Saturday, January 28, 2006

UCI and hematocrit

As we all know, the UCI has set the hematocrit limit at 50%. This simply refers to the percentage of red-blood cells measured by blood plasma volume. Any riders with a higher number will be deemed "unfit" and cannot ride. This has been done to discourage riders, and people in the support structure, from speculating in ways to manipulate the blood's ability to transport oxygen in an artificial way. Limiting the hematocrit values at 50% should indirectly prevent the use of EPO and blood-doping, since these methods would easily produce higher hematocrit values.

So, does it mean that when a rider is deemed "unfit" for competition he has tested positive for a performance enhancing substance? No, of course not. Since the use of EPO and blood-doping can be tricky to detect directly through doping tests, the UCI decided to prevent possible cheaters from riding, by establishing a hematocrit limit.

But why measure hematocrit? And why has the limit been set at 50%? Both the choice of measuring hematocrit and the limit of 50% is, in my opinion, a poor testing procedure. I say this, not because I'm advocating the use of PEDs, but because 50% hematocrit damages honest, clean riders. After prolonged training at altitude, many athletes will naturally test above the 50% limit, without any PEDs in their system. The test itself is also a bit weak, since dehydration and activity before testing could affect the result. If you have been standing up for more than 30 minutes and then sit down to take the test, you could have much higher values, due to the increased heart rate and blood-pressure.

Why not measure, and establish limits for hemoglobin values instead? This would be more accurate and prevent some of the problems we are experiencing today. 50% hematocrit value for a male athlete is too low (it corresponds to about 16.5 g/dl of hemoglobin). If the UCI wanted to continue to measure hematocrit, at least increase the value to 55% (around 18.5 g/dl of hemoglobin).


Anonymous jeffd said...

I agree totally, heamtocrit (hct) is a very poor test for this. I work in health care and it is quite normal for a person to have a hct of 50%. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine identifies a normal hct for an adult male as 42-54% (mean 47), adult female as 36-46% (mean 42). This is a test that fluctuates and is influenced by too many factors. They should not risk penalizing 'clean' riders to catch a few more riders that use PED.

I think this could be quite detrimental for the sport.

Blogger Skibby said...

Can you get an exception to the rule if you have a natural hematocrit level higher than 50% and if so is this hard to get?

Blogger mags said...


You are spot on. The minimum should be raised for men, up to around 55%. This would be more appropriate. Skibby - yes, you can get a waiver from the UCI, if you can document consistently high natural levels of hct. As everything else, there is a ton of red-tape to go through...


Blogger Skibby said...

Do you think if the limit is raised to 55%, all of a sudden everyone's gonna start dancing around the 55 mark?

I have another question Mags, what do you think about the use of altitude tents? In your opinion is that cheating or at the least unethical? skibb

Blogger mags said...


You raise some very interesting questions, indeed.

I'm sure we would still have riders deemed "unfit" for competition, even if the limit was raised up to 55% hct. The big difference is that those riders with hct levels above 55% (18.5g/dl hemoglobin) are probably using PEDs. Very few riders have a natural hct level above 55%, many more have tested above 50% without using any PEDs, me included.

You could probably argue that the use of altitude tents / rooms / houses is unethical, maybe even illegal in some sports. What I take offence to is the uneducated debate, where EPO, blood-doping and altitude training is all mixed in together. The use of altitude training, be it articifial or by seeking higher elevations has nothing what-so-ever to do with EPO or other PEDs. Furthermore, I don't even think using altitude tents is unethical. It's sort of like riding your rollers inside when the weather makes it impossible to train outside. Is that unethical?


Blogger Skibby said...

I saw an article over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal:
"Fake Mountain Air Gives Some Skiers Level Chance for Gold:
'Alpine Cottage' Simulates
High-Altitude Conditions,
But Italy Calls It Illegal"

I didn't realize it was still a controversial subject...

Blogger mags said...


It certainly is controversial. To illustrate how bad it's gotten - after the doping scandals with the Finnish cross country team, the Norwegian Ski Federation made the use of altitude tents /cabins illegal for elite skiers. Not because it's illegal on an international level (FIS allows it), but because the media was drawing parallels between EPO and the use of altitude tents (!). There is, of course, no parallel between the two, but it takes too much energy and hurts sponors everytime a journalist mentions the two in the same sentance...


Blogger Caloi-Rider said...

Wow. As much as I disagreed with you over at Herneweb, I totally agree with you here. Some climbers have been given 'certificates' by doctors to allow them to compete with as much as 52%, people like Kevin Livingston--pure climbers. Of course, Pantani wasn't racing with a certificate when he registered at 52% at the Giro in '99. He registered this haematocrit level after the mountain stages. Of course his red blood cell count is going to be higher.
I think the bottom line is that haematocrit is a poor measurement for drug use. But when recombinant EPO so closely resembles natural erythropoeitin, what do you do? We can all agree that it needs to be changed, but who can give a constructive suggestion about what it should be changed to?
Good luck getting to the Olympics--and I mean that.

Blogger mags said...


Nothing wrong with a good discussion. :)

It's not only pure climbers that can have high hct values. In fact, body mass does not really affect it too much. But, you are right - the 50% limit is a tad bit low. Since EPO is hard to detect, we need either an hct or hemaglobin limit, but I believe it needs to be increased to around 55% (18.5mg/dl) for men.

Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it.



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