Frank Bonnamour Provisionally Suspended

Frank Bonnamour has been provisionally suspended by cycling’s governing body the UCI due to “unexplained abnormalities in his Biological Passport”. Here’s a guide of what this means.

Loyal readers might already know but some of the procedure and management has changed since we last explored this issue and there have been a slew of published decisions too.

Bonnamour riders for Decathlon-Ag2r La Mondiale but as the team is keen to point out the suspension is based on “tests carried out before he joined the team”. The son of ex-pro Yves Bonnamour, his mother rode the Tour de France Féminin in the 1980s. He was on many people’s radar in the 2021 Tour de France where he was often up the road and eventually got the “combativity prize” for his efforts, a reward much needed by the B&B Hotels team.

Passport history
The passport was launched in 2008. It’s funded by the teams, the UCI, race organisers and indirectly by riders who see a levy on all prize money contribute to the costs.

Today the passport is run by the International Testing Agency (ITA) a third party anti-doping agency that works for cycling’s UCI, as well as other sports. The passport is also handled by the Athlete Passport Management Unit (APMU), is a WADA-funded scheme and both are based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

What is the passport?
It’s an electronic record of past anti-doping tests from urine and blood tests. Crucially it also tracks blood values over time (and also steroid levels via urine tests too). Haematological values can be take from in-competition tests but also out-of-competition.

Haematological values are taken when an athlete is blood tested and these are all logged into a database and over time a “longitudinal profile” is established. Software uses logic and probability algorithms to spot anomalies.

Above you can see a screenshot of the passport software – from a laboratory presentation that’s no longer online – showing haemoglobin (HGB) levels, the off-score (OFFS), the Abnormal Blood Profile Score (ABPS) and the reticulocyte ratio (RET%). 20 years ago cycling fans started to learn these terms after they’d mastered the likes of peloton and grupetto.

The software alerts if an athlete’s numbers deviate from an established pattern, usually if it’s outside the 0.5-99.5% range of expected values. This can signal telltale patterns of blood doping like taking EPO or infusing stored blood where the body reacts in certain ways to this but there can be innocent reasons too. When alerted an expert reviews the data and has four options:

  • do nothing because the data look normal to the human eye/brain
  • recommend the athlete is placed on a list for target testing
  • alert the athlete that they could be suffering from a serious illness
  • state improbable natural causes, a likely doping case

In the event of the fourth option, the procedures continue for the APMU. Now three independent experts are picked and they get the data and they too pick among the four choices. All three must review the same data and only if all three conclude that, in the words of WADA’s procedural manuals, “it is highly likely that a prohibited substance or prohibited method had been used and unlikely that it is the result of any other cause” will the case proceed. If this is the case then the APMU creates a dossier with the athlete’s age, gender, sport and a range of other information such as the chain of custody for the samples taken, whether the athlete was at altitude and so on. This file is reviewed and the three experts must concur for an “adverse passport finding” and then an anti-doping organization is notified, in cycling it’s the ITA.

The ITA contacts the rider to advise them that it is mulling an anti-doping case and gives them the APMU dossier with the data, sample custody and more along with the request for the athlete to explain the data in the dossier and their response, or not, is noted.

  • The short version is that there has to be unanimous agreement between experts at the ITA/AMPU that this is highly likely a scenario of doping for the case to proceed, any doubt and it won’t.

So far all this happens behind closed doors. Here the ITA will decide whether to proceed or not. It’s worth noting we only get to hear of the cases that have got this far, we don’t know what percentage of samples trigger a three expert review or how many riders have been invited to explain themselves only for the case to be closed.

As of today
Three experts in agreement and no satisfying explanation from the athlete in question? It’s now that things go public and having been informed by the ITA, the UCI announces a rider has been provisionally suspended. This is where we are with Frank Bonnamour’s case today.

Next up will come hearings where he will get to put his side of things, blood values can move in suspicious ways but an athlete might have records of illness or other issues, our presumption now is one of innocence although the cyclist is suspended. This can take time. The burden of proof for the UCI is “comfortable satisfaction, bearing in mind the seriousness of the allegation which is made” as in greater than a mere balance of probability but less than proof beyond reasonable doubt.

If there’s a verdict the ban is typically four years with a fine possible as a percentage of the salary. Past results can be stripped depending on when the data in question was flagged.

