ARCALIS, Andorra, July 10 — Each day here at the Tour de France a handful of the world’s fittest athletes climb into a small office on wheels to pee into a plastic cup. For the riders it is part of the job, as routine as riding their bikes, but for a sport not long ago plagued by doping scandals the testing is critical to its integrity and survival.
There has not been a doping positive in this Tour so far. In last year’s race there was one positive, for cocaine, and in the 2014 Tour there was no positive test reported. (Here’s a list of doping cases in cycling.)
At least on the surface, pro cycling today appears much cleaner than it did a decade or so ago.
How does the world’s biggest bike race detect if a rider is doping? Welcome to “antidoping control,” where officials try to ensure that cyclists are racing clean by testing their urine and blood, usually with little notice. If a rider fails to report to antidoping, for whatever reason, he is considered to be positive and immediately kicked out of the race.
Before each stage of the Tour finishes, an official from the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF) posts a list of riders' numbers near the finish line.
It isn't hard to figure out who's who as the riders' race numbers and names are public knowledge. A quick Google search will easily identify each rider.
The riders don't have to go directly to antidoping, so if they are asked to do a post-race press conference or wish to go to their team bus and clean up, they can do that -- as long as they are with their assigned chaperone at all times.
This is where the riders and team doctors or another staffer report. If there are other riders being tested, they have to wait in this area.
There are two different stations in the truck, so two riders can be tested at the same time. The truck was built when only a few rider were tested, so space inside is a bit tight.
Water is provided and that's important, because if the riders are dehydrated after racing they won't be able to urinate, which means they might have to wait some time before they can provide samples -- as long as a couple of hours. That could delay the team from driving to the next stage's start town and also delay plans for massage, dinner, and any number of things on the schedule.
Still, every rider I spoke said they understood why the tests were necessary.
Once inside the antidoping station, the rider first signs paperwork that says, among other tings, that he acknowledges that he is being tested and understands what will happen going forward with his samples and the lab analysis. The rider signs and gets a copy.
These days, a lot of the information is filled in beforehand, and so the rider often just signs his name and perhaps adds a few missing details.
The winner of the day's stage and the overall race leader are automatically tested, as well as six or seven additional riders.
In the past, riders were mostly selected at random, but now the testing is a lot more structured, according to the CADF official I spoke with. Riders are chosen now based on different factors, including intelligence gathered from national cycling federations and other sources, a CADF representative said.
Each box contains two jars, for the A and B samples. The riders urinate into the plastic cups, or 'collection vessels,' and then pour that urine into the jars before finally sealing them.
There is a refrigerator for storing the samples until a courier arrives -- as well as bottles of water for all the riders who pass through.
In the antidoping-control station, riders normally give just a urine sample. But the CADF may also draw blood samples. These are the materials used for taking blood samples.
This is done for what's known as the biological passport, the purpose of which is to 'monitor selected biological variables over time that indirectly reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping substance or method itself,' according to WADA.
When officials want blood samples during stage races such as the Tour, they often go to the rider's hotel in the evening. During this Tour, CADF officials have already visited team hotels for additional testing.
To ensure that a valid sample is taken and there is no cheating, an official from the CADF must watch the rider urinate, so he looks through the window on the left. There are two mirrors, which allow the testing official to see from different vantage points.
The whole process typically takes about 20 minutes, but that can vary a lot if the rider is unable to provide a sample right away. It is not uncommon for riders to take up to 2 hours to provide a sample.
Each day after the samples are collected from the riders, the courier places them into a cool box, seals it in front of the CADF officials, and then drives directly to a lab in Paris. He does this every day, according to the CADF representative we met.
Sometimes the courier even gets a police escort, which opens the roads for faster travel. For smaller races, the turnaround time for the samples is longer, but for the Tour it's best that the samples are moved the same day, a CADF representative said.
Riders give two samples, an A and B sample. Should a rider's A sample test positive, he has the right to have the B sample tested.
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