Taking matters into their own hands. Citing lack of support from official entities, Colombian teams create their own anti-doping program. An interview with Ignacio Velez.

Doping problems in cycling (and sport at large) are nothing new. In fact, it's probably fair to say that many cycling fans, even ones who know how the sausage is made, have a certain fatigue about the topic in general. I certainly do, though I admit that I'm drawn in from time to time, particularly when I learn about the increasingly shady characters who dwell in the periphery of this issue, ones that do exactly what you'd expect from someone looking to profit from such a thing.

But when you look around the periphery, you'll also see other interesting characters, people who are willing to risk everything (and sadly, I do mean everything) to better the state of cycling.

The "Por Un Ciclismo Etico" (which roughly translates to Toward Ethical Cycling or For Ethical Cycling) initiative in Colombia is very much rooted in those beliefs, in great part because Colombia is light years behind where European cycling is today. And that's a significant statement, considering the heavy questions that still loom over top-tier cycling in Europe. So consider that in Colombia: the UCI biological passport does not exist. That out of competition testing for domestic riders does not exist. That questions have been raised (even by riders like Darwin Atapuma) about whether or not samples taken at races are ever even tested at all. That positive tests are sometimes never announced, and that doping products can be freely bought at bikes shops.

It's because of all this, that a small group within Colombian cycling decided to take matters into their own hands, after realizing that they had no support from the people who were supposed to be looking over the sport. They realized that if they didn't stand up take the steps necessary to begin cleaning up the sport, no one else would.

In this interview, one the the program's founding members, Ignacio Velez (business adviser for 4-72 Colombia, and ex-general manager of the team) speaks about this new initiative, how it works, as well as the many difficulties that Colombian cycling faces right now. Thanks to Ignacio for his time, and his commitment to this issue. 

Ignacio Velez (Photo: Manual For Speed)
How did the idea of Por Un Ciclismo Etico come about, and why do you think such a thing is necessary in Colombia right now?
We are frustrated by the lack of commitment from government entities that are responsible for leading the fight against doping. So we decided to lead the initiative ourselves. It’s important to mention that last year, finally, Coldeportes did begin doing more effective testing, after many years. However, we all know that even if Coldeportes improves its in competition testing, riders that cheat know how to play the system when it comes to doping. So to this end, out of competition testing and a Bio-Passport type of program are far more effective. This is why we developed this program.

At any rate, we do have good support from Dr. Orlando Reyes, Director of Anti-Doping program at Coldeportes, and will be working very closely with him.

Por Un Ciclismo Etico launch (photo: El Colombiano)

How is this initiative structured, and how did it get off the ground?
This is a comprehensive program that Dr. Luis E. Contreras from Indeportes Antioquia, Luisa Fernanda Rios—4-72 Colombia's general manager—and myself, developed over several weeks to assure that we confront doping and other shady practices in professional cycling in Colombia in an effective and open manner.

We have steering committee composed of a representative of each team that adheres to the code, one journalist and two representatives from the private sector. This committee establishes the rules and verifies that teams adhere to them, and govern the program.

We also have a Medical and Scientific committee that is fully responsible for carrying out tests and analysis on the collected samples. We have Dr. Mike Pochowitz as a consultant to this committee in order to adopt the most recent scientific advances in Bio Passport methods and statistics. This committee is fully independent and autonomous of the steering committee.

If there is a suspicious reading on any rider, the Medical Committee will inform the WADA director in Colombia, Dr. Orlando Reyes, about the suspicious findings; and also request the team to get this rider out of competition. If the team does take the rider out of competition, the committee should notify the steering committee of the violation of the rules.

Vuelta a Mexico 2014 (Photo: 4-72 Colombia)

What is your role within Por Un Ciclismo Etico?
I’ve played different roles so far. I participated on the design of the system along Dr. Contreras and Mrs. Rios. I have attended few key meeting of the steering committee. I also contacted Dr. Pochowitz and hired him as consultant, and finally, I am trying to get some key teams to adhere to the code.

