Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fear and Loathing in Paris

And here I was, more or less ready to shut up about cycling for about a year, when ...

I really don't know what to make of this, yet. Right now there's not a whole lot of real data. And what there is doesn't really add up. Except, of course, that the French have their panties in a knot over those despised Americans winning 11 of the last 21 Tours.

The French total over this span may be counted on one hand, after having first inserted that hand in a running wood chipper. Hint: "one" is way too high.

The issue, of course, if Floyd Landis' urine test following his spectacular comeback on Stage 17 of the Tour de France. The "A" sample showed what they claim to be an abnormally high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in his urine, an indication of the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Well...

It's times like these that I really regret not having paid more attention to biology. I skipped it in high school, in favor of an extra year of chemistry. I will quite happily mix dangerous chemicals, breathe harmful fumes, pick glass shards out of my chest and renew my long and intimate relationship with Bactine; but knives and dead frogs are right out. Which is a pity, because I'm having to climb an awfully steep learning curve, here. Because I only have the vaguest notion of what testosterone actually does, and had never even heard of epitestosterone before. So: to Wikipedia! (And other places.)

As it turns out, both testosterone and epitestosterone are synthesized in the body from androstenedione. "Aha," I say to myself, "I've heard of that bugger before. Wasn't that the goop Mark McGwire used to take?" Over the long term, androstenedione use builds bigger muscles, and promotes recovery after exertion. No one's quite figured out what epitestosterone does, yet. It doesn't seem to have any effect one way or the other. But in most people, it's produced in about the same quantity as testosterone, from the same chemical, by more or less the same process. Think of it as a chemical version of donut holes. Normally, you end up with about as many donuts as holes, right?

So: an elevated T/E ratio is taken as an indicator that someone's been fiddling with their body chemistry illicitly. There are a couple of problems here, though.

One: It's a ratio. It's not a measure of the absolute quantities present. The obvious interpretation of an elevated T/E ratio is that someone has boosted the amount of testosterone present in the system. But it can also mean that some process has abnormally depleted the amount of epitestosterone. I don't know that anyone has really looked in detail at the physiology of someone who had such a spectacular "crash" the previous day, and recovered naturally overnight. We don't know yet if we're talking about a normal, natural process, or evidence of cheating.

Two: Testosterone abuse is very much a long-term sort of thing. There's bugger-all that it can do for you overnight. Sure, it can build muscle and all that, but that takes weeks. Not hours.

So, I'm waiting for more results. Not only for the test on the "B" sample, but for a more thorough chromatography test, which will tell us definitively if the hormones in the sample are of natural origin, or are synthetic. If it's all natural, and provably so, the only shame to be had here is for the French, who just need to sack up and be more manly. Not that it's in their national character, but they can at least be seen to have made the attempt.

I may end up eating my words, but so far, I trust what Landis is saying. He seems confident that the evidence will clear him. I think we ought to give him that much of a benefit of the doubt.

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