Recent precedents

Biopassport cases are rare and they can be very slow. Last August Alpecin-Deceuninck rider Robert Stannard was provisionally suspended with him saying it related to something from 2018 so when he was with Mitchelton-Scott, there’s no verdict yet and Stannard is out of contract. Similarly Movistar saw “their” rider Jaime Roson suspended but this from blood values logged from his time before at Caja Rural, pictured when he was outclimbing Vincenzo Nibali. It can be over time that and the Bayesian process that normal values logged over and over might betray something worth investigating from the past and in turn require more testing. The UCI has lost one case, that against Roman Kreuziger in 2015 when it and WADA tried to appeal the Czech verdict that cleared him but they then pulled this after “newly obtained information”.

The athlete passport is a tool to track blood values which might signal types of blood doping but it doesn’t deliver the easy positive or negative results. It can help spot patterns and with this can come more targetted testing of some athletes and then an independent panel of three experts. It’s useful but no panacea. But as said here before, if you think it’s not beatable what you should really be calling for is more passport: more testing, more logged values and so a better chance of flagging something.

Frank Bonnamour is innocent for now, although provisionally suspended by the UCI. He’ll have a chance to put his side of events in an anti-doping hearing but this could take a long time, other cases have been open for months and even years before reaching a verdict.

58 thoughts on “Frank Bonnamour Provisionally Suspended”

  1. JFC! It’s good that they catch things but bad that there are things to catch. And of course this news will be all over the media but unless the guy’s sanctioned not much more will ever be said or written…leaving most to think the guy was a cheat whether he actually was or wasn’t. And it makes Ag2r look bad despite the suspicious data being from when the guy raced for a different squad.

  2. I am all for continual testing. There are still far to many dodgy characters associated with the sport and given half a chance they will become active once again.
    Larry. Get you ebike in the USA. 20mph rather than the sedate 15 mph of the Euro versions!

    • BC – I had a scheme cooked up to do that, but couldn’t pull it off. Shipping these things is a pain since they can’t go by air. I’m still waiting for the one I bought to play with down here 🙁
      For me a “doped” bike has become OK, but I’m not trying to fool anyone, just trying to keep getting out there as old-geezerhood comes along 🙂

  3. Thank you very much for this very informative post on the passport and software. I would like to know what a biochemist thinks about this, but it seems that one thing that increases the effectiveness of the passport, and makes cheating more difficult, is that the passport does not seem to screen for specific prohibited substances but instead screens for the biochemical effects of substances. So, no matter which prohibited substance or method an athlete may use, if it affects a relevant biochemical marker, the software recognizes it. This makes the passport more thorough, in fact very thorough, if I understand it correctly. It seems a very sophisticated program.

    • It helps. We’ve seen proof of riders trying to game the passport, adjusting their doping to smaller doses and away from competition so as not to cause big changes in values. But then possibly only small changes in performance. What it can also do is set up investigation and more testing, if there are small clues to suggest EPO use then can send testers to do an out-of-competition blood test etc. But more budget would mean more testing and the ability to monitor more.

    • It also helps to catch things like blood doping – clearly red blood cells are allowed to be in your bloodstream! – but changes in their concentration can indicate the use of HGH, EPO or a blood bag.

      Similarly, a lot of steroids involve naturally occurring substances like testosterone or androgens, so testing for their presence doesn’t necessarily tell you anything, but identifying changes in their concentration can.

  4. Do the experts see the name of the rider whose information they are reviewing, or is it anonymized? I can imagine the rider’s reputation (good or bad) could influence the decision.

    Do they review the data independently or together? Or a mix of both?

    • According to the operating guidelines (rev. 4.0), up until the rider is contacted by the ITA, the review of data is anonymous though some details are revealed; gender, age, sport type etc. (the info on anonymity is hidden in the last paragraph of section 5)
      It is my impression that the 3 experts do their job independently and confer after their initial review and thoughts in the matter but I am not sure, though it would be slightly weird for 3 experts to get together, read 2-3-400 or more pages of statements, statistical data and interpretations and then have a talk. I think the sensible thing would be to have them do this individually.

      • Yes, it’s anonymous. The panel experts might be able to guess as they could see age, gender, someone racing three weeks in July etc, be told where they went to altitude training camp but they are probably not so interested and just want to review the data.

      • “I think the sensible thing would be to have them do this individually.”
        Everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion but I’m gonna guess this procedure was well thought-out by a range of scientists and lawyers. The attitude seems to be to let a bunch of cheats get away with it rather than wrongly accuse one athlete vs the TV cop-show mentality where they act as judge-jury-executioner and do whatever it takes to convict the “guilty” party. People like to go on about “innocent until proven guilty” but once you trip the dope-o-meter you’re not innocent, all the guys who didn’t trip the dope-o-meter are the innocent ones, that’s why they’re coming after you and not them.

