MPCC and teams in standoff over cortisol rules

Does MPCC actually hold power as a voluntary group? Recent exits of three prominent teams raise questions about the organization's role

Photo: Tim De Waele

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On Wednesday, LottoNL-Jumbo became the third professional team to self-amputate from the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC), cycling’s default ethical watchdog, following both Lampre-Merida‘s and Bardiani-CSF‘s respective exits. All three quit over the MPCC’s cortisol rules, a growing point of contention between teams and the MPCC.

The final straw for LottoNL was the exclusion of George Bennett from the Giro d’Italia. A test just before the event showed low cortisol levels, and the team, as an MPCC signatory, was therefore forced to start with one fewer rider. The team believes he was benched unjustly.

“We know that the [cortisol] procedure is not a 100 percent accurate, as should be the case in such procedures. Two of our riders have been kept from racing unjustly [Vuelta 2013 and Giro 2015] due to this inaccuracy,” LottoNL said in a statement on Wednesday announcing its removal from the organization.

The MPCC returned fire Thursday, backing its current methods and regulations unequivocally, and said that no potential changes will be made until the group’s congress in October.

Cortisol conflict

Low cortisol levels most frequently indicate the use of corticosteroids — medication that can be prescribed for anything from asthma to skin diseases but can also be used as a powerful performance-enhancing drug, improving breathing, aiding recovery, and helping riders lose weight.

Riders may be legally prescribed medication that lowers their cortisol levels and still race under UCI rules, all they need is a therapeutic use exemption (TUE). TUEs are subject to medical privacy law, but it appears that Bennett had one for inhaled corticosteroids prior to the Giro.

“The Board is surprised to observe that the cortisol level of a rider on inhaled corticosteroids treatment has not been better-monitored by LottoNL-Jumbo medical staff in the days prior to 2015 Giro, especially in the light of a first case of unusually low cortisol level faced by the team at the start of 2013 Vuelta,” the MPCC said.

But TUEs are no help against the MPCC’s cortisol rule. Any rider found with low cortisol levels must sit out for eight days. The rider cannot return to racing until he or she has normal blood test results.

LottoNL, and Lampre and Bardiani before it, contend that this rule is overly oppressive.

“A low cortisol level is not always the result of substance abuse, and a low cortisol level certainly does not always mean an unhealthy situation,” the team said in a statement on Wednesday. “For this reason, we, as well as other teams/team physicians and riders, are of the opinion that the procedure surrounding the monitoring of low cortisol levels should be adapted, to prevent riders unjustly being kept out of races and teams suffering unnecessary image loss and sportive damage.”

The MPCC’s response can be boiled down to, ‘why did you join, then?’

“This article has been existing since the establishment of the movement in 2007. Any team which wants to be part of MPCC fully acknowledges the full internal regulation, which is yearly approved by the General Assembly in the presence of movement’s members,” the group said.

Since 2009, more than 1,300 cortisol tests have been performed on riders within MPCC-member teams. Seven have returned “unusually low cortisol levels,” according to the MPCC.

Volunteer power

The three teams’ abandonment of the MPCC illustrates a unique strength as well as a substantial weakness borne of the group’s status as a voluntary body.

The MPCC is the only body that can outright ban a team without suffering a protracted legal battle, because its bans are as voluntary as its membership. Any team found in violation of the group’s rules must ban itself; any rider found in violation is banned by his own team. The MPCC is not subject to the legal framework that constrains an international governing body.

“There are known limitations to the arsenal of legal repression available to the international associations,” said Roger Legeay, president of the MPCC. “The pitfall encountered by UCI regarding the Astana case is probably the same as the one who had forced UCI to step back in the Katusha case two years ago. These recent events show that MPCC rules are an inescapable, vital complement to those of UCI, even though they may in no event replace them.”

In 2013, Ag2r La Mondiale and Rusvelo self-suspended following a string of doping positives, and Theo Bos missed the Vuelta a España due to low cortisol. In 2014, Chris Horner was prevented from defending his Vuelta title for the same reason. Just weeks ago, Bennett was knocked off LottoNL-Jumbo’s Giro d’Italia start list at the eleventh hour, again for cortisol.

All were victories, if they can be called that, for the MPCC. All were blows for the riders and teams involved, and all were contested and protested. But the punishments were levied nonetheless.

The MPCC has inflicted short but costly self-bans on Astana, Ag2r, and Rusvelo successfully. The UCI, in contrast, has attempted twice in the last two seasons to remove a team from the WorldTour — Katusha in 2014 and Astana last winter — and failed both times.

The other side of that coin, of course, is the fact that any team can quit the MPCC at any time, as Lampre, Bardiani, and now LottoNL have done. There is nothing to prevent teams from signing on for the positive public image the relationship imbues, then simply ditching the MPCC when there is a conflict over the group’s rules.

With three teams gone in less than a year, the MPCC’s efficacy and legitimacy have been dented but are far from destroyed. The cortisol rule, and how the group handles conflicts going forward, could be the determinant of its long-term fate.

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