If we stop and think about it, the sports in which we compete are simply games we choose to play and to which we attach importance. They're still only games. A recent personal experience rammed this perspective home for me.
In Part 1, I outlined a history of doping in cycling over the past century-plus. In Part 2, we talked about why blood doping is so powerful a means of cheating. Here, in Part 3, I’ll relate some stories and stats that will hopefully connect some dots for readers and create a different lens through which we all watch sports.
Let’s start with this year’s Tour de France. We’re seeing the fastest climbing speeds in a decade. This isn’t conjecture. All it takes is looking at the uploaded data to calculate the VAM for any particular rider; knowing a rider’s weight also makes it possible to calculate his power/weight ratio. It’s accurate to say that up the Berthiand climb in today’s Tour stage (Sunday, July 17, 2016) that Majka and Zakarin pushed 6.7w/kg for 16min; it’s also accurate to say that Team Sky pushed about 6.0w/kg up the three big climbs for the day. This is not normal. The knee jerk reaction during the Lance 2.0 cavitiy search into doping scared riders to death. They didn’t want to be ensnared in the net. Climbing speeds slowed markedly and we started seeing power-to-weight ratios below 6.0 for sustained climbs. There is no way – NO WAY – that the peloton is starting to approach 7.0w/kg again without heavy PED use.
Think of it this way. In a 10,000m race on the track that takes just under 30 minutes, a 0.5% difference in performance is 50 meters. That’s considered a huge gap of victory. If all riders were clean, we would see something between 0-1% difference among the top 20 GC riders. Instead, we’re seeing one team’s non GC riders stomp on every other team’s GC riders so that they cannot successfully attack. This is nonsensical. Full stop.
Probably the most infamous, though certainly not the earliest indication that something was amiss in the European pro cycling peloton was back in April 1994. In the Belgian Classic, Fleche Wallonne, three members of the Gewiss-Ballan team – Moreno Argentin, Giorgio Furlan and Evgeni Berzin – broke away from the rest of the peloton and team time-trialed the final 30 miles alone. On the second-last time up the Mur de Huy, a leg breaking 1.3km climb atop which the race finishes on the third ascent, the three teammates went to the front, drilled it and dropped the rest of the riders like bad habits. Atop the Huy the final time, 1991 & 1992 World Champion Gianni Bugno was 1:14 down and 1993 World Champion Lance Armstrong at 2:30. Suspicion was raised not only by the show of dominance but also from the sheer ease with which the trio nuked the field.
Up to this point, blood doping was still being used but already being replaced by EPO. Steroids were still highly effective as well. When you look at Lance Armstrong, for example, in his triathlon years and then again early in his pro cycling career (first half of the 1990s), you go from seeing an athletic, strong but a bit doughy teen to something more resembling a linebacker. While he may not have cheated his entire career, it would be naïve to believe he didn’t start doping until 1995. The examples of athletes doping in the early-90s is endless, regardless of the sport.
Dr. Michele Ferrari was the Gewiss-Ballan team doctor at the time. He had studied the effects of blood doping exhaustively with Dr. Conconi After the race, the French reporters pressed Dr. Ferrari on the rumors of EPO in the peloton. He would have none of it so the reporters pressed harder, even going so far as to say that he was acting irresponsibly if he was providing his riders with EPO because EPO was dangerous and had already led to the deaths of a growing number of Dutch cyclists who died in their sleep. To this, Ferrari famously shot back, “EPO is not dangerous. Its abuse is. It is also dangerous to drink ten liters of orange juice.” While Ferrari was the poster child of doping in cycling, there were countless others, Fuentes and Cecchinni to name only two, who while maybe not equally notorious as Ferrari were certainly as enabling.
There could be no definitive link created between the death of the Dutch cyclists and EPO, but the horse had been let out of the barn. Beginning with the blood doping within the US Cycling Team at the 1984 Olympics and then the advent of EPO use and its supposed dangers in the 90s, some fuel had been thrown on the fire that would define doping in sports as a plague that needed to be eradicated. So, on one side there was a growing number of anti-doping drum beaters and on the other was this young, bold doctor who explicitly stated that EPO was safe when administered under the supervision of a trained professional.
