This is the world that professional cyclists live in. Many of you will have heard about the Whereabouts program where athletes are accountable for submitting their exact location for every hour between 6am and 11pm.
In confidence, I spoke with various riders about their thoughts and opinions on the Whereabouts system. They’ve integrated this inconvenience into their lives and most athletes acknowledge that it’s a necessary step towards clean sport and a level playing field. I’d like to preface this post by stating that none of the riders I spoke with made a big deal out of the Whereabouts. In fact, they don’t really give it a second thought anymore. I don’t want to overdramatise anything just to make controversy, however I personally find this part of their lives quite fascinating and it’s something that the general public doesn’t know much about.
What Is Required
The Whereabouts system requires an athlete to confirm his or her exact location to the relevant testing authority for one hour a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This needs to be done quarterly and can be adjusted as circumstances change.
The information that needs to be submitted:
>> A primary residential address.
>> Training locations, dates and times.
>> Any temporary addresses (e.g. when on holiday).
>> Flight information (i.e. flight no. departure and arrival times).
>> Competition locations, dates and accommodation details.
>> A specific 60-minute time slot and location.
During the 60 minute time slot:
>> You are required to be available for testing at the nominated location.
>> If you need to change this, you can do so right up until the start of the 60-minute time slot.
>> You must stay at the designated location for the whole of the 60-minutes.
ADAMS (Anti-Doping Administration & Management System) is the web based system that administers the athletes’ Whereabouts and lets the other stakeholders use this information (i.e. anti-doping organisations ordering tests, to laboratories reporting results, to anti-doping organisations managing results). If you’re interested you can download the Athlete’s user guide (pdf) to see screenshots of how information is submitted and many other details. Or you can watch the overview below:
You can also read a good set of Q&A’s on ADAMS here.
ADAMS was introduced in mid-2005. The first year it was implemented the system wasn’t on the internet yet. Riders had to comply by constantly filling out paper forms and faxing them back to Switzerland. From what I’m told it was a nightmare. Riders would have no idea what races they’d be competing in, which flights they’d be on, or the hotels they’d be at. Now the ADAMS web-based system is user friendly and quite easy to manage. There’s even a way to make modifications to your Whereabouts via SMS (which some riders don’t like because it’s complicated and difficult to visualise it’s accuracy).
Invasion of Privacy?
“Yeah, it’s totally invasive into my life. It’s just what we gotta do. It’s part of our job.” The riders have learned to joke about though. One of them said, “It would be easier to put a GPS tracking device on us and the testers would be free to come by anytime they want”.
Most riders nominate an hour first thing in the morning for testing. It’s the time of day when they have the most certainty about their location. One rider I spoke with told me about his mate (also a professional cyclist) who nominates an evening hour for his Whereabouts since first thing in the morning doesn’t work for him. There have been times where the families have been out for dinner and he’s realised that he needs to rush home because he forgot to update his Whereabouts in time. He’ll run out, sit at home for an hour, then come back to the restaurant.
Who Can See The Athlete’s Whereabouts?
The sharing of any information must be carried out in accordance with Article 14 of the World Anti-Doping Code (pdf), which covers confidentiality and reporting. Only anti-doping organizations authorized to test the athlete can access his or her data. The organisation “responsible” (custodian) for the athlete is responsible for providing access rights.
There are some federations which act as custodians for the athlete. Sometimes the federations will coordinate with the rider’s teams so they can submit their Whereabouts for them. Sometimes the teams will help with entering information into the Whereabouts system. For example, the team may enter hotel information into the system for Tour of Qatar and Oman so the riders can attach it to their Whereabouts.
Strike One and Two
The drug testers can show up at any hour between 6am and 11pm, not only the nominated hour. If you’re not there at a time that was not nominated, then that’s no problem and you won’t get a strike against you. But it’s a missed test violation if the testers show up during your nominated time slot.
If a rider misses one test, it’s not really big deal. But if two tests are missed, one rider told me, “Two missed tests is when I’d really start to worry. It’s something you need to watch and take good care of.”
Some riders’ contracts state how the team will deal with missed controls. One rider I spoke with told me that his contract stated that one missed control does not carry a penalty, but if a second missed control happens within 18 months of a previous missed control, the rider is sidelined from racing until that 18 month window from the first test lapses.
Any missed tests should be kept confidential between the team and the rider, but as you can see with Cavendish’s missed test there was a leak and the media made headlines out of it.
One professional rider told me about a time where his wife, children and himself arrived home late at night from overseas. At 7am (his nominated time slot) the drug testers showed up. Since their home in Europe has a massive door and stone walls 6 inches deep no one in the family heard the front door knock from their bedrooms. Strike number one. You can see how these things can get you into trouble. If he was a high profile rider there’s the potential that this could hit the media. “It’s difficult…there’s some riders who may intentionally miss a test, but it this case it was a genuine mistake. What do you do? I tried appealing it but they didn’t accept it.”
