This Week In Cycling Dope

Point of Order - the guy on the left counts with his fingers correctly; the guy on the right does not.

Since I have a blog which concerns itself with cycling, I am obligated to discuss this week’s happenings in the professional ranks.  Most Americans are generally aware that federal prosecutors have dropped their investigation into possible doping activities of Lance Armstrong and his teammates during his epic seven consecutive Tour de France streak.  Only the most cycling-focused of us Yanks are aware that three-time TdF winner Alberto Contador was ordered to forfeit his 2010 victory by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (cycling has a court!) and suffer a two-year ban.  This same court is expected to issue a ruling tomorrow on yet another TdF winner, Jan Ullrich.  No American has ever heard of him.  Ok, a few Americans have heard of Ullrich – but not many.

Regardless of their overall popularity in The States, all three cyclists are very popular in the cycling community.  What are we to think of the prospect of doping featuring so prominently in the sport we love?  How does this impact us as cyclists?

My answer to the first question is, “What’s new?” and to the second question I say, “Not at all.”

Cycling has an extremely rich and consistent involvement in performance enhancing drugs.  It has been this way for over a century and has continued unabated despite 50 years of efforts to remove them from the sport.  My only surprise in the continued infractions is that people are surprised by them.   A significant PED scandal hits the cycling world every few years for the past century, so another is hardly a novel thing.  In this regard, cycling is no different from any other sport where millions of dollars are at stake.  When the margin between greatness and average is very small and the incentives to cheat are extremely large, cheating is to be expected.

So why the ruckus?  I believe it is because cycling fans make the common mistake of idolizing the champions of the sport (“fans” is short for “fanatics,” after all).  What happens when our heroes are exposed?  Illusions are shattered and enjoyment of the sport is lessened.

So should we all stop watching and supporting professional cycling?  Of course not.  I suggest we simply take it for what it is and not attempt to embellish it with the stuff of myth and legend.  It’s a beautiful sport with sweeping vistas, fascinating strategy and tactics, teamwork, and tremendous hard work.  That’s enjoyable to watch and when some of these millionaires are caught crossing the line, they are punished and the show goes on.

If you want heroes, I encourage you to look elsewhere.  For cycling heroes, the Blogroll on the right side of your computer screen is an excellent place to start.  You will read inspiring stories of people overcoming all sorts of obstacles to achieve their best.  There are people cycling across continents, folks climbing mountains in their spare time, losing incredible amounts of weight, riding in extreme heat and cold, and doing so in all manner of age, gender, and physical ailment.  If we spend more time admiring folks like this and less time trying to make professional athletes something they are not, I think we’ll all be better off.

An Abridged Timeline Of PEDs in Cycling

(submitted for your reference – I could have added more, but this suffices, I think)

1896 – Arthur Linton dies of exhaustion and typhoid fever a few weeks after finishing 2nd in the Bordeaux-Paris race.  At least one researcher claims Linton was “massively doped” for this race by his manager, the infamous Choppy Warburton, who was known for doping his charges.

1896 – Participants in Six Day races are routinely given Nitroglycerine to improve their breathing.  The drug was a hallucinogen and was often used to stimulate the heart after heart attacks.  Marshall Taylor, one of the world’s most accomplished cyclists, refuses to continue in the New York Six Day Race, stating, “”I cannot go on with safety, for there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand.”

1924 – The Pelissier brothers (Henri, Francis, and Charles) drop out of the Tour de France and give an interview in which they claim to have used strychnine, cocaine, chloroform, aspirin, “horse ointments,” and other drugs to improve performance.

1930 – Taking drugs was so accepted that the Tour de France rulebook reminded riders that race organizers would not provide drugs to cyclists.

1949 – Italian champion Fausti Coppi states that there is no alternative to taking amphetamines if one wants to be a competitive cyclist.  He jokes that he only takes the drugs when absolutely necessary, “which is nearly always.”

1955 – Jean Mallejec collapses on the famous Mount Ventoux during the Tour de France.  In the ambulance, he claims he was drugged against his will.

1958 – Roger Riviere sets the hour distance record.  He later admits he accomplished the feat under the influence of amphetamines.