Ferrari is most notorious for his work with Lance Armstrong. It’s interesting what a polarizing figure Armstrong is. Some still defend him, stating that all riders were doping so he had to in order to win. Having to dope in order to win needs to be differentiated from having to dope. Nobody has to use PEDs. It is undeniably a choice. Teddy Cutler of SportingIntelligence.com examined the top cyclists from 1998-2013, and determined whether or not they had ever been linked to either blood doping or to a doctor who was linked to blood doping. During this 16-year period, 75% of Tour de France titles were won by confirmed dopers. Of the 81 riders who finished top 10, a full two-thirds had been caught doping, admitted to blood doping or were suspected cheaters. During Armstrong’s reign of seven Tour de France titles, a whopping 87% of the top 10 finishers (61-of-70) were either confirmed dopers (48, or 69%) who had been suspended at some point in their careers, or suspected of doping. This is no way rationalizes Armstrong, absolves him nor excuses his sociopathic behavior.
So, questions that continually gets asked: “Is today’s peloton clean?” No, not even close. “Are there fewer riders doping today than pre-2010?” I don’t know, but if I had to guess I would still say no, not materially so. As I stated at the beginning, the knee jerk reaction was a reduced use of PEDs as indicated by the slower climbing speeds and lower power-to-weight ratios we were seeing from the riders. Unfortunately, both of these stats are now back up to nearly what they used to be when EPO was widely accepted and rampant. Let’s be clear – this is not natural.
Cheating has existed from the beginning of time. As soon as there was something to compete for, cheating was born. Somebody is always looking for a shortcut to success or realizes he or she can’t be successful without cheating. And a decision is made. A line is crossed. A huge problem that is only now starting to be documented and realized is how entangled the web of cheating is Sport is. Systematic cheating can be found at the individual level, team level and country level. We also see complicity across national and world governing bodies. Even WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. This paints a very grim picture of the future of Sport. Calls for lifting bans on PED use and legalizing doping may not seem that far out from the realm of reality. Because when one of the most intelligent, outspoken anti-doping advocates, Renee Anne Shirley is wondering if it’s time to finally throw in the towel in the fight against doping in sports, we have reached a level of futility few can appreciate more than she. For those who don’t know, Shirley is the whistleblower who as the former head of the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission, exposed Jamaica’s negligence in drug testing heading into the London Olympics. She’s famously quoted as saying Jamaica “has never carried out a blood test.” Ouch.
So, where does that leave us? I don’t rightly know. What I do know is that I will never lose a wink of sleep around my own sporting career across the state, national and world levels. Every result has been my own. I know for a fact that I have lost some races and been driven into the ground in others by dopers. Whatever. I can look in the mirror just fine. If those folks can, I pity them more than if their victories at least ring a bit hollow.
I tell those I coach and mentor to control the controllables. You can’t control if another athlete cheats. You can only control your own preparation and execution come race day. If you are doing your absolute best and you achieve your goals, you have to be OK with the end results. Because those results are authentic and the culmination of a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Be proud of that.
In Part 1, I outlined a history of doping in cycling over the past century-plus. This form of cheating can be applied to any sport at any level within that sport, from the rank amateur to the elite Master to the pro ranks. I believe that cycling is the most exposed sport because it is arguably doing the most to combat doping. Numerous studies prove that other top-tier endurance sports are both dirtier and doing less to mitigate cheating. For another day …
Here in Part 2, I’ll still be using cycling as the example, and be diving into more pointed examples of doping as well as how and why doping is actually beneficial. We all know doping in its various forms enhances performance. However, understanding how doping works can be fascinating stuff and provides some logical insight into why athletes decide to cross the line when they know that unless they do, they will get shelled race after race. This is no way justifies or excuses the decision to cross that line. If an athlete cheats, he or she should be banned from sport for life. Full stop.
WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, defines doping as “The misuse of certain techniques and/or substances to increase one’s red blood cell mass, which allows the body to transport more O2 to muscles and therefore increase stamina and performance.” As discussed in Part 1, blood doping defined as the removal of one’s blood, that blood then being stored and reinjected at a later time to boost red blood cell mass, was en vogue in the 1980s. Starting in the 1990s, the blood doping we are more familiar with would be the abuse of EPO.