4-72—Colombia has had an internal testing program for six years. The team has been very vocal about the topic of doping in Colombian cycling, almost to the team's detriment. The team has a passport program that looks at blood values on an ongoing basis. Is this the type of testing that the program will entail? Will riders be tested out of competition?

Yes, the program is very similar, however I feel that in the new program the statistical part will be more advanced, as we have access to one of the leading experts on the field, Dr Pochowitz [Universidad de Antioquia, sports medicine]. As I mentioned before, the Medical committee can test whenever they decide. In fact, two weeks ago they requested the first samples from the three teams that initiated the program.

4-72 Colombia (Photo: Wikipedia)

What will be the cost of the testing to each team, and who will administer the tests?
Each team pays for its exams, which will be taken by either of two independent private laboratories (Colsanitas and Laboratorio Hematologico).The cost of the test depends on how many parameters the Medical Committee requests. We have estimated to cost of each team to be in the range of  $25,000 to $35,000 US dollars per year [if I may interject here, it's worth pointing out that this number is huge for many teams, and certainly for Colombian teams, when you consider that many "top tier teams" there can often be seen using mismatched bikes, helmets and sharing wheels at time trials].
Are the people who administer the tests and manage the results given full autonomy? In other words, if they spot a positive, or see clear deviations in blood values, are they allowed to report them directly to the press, everyone involved in the program, or is the information only released to that team?
The people that administer the tests are private independent labs, however, they report their tests results to the Scientific Committee which has full autonomy on their findings. The Committee has a confidentiality agreement so that they only report to the WADA chief in Colombia and to the team in question. Only if the team fails to honor the code, does the scientific committee inform the whole verifying committee, where there’s one journalist.

The UCI's blood passport program does not reach into South America. If it ever does, would you feel the need to continue this program, knowing that riders have spoken about ways to work around the UCI's testing (micro dosing, diluting blood, drinking water etc)?
It’s a difficult situation to anticipate. I feel that until we see a good commitment to fight doping by effective and transparent methods, by Coldeportes, Colombian Cycling Federation and even the UCI, we will keep this program in place.

Is the testing you will perform any different from that which rider in European teams undergo for the bio passport?
I am not an expert on the field, so I don’t have an exact and informed answer. What is clear is that we are doing the best to adopt leading edge knowledge into our program.

The EPM-Une team (photo: EPM Une)

Do you foresee other teams in Colombia or maybe even South America joining in? Have others expressed interest?
We have received some interests from some teams outside Colombia, but nothing formal yet. In Colombia we received formal requests from EPM-Une and Coldeportes-Claro, and informal requests by the Formesan team.

In the last steering committee meeting, we approved the requests of EPM-Une and Coldeportes Claro, but their riders have not been tested yet. The case with Formesan-IDRD is very interesting. Mr. Luis A. Cely, the team’s director sportif, has been doing all he can to have his team adhere to the program. Despite the fact that one of the team’s sponsors, is the Institute of Recreation and Sports of Bogota (IDRD), and its consultant is a cycling journalist, he has not been able to get the “go ahead” from the team.

Team Formesan, at the Vuelta a Tolima (Photo: Formesan)

The principles set forth by “Por Un Ciclismo Etico” are interesting, in that they include statements that are larger in scope than just cycling, or even doping. For example, "There should be no violence, be it physical, mental or sexual." How were these 7 points chosen, and why was that one in particular chosen? Has there been an issue with this in the past?
We want the program to go beyond doping, we want to establish a different culture in Colombian cycling, in the sense that athletes should be respected as persons, and that they live to defend these ethical values, and clean cycling should respected. Unfortunately there has been a lot of intimidation, and the lives of people who want clean cycling in Colombia have been threatened.

What is the role of Colombia's cycling federation in this program? Will they be reviewing the data, or are they sponsoring this initiative?
The federation plays no role in the program, but they should. They have neither opposed, nor supported the program, except for the presence of the president of the CCF at the official launch of the program.