1960 – Denmark’s Knud Enemark Jensen collapses during his team’s 100km Olympic time trial, fractures his skull, and later dies in the hospital.  An autopsy reveals the presence of amphetamines and Roncil, a drug which decreases blood pressure.  Jensen’s death lead to pressure on the IOC to establish drug controls.

1960 – During the Tour de France, Gastone Nencini was discovered in his hotel room with plastic tubes running from each arm into a bottle of blood.  Transfusions like this were legal at the time.

1960 – Roger Riviere ends his career in a crash during a descent on Mt. Aigoual.  Riviere believes the crash was caused by his use of the painkiller, Palfium.  Riviere states his fingers were so numb he couldn’t work the brake levers.

1965 – Jacques Anquetil claims “only a fool” would attempt to ride the Bourdaux-Paris route without drugs.  “Leave me in peace,” he says.  “Everybody takes dope.”

1967 – Tom Simpson dies on Mount Ventoux during the Tour de France.  The autopsy found amphetamines and alcohol in his system.  More drugs are found in the pockets of his jersey and in his hotel room.

1969 – Eddy Merckx, one of the all-time greats, tests positive for drugs during the Giro d’Italia.  In what would become a familiar defense, Merckx denies the charges and claimed his urine sample wasn’t handled properly.

1972 – Juan Huelamo finishes 3rd in the Olympics and is later disqualified after testing positive for coramine.

1973 – Eddy Merckx is stripped of his 1st place finish at the Giro di Lombardia Classic after testing positive for a banned substance.

1974 – Advances in testing technology helps catch 13 prominent riders.

1975 – Benard Thevenet wins the Tour de France with the assistance of cortisone.  “I was doped with cortisone for three years and there were many like me,” said Thevent.  “The experience ruined my health.”

1976 – Rachel Dard details how he and fellow riders tricked testing officials by using condoms containing uncontaminated urine.

1977 – Another improvement in testing nets Eddy Merckx yet again, along with Freddy Maertens and Michel Pollentier.  Pollentier would be caught a year later trying to trick testing officials using a bladder containing somebody else’s urine.

1978 – Jean-Luc van den Broueck states, “In the Tour de France, I took steroids. That is not a stimulant, just a strengthener. If I hadn’t, I would have had to give up… You can’t call that medically harmful, not if it’s done under a doctor’s control and within reason.”

1980 – Dietrich Thurau tests positive in three separate races.  After his retirement in 1988, he admits to doping and states most cyclists do it.

1984 – Francesco Moser breaks Eddy Merckx’s one hour record and admits to blood doping to prepare for the event.  At the time, this was not banned.  Seven members of the American Olympic Team admit to taking blood transfusions to prepare for the games.  The US Federation banned this practice the following year.

1989 – Johan van der Velde retires and undergoes hospital treatment for his addiction to amphetamines.

1991 – Sean Kelly is surprised to learn he failed a drug test despite using the urine of a team mechanic.  Unfortunately for Kelly, the mechanic was also using banned substances to provide a lift while working late at night.

1996 – In 2007, seven members of Team Telekom admit to taking banned substances (including EPO) during the season when teammate Jan Ullrich won the Tour de France.

1998 – The entire Festina team is ejected from the Tour de France when a large haul of doping drugs is found in a team car.

2001- The Giro d’Italia is marred by drug raids conducted by over 200 police officers. Numerous cyclists are implicated, including contender Dario Frigo.

2003-2004.  Eight riders die of heart attacks.  This is an unusually large number, even for a sport which routinely sees its world-class athletes suffer inexplicable numbers of heart attacks.

2006 – Tour de France favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso are banned from participation due to their connection to the Operacion Puerto doping case.  Eventual Tour Champion Floyd Landis would relinquish his title due to a positive doping test.

2007 – Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen misses drug tests then lies to officials about his whereabouts.  His team eventually drops him from the race.  Four other riders test positive and two teams are asked to withdraw by officials.

2012 – Alberto Contador has his 2010 Tour de France title stripped due to a urine test which discovered the presence of clenbuterol.  Contador blames the result on contaminated meat.

27 thoughts on “This Week In Cycling Dope

  1. Very interesting post Steve. There’s obviously a lot of pressure out there to use drugs to keep performance at its very peak in every sport. And as you say, cyclists are only human. For some the pressure is too much.