Francesco Conconi, famous for the Conconi Test for establishing lactate threshold, is regarded as the father of modern blood doping. Through the 1980s, Conconi increased the performance of athletes through both legal and illegal methods through his work at the University of Ferrara. Michele Ferrari, the infamous doctor who doped Lance Armstrong to his 7 Tour de France victories, was Conconi’s prize student (Luigi Cecchini, who worked with Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Michele Bartoli, Alessandro Petacchi, and Tyler Hamilton, among many others, was another Conconi disciple). Not only did these two doctors experiment on the athletes they helped, they also experimented on themselves (they were avid cyclists). The most notable athletic performance linked to Conconi and Ferrari in the 1980s was Francesco Moser’s 1984 breaking of the world hour record on the velodrome, accomplished with the boost of blood transfusions (legal at the time, though still considered cheating by many). Given that blood doping was legal at the time, we need to remember that these doctors and others were of the mindset that they were making scientific contributions to the world of Sport. They were finding boundaries and determining how to blow through them to further find the limit of human performance. Unfortunately, their mindsets didn’t change as the rules around blood doping evolved, even when athletes started dying from doping practices.
Blood Doping Basics
Now let’s look at exactly how blood doping helps athletes improve their performances. If you ever took an exercise physiology course, then you’re probably familiar with the Fick Equation, which determines the rate at which a person utilizes oxygen, also known as VO2max (volume of O2 uptake).
O2max = Qmax x a-VO2max
This states that the maximum rate of oxygen uptake (O2max) is the product of a high cardiac output (Q) and a wide difference for arterial-venous oxygen (a-VO2max) -- the oxygen content in the arterial and venous blood.
Aerobic capacity is the crux of determining success in endurance sports. Improvements to aerobic capacity are tied directly to how much blood – and, thus, O2-carrying red blood cells – the heart pumps out to the working muscles. Remember, O2 is the fuel of the working muscles and is the limiter to how hard an athlete can work and for how long.
We tend to think of aerobic capacity as our “all day” pace, when we keep our HR in our L1 & L2 aerobic zones. It’s not. Aerobic capacity is synonymous with VO2max. Oskar Svendsen reportedly has the highest recorded VO2max in a human at 97.5ml/kg/min. Greg LeMond’s VO2max was 92.5 and Lance Armstrong’s was 84, while Cadel Evans had a VO2max of 88. Now, a high VO2max value does not guarantee success, but it is used as an indicator as to what an athletes potential can be. For example, the story goes that Mark Cavendish’s VO2max and lactate threshold were so low that he was written off. VO2max is largely genetically predisposed. There’s not a lot you can do to influence it, except two things – either reduce your bodyweight; or increase the mass of the hemoglobin in your blood. So, imagine top athletes who attack this from both angles at once, and you start to get an idea of just how powerful blood doping can be as a way to dramatically impact athletic performance.
High delivery of O2 to the working muscles and then the use of that O2 are the determinant factors in athletic performance. Cardiac output and O2 extraction from the blood are genetically determined and damn near impossible to influence. Cardiac output is our heart beat and our max HR is pretty much locked and also gradually declines with age. Stroke volume – how much blood is pumped per heart beat – is also pretty much predetermined genetically. The respiratory capacity of the mitochondria is inherited from your mother. Lastly, O2 extraction is about 90% at maximal effort and is also near-impossible to change. So, we are left with two things that can be manipulated to increase performance – hemoglobin concentration and blood volume. This is the basis of blood doping.
Transfusions versus EPO
Athletes can either use blood transfusions or inject EPO to increase the red blood cell count – and, thus, O2-carrying capacity – in their blood. Both result in the same benefits to the athlete, despite the differences in how the body reacts to the two practices. It’s my understanding that transfusions elicit an immediate boost in hematocrit of a handful of points while EPO creates more of a slow rise. Tyler Hamilton’s book is pretty eye-opening and fascinating. As he describes it, “The key to riding with a BB (blood bag) is that you have to push past all the warning signs, past all the usual walls. You get to that place beyond your edge, the pace where you’ve fallen off a thousand times, and all of a sudden you can hang in there.” Rather than surviving, you’re competing and even dictating the race.
