The Agency for Cycling Ethics, which conducted independently monitored anti-doping testing for three U.S.-based cycling teams, is going out of business immediately, according to its CEO and the owner of one of those teams.
"I can confirm that the Agency for Cycling Ethics is closing operations," co-founder and CEO Paul Strauss, a Los Angeles anesthesiologist, wrote in an e-mail to ESPN.com. "We have no other comments regarding this."
ACE's dissolution after two years leaves Garmin-Chipotle, Team Columbia and BMC Racing scrambling for other options. All three teams felt the program was necessary despite more frequent and intensive testing by traditional anti-doping and sporting organizations and were willing to pay six-figure amounts for it in order to underscore their commitment to riding clean.
"We're working with [Columbia owner] Bob Stapleton and hoping to be able to get something else in place by the beginning of next season," said Garmin-Chipotle owner Doug Ellis, who added that he and Stapleton had been aware that ACE was struggling financially. "There's no way forward that doesn't include this kind of program."
ACE collected blood and urine samples from riders roughly every two weeks in order to establish baseline profiles of certain biological markers. The testing was not designed to detect performance-enhancing drugs themselves but rather indications of their use through blood and hormonal values. Teams could suspend or fire riders on the basis of suspicious findings even if they were not positive tests in the formal sense.
Ellis said although ACE has stopped its collections, offseason testing by other entities such as the UCI, cycling's international governing body, and national anti-doping agencies and cycling federations will continue to provide a deterrent. Garmin-Chipotle will be subject to increased testing now that it has been promoted from Pro Continental status to the Pro Tour, the highest rung on cycling's ladder. Columbia is also a Pro Tour team.
The UCI is slowly building a biological passport system in which data from all Pro Tour teams will be centrally stored and possible sanctions for irregular results standardized.
"We don't feel we're putting our approach in jeopardy," Ellis said. "We've already collected an enormous amount of data on our riders, and we have five new riders that we'll have to baseline next year."
CSC-Saxo Bank was the first elite team to implement the so-called "internal" testing model. Owner and director Bjarne Riis decided an independent program was necessary after he was forced to fire star Ivan Basso because of links to the Operacion Puerto blood-doping investigation in Spain.
Riis, who would later confess to doping himself during the '90s, approached respected Danish anti-doping researcher Rasmus Damsgaard to design a testing program. Damsgaard now does testing for several teams, including Lance Armstrong's new team, Astana, and Liquigas, where Basso has resumed his career after a two-year suspension.
Ellis said Damsgaard may be fully booked.
"The problem is that there aren't that many people with expertise in this field, people who we trust and that the world also trusts,"' Ellis said.
The first indication of trouble at ACE came last spring, when co-founder Paul Scott left to start his own company. Scott, a lawyer and former client manager at the World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratory at UCLA, was part of Floyd Landis' defense team in the cyclist's unsuccessful effort to overturn a positive test for synthetic testosterone. Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after the test was upheld.
Scott's association with Landis caused tensions within ACE, but neither he nor Strauss would go into details at the time because of a non-disparagement clause in their agreement.
ACE shored up its scientific end this summer by partnering with the Anti-Doping Sciences Institute led by anti-doping pioneer Dr. Don Catlin, the former UCLA lab chief who is currently designing an independent, individual monitoring program for Armstrong. Catlin consulted with ACE on results interpretation.
Ellis said that ACE had generally done well with the massive task in subcontracting to laboratories in the various countries where riders live and train and trying to ensure proper transit and storage of samples, as well as the interpretation of the test results themselves. Bicycling Magazine reported last summer that at least one rider's sample had been corrupted by improper storage.
Technology is evolving quickly, and Ellis said that in the future, in-the-field testing could negate some of the need for storing samples, which can deteriorate if they are not kept at certain temperatures. He also said that urine samples could be a greater focus, as witnessed by the recent development of a test for a new-generation blood booster, EPO, detected in some Tour de France cyclists' samples last summer.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.