations (some are slight tangents), though some are not even my own. Make of them what you will. I merely bring them up as food for thought, since some are aspects and points of view you may not be aware of.

1. Many in Colombia see this as Henao being offered up as a sacrificial lamb by Sky, that this is a smoke screen to save their "English speaking riders" (how Jonathan Tiernan-Locke plays into that strategy, I don't know). Social media outlets are now filled with such comments, including some being made by people who are involved with the sport in Colombia. Are you hearing any such comments by english-speaking fans? Perhaps it's an international sentiment, I don't know. Similarly, I find it interesting that English speaking headlines say he's being sent home. Colombian headlines have said that he's been "sent home with Team Sky staff to study the effects of living at altitude". Leave it to me to become interested in cultural differences when news like these come up.

2. The press release, though far from perfect, was clearly written by someone who is pretty good at PR, and PR speak in general. These are the kind of resources you can afford when you are Team Sky. It makes similar comuniqués, and how similar situations have been handled by other teams seem almost humorous. Still, make no mistake, there's no hiding what's happening here. This is the second rider from Team Sky to be pulled (by the team) in a short while. Even if this is all cleared up (and really, none of us know much of anything aside from what the press has published today), there's no hiding the fact that this looks bad for Sky.

3. Henao's specific case aside, I find it uncomfortable how many of us (however unknowingly) often act and speak with a patriotic slant in our hearts at times like these. At the risk of being crass, I'd like to say that this is exactly what I wrote about in the third volume of Cycling Anthology, and I think it holds true here. Some British Sky fans seem to be of the "ah, those Colombians" mindset, as some Colombians are reacting in the manner explained in #1 above. The truth, whatever it is, has nothing to do with either point of view, and cares little about borders.

4. Are there really no studies about how altitude affects the body and values of an endurance athlete who lives at altitude? Surely such studies have been done. No? If not, as Matt Rendell urged on Twitter, Colombian doctors should get on it. Colombia should be a leader in the field, why isn't that the case already?

5. Regardless of what comes of this matter, it brings up an important point. Professional cycling, in many ways, still operates as though it were a sport that is exclusively taking place within continental Europe, while at the same time trying to expand to every corner of the planet. Surely this shortcoming has to do with funding, and the logistical nature of a sport that requires so much equipment, staff etc.

But I bring this up because out of competition testing for South American athletes when they are home (as far as I've been told by several people) is a rarity. This is for the same reason that some Colombian teams have had to create their own, internal version of the biological passport, because the UCI's reach is simply not as all-encompassing as it could/should be. And really, out of competition testing is easier to think about and execute when you are talking about a guy who lives twenty minutes outside of Brussels. Now try getting to a rural town in Colombia, or a similar place in any other number of countries, and you'll quickly see how hard (and costly) it is to travel in other places around the world. Have you tried getting to a town that literally doesn't appear in a map in a country like Colombia?

The existing model for testing, much like the race schedule, is built for western Europe. How that model becomes both scalable and sustainable in what is now a largely international sport is not a question I can easily answer. But I'm sure it would begin with more money, and we know how well that's going.

For example, the last round (ond only one I've heard of) of out of competiting testing I heard about happening in South America for World Tour riders happened as testers made their way to San Luis, and stopped into Colombia on the way down. So that's the reality of funding for this type of testing. It's the equivalent of you asking your wife or husband to "pick up some milk on your way home from work."

6.  Velo News says that he "underwent WADA-accredited controls during a winter trip to Colombia", which sounds like a translation of the Gazzetta dello Sport story, though the tests are said to have taken place in October. It would appear as though the tests were done by WADA and not by the UCI. Sky says these were tests at altitude, "introduced this winter by the anti-doping authorities." What these new altitude tests are, no one is saying.

 Other reports make it sound like they were tests done by Sky. For example, the Cycling News story includes this sentence by the UCI, which is almost in English, and is almost understandable:

"This is their own programme [Sky's] and that’s very important because that’s why we’re supportive of their programme and the approach to it and to suspend the rider. The monitoring and the programme is a matter for them.”

So none of this is extremely clear based on the PR speak-laden release. Even the news story posted on Sky's website says that they (the team) took the step of contacting the UCI and CADF, rather than the UCI or WADA doing so. It's also curious that Henao's agent seems to have gone to La Gazetta with the news. This after he was said to not be racing due to family or health issues. It's also worth pointing out that the story in the Italian newspaper came out before the Sky release.
Thoughts? Feel free to comment.


  1. I actually have a question, if you don't mind. From the statement I get that some "new out-of-competition at high altitude tests" were introduced this winter? If this thing is new, how did they decide what's normal given that the population of professional cyclists monitored by UCI, born and raised in high-altitude is (and has been) so small.

    I don't think there was a better way to deal with this, other than Henao being withdrawn from competition during 8 weeks, and Sky going to check if "high-altitude" effects can explain test results.

    If effin doping turns out to be the explanation, I will cry myself to sleep for many nights; I really, really like Henao.

