Tramadol is an opiate pain medication which targets how the brain and nervous system respond to pain. There can be some side effects of taking the drug, with the most commonly reported being dizziness, drowsiness and loss of attention. It’s a stronger drug than more commonly-used painkillers such as Ibuprofen and there is also a risk of dependence and addiction to Tramadol. It is for this reason that the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) bans the use of Tramadol in competition – its side effects could endanger riders if used during races.
However, tramadol is not listed as a prohibited substance by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). WADA says it is not convinced Tramadol has performance-enhancing benefit, but that it could be banned in the coming years. Tramadol is listed on the WADA Monitoring List, where it has remained since 2012. The WADA Prohibited List is updated each year (on January 1), but substances and methods can also be added and removed at any time throughout the year.
Therefore, if a rider tests positive for tramadol currently, it doesn't constitute an anti-doping rule violation and they can continue to compete in races. The UCI themselves can impose sanctions on riders independently of WADA if a rider tests positive for tramadol in a race. At the first offence, the sanction is disqualification from the race, a monetary fine and the rider is asked to reimburse the costs incurred by Tramadol Control.
The second offence would carry a penalty of a five-month ban and a third a nine-month ban. Tests for tramadol are not urine samples, the UCI explain that “the sample collection for UCI Tramadol testing is not invasive and is conducted using a sampling kit to collect a limited amount of blood from the rider's fingertip.” At the Tour de France this year, the UCI collected a total of 120 dried blood samples as part of the tramadol programme.
Since 2013, the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC) have requested a ban on the drug due to alleged widespread use of tramadol in the peloton. UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) has also made submissions to WADA for Tramadol to be placed on the Prohibited List.
The most recent athlete to test positive for an in-race usage of Tramadol is Colombian rider Nairo Quintana. A statement on the UCI’s website read: “The analyses of two dried blood samples provided by the rider on 8 and 13 July during the 2022 Tour de France revealed the presence of Tramadol and its two main metabolites.”
Quintana has the opportunity to appeal his disqualification in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) within the next 10 days. He is still eligible to compete in races and is on the start list for the 2022 Vuelta a España which starts on Friday.
Quintana’s team, Arkéa-Samsic, are part of the Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC), which describes itself as “an association aiming at defending clean cycling.
"Transparency, responsibility and our members’ engagement are the pillars of our identity. MPCC is also a whistleblower on corticosteroids, tramadol, stilnox and mechanical doping,” according to the organisation’s website.
Quintana confirmed on Tuesday that he would withdraw from the Vuelta, and is preparing to contest the finding in front of the CAS.