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.