    1. Natalia,
      First of all, thank you for being a great and active commenter here on the blog. It takes a shovel to dig out the PR speak from these press releases, but what I'm seeing is this: UCI testers did an out of competition test in October, and the levels were high/suspicous/unusual enough for them to raise the topic with Sky. Now, if Matt Rendell's book about Pantani is any indication, these blood values, and their flucuations are hard to fully grasp (though many fans really pretend to). So they found levels that were troublesome, but no positive of a substance. But that kind of "smoking gun" is not where testing is these days, as you likely know. Can these levels they speak of (we wont know which ones) be affected by altitude? Maybe. Would other riders who live at altitude have the same elevated levels? You'd think. For example, if they made the trip to Colombia (but perhaps they were local testers? We don't know) it's likely that they did other tests. Who else was home during October? Would those levels also be "elevated"? Ugh. Thus begins the reality of being a cycling fan.

      As for your last point, I certainly hope it's not true. For cycling, for Colombia and for Sergio. I don't know him very well. I spoke with him on the phone twice, once for an interview, and in person twice, once to give him socks for the blog, which he then wore during training a few times (as kindly photographed by Rigo). I tell you this because the whole thing is a pity, but I strongly believe that as a fan, you have to imagine the worst case scenario in terms of doping. Whatever that may be. Now imagine it being real, and ask yourself how you feel. If you can be bummed, but brush it off, this sport if for you. if not, get ready for heart ache.

    2. OK, got it. I was confused thinking the test was some internal control from Sky.

      I will try to get ready to deal with the worse case, but also, with the better case in which after 8 weeks, the Sky investigators release a press statement saying that their research indicates that Colombia's mountains are *the* place to train for cycling.

      So, you're saying I'm one of the regulars here? I'd put that in my palmarés.

  2. Put it in your Palmares, for sure!

    La Gazzetta says it was a test performed by WADA, not the UCI. Not sure if that's normally the case. Perhaps it was merely WADA testers and not the UCI ones.

  3. Sky PR machine Kicks in and tells the story in the way they want to be heard.
    It's all about self defence for Sky and keeping profile clean.
    In the end Henao has been pulled out of racing.
    If you are Sky or any other team and you have put in place a strong anti doping policy even going to the extent of sacking previous staff for doping connections then you should at least know what your riders values are and what they are putting into their bodies.
    I think Sky know exactly what is going on and have been caught out and now have to cover the bases.
    I think Brailsford's knee jerk reaction to the Armstrong case has done nothing more than highlight the issue's Sky have had concerning doping matters.
    I hope he his clean but IMO this reeks of a Sky cover up.

    rayjay ..I can see Richmond Racer boiling over.

  4. The big change over the winter in the Biological Passport is the addition of the Steroidal Module. All riders will have had to have been baselined over the Winter for this to come into effect from 1st Jan.

    Perhaps this is the new test that is being tangentially mentioned?

    If there was any reduction/elevation in Henao's figures due to altitude then it is important for the UCI/CADF/WADA to be aware of them and to take them into account especially when most testing will occur at Sea level in Europe.

    Remember Duartes case on 2007 for elevated testosterone?

    I think Sky may be being very prudent here and ensuring there is no problem in the future for Henao, who is one of their best and most valuable riders.

    1. Ahhhh, interesting. Thank you so much for giving some interesting information on this regard. Of course, you leave me homework because I now have to look up "steroidal module"! ha ha.

  5. So sad for Henao and Colombian cycling to have this problem right now. I do think we have to be concerned about the possible outcomes of this "study".

    Naively we all believe the sport is cleaner but when you go deeper into the numbers for human performance then you start to wonder from what planet these guys came to race on earth.

    Why the secrecy of keeping the whole data and numbers hidden? Why there is no release of the watts generated by riders during competition?

    Seeing Contador attack (from "fart" away) and his sprint out the 30% wall it is simple very hard to believe. I wish they have the information out there to see what amount of BS is that performance.

    What about Froome? he is pushing the same watts per kg than in LA era an even more sometimes. Another BS tale there.

    About Duarte's case I think the decision of clear his record was done by the Colombian Cycling Federation. So many doubts on that end unfortunately. What about Botero's case he was producing more testosterone than mortal humans? The Colombian Cycling Federation clear him on that one as well.

    Why Sky pull Porte out after being so strong that day in the mountain stage. Odd!!! We cannot be as naive as when the Postal team was calling the shots.

    Finally, here is the link for more information about the test:

    If the Steroidal Module is the test they are concerned
    (I do not see how this value could be affected by altitude itself. Unless Henao was climbing Everest and got Edema and was treated with steroids to bring down inflation of his brain)

    The Steroidal Module collects information on Markers of steroid doping. The Module aims to identify endogenous anabolic androgenic steroids when administered exogenously and other anabolic agents, such as selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMS) categorized under Section S1 of the Prohibited List.

  6. Sky seems to have the training and performing figured out. It's too bad talking with the press isn't as easy as coming across the line first.


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