        • Afraid of stirring the whasp’s nest, I can’t help but wonder why you left this comment to mine, Larry? As I read your comment, I get that you accuse me of something?
          The cited text carries no bearing on judgment I simply tried to convey my assumption on how the 3 experts would be requested to go about the job, that was that…

          • That wasp’s nest being full of dangerous species Dunning-Krugeria wasps.
            Larry would know more about commisaires than you, and he will tell you about it, for sure

          • Sorry, but you did write: “I think the sensible thing would be to have them do this individually.” If I’m accusing you of anything it’s that statement – IMHO implying you think the current system isn’t good enough, while I’m saying it’s best left to the experts (sorry Greg) who know what they’re doing.

          • ‘kay, English isn’t my first language, so perhaps I phrased it to be misconstrued. You should read – and understand – the full text, I wrote. It is not one-liners…
            I thought I didn’t, but I did – sometimes it be like that… 😊

      • p.49 of that doc says “The group of three Experts can confer before they finalize their opinion”, which implies individual consideration initially. That would make sense, as obtaining 3 opinions is less robust if they’re influenced by each other.

  5. Sadly, thanks to social media and the way humans seem to love a witch hunt, we live in a guilty till proven innocent world. It also seems that the long time taken to reach a verdict will ruin even an innocent rider. Sad times….

    • Guilty until proven innocent? Yes, maybe, but that data has already passed through multiple stages of evaluation as explained by IR, and that evaluation seems to be very cautious with the requirement to avoid charges unless the data is robust and thus, logically, giving the all clear to many doubtful cases.

      Beyond this it would be fascinating to know how many data points over what period are required to establish a valid ABP. Given at least 2k pro cyclists the testing frequency for many can’t be enough for a detailed monitoring. Maybe testing frequency is stepped up if an early test is suspicious.

      • They UCI indeed used to have pools of riders to monitor more closely based on various unknown parameters. Riders wandered (or rode) in and out of these pools with frequent intervals.
        If this “official” pooling system is still in use, I can’t say.
        I used to be an AI for some years and it happened every once in a while that I was asked to target specific riders for testing.

        • Intelligence-based targeted testing is still a thing – but hopefully the UCI does a better job of respecting confidentiality than they did in the McQuaid and Cookson eras when their infamous ‘index of suspicion’ lists were leaked.

          • Could the UCI do a WORSE anti-doping job than “Mr. Mars” and “The Mad Hatter”? As you noted “Crookson” wasn’t much better. At lease these days they seem to be actually TRYING?

          • Let me assure you that I most certainly kept to the book and never revealed anything to indicate who I was gonna test until the numbers were published at the finish line.

    • Also the slow procedure can be to the benefit of the rider has to be given every opportunity to present their case too, it’s as much for their benefit that these things can take time. The UCI or ITA will have lots of information and their case built up already, now the athlete has to respond.

      The UCI or others prosecuting can’t be seen to rush the case as this could see any verdict overturned in civil courts.

    • I would say that requiring four experts to all independently judge that the results are a ‘likely doping’ case biases the system significantly for the presumption of innocence. Getting four expert doctors to unanimously have that high a degree of certainty on any diagnosis or conclusion isn’t easy. I think the fact that the frequency of biological passport cases that become public is so low, and is more rare than cases where riders are caught blood doping or using EPO-type products, indicates that only the most clear cases are rising to this level of attention.

      • Our understanding of how these blood values change over time, and respond to various stimuli (changes in training, illness, diet) is relatively poor.

        The blood passport is only ever going to catch absolutely outrageous cheating I think. Where there are markers that are just physiologically impossible. So, it’ll catch the naive dopers – lower rank riders who can not (or no longer) afford to pay a proper doctor to monitor and administrate.

  6. Is there any sense in which the UCI and WADA have a Bio-Passport for the entire pro peloton as a cohort, or indeed professional sports as a whole? For example are they looking at what can reasonably expected to be seen in terms of blood values per se, as well as looking at suspicious variations? Are they tracking changes in average blood values over time eg does the average bio passport look different now than it did ten or fifteen years ago? Has the observed range of typical values changed over time? Do the passports all look more similar to each other now than they did when it was first introduced? Have they all improved and converged so that all riders are apparently on a higher and more similar to each other level? In my opinion these would all be red flags suggesting that the athletes as a collective are gaming the system somehow, because humans haven’t evolved since 2008 thats for sure. So the general picture of a large, statistically valid sample (eg a thousand riders) should look much the same all the time over time. Another thing that concerns me is what is being done to ensure that riders entering the passport system for the first time are healthy and clean. Are first time passports compared with a control sample of healthy trained individuals? Otherwise what is to stop young athletes (perhaps under pressure from coaches, managers, national federations, parents etc) doping from a young age, changing their blood values to a more athletically advantageous level, then being careful to maintain those levels once they enter the system?