  2. Outstanding post. Truly. Obviously, there are many, many folks talking about this in the blogosphere, and most have opinions – as opposed to informed opinions like this.

    I cannot tell you how happy I am the Lance investigation is over. Not because I’m a Lance fan; not because I “know” he didn’t do it; not for any reason other than…

    It makes me sick when our government will spend this much time and effort to try to prove a cyclist cheated while the people who destroyed our country’s economy and ruined the lives of millions of people not only get away with it, but some actually end up with presidential appointments.

    No one on earth can make a valid argument to me that investigating Lance (or Bonds, or any athlete about any doping) is worth one minute and one penny of tax dollars when these other people are being rewarded for their heinous crimes.

    The other thing that drives me crazy is when folks talk about how dirty cycling is. How it’s so much dirtier than any other sport. To this I always point out that the reason it seems like that – the reason it seems like we hear about cyclists doping so much more than we do any other sport is simple – cycling does not protect their athletes.

    MLB, NFL and the NBA actually have language in their union agreements that officials are not allowed to test for certain drugs, and/or are not allowed to reveal certain test results. The NFL’s history of covering up their players drug use is as long and storied as is cycling’s history of exposing dopers.

    It’s truly staggering to imagine what the NFL, NBA and MLB would look like over the past 30 years if those sports had the same drug testing standards as cycling. Would there even be MLB at all? I know for a fact, the NFL would not be the same game it is. Not even close.

    But those are “our” sports. American sports. Cycling is not. I guarantee you – if cycling generated the billions of dollars in America that “our” sports do, there would be no banning of Contador, Ulrich, Levi, Sean, Eddy, etc., and no looking into Lance at all.

    Great post.

    1. Thanks, Fizz. Regardless of the sport, I believe there is a constant competetition to stay one step ahead of the PED enforcement rules for the sport. Another common theme is that fans of the sport generally do not lessen their enthusiasm when it is made clear to them that a star (or stars) are using PEDs.

  3. Steve, I’m with you on this one. Doping, if it’s still not rife in the peloton, is still the dirty little secret cyclists don’t want to talk about directly. I’d go out on a limb and ask anyone to show me a rider who is still a pro (and hasn’t been banned because of doping) and has had anything harsher to say about Contador than ‘it’s sad for the sport’. Nobody will condemn till they are far from the sport.

    The same can’t be said for Armstrong and, even though no criminal charges have been laid, my guess is that it’s only a matter of time before more teammates come forward (there aren’t many left!) and close the case in the public’s eye, at least.

    And yeah, like you, I’ll still keep watching. Strange, isn’t it?

    1. I watch because it is enjoyable to see the best in the world do something that I like to do. It also provides a common frame of reference for all of us to talk about the sport. Finally, they don’t televise organize rides of amateurs. Instead, I wait eagerly for the race reports on blogs such as yours. If forced to choose between watching the pros and reading the blogs, I would choose the latter.

  4. Sad, but it seems to be the way of competitive sports. People always trying to one up themselves and the next guy.

    People are people. You offered a great suggestion about focusing on normal everyday foiks who struggle through life without all the props. As always, great post. 🙂

    1. Hyper competitive people with millions of dollars on the line will do these sorts of things. Watch and enjoy – just don’t trick yourself into believing you’re watching something more than what it is.

  5. Super post, and thanks!
    I am most certainly uninformed about all things racing and doping. I like to ride, to watch the tour, and to not lose energy worrying about it. But could you, and anyone else with insight, talk about the jury’s comment “The presence of clembuterol was more likely caused by the ingestion of a contaminated food supplement.” What the *#!< is that about? Sarcasm, gratuitous comment, hedging a bet, providing an out … or telling us something about food supplements? Naive I am, and I don't get it.

    1. Contador’s defense is he ate contaminated meat. Spanish cattle farmers are known for being less than completely compliant with EU health codes and this particular substance can be used to improve the size of cattle. At this point, the science goes way beyond my expertise, with arguements both for and against the theory that this could have been transmitted to Contador.

      1. The contaminated meat part I understood. Didn’t get where the contaminated food supplements came from. Oh well, it’s a mystery.