Altitude training is mildly effective in increasing the body’s red blood cell production, but the body has natural checks-and-balances in place so adaptation is slow (and safe). Since altitude training is legal, many athletes take advantage of both living/training at altitude as well as things like altitude tents. There’s also the premise of “live high, train low” that some athletes practice. For example, some distance runners live in Flagstaff, AZ (near 8,000ft elevation) and make the long drive to Phoenix down at 1,000ft for their key workouts. The premise is that they gain the benefits of living at altitude and then apply those gains at a lower altitude so they can train faster than possible at higher elevations.
Transfusing blood gets a little tricky to detect. There are two types – autologous and homologous. The former is when the athlete takes his or her own blood out and then puts it back in; the latter is when the athlete uses donor blood. In using donor blood, it is obviously critical to leverage the same blood type, otherwise the body will flag it as foreign material, attack it and destroy it. Using incompatible blood could also kill you.
Homologous transfusions can now fairly easily be detected in drug testing because while the donor blood is the same type of blood as the athlete’s there are still some genetic dissimilarities which are easy to flag. Before detection was available, the reason athletes used homologous transfusions was because this allowed those athletes to avoid the temporary dip in performance due to extracting their own blood. When you extract about 15% of your blood volume, performance takes a big hit until the body accounts for that deficit by topping off the blood tank.
It’s more difficult to detect an autologous transfusion because it is the athlete’s own blood being transfused. While there are more red blood cells carrying more O2 to the working muscles, the hematocrit percent does not materially change because the increase in red blood cells is commensurate with an increase in blood volume as well.
While the benefits of transfusions are fairly immediate, as discussed above, it takes 4-6 weeks of regular EPO use to achieve measurable upticks in performance. What’s interesting is that more is not better with EPO administration. In other words, to provide the most efficient red blood cell production, there are fairly tight parameters around how much EPO to administer above the athlete’s baseline hematocrit levels. Injecting higher levels is like taking a bunch of multi-vitamins resulting in bright yellow urine – the excess is purged and therefore wasted. On the flipside, injecting too little EPO does not sufficiently stimulate the body to produce more red blood cells, also resulting in wastage.
EPO used to be readily available without a prescription across Europe (and, I’m sure, other parts of the world). You could literally walk into a pharmacy and ask the pharmacist to give you a box of EPO vials without any sort of prescription required. This is part of the reason why EPO exploded into the endurance world. And, before it was detectable and banned, athletes used to administer high doses multiple times a week, resulting in hematocrit values well in excess of 50%. In fact, Bjarne Riis was famously dubbed “Mr. 60%”, a direct reference to his hematocrit level through EPO use.
Today, athletes continue to use EPO (yes, they do), but instead revert to micro-dosing. Micro-dosing begins in the same manner as the old practices, with high doses to create a nice spike in hematocrit. But, then, that higher level is maintained with continued low doses. Studies show that through micro-dosing, athletes can realize an increase to their maximal O2 carrying capacity of 6-12% when their hematocrit is increased to 50% (remember that magical threshold the UCI instituted as a “safe” threshold?). However, the punch line here is that due to a 6-12% increase in O2 carrying capacity, time to exhaustion (as measured in the lab) increases by as much as 50%! You can find way more resources than you could possibly want to read on the subject here.
Again, without condoning the practice of blood doping in any capacity, it is at least evident as to why so many athletes chose and still choose to leverage it for performance enhancement. A little boost in hematocrit brings with it an exponential increase in capacity at threshold. That’s a very tempting apple from which to take a bite.
I thought this would be just a two-part post. But, there will be a third post. In Part 3, I’ll tell a few stories about blood doping’s use and also try to shed some light on just how rampant the use was of transfusions and EPO.
I've gained some personal perspective these past couple weeks and I felt it made sense to share these thoughts and delay my "Doping - Part 2" post for next week. Sorry to leave y'all hanging!