    • Just from one source so not official guidelines… but it seems the software alarm bells will ring on the same levels as before, but what’s different from all the data now is that the expert panels and the court hearings are better at analysis, the qualitative side. So in the past a rider might have tried to pass of changing values because of illness or dehydration, now this can be interrogated more, the same with altitude camps, a rider who was actually blood doping could say “I was at altitude camp” to explain changing values but now it’s more about when and where, for example the precise timing and how this effects values, and also the actual location because someone who goes to the mountains but isn’t staying at big altitude will struggle to explain significant changes.

      • Yes but my point was more about the data of the peloton collectively, because individual rider values could stay the same over time but still be suspicious, if the overall picture of the entire sample has changed, compared with historic values and external reference points

        • I think sports physiology has become increasingly scientific and methodical over the last few decades, in the never-ending quest for any marginal gains within the rules. This legal optimizing of physiology could potentially affect the average blood values across the peloton as those techniques spread through elite racing. For example, if altitude camps used to be very rare, and are now common (to say nothing of ‘altitude hotels’), then we could see the average hematocrit increase over the years. Likewise, I think it’s much better appreciated the way adequate rest, proper nutrition, and avoiding overtraining helps maintain good hct. levels, and so on.

          As for riders coming into the pro peloton already on a micro-doping regimen, so that their BP is at the high end of normal, and then being able to maintain that program with such steadiness that the BP never becomes suspicious, doesn’t seem credible. Such a program would take a lot of expert knowledge, expense, and a whole careful conspiracy, all of which would need to be dialed in while the rider was a teenager. I’m not saying there’s no doping in the junior ranks, just that would you’re suggesting would be an incredibly sophisticated endeavor and would probably yield on a very tiny benefit.

  7. Considering the length of time before a rider is suspended and the need for all the experts to agree that there is some anomaly, it does seem strange that it takes years before a rider is found guilty or not.

  8. It might have been already stated, but the blood passport is a marker or threshold that allows the governing body a level of legitimacy and confidence with the public saying they don’t tolerate drug cheats while giving the riders, teams etc the threshold they need to meet to be clean. Is it all doping etc. no but we are not kids either. Lastly for better or worse, it is time Lance Armstrong wasn’t just simply shunned but allowed to participate in chats, discussions, podcasts etc. It doesn’t have to be UCI, ASO etc channels. Whether you like or dislike his personality is another matter but he has a lot to add about the sport

    • He has a podcast and is interviewed all the time so he’s heard. I personally think he should remain shunned. He’s a terrible human being and his opinions are worthless, but that’s my opinion.

    • Yes, Lance – and Johan Buyneel – shouldn’t be shunned anymore. They doped. He was an immense arsehole who used his great power to bully people out of their livelyhoods. However, he didn’t murder anyone either. It was sports doping, and he has served his time – let’s keep things in context.

      Both Lance and Johan have excellent cycling brains, and things to contribute. People should be allowed a change to rehabilitate, once they’ve served their punishment – as they have.

      • Haven’t one or both of them been sanctioned for life? Can’t see much evidence of their redemption, either, quite the other way around, always speaking of how similar they were to the rest, or implying that, while pretty much never talking of the high-end power games which actually made them very different. Full disclosure doesn’t look even close, so… I’m personally *against* life sentences, especially in society in general, but also in sports, more or less – yet, there might be some *exceptions*, and these guys would deserve to be the negative ones, just as they were through their careers.

        • Yes, he ruined other people’s careers. And he’s a shit for this. And yes, to the extent he has apologised ,it’s come with a hefty dose of self-interest. And it’s not clear how much he’s actually sorry. E.g., he still seems to have a hatred for Floyd Landis, and that seems to me because he can’t forgive Floyd for being the one to first spill the beans and being the root cause of Lance’s downfall. However, he does seem to have at least learned a /bit/.

          There are shitty people in many professions, who have – through power-games – unfairly kept others down. Lance is a (extreme) example and we shouldn’t forget.

          On the other hand, he was a central part of the story of the sport for most of a decade, a huge figure in cycling history. He has had punishment. His attitude may not be perfect still, but he should still be allowed a part.

          You don’t have to embrace him warmly. OTOH, having him as persona non-grata at every cycling event in any capacity – even when other champion dopers are paraded around in open-top cars and honoured – isn’t quite right either. (That clearly annoys Lance immensely, and he actually has some justification on that).

