Sergio Henao, testing in Colombia, and cultural assimilation. Part two of my interview with Fran Millar.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Photo: Cycling Inquisition


In part two if my interview with Sky's Fran Millar, we discuss the reasons behind Sergio Henao being taken out of competition, and the steps taken by the team to understand the blood values that were originally in question. We also talk about Colombians in Sky, the team's original policy of having riders speak English, and the realities of bio passport testing in Colombia.

Today, part of the discourse within cycling is driven by the numerous questions that fans rightfully ask. So when Sky took Sergio Henao out of competition due to blood values, it likely served as confirmation to some that something was in fact going on in the team. 

But he returned to racing. See, we discovered something in his values that we didn’t understand. Something that the authorities couldn’t help us understand. We were able to validate what we’d seen. We had hematological experts look at it, and carry out that study and say, “this is a normal physiological reaction, he’s safe to return to competition.” 

I think, for me, that was a real success story. Of course, it was so hard for him, particularly the situation he finds himself in now [Sergio came back to competition, only to crash during a TT recon, and will likely be out for the rest of the season]. 

But ultimately, it was a success for the anti-doping movement, because the biological passport raises valid questions, but is not absolutely infallible. It also proved that teams are pro-active, they can protect the athletes that are clean, to prove that the performances people see are credible.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Cycling fans often pretend to be hematologists when discussing blood values. I want to avoid doing that, but I was wondering... the issue with Henao, was it a matter of his blood values and how they looked on paper based on the fact that he lives and trains at altitude in Colombia?

Yeah. The short explanation of it is that for the first time ever, our altitude-native athletes were tested at altitude when returning to that altitude, and after having been there for three months. We’d never had that before, so we had never seen those kinds of results before. It may well be that if Sergio had been tested before when he was home, we would have seen those results, but that was not the case [before this year, almost no out of competition testing was ever done in Colombia to athletes that are part of the biological passport program. Testing has now increased. Miguel Angel Rubiano told me that he was tested at home several times in a two month period in early summer].

The parameters that the UCI set up in the biological passport were set up for western athletes who do not live at attitude, and have no chronic exposure to altitude. So we felt that what we were seeing put his points outside the usual parameters. So we took that result to the UCI and to CADF (Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation), and then to a hematologist, and we asked, is this normal? Do you have any advice? What should we do? We didn’t get any real support, so we took a pro-active approach, we were open about it, and admitted that we didn’t know what the values meant. We didn’t want to take the risk of this athlete having an anomalous finding in the future, but also we wanted to find out what it meant. 

We like working with our young Colombian riders. They have huge talent, there’s amazing talent coming out of Colombia, and we want to know what this is, so we can protect our riders down the line as well. So we sent him back, and worked with a great hematologist who did loads of research and spoke to a lot of experts about altitude natives, and experts about blood values in mountaineering. The work that they did with Sergio will hopefully be published as a scientific paper in the next year, because the information they found was pretty ground breaking. It sheds new light on this topic, but also gave us complete confidence in the fact that he’s a clean athlete, and that what we were seeing in him was normal.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

I’m sometimes protective of Colombian riders, but I can also see why some fans take issue with how some of them structure their season. By this I mean that Colombian professionals will often go back home to train when they can, much as others do. But due to location, someone called this “disappearing to Colombia”, to which Matt Rendell rightfully pointed out that when you are Colombian, you don’t “disappear”, you “go home”. Still, the gaps in out of competition testing outside of Western Europe—and perhaps the US—have been troubling, but seem to be getting sorted out now. I think this is partly because driving to suburban Brussels through nice wide avenues to test someone, is very different from the realities of driving to a tiny town on the edge of an Andean peak.

I think that’s the case. There were gaps there due to genuine logistical issues. I could be wrong about this, but I think there was urine testing, but blood testing was the issue since it requires such strict parameters. So the time between taking a sample and delivery to the lab, along with temperature samples have to kept at, are complicated when you are talking about athletes who live up a mountain in Colombia, and trying to get those blood samples back to a lab in the right temperature, and in the right time frame. It’s logistically very difficult, and they now have that figured out, so they are doing it, and this is great for Colombian cycling, for the anti-doping movement, and for the sport.

Team Sky rules, as originally posted in the team's bus

Team Sky rules, as originally posted in the team's bus

Culturally speaking, Sky is primarily intended to be a British team, though you have riders from many countries. Originally, the team insisted that riders speak English when in a group, so there was an attempt to have some level of cultural assimilation. How  has this worked in practice?

It’s challenging, I’m not going to lie. Originally, we were really resolute in English being the only spoken language. But as you go along, you learn. So asking a24-year-old Colombian riders to speak English in an English team, when they don’t speak English is simply not fair. So when Rigoberto, Sergio and Sebastian came on, we began to employ more Spanish-speaking staff. So we decided that it was only fair. The way we train our athletes is very communication-intensive, so expecting a young athlete to get up to speed with how the team does things, and then to communicate technical information in a foreign language is just unfair. So yes, we really want them to speak English, and we’ll work with them to do that, so they can get the best out of the team, but if that can be done in Spanish, we’re comfortable with that. The philosophy of the team is a coaching-led philosophy, not an English-speaking philosophy. So our philosophy is more culturally important than language or anything else.


1.Question: how would the city or town you live in welcome a rider who had just won the Giro Valle d'Aosta? This is how El Retiro, in Colombia, does it.

2.I'll probably be accused of being hypersenstive, or of not understanding how the intent and meaning of terminology changes with time and geographic location...but I have to be honest and tell you that hearing Phil Liggett use the term "Chinaman" during the last stage of the tour made me cringe, just as him calling Kevin Reza "colored" last year did. Again, I'm aware of the relative differences afforded by location and time when it comes to such things...but boy oh boy.

For that matter, I'm aware of the cultural meaning (more or less) of the Zwarte Piet tradition in Netherlands, but seeing Johan Vanummeren and Thomas Dekker in what (within the US) amounts to black face was really uncomfortable.

3. Did you miss out on the last order of Cycling Inquisition jerseys? Remember that you can still buy one here.