We just returned from a wonderful vacation in Maui, 2 weeks. At the front end of the trip, I raced Cycle to the Sun, a 37-mile slog from sea level up Mt. Haleakala to 10,023ft that takes the winners anywhere from 2:50 - 3hrs to complete, depending on how windy it is. The record is held by Michael Woods, a pro with the (now) Cannondale Drapac team at 2:27. I finished 1st in the Masters category and 3rd overall with a time of 2:54:27 (Strava segment).
My goal was to win, but I'm OK with the podium. At 47 years old, I made a mistake for the first time in my long athletic career -- I left my bottles of nutrition in the refrigerator. The start was 30 minutes away from our condo by car. By the time we got to the start, there was only 45 minutes to go, so no time to go back and get them. Long story short, while I warmed up, Lori found me a bottle of Desani water at a gas station. I used that until I got to the first bottle zone, then grabbed a water bottle of water there as well as at each of the next 2 bottle zones further up the climb. So, I raced for 3 hours on water alone -- pan y agua, as they say; just without the "pan" (bread).
I felt strong, really strong, in fact. But climbing for 3 hours near threshold takes its toll, and with about 20 minutes to go, the lights started to go out. There were 3 of us left and the eventual winner, Rick Beach, started to pull away from me and Ben Williams (2nd place). Nothing I could do about it. Then, with about 5 minutes to go, Ben stretched the rubber band until it snapped as well. Again, I had to frustratingly watch him slowly but inevitably pedal away from me. The reason for the frustration is that my legs and HR never felt "in the red". My nutrition mistake bit me in the ass and my ability to put power to the pedals ebbed away.
The rest of our trip, I rode every other day through some gorgeous scenery, but used the vacation as a breather before now focusing on the final push into my most important races of the year -- 3 State and National Champ races in a 15-day span. Despite the fabulous riding, I kept my effort and volume in check, and left Maui feeling more refreshed than when I arrived. Mission accomplished.
We got home late Tuesday of this week. We took an overnight flight to Seattle then connected through to Denver. I slept like shit on the long flight from Maui to Seattle, and barely slept en route to Denver. Despite this and now being back at altitude, while I felt sludgy on Wednesday, my ride that day actually went really well. As did Thursday's ride. But, then things went sideways in a big way on Friday and today. The lack of sleep and jet lag came hammering home and the sheer fatigue I felt was a bit shocking.
Today was a race, one of my favorite hill climbs up Sunshine Canyon. It's 9.5 miles, gains just over 3,000ft and takes 45-50 minutes depending on race tactics and weather conditions. I've done this race nearly every year and it's been blisteringly hot, snowing, sleeting, sunny but bitterly cold -- you name it. This is a tough climb because while it averages about 7%, there are several kickers of 12-16% and the final 4 miles is on dirt. The only year I finished off the podium was racing it with a case of bronchitis and I ended up 5th. I've won it multiple times.
As I rolled out of my neighborhood today, the fatigue I felt in my quads let me know immediately this would be a hell of a slog. I wouldn't have it. But, I've been racing long enough to know that some of my best performances have come when feeling awful during warm-up. Maybe that would be the case today. But, it wasn't. I felt gassed from the gun. I typically like throwing it down during the steep, punchy sections but today I was hanging on for dear life. There is a brutal steep section on the dirt, from mile 6.4 to 7.9, so about 1.5 miles. In the middle of this section is where the rubber band snapped and I tailed off the back of the strung out leaders. I was in 6th and a group of 3 was forming about 25 yards up the road. Two of my teammates were further up the road in 1st and 2nd -- great! But I was dying, going to a pretty dark place just to keep my legs ticking over. 7th in a hill climb, to me, is a failure.
I chalk this up to a bad day. But, it's tough not to get bent out of shape. Here we are in the middle of summer, things feel like they're on the right trajectory for my key August races and then I get shelled like an also-ran. It's tough to swallow. Don't get me wrong, Masters racing in CO is stacked and deep with very talented, well-rounded riders who can count themselves some of the very best in the nation. But that doesn't take the sting out of the sub-par performance.
