Gonzalez Fails Internal Team Test at Vuelta

In a somewhat strange move, the Swiss Phonak squad pulled its Spaniard Santos Gonzalez from the Vuelta a Espana on Thursday. The Spaniard was sitting 8th on GC in his home tour, and is understandably upset by the decision.

Apparently, Gonzalez failed one of the team’s internal medical controls, an increasingly common tactic undertaken by teams to spare them official positive tests performed by WADA for the race organizations. Phonak hasn’t been forthcoming what kind of test Gonzalez failed, only saying that tests showed irregularities with his blood, but the most likely candidate seems to be a hematocrit test. UCI doping rules suspend riders that hit a 50% hematocrit level, but Phonak sources indicate that their organization sets a more conservative level.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem quite fair to old Santos, but who can blame Phonak for playing it safe? In the space of a couple of years, they’ve had four riders pinched—Tyler Hamilton and Santiago Perez for blood transfusions, former world champ Oscar Camenzind for EPO, and more recently, Italian sprinter Fabrizio Guidi for an undisclosed substance. If Gonzalez was nearing the 50% figure, the decision to pull him rather than risk putting him into a post-race test in a dehydrated state (which increases hematocrit levels) seems like a sound one.

Of course, to get at the ugly underlying issue of whether he’s doped or not, we’ll have to wait for Phonak’s promised analysis of his season-long blood test history. In the meantime, Gonzalez, who has never failed a blood test, is taking a forced rest from racing. Things may not be so bleak though—on the day he was excluded, he promptly set out to have an analyis conducted at a UCI-accredited lab—which doesn’t seem like the move of a man with something to hide.

Given its recent history with regard to dopage, SC wouldn’t be surprised if Phonak was filling their boys with enough saline to keep them running at a nice, lean 35%, regardless of whether they’re doped or not.