  6. …..there will always be a direct correlation between the size of the rewards/public acclamation and the levels of cheating, in any activity. Sadly, it is human nature. By contrast, when I go out with club companions, the doping we indulge in will only amount to double expressos, sugary buns and energy gels. Why nothing illegal? Well, what’s the point?

  7. Very nice summary Steve. I think Biarne Riis, owner and manager of Contador’s recent team Saxobank (he’s currently released from his contract, I believe) deserves a mention as he’s no stranger to doping himself.

    In spite of its history, I believe cycling is getting cleaner and for the sake of those incredibly hard, fit, clean cyclists who turn themselves inside out in pursuit of victory, I’m all for the doping cheats to be rooted out.

  8. I don’t believe any top cyclists are clean. I don’t mean that as a critical comment, just what I believe is a fact.

    To compete they have unfortuanately to do it. It’s just a matter of keeping ahead of the science. Which cycling seems pretty good at.

    Do I wish it was clean? Of course I do, but it’s not and it does not take anything away from the effort and the spectacle as wierdly they’re all I believe competing on a level playing field.

    To use a military analogy it’s like the battle between armour and warhead, always onging with advantage usually to the warhead.

    A great pity and a crying shame.

    1. I agree, Clive. If I am in a competition of any sort, one of my first questions is “what are the rules?” If the rules say my blood content can be no more than a certain level of PED and I am convinced that PED will help my performance, my next step is to figure out how to get that PED into my system just under the acceptabale amount. Now, if I don’t mind cheating, my thoughts then turn to what violations I can get away with. The saying, “it’s not cheating unless you’re caught” is in play. The challenge faced by sports regulators is how to keep people in the first category of competitor and how to punish people who drift into the second category. To believe that none of this will occur is not very realistic, in my view.

  9. Hi Steve – great post and I’m with you on all your comments. Sure, I would love to see the peloton ride clean, but as long as there’s money on the line (and now significant money), there will be people that will cheat. Professional cycling is a great sport to watch. As you say, the drama set against the beautiful vistas make it a natural entertainment sport. But like you, I take it for what it is, and I don’t place any of these riders into hero status. Let the “mutants” race.

    It’s also ironic that while all these people last week were being sanctioned for doping, Lance placed 2nd in his first Ironman (70.3) race as a pro in Panama City. The sport of triathlon, although it’s been around a few decades, is still rushing towards its infancy and the drug controls are not as tight, or as well monitored as professional cycling. Lance raced in triathlons when he was in his teens, but one has to wonder how a 41 year old guy places 2nd in a competitive field. I’d like to think he raced clean, but with his history, there will always be a doubt.

    When Lance won his first TDF, and the story was all about his incredible come back from cancer, it was often suggested to me at the beginning of many bike races I entered that I better be a fast rider because we shared the same last name. Now when I enter races, people suggest that I should pee in a bottle to make share I’m not taking EPO like the other Armstrong.

    Thanks for the engaging post……Enjoy the Ride

    1. Thanks for the illuminating comment, Robert. You touch on the insidious nature of PEDs. Sport is only entertaining if the audience can believe that what they are watching is “real.” By that I mean that there is a level playing field on which all the athletes compete. If I was a clean athlete, I would demand the strictest enforcement regime because anything less would cause my achievements to be questioned by skeptics, as we see happening now with Lance. But that’s just me.

      1. As you featured in your post, it’s unlikely any of the top professionals are racing drug free, so in effect there is an equal playing field in the pro ranks (let the mutants race). As you say, I too would be screaming if I was beaten by a cheat, hence my suspicion of Andy Schlek’s reaction to Contador’s suspension for cheating. If Andy were clean, he would be outraged.
        Case in point; I was racing in our provincial time trial championships a couple years ago and the guy that won was 47 years old and he beat the next closest competitor by over 6 minutes! There’s no way a 47 year old guy can beat a 27 year old guy who’s racing at, or near national level. This bothered all us clean riders because we weren’t racing in an equal playing field. In fact, we all agreed that this bothered us more than the knowledge that most Tour pros cheat with drugs, because this impacted each of us at a personal level. It was a sad day to see drugs filter all the way down to this level of competition.

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