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.