One rider from Orgullo Antioqueño was already flagged and fired from the team, I believe, as a result of these blood tests. How did this happen, and how was it handled?
I don’t know the details, except that Mr. Carlos Ospina, former National Champion, was let go from the Orgullo Antiqueno team for issues with an internal testing they did before joining the program [Ospina claims he himself resigned from the team, due to questions he had about a medication he was taking for his knee, and that he was not fired].

Carlos Ospina (Photo: Asancir)

With reports of doping products being sold in Colombian bike shops, along with several positives over the last year, and accusations of Colombian riders selling doping products in international races [Costa Rica in particular], many questions loom over the country's cycling establishment. To that degree, what can you say to fans that see that Team GW are now part of this initiative [the team had positives with Millan and Marlon Perez], along with Santiago Botero who manages the Orgullo Antioqueño team [Botero was video taped in the offices of Dr Merino Batres with Eufemiano Fuentes, clearing the way for investigators to know what code name he used with Fuentes, and thus find his blood bags and doping schedule]. Why should fans of the sport believe that this partnership is really intended to deliver a believable, and ethical form of cycling? Is this part of the struggle you face?
The case of GW is special in the sense that it was a team with highest number of doping cases, and with a very bad reputation internationally. Their owners, the Aristizabal family, are examples of the best people Colombia has: they dedicate a large portion of their company profits to non-profit organizations, in fact they are one of the key supporters of “A la escuela en Bicicleta” a beautiful program that donates thousands of bikes to needy kids in rural Colombia who are not able to make it to school without the program's help. When they realized what was happening on their team, they demanded radical changes, and called us for help. You can see now based on their results that things have changed. Thing are now so good in the team. In this respect that new director, Oscar de J Vargas is working closely with us. Now, and as I mentioned before, Mr. Luis A Cely, former GW Team director, has also heard the message, and wants to join our program. I feel that Mr Cely’s intentions are honest, and that having people like him joining us is very critical, and give us a lot of credibility and support.

As for Santiago Botero, he is part of a Government Entity: Indeportes Antioquia that reports to our current Governor: Mr. Sergio Fajardo, whose campaign is based on values and education. Mr. Mauricio Mosquera, Chief of Indeportes Antioquia has been totally committed to the program as well. So Santiago is just part of an entity that is totally committed to clean cycling.

I know that this fight is very difficult, and that it will take time. As you can imagine, we won’t be able to solve the problem by ourselves, but at least we are providing a more level field to young riders; which in the end would open their doors for better futures on their careers.

What more can be done?
Until government entities like Coldeportes and the Colombian Cycling Federation place more importance on the fight against doping, we will have to resort to programs like Por Un Ciclismo Etico. The only long term solution to the problem is to educate our coaches, not only to make them better sporting coaches, but more also make them true leaders, especially when it comes to the ethical meaning of that word.  In our team we claim: “We first grow and educate good people, and then we form good athletes”. We stand by that.


Photo: Team Colombia/Northwave
A couple of lighter notes:

Team Colombia's Miguel Angel Rubiano became the country's new national champion, meaning that the Colombian champion's jersey will be worn at the Giro d' Italia and other sizable European races for the first time ever. You can vote on the design of his jersey here.

When speaking with friends in the United States, I often reference just how much of Colombia remains largely undiscovered to many of its citizens. The harsh terrain accounts for some of that, but there are also large portions of the country that are simply not safe to access for any number of reasons. Within those areas are countless hidden secrets. The videos below, sent to me by David, a reader of the blog, highlight just two such places. A beautiful cave, hidden away in land previously used for growing coca leaf that takes almost four hours to walk to, and a colorful river system that was also off limits to tourists not long ago. These places serve as reminders that, as is often case in Colombia, the struggle necessary to achieve something, or to arrive somewhere, seems to always pay off in the end.

Justification for Wanderlust: Gabo's Story from Where?Next on Vimeo.

Colombia's Lost River of Seven Colors: Fredy's Story from Where?Next on Vimeo.

You can read more about El Cocuy national park (mentioned in the first video) in this New York times article.