          • None of those champions could have NADO chiefs removed as he did. To me, he isn’t part of cycling history at all, because it wasn’t cycling anymore. The level of unfairness achieved is not equalled by anything – and, above all, it wasn’t anymore about sport, just politics and money (which are always a huge part of the sport, but then they were all that was left, at least in the race where Lance was “competing”).

          • Different people will have different views. That’s fine.

            Who was the NADO chief that he got removed? I don’t remember that (and I watched the ESPN “Lance” 2-part doc just recently). Closest I can think of is Dick Pound and Lance’s attempt to have the IOC remove Pound, but Lance didn’t succeed there?

          • Merci, Gabriele, for the link. I remembered the case but didn’t know where to find the report.
            Debateable who was the most culpable, Armstrong or Bruyneel; Armstrong seems to get more opprobrium, while Bruyneel slides (slithers?) out from under.

    • Personally – I’m trying to be as objective as possible, but I don’t think it’s possible to state the Lance wins were the most unfair in sport history. Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, etc. Even in our own sport, there are those who think the Sky wins were not at all fair. A friend of mine thinks there is zero chance his rise was clean – 24-months before dominating the Vuelta, he was complete pack fodder, and this wasn’t a jump from a 19 year-old to a 23 year-old where the athlete goes from being a kid into a full adult. Froome was 23-26 and went from holding a motorbike at the Giro to domination.

      Anyways, my point is, as has been suggested, we need skeptical minded people to help question these situations to keep potential cheaters clean. Lance is a huge huge huge turd, but he is bluntly cynical, and absolutely could be a resource to help keep the sport as clean as possible. This problem will never disappear.

      • Were those guys negotiating personally their doping situations with the top authorities of sport institutions, keeping themselves and – crucially – their whole team “safe”, while instigating persecution of rivals, sometimes even “innocent” ones?
        As I noted above, were they able to ask (and obtain) a director of an important NADO as the French one to be removed?
        To have an influence on police investigations as the Actovegin one was, in order to shut things down with poor excuses?
        Could they prompt top institutions of their sport (as ASO is in cycling) to exclude in an arbitrary way some feared rivals from the main competition?

        Some comparable things have in fact surfaced about Team Sky, but it was not about a single athlete and his personal power, as it was in Lance’s case, who, despite the notable (yet not as unprecedented) role of Bruyneel, was personally a very prominent figure in the making of his own conspiration.

  9. Hypoxic rooms or tents, which made the biopassport way less meaningful for whomever had a decent quantity of money to spend on the subject… are being made legal in Italy too
    Welcome to clean cycling 2.0, where you supposedly blood dope to fight for the combativity prize whereas “clean teams” put on the show blowing up the GC.

    Ps Obviously the issues about antidoping aren’t about institutions being able to make it work, rather them wanting to do so with all the athletes and team equally.

  10. There is cheating in all sports – but few obsess about it as much as pro road cycling………footballers dive to get penalties/ get an opposition player sent off. We rarely see a similar witch hunt…..

    • Pro cycling doesn’t get too obsessive about riders hopping the kerb or a sticky bottle either.

      But blood doping is different in cycling, athletics etc, it can break criminal law, involve prescription fraud etc. Plus if footballers break the WADA Code they can be banned too, see Paul Pogba.

  11. I know it’s a slightly different spin on the article, but hasn’t somebody recently returned to the Pro peleton having successfully had treatment for cancer that was very fortunately found early by an astute drug tester spotting some abnormaility in his passport that suggested a medical condition?

  12. Due to a Spanish judge, does the UCI or ITA need to produce evidence of what is found now, as the judge ruled that the passport on it’s own does not merit a ban or suspension?

  13. I wonder if the BP actually detects industrial-scale habits, it sounds more designed to catch those who start dabbling intermittently later in their professional life.

    • My understanding, from sports scientists at the “have done blood doping research studies for WADA” level, is that blood values can vary significantly naturally and in response to various normal stimuli.

      So – with my engineer’s knowledge of signal processing – trying to detect doping within that noise could be extremely difficult. Further, a doping programme administered and monitored by a doctor has the tools to manipulate those values so as to keep them relatively consistent!

      The WADA EPO micro-dosing study I know of, from said sports scientists, they were hoping to find epigenetic markers of recombinant EPO. Lost touch with those scientists, but I never saw them publish that study so I guess they didn’t find it. That study would also have produced a good bit of blood work data on the effect of EPO micro-dosing on (amateur, not elite) cyclist athletes – never saw that published either. Wonder if the data got to WADA.

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