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Abnormally high serum ferritin levels among professional road cyclists
  1. H Zotter1,
  2. N Robinson1,
  3. M Zorzoli2,
  4. L Schattenberg2,
  5. M Saugy1,
  6. P Mangin1
  1. 1Laboratoire Suisse d’Analyse du Dopage, Institut Universitaire de Médecine Légale, Lausanne, Switzerland
  2. 2Union Cycliste Internationale, CH 1860 Aigle, Switzerland
  1. Correspondence to:
 Harald Zotter
 Institut Universitaire de Medicine Legale, Laboratoire Suisse d’Analyse du Dopage, 21 rue du Bugnon, Lausanne 1005, Switzerland;


Background: An international, longitudinal medical follow up examination of male professional road cyclists revealed excessively elevated serum ferritin levels.

Objective: To evaluate the importance of elevated ferritin values among professional cyclists, their relationship with age and nationality, and their evolution over 3 years.

Methods: Over 1000 serum ferritin values were collected. Other parameters were included in order to exclude conditions which might have increased ferritin levels without changing body iron stores.

Results: In 1999, over 45% of riders displayed ferritin values above 300 ng/ml and one fourth levels over 500 ng/ml. These percentages had decreased to 27% and 9%, respectively, 3 years later, while the overall average, which was above the normal limits in 1999, had decreased by 33% in 3 years. Older cyclists had higher ferritin values than younger cyclists. There was also a relationship between ferritin levels and the nationality of the cyclists. Analysis of 714 riders in 2000 and 2002 showed only a slight and insignificant decrease in the mean ferritin value although those with initially elevated iron stores had a much greater decrease.

Conclusion: Professional road cyclists used excessive iron supplementation leading to high serum ferritin levels correlating with increased body iron stores. Although the situation progressively improved over 3 years, it remains worrying as increased body iron stores are related to health complications. Therefore, prevention in addition to the fight against doping should be a main goal of the UCI. Aggressive therapy for athletes with excessive ferritin values should be carried out at or before the end of their careers.

  • rhEPO, recombinant human erythropoietin
  • UCI, Union Cycliste Internationale
  • cyclists
  • doping
  • erythropoietin
  • ferritin
  • iron

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  • Conflict of interest: none declared.