Other times where riders can be prone to making mistakes is when flying on internationally. With timezone changes and flight delays it can get very tricky and can be a nervous time for riders. It’s always on their minds.
I’m told that the young guys are sometimes the most susceptible to missing tests. Let’s face it, many of these neo-pros are only 20 years old and like to have a big night out once in a while. Remember the shenanigans you got up to when you were 18? You might go out to the clubs, find an after-party, meet a girl. The Whereabouts is taken extremely seriously by the Teams, WADA and the riders, but you can see how some of the younger guys could get themselves into trouble. Yes, they’re professional cyclists, but they’re also human – some having no life experience whatsoever.
Three strikes and you’re out
You might remember the controversy when Alex Rasmussen missed three doping controls and was fired from his team but then left unsanctioned. I don’t know Rasmussen personally, but I know people who are good friends with him. They tell me that Rasmussen is just slack, not a drug cheat. I’m told, “Being slack is not illegal, but I can understand why the ’3 strikes rule’ is there. If it wasn’t then there wouldn’t be a point of having a Whereabouts.”
Whereabouts Failure Penalties
1. Missed Test – Unable to be located for a drug test in your 60-minute time slot.
2. Filing Failure – Failure to submit your whereabouts on time or the information provided is not correct.
3. Three missed tests and/or filing failures within an 18 month period is an anti-doping rule violation and = disciplinary action (A sanction imposed for a whereabouts anti-doping rule violation can range from 1 to 2 years depending on the circumstances of the case)
Frequency and Testing Protocol
During the time when the athlete’s Biological Passport base values are being established the tests can be as frequent as once-per-month. After the athlete’s values are set then the frequency slows down. The riders I spoke with have an out of competition test about 6-10 times per year. A rider with suspicious blood values and fluctuations will be subject to more tests.
The drug testers will take both a blood and urine sample. Urine is typically done first because it’s fairly unpredictable (i.e they never have trouble getting blood out).
During the collection of the urine sample one chaperone of the same gender is permitted into the toilet. The chaperone will directly watch the urine sample leaving the body and going into the beaker. The athlete is required to remove any clothing from the knees to the mid-torso and from the hands to the elbows. This provides the chaperone with a direct view of the urine leaving the body, ensures that it is the athlete’s own urine, and helps to prevent possible manipulation of the sample.
Keep in mind that a drug tester could potentially show up at a nice restaurant during a special occasion. In that case, the athlete will be escorted to the public toilet and required to produce a urine sample while being watched – possibly with other people from the general public there at the same time. Intrusive? I’d think so, but it’s interesting that the riders have gotten so used to this that they see it as being normal.
Relationship between the testers and the riders
You would think that the drug testers would be treated like the parking police by the athletes, but the same testers come knocking multiple times during the season so the riders often form somewhat of a rapport with them. I’m told that most of them are affable and professional and both parties understand each others jobs. Sometimes a urine sample can take an hour to produce, so they’ll have them in for coffee and a chat if it’s appropriate. The testers are usually quite understanding if they’ve had to wait around for a bit.
So who are these Drug Testers? These people are “Doping Control Officers” accredited by WADA. The anti-doping organisation (WADA, ASADA or USADA, for example) contract various Doping Control Officers to test athletes in their region. You can download the Doping Control Officer Training Accreditation Guidebook (pdf) here to find out more. Yes, you can actually do this as a career. One rider told me about a German couple who cruise around Europe in a caravan who come to test him from time to time. Sounds like a cool job for an old retired couple who love their sports…
Cyclists are not the only athletes who fall under the WADA code and are accountable for submitting their Whereabouts. However, if you do a quick search you’ll see that some athletes from other sports are outraged by this system and call it “inhumane”. FIFA and Sporta have both challenged the Whereabouts system for violating the European Convention on Human Rights.
When I asked about if the system is working, one rider’s response was, “I don’t know. I think so. It’s definitely looks good on their [WADA's] part. It makes it look like they’re doing something. But at what point is it over the top? When they start following me around during every second of the day?”
“It’s not perfect, but I think it’s doing the job it was intended to do,” another rider told me which reflects the sentiment of everyone I spoke with.
In the life of a professional cyclist, telling the anti-doping authorities exactly where you’ll be for 365 days a year is a harsh reality. Could you imagine needing to submit where you’re riding tomorrow or which restaurant you’re eating dinner at next week? Life can get complicated and I hope this provides some context the next time you see the headline “RIDER MISSES DRUG TEST”.
A special thank you to the riders who have shared their experiences and insights with me on this subject.