How ARE Cyclists Tested for Doping, Anyway?

Aug 22, 2013

Cycling is trying to prove it’s clean. The sport has had a public relations disaster as one after another rider has admitted to doping in years past... including icon and superstar Lance Armstrong. But organizers and younger athletes maintain the sport is far cleaner now, partly because of the kinds of tests used to catching athletes cheating. Aspen Public Radio took a look at what that actually involves.

Editor’s note: click here to hear our second story about testing cyclists for doping. 

David Miller is sitting outside on a beautiful Sunday morning. In front of him is.... a small Styrofoam box, a plastic cup in a sealed plastic bag, a small plastic jar… and a few sheets of paper.

“I’m a Doping Control Officer, a DCO, and I go to different events [UCI] to conduct sampling.”

And by sampling he means, urine. For the last five years, Miller, who’s a retired steelworker, has to get pro cyclists to pee in a cup… right after a race.

“And I walk over toward you, you know...that your sheet has been filled out.”

That’s right, Miller tells a rider they’re going to be tested… by literally handing them paperwork to sign.

“And you have a half an hour to get to the doping station.”

Usually the rider is the winner, the overall race leader, or random other riders.  And during that half hour, Miller is watching from a distance, to make sure nothing fishy is taking place. Eventually, the rider heads into a room in a building or tent nearby.

“Once you get inside, there’ll be a doctor with me, and they’ll be like a secondary person that just see what’s going on. And I’ll ask you to pick a kit.”

Elise: “And we should say kits are normally are the fabulous jerseys that riders are wearing. But this is a different kind of kit.”

David Miller: “Yeah, this is a pee collection.” Laughs.

The kit is in a Styrofoam cube, about the size the box a new cell phone comes in. The rider being tested has to pick that, and a see-through plastic bag that has a cup in it…

“And then you will disappear, with the doctor, or the nurse, and I’ll tell you I need a hundred.”

Milliliters, that is. And that can be a problem. Imagine riding your bike for several hours… maybe you’re not used to riding at altitude… the most common thing Miller hears is, I can’t pee. There is a back up plan for this. More on that in a minute but, lets say the rider can pee, and they bring back a full 100-milliliter pee cup…

“And from that point on, I don’t touch it, I don’t touch anything that could be construed that I put some kind of residue on something. So you’ll just hold onto this yourself.

Time for the Styrofoam box.

“You’re going to look for this as not being tampered with, cause that’s the seal. Could be a little stubborn. Pull it up this way, [that] breaks the seal. And on the inside you have your own little test kit. And these are the two bottles. We have an “A” bottle, and then we have a “B” bottle.”

First, the rider has to make sure that the ID numbers match, on all the pieces of the kit.

“And I don’t touch. The only way I touch is with that pen sitting right there.”

The rider… not Miller, or any other Doping Contr­­ol Officer… fills each bottle with urine from their pee cup. And the rider is responsible for screwing on the top of the bottles, too, which have metal teeth as part of the seal. Then the rider puts each bottle in a plastic bag, and back into the back into the Styrofoam box. But there’s another step before that can be sent to the lab. There’s always some pee in the cup left over after each bottle is filled up. The rider gives it to Miller…Miller then visually inspects the rider’s urine to see if a rider has a good enough quality urine sample to be tested. If they meet that threshold, everything wraps up. Now, if a cyclist really can’t pee, they’ll give what they can, drink water and try again.  And again. Until they produce a total of 100 millimeters.  The entire test can take anywhere from ten to twenty-five minutes, depending on whether the rider’s taken a pee test before. At the end, there’s some final paperwork and a chat with a doctor.

“Have you taken anything in the last two weeks, and, you know, drugs or stuff over the counter, so if anything pops up during the test then they’ll know. And then we’ll ask you if you have a therapeutic use exemption. That’s just a list of something that you might have to take just to stay alive, that might show up.”

One a side note, Lance Armstrong at least once may have gotten away with doping by exploiting this step, by producing doctor’s prescription after testing positive for a banned substance.

Anyways, after the paperwork is over the USA Pro Challenge pee test, Doping Control Officer David Miller takes everything back to his room, and ships off the samples the next morning. They’re sent to one of two labs in the US authorized to review drug tests. The fastest turnaround might be a few days after a race… and then the real drama could begin.