Cycling Team Targets Doping with Testing

Former Tour de France rider Jonathan Vaughters heads a pro cycling team that takes an upfront approach to prevent doping. The team's riders agree to frequent testing. If tests show abnormalities, the riders can't compete.

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RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:

And now a story about drugs and sports that doesn't include shocking headlines or shameful admissions of guilt. This is a story about a different, quieter path in the fight against doping.

On Monday, a professional bike-racing team from Boulder, Colorado, announced what it called the most progressive anti-doping testing program in this pro sports world. Members of the team say their plan has the potential to bring clean competition to a sport that's been torn apart by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

NPR's Tom Goldman has more.

TOM GOLDMAN: It's a matchmaker's nightmare: Slipstream Chipotle, a bike racing team that's testing its rider's urine and blood at an astronomical rate, and team member Tyler Butterfield, who gets queasy at the sight of blood.

Mr. TYLER BUTTERFIELD (Team Slipstream): So far, I haven't been in, which I'm happy but I don't look. I look the other way and just try and talk with someone. But definitely I do get hot and start sweating.

GOLDMAN: This year, Butterfield and his teammates will endure more than 20 times the normal number of test for most pro-racers. In all, 23 Slipstream riders, including the ashen Butterfield, volunteered for the program.

Mr. PAUL SCOTT (Agency for Cycling Ethics): I just cleaned off his arm.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. SCOTT: And I'm putting a tourniquet on it. And now I'm stabbing him.

GOLDMAN: Chemist and biomedical researcher Paul Scott is in the midst of a nearly two-hour testing session at Slipstream's training camp in the mountains east of San Diego. Scott will draw two small tubes of blood from each athlete, including 23-year-old Ian MacGregor.

Mr. SCOTT: How are you doing? In any pain?

Mr. IAN MACGREGOR (Team Slipstream): No, he's pretty good at it. Starting to feel it.

Mr. SCOTT: That's that.

GOLDMAN: That's that until three days later, when Scott will return with his needles and tubes. These frequent tests in the early stage of the program are setting up a biological profile of each athlete, the specific characteristics of their blood and urine. Once the profiles are set, future testing will look only for changes in those characteristics, changes that could indicate drug use, says Slipstream manager and coach Jonathan Vaughters.

Mr. JONATHAN VAUGHTERS (Coach, Team Slipstream): It might be because you are sick or it might be because you have taken a performance-enhancing element. We don't know, but your metabolic markers are off of the norm. And therefore we are not going to allow you to compete in an event until they have returned to normal.

GOLDMAN: If your markers have not changed, you're considered clean and good to go to the starting line.

Mr. VAUGHTERS: It's permission to do the race before the race starts, as opposed to, you know, after the fact sort of playing a cops and robbers game.

GOLDMAN: And that is a screeching 180-degree turn away from the anti-doping blueprint of the past quarter century, a blueprint that has relied on testing for specific banned drugs, catching athletes, and punishing them. All of this after the fact.

Mr. SCOTT: The first and foremost aspect of this is that our system is not punitive.

GOLDMAN: But it's expensive says tester Paul Scott. It's costing Scott's new company, the Agency for Cycling Ethics, or ACE, about $20,000 per athlete for a year's testing. To cover the Slipstream racers, that's over $400,000, paid for by ACE sponsors.

The idea of a volunteer, self-policing anti-doping program has been rattling around since the early 1990s. After last year's scandal-plagued season in elite cycling with Tour de France winner Floyd Landis accused of doping, Jonathan Vaughters felt the time was right to offer up his team of almost top-level riders as guinea pigs on wheels.

Vaughters was a 10-year pro who retired in 2003. For part of his career he was a member of the Tour de France-winning U.S. Postal Service team that was linked to doping controversies. That's caused some to question whether it's hypocritical for Vaughters to take the lead now on doping reform.

Mr. VAUGHTERS: I was part of a, you know, a generation of riders that obviously had a lot of problems. And, you know, I don't want any of these riders to face those problems. And so, you know, I'm willing to put a lot of pain that I felt over, you know, the period of my career into effort now to make sure that they don't have to make, you know, hard decisions like that.

GOLDMAN: If Vaughters wants to give, he has a willing group of riders ready to receive. Most of them came of age in cycling during an era of intense doping scrutiny. And like Ian MacGregor, they say they're willing to put up with the extra testing to help move their sport in a new direction.

Mr. MACGREGOR: Now I almost feel like I need to go out there and prove that cycling isn't the dirtiest sport in the world, and that it isn't only dopers and that guys can compete clean, and guys can win clean and guys can be heroes to younger riders.

GOLDMAN: Along with the ACE testing, MacGregor and his teammates also will undergo the regular tests required of all other riders. Meanwhile, Paul Scott says ACE is trying to raise more money to meet a sudden demand. He has nine pro cycling teams waiting to start volunteer testing, including some teams from the top level pro tour.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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