Monday, December 28, 2009

16 Joe Papp On The Odds & Ends In Zirbel's DHEA Positive

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.

Cholesterol => Pregnenolone => DHEA => Androstenedione => Testosterone

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.

I don’t know Tom Zirbel as a person so I can’t speak to his character, and I have no first-hand knowledge of his supplement use or medical care (if he received any), let alone whether or not he actually ingested DHEA. But if his B-sample comes back positive or he otherwise fails to clear his name, his world is going to implode, and it won’t be pretty.

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.

* * *


  1. Todd S.1:10 AM

    Thanks Joe. Tom might find it hard to make friends during this time. Let's hope that 'B' sample doesn't turn out to tell us the obvious. Its going to be a huge loss for US cycling if he's dirty as he was definitely a talent and I enjoyed watching him race.

  2. Anonymous3:15 AM

    Sounds like he has read Floyd's book "Absolutely False" and saw Marion Jones on Oprah.

  3. Take this like a detective case. Zirbel sounds too honest about not not knowing about DHEA as much as the lab he got his results from made errors. The possibility of both are minimal.

  4. How effective is DHEA at improving performance, anyway? Given its ease of detection and debatable advantage (except perhaps in the super-geezer categories), I'm surprised how many DHEA positives we've been seeing lately.

  5. Studying the effects of DHEA on the human body is like trying to study how a tiny drop in an ocean affects the ocean. There's no consensus about its effects on performance.

    What science tells us though is that DHEA can convert to secondary steroids like testosterone. DHEA can be had for very cheap at any pharmacy/store. Whether it by itself improves performance is moot but what matters is that it is on the banned substance list and any top level cyclist must have some clue that it is on the list, even after other high profile cyclists are banned from competition due to the same reason. Waiting to see how this case turns out...

  6. Suppose riding with the color red on your bike is illegal. Some rider is caught with the color red on his bike and is suspended. He says "I didn't realize I had the color red on my bike". I tend to believe him because the color red offers no advantage in competition.

    On the other hand, suppose he's caught with a bike below the weight limit. In this case I'm less likely to believe him, even though weight is less obvious than color.

    In any case, something's up because available supplemental DHEA, and its detection is old story yet there's been a clear increase in the number of cases.

  7. Joe, I'm not sure why would he be in hell right now if he indeed doped? He knew what he was doing, he knew the likelihood of being caught is quite high if you're a pro, his own words, as you rightly point out, imply he's lying already. What kind of hell is that? If, on the other hand, he didn't dope, there's nothing or almost nothing to worry about. What's the likelihood of the lab making the same mistake twice on the row? Very small. If he's innocent, he should quietly wait for the B sample instead of entertaining us with "I don't know what DHEA means" circus.

  8. Well, the issue is DHEA is all over the place. Supplement manufacturing is poorly regulated, and cross-contamination seems very much a possibility.

    Here's some discussion about DHEA from a body building web site. Body builders tend to know their steroids. they describe some ambiguity in studies using 1600 mg/day of DHEA. That's a monster dose. The largest typical dose available is 100 mg. I used to take that when I was in grad school and suffering from too much stress. I certainly can't say I felt like it made my riding any stronger. So if you're going to cheat the system, you'd be better off using something which is actually effective and harder to detect.

  9. Anonymous9:20 AM


    The next time you get a guest speaker, make sure they actually have a degree in the subject they are talking about.

    Joe Papp doesn't know shit from shinola about this.

    The guy has a degree in History.

    What he does know is -
    How to ride a bike.
    How he doped.

    Ron, I expect a little better then this shit from your site.

    I mean, maybe the guy did dope.
    That's possible, but nothing Joe Papp is saying leads to anything of substance
    Rather, by allowing this guy a place to spout off from, you have committed the act of being an accessory to character assignation.

    You should be ashamed.
    - Ryan

  10. I disagree with Ryan above and found the guest commentary by Papp to be informative from an insiders point of view. We wheelsucking, weekend cyclists like to sit on our San Marcos along the roadside and think we know what it's like in the peloton. Well, I for one don't - but am always interested to hear from one who does. Papp clearly does - and I appreciated the post.

  11. Anonymous11:38 AM

    Jeez Ryan, Lighten TFU...I found the article food for thought. Nut up & START YOUR OWN BLOG, maybe I'll read it,
    Maybe I'll spend an inordinate amount of time thinking of reasons to flame you about every post, like you do here regularily.
    Accusing others of an agenda (YAWN!), is the pot calling the kettle black...everyone has an agenda, stated or otherwise. Get over it.

  12. Ryan : Joe's ideas are free to be opposed, countered etc in a civilized manner. I don't do an academic profiling on anyone before they write on a topic in which they don't even proceed to make any scientific claims. From the perspective of someone who's been in a similar crises as Zirbel, Joe is trying to reconcile two different aspects of this troubling story by sharing from his own situation in the past, at the same time lending a word of support to Zirbel. Now should he have a Phd in Chemistry to say that? He's not a professor no? The guy races his bike and went through some tough circumstances in life.

  13. Willis3:59 PM

    Doesn't make sense that Zirbel tested positive for something that does not enhance performance and is commonly found as a contaminant in supplements? The only bright side for him is that the WADA anti-doping code now has provisions for accidental, unintended “doping". Can he prove it.

  14. Anonymous5:54 PM

    I remember Joe P. from such races as "The Hills of Somerset" and Sommervile. Just about everyone in the pro 1-2 races knew he and the others doped but whaddya gonna do? In any event, as far as I m concerned that is water under the bridge. As for me, all is forgiven. Good input from someone who knows.

    In any event. My question is, if this guy was a true doper, why would he even be playing with dhea when he could be using the better stuff. Seems like a guy of this caliber would have a better drug arsenal, unless of course he just didn't caught for the other stuff.

  15. Anon : Its all up in the air right now. I'd wait to see how this develops. Lots of questions right now. What will the B sample say. And Why DHEA? Who was right, who was wrong.

  16. Anonymous12:15 PM

    Humm.. He gets caught for a drug, claims he didn't dO it and has never heard of it, and then gets leniency for turning in others. He has a selective memory.


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