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.