DHEA (C19H28O2) is a naturally produced sex hormone in the adrenal cortex and is the most abundant steroid in the human bloodstream. Science has it that DHEA is just two steps away from a testosterone conversion, the latter having plenty of androgenic benefits for an athlete.
In this Guest Post, ex-racer Joe Papp lays out for us the odds and ends in Zirbel's 'A' sample that returned positive for exogenous DHEA. Anyone who's familiar with Joe's story knows that he's one of the most outspoken critics of doping in cycling today. He has gone down the dark path of cheating himself and it may be an understatement to say that he went through a life of hell in expiation. His stand on Zirbel's news is essentially one that calls for a consideration of both sides of lab test results before absolutely declaring that someone has cheated.
Cyclingnews reports :
"Tom Zirbel has announced he tested positive in an anti-doping test conducted by the United States Anti Doping Association (USADA) following the US Pro time trial championships on August 29, 2009. The A-sample returned positive for an endogenous steroid Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Zirbel awaits the response of the B sample. 'I want to inform the cycling community that an 'A' sample of mine from a urine test conducted by USADA on Aug. 29, 2009 after the US Pro TT has tested positive for exogenous DHEA,' Zirbel said. 'I have not yet received notification from USADA on the findings of the 'B' sample, but I expect to receive word any day now.'..."
I can empathize with what Zirbel might feel then, should the B-sample come back positive, as you all know that my own career ended when I was just 31 and was caught doping - which was devastating. Worse, almost no one could understand that, even though I’d brought it on myself to a large degree by doping shamelessly for five years, the feeling of being ripped from the womb of cycling left me so disoriented and adrift that life temporarily lost all meaning and hope. So if Tom doped and is found guilty and sanctioned – or if he didn’t dope but is still sanctioned because of a false positive – I want him to know that he’s not alone and there are other cyclists who can understand the hell in which he’ll find himself and can offer their support. Myself included.
Tom’s case isn’t being adjudicated in the US criminal justice system, so the operative theory isn’t “Innocent until Proven Guilty” and given what I know about the sophistication of doping in cycling, the ease with which controls can be thwarted, the capacity of humans to lie, cheat and steal to get to satisfy their ambition, and the fallibility of even the most pious, saintly men, of course I think it’s possible that he doped. However, it’s also possible that it’s a false positive, though the statistical likelihood of such an anomaly is slight, if I remember correctly.
If Tom is going to first be tried in a court of public opinion, well, then he sure sounds guilty when he says something as disingenuous as “I didn’t knowingly ingest any DHEA,” “I’m ignorant about these things, I didn’t know what DHEA was until I was first notified about my A sample positive.”
Hey, guess what? I didn’t knowingly ingest the steroid (probably some brand of Testosterone Undecanoate ) that led to my positive urinalysis, though it’s entirely possible that it was there because my team gave me a doping product that metabolized into 6α-OH-androstenedione or 6β-OH-androsterone. Furthermore, it is utterly unbelievable that a professional like Tom Zirbel who earns his living from the bike and who would eventually negotiate a contract with a ProTour team for 2010, wouldn’t know that DHEA was THE doping product that effectively ended Tyler Hamilton’s career.
BUT, by the same token, and in Tom’s defense, the lab very well may have made an error. Just like I didn’t knowingly ingest anything that could have left the metabolites 6α-OH-androstenedione or 6β-OH-androsterone, I had taken five other doping products that an accredited-lab failed to detect. I hope people consider both scenarios while we wait for the official disclosure.
USADA is a very professional, well-run, seemingly fair organization, and they don't strike me as being the type of people who persecute athletes. In fact, USADA is scrupulous about protecting the privacy of accused athletes, such that when I called a contact there today to discuss the "Zirbel Situation," he wasn't even aware that the cyclist had gone ahead and preemptively announced his A-sample result. USADA would have kept that private until well after the B-sample was analyzed (assuming it was also positive and the athlete chose to continue to defend against the charges). A lab, however, that made an error in analyzing a sample or reporting its findings would have a strong disincentive to publicly admit that and an unethical employee or lab director might hang an athlete out to dry. Might.
I know for a fact that a rider was positive for EPO when he won a US National Criterium Championship – he took a full-strength, non-micro dose within the time frame during which he should have been positive. In fact, his “A” sample WAS positive, but his “B” was declared negative because the EPO levels were interpreted to fall just below the cut-off for a definitive positive. So the labs can make mistakes. Guilty go free (only to be caught later). Some riders cheat. I hope most do not. But to be in Tom’s shoes right now is to be in hell and I wish him and his family the best regardless of what the truth of the matter is.