The knee jerk reaction would be to train harder. Because endurance athletes think that when we have a bad day it must be because we're out of shape and the only way to get into better shape is to train harder or longer or both. We hit the panic button, react emotionally and do ourselves a big disservice. We have lost the perspective on exactly why our performance was sub-par and instead just think, "I suck!". I've done it plenty of times in the past. It's not a fun place to be in, but here's the thing. Every single one of us has experienced this, without exception.
What I'm getting at -- the perspective I want to drive home for you -- is that for various reasons sometimes things don't go as planned. Workouts or races go sideways. For weekend warriors, for middle-of-the-packers, for elite amateurs and professional athletes alike. No one is above faltering. And that's OK. It doesn't feel good when it happens -- emotionally, physically or mentally -- but there's nothing we can do about it in the moment except accept it. And, then afterwards (like now for me), we are absolutely in control of how we respond to the sub-par performance. In my case, it is not a question of fitness; it's all about fatigue that I need to allow my body to process and help it do so. Training harder or longer or both won't accomplish this. So, I'll start getting more sleep and I'll push my typical hard Monday workout off to Tuesday or Wednesday. Nothing earth shattering and nothing that would cause my fitness to magically leech away, right? In other words, I'm not hitting the panic button. And neither should you.
If you find yourself wringing your hands about a similar situation, just drop me a line. Part of being a coach is playing psychologist, and I'm pretty good at it. I'm happy to exchange emails or hop on the phone to act as a sounding board for you. Otherwise, realize you're not alone, it is natural for stuff like this to happen, and it happens to all of us. There is some solace in that.
Given my strong opinions on the subject of cheating in sports, I've been asked quite a bit lately for how the whole thing with PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs) got started. My guess is that this is because the Tour de France, the most prominent professional cycling event on the calendar, kicked off today. So, I thought giving a high-level overview on doping would be apropos.
Professional cycling is a sport steeped in rich history, not only in Europe but also here in the States. A little over a century ago, track racing in the US was a lucrative, hugely popular sport. Today’s Madison competition got its namesake from Madison Square Garden in NYC, where track racing occurred at all hours, day and night. Cycling also gets bashed the most in the news, plagued as it is with doping scandals spanning the last couple decades. Positive drug test after positive drug test, coupled with the dethroning of recent Tour de France winners do little in the way of PR for the sport.
Cycling is arguably doing the most of any sport to clean up its act. Hence, the visibility and sensationalism in the media. But, let’s not kid ourselves here. Don’t believe for a second that any professional sport is clean, nor the sport in which you compete, nor the amateur ranks of any sport. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is not new to the world of Sport. Simply, cycling can provide a lens into the dubious and lengthy history of drugs in Sport. Certainly, you could replace the word “cycling” with “running” or “track and field” or “cross-country skiing” or “triathlon” or “soccer” or “football” or “tennis” or … you get the point.
Cycling traces its roots as far back as 1868 when Englishman James Moore won the first known organized race in France. The first world championships were held in 1893, and cycling has been included in every Olympics since the modern movement in 1896. Prior to World War II, the only sport in the United States more popular than competitive cycling was baseball. Cyclists were among the highest paid athletes in the country, and thousands of spectators flocked to races.
The most storied event in history, the Tour de France, was first raced in 1903. Cycling’s stars are among the most famous athletes in Europe, and the cream of the crop make seven-figure salaries plus endorsements. As the popularity of competitive cycling has increased over the years, so has the influence of money and the pressure to win. That pressure, coupled with the insanity of some of the early race incarnations, has resulted in a long history of doping.
The earliest known doping in cycling was administered by the notorious coach Choppy Warburton. The “cycling guru of the 1890s” as he was known, was observed to dispense small bottles to his riders with his “secret formula.” Although details of the story are a bit unclear and disputed, Arthur Linton, a world champion, is often cited as cycling’s first fatality related to drugs. Linton had just won the 1886 Bordeaux-to-Paris race in record-breaking time, but he died at age 24 as a result of an overdose of trimethyl, reportedly to enhance his endurance and ease the pain of the race. Another of Choppy’s champion riders, Jimmy Michael, on one instance appeared to be in a daze while racing, eventually riding around the track in the opposite direction of the other cyclists. He died at 28. Antics like these would eventually get Choppy banned from professional cycling, even though there were no specific rules against his practices at the time.
