Information Floyd Landis recently gave to the United States Anti-Doping Agency about how cyclists have and still are getting around the biological passport analysis system could have an immediate impact on the sport, according to at least two people with direct knowledge of the system.
Michael Ashenden, a Australian exercise physiologist and blood doping researcher who sits on the nine-man independent panel that reviews biological passport data for UCI (cycling's international governing body), and Dr. Don Catlin, an anti-doping researcher who pioneered methods for steroid detection, both told ESPN.com that Landis' information could be crucial in understanding how cyclists try to beat the system.
That biological passport, which monitors blood values and urine samples over time in order to build evidence of blood manipulation and is financed in large part by the sport's elite tier of teams, was put into place to supplement traditional drug testing.
Yet according to Landis, teams and riders with enough monetary resources and sophisticated medical advice knew how to circumvent the biological passport even before its official implementation in 2007.
Landis told ESPN.com last week that during the two or three years leading up to his 2006 Tour de France victory -- subsequently nullified after he tested positive for synthetic testosterone -- he and some of his fellow riders combined strategically timed transfusions and microdoses of EPO (erythropoietin, a red blood cell booster) in order to keep their blood values constant rather than spiking and dipping.
The main difference between their methodology and that of riders in the 1990s, Landis said, was riders of his era learned to inject EPO intravenously rather than subcutaneously, as a cancer patient or someone with another grave illness would do.
When EPO is injected under the skin, it is absorbed first into soft tissue and released into the bloodstream gradually, prolonging its therapeutic effects. Injecting EPO intravenously has the same effect of boosting red blood cell count and improving oxygen processing capacity. However, the drug disperses more quickly in the bloodstream and thus becomes undetectable sooner -- especially if riders dilute their blood with an intravenous drip of saline solution or simply by drinking a lot of water after injecting it.
Roughly speaking, the biological passport is designed to catch riders who cheat based on fluctuations in their baseline blood values. One fundamental element is the ratio of their "young" or new red blood cells, called reticulocytes, compared with mature cells. When an athlete transfuses his own blood, the body responds by slowing down production of reticulocytes. Landis said riders brought the level of red blood cell production back to normal by microdosing with EPO during races on a nightly basis.
According to Landis, the coup de grace that made this methodology work was that he and his U.S. Postal Service teammates routinely had advance notice of supposedly unannounced anti-doping controls. "We always knew when the blood testers were going to be there the following morning, so we would know when to have the saline solution bags so we could dilute our blood the night before," he said. He said he did not know how the team staff got wind of the schedule. "It was just nice that they did," he said.
"You can use three to four times your body's normal production of EPO if you inject it intravenously and have virtually no chance of testing positive within a matter of hours," Landis told ESPN.com. "So the biological passport is a joke, and I'm fairly certain the UCI knows about it." Landis added that he bought an expensive piece of machinery to measure his own reticulocyte count and also learned to do the analysis manually with a microscope.
All that may sound like science fiction, but according to Ashenden, Landis has probably provided a key piece of the puzzle that has vexed him and his peers for a long time: Why some riders' blood values remained within a unusually narrow range, a pattern that was suspicious in and of itself but not generally subject to sanctions.
"We've known they're doing something, especially in the last year," Ashenden said. "It's still brazen beyond belief." He believes a small intravenous dose of EPO would remain detectable in a urine sample for at least six hours, even if an athlete is diluting his blood.
Ashenden recently completed a study in which he injected subjects intravenously twice weekly with microdoses of EPO over a period of three months, then ran their blood values through the biological passport software. "Not one of them failed," he said.
Catlin said Landis' account matches anecdotal accounts he has heard through the years, "although I've never had it described as vividly," he said.
Catlin said the program required "fairly sophisticated knowledge," and agreed with Ashenden that athletes may have had more confidence in their ability to beat the tests than was warranted. "They'll take those risks because the rewards are so handsome," said Catlin, who currently oversees an independent testing program for two U.S.-based teams, HTC-Columbia and Garmin-Transitions.
Both researchers said the only way to completely foil what Landis described would be to ensure that tests are truly unannounced -- or resort to more Draconian measures like 24-hour testing or regularly inspecting riders for needle marks. "[The passport] is still the best thing we've got in terms of targeting athletes," said Ashenden, who added that steroid and human growth hormone markers are about to be included in the passport profiles.
HTC-Columbia owner Bob Stapleton said he never regarded the passport as a cure-all and doesn't regret any of the money his organization has invested in the project. "It's resulted in a remarkable increase in the number of tests and the sophistication of tests, and it allows experts to make nonanalytical findings [i.e. doping offenses not based on positive tests]," he said. "The noose gets tighter and tighter."
Flawed as it may be, the biological passport has still led to sanctions against at least eight riders -- some of whom have disputed the findings -- in the last two years. In an interview with ESPN.com, World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman defended the passport as a worthwhile project that nonetheless requires continual refining. Several other international sports federations are in the process of implementing it, including those that govern track and field, skating, biathlon and skiing, along with national anti-doping agencies such as USADA.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.