By the 1920s, drugs were already a commonplace on the Tour de France. Strychnine was used as a painkiller during the race. Cocaine was also used to “keep riders going.” By the 1940s a new drug was on the scene. Amphetamines had been developed for military use to combat fatigue and to help aircrews stay alert. The top Tour riders soon found amphetamines necessary to remain competitive. Even by the 1950s, there was no ban against performance enhancing drugs (In fact, the use of amphetamines caused speed skaters at the 1952 Oslo Olympics to fall ill).
Some people were becoming concerned about the effects of those drugs on the riders’ health after several “mysterious” life-threatening incidents on the Tour. Many believed that the Tours of the 1950s were won by riders on amphetamines. These suspicions were confirmed by five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil. He openly admitted to taking amphetamines, as well as his belief that he should be allowed to do what it takes to win.
While the negative effects of PEDs were both mounting and becoming better and better documented, it was not until another cyclist died during the 1960 Olympic Games that the powers-that-be started to respond. The use of PEDs was first made illegal on June 1, 1965 and shortly to follow were the dismissal of several riders from various cycling races that year. In 1966, the Tour de France began drug testing the riders. Anquetil, one of many riders opposed, said, “We find these tests degrading.” Anquetil lead a revolt by the cyclists that stopped the race the next day. Those in charge caved to the pressure, and the Tour conducted no further tests that year (a handful of riders did test positive as a result of those drug tests but were given only light sanctions).
The following year, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) created a medical commission to address the misuse of drugs in Olympic sports. Methods of detection were improved, but it seemed as though the users were able to stay a step ahead. The 1967 Tour de France turned tragic when Britain’s Tom Simpson died of heat exhaustion exacerbated by amphetamines (the drugs were found in his body post-mortem as well as in his luggage).
The PEDs arms race really stepped up in the 1970s. Anabolic steroids were first used by the Soviet Union to encourage muscle growth in strength sports, but they had also found use among endurance athletes to accelerate recovery. By the 1980s and early 1990s these drugs had made their way into professional cycling. 1988 Tour leader Pedro Delgado tested positive for probenecid, a “masking drug” used to flush steroids from the body. The substance was not banned by cycling, even though it was banned by the IOC, and thus no sanctions were imposed. Delgado went on to win that year’s race. Another rider tested positive for testosterone that year and received a time penalty. Coupled with steroid use, blood transfusions were being experimented with, apparently first in track & field. Finnish middle-distance runner, Lasse Viren struck gold in the ’72 and ’76 Olympics in Munich and Montreal by transfusing blood.
Sometime in the 1980s, this new technique made its way to the peloton. Even the US cycling team leveraged transfusions in the early Olympiads of this decade. Researchers had long been interested in how red cell mass affected exercise performance. As far back as 1947, studies suggested that boosting the haematocrit (the number of red blood cells as a percentage of total blood volume) made exercise at altitude easier by enabling the body to transport more oxygen to the working muscles.
Erythropoietin (EPO) is a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells. A process soon became available to synthesize EPO from human urine at which point it is technically known as rEPO. However, too much EPO can push the haematocrit to dangerously high levels, causing the blood to clot. EPO use was suspected in nearly 20 deaths of European cyclists over a four-year period.
Riders who were using rEPO could boost their haematocrit levels to over 60% in some cases. With a higher saturation of red blood cells, the blood thickened. Coupling that with inherent dehydration in a sport like cycling, and it’s no surprise that some athletes’ hearts were unable to pump the sludge through the bodies. To ensure they did not die in the night, cyclists would routinely set their alarms to go off in the middle of the night, wake up and perform calisthenics to get the heart pumping faster and get that sludge thinned out a little bit. By the late 1990s, to address rEPO use, professional cycling set haematocrit limits at a somewhat arbitrary 50%, but this effectively encouraged cyclists to “dope up to the line” or to dilute their blood before a pre-race test. It served more as a measure of safety than a deterrent against cheating.
Although professional cycling maintained that it was clean, the use of rEPO, amphetamines, steroids, corticosteroids and HgH (human growth hormone) remained common through the remainder of the 20th century. The infamous Tour de France’s Festina Affair occurred in 1998, followed in 1999’s race by the Cofidis team’s own drugs scandal. Team agents were caught with banned substances. A few hotels were raided, and a few teams were disqualified. One rider was even caught dealing. A few riders came clean with what they used, how they got it, and how they eluded and cheated drug tests.
And so the systematic and widespread cheating continued. But, there seemed to be a ray of hope. By the 2004 Sydney Olympics, a reliable test for rEPO had been developed. This forced riders to resume the more complex process of blood doping, whereby the cyclist’s own blood or that of a donor is transfused to raise the red blood cell count. It was still relatively impossible to detect the re-injection of one’s own blood.
2004 Olympic time trial champion Tyler Hamilton tested positive for blood doping with donor blood after both the Olympics and the Vuelta a Espana time trial later that year. Unfortunately, the IOC could not strip Hamilton of his gold medal. His backup blood sample had been frozen, leaving too few red blood cells to analyze properly. However, the Vuelta sample was correctly preserved and Hamilton faced a two-year ban from the sport. Hamilton then was sanctioned with a lifetime ban from the sport after testing positive for steroids in early-2009. Adding to the scandals of the mid 2000s was the cocaine overdose of superstar Marco Pantani in 2004, after which it was revealed that he raced using rEPO throughout his career.
But the worst was still to come. Arguably the biggest set of scandals hit the sport was Operacion Puerto, a Spanish investigation that in May 2006 found evidence of a major doping operation out of Madrid. Police seized steroids, hormones, rEPO, frozen blood, and laboratory equipment. In all, 58 riders were implicated (while athletes from numerous other sports were curiously left anonymous). Five were arrested, and nine riders, including favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, were ousted from the Tour.
American Floyd Landis, who was not involved in the initial scandal, went on to win the 2006 Tour in an incredible comeback effort in the race’s closing days. But he was later stripped of his title after it was revealed that he tested positive for testosterone from a sample taken during the Tour. During his outrageous defense, Landis ended up bilking supporters out of millions of dollars for his Floyd Fairness campaign, a grassroots way to raise money for his legal fees, money that to this day is still not paid back. Similarly, Alberto Contador vacated his 2010 Tour victory after being found guilty of doping.
The most notorious cheat in cycling was Lance Armstrong, more from the brashness of his scorched earth tactics than the doping itself. In the opening of the 1999 Tour de France, Armstrong won the prologue and subsequently tested positive for cortisone. With the Festina and Cofidis scandals, the Tour organization would not survive a third major scandal in 2 years; not in this, the “Tour of Renewal”. Armstrong had clearly been popped, but a convenient back-dated TUE (therapeutic use exemption) was accepted by the Tour powers-that-be, a blind eye was turned and Armstrong’s path to glory (before infamy) was now paved in gold. No one wanted to believe the reports about possible rEPO use by Armstrong and others on his U.S. Postal team. We all know what’s happened since.
So there you have it. Doping has been prevalent in competitive cycling for well over a century. The techniques have changed, but the underlying reasons for the cheating have not – fame and fortune. As long as there is ego, as long as there are prizes and notoriety on the line, as long as the spoils go to the victor, athletes will create justification for their cheating. The most mind-numbing aspect of the cheating is the fabricated contrition when athletes get caught. They are only contrite because they got caught. Believe me, they sleep like babies when they’re winning and raking in the cash. They get nervous when they get tested because they don’t want to get caught, and when the test comes back clean they go back to sleeping like babies. If their moral compasses weren’t so ridiculously skewed, they would stop. Cold turkey. But, they don’t. And, don't believe for a second that all the North American riders -- Hincapie, Leipheimer, VandeVelde, Hesjedal, Zabriskie, et al -- who came under pressure to confess in Lance Armstrong v2.0 all magically stopped their PED use in the same 2006-2007 time window.
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll dig in a little more specifically into various examples of the benefits of doping. While it’s easy to say “Doping (or rEPO) creates more O2-carrying red blood cells”, it’s a bit fascinating to get to the next layer or two of information to really understand what’s going on and why enhancing the properties of blood is such a performance booster. And why the allure is too much for many athletes in many sports to ignore.