Love for the Doper

SimpsonMerckxPN67b hc@PhSptsm

Hi. My name is Robot, and I am an alcoholic. Fortunately, for me, I’ve been able to stay sober for the past seventeen years, much of that time with the help of a bicycle and the myriad benefits that particular piece of machinery bestows upon its frequent users.

I bring up my alcoholism to make a point about doping that I think escapes most who would judge a young rider harshly for straying down the garden path of EPO, CERA, Ozone, transfusions and testosterone trickery.

And that is, the dope can be addictive.

Bear with me now. When I was thirteen I was small, in fact the smallest kid in the class, and filled with social fear, much of which was based in the bullying I received at school. That same summer I drank a six pack of beer. Alcohol had the effect of doubling my size, sharpening my tongue and lowering my tolerance for the aforementioned bullying. Suddenly I was fearless, and fearlessness can be very compelling to an adolescent. Girls began to take interest in me. Boys began to respect me. I was crazy and funny and willing to abuse myself chemically to prove my mettle in the teen peloton.

Very quickly I developed a mental addiction to alcohol, rather than the physical addiction to alcohol marked by the shakes, hallucinations and possible cardiac arrest. I was in love with the feeling of being drunk and that feeling led me to all sorts of bad decisions with a burgeoning pile of consequences I struggled to contend with. At the end of my drinking I was blacking out for weeks at a time. Eventually, that loss of consciousness scared me badly enough to do what I needed to do to get clear of the demon liquor.

Right. Now lets run through that same story, but rather than the protagonist being a disaffected teen lets try a promising young cyclist, an amateur. He rides for a small but not insignificant club team that serves as a feeder to continental pro teams. Many of the club’s riders have made the jump to the pros after good results in kermis races or in amateur classics events.

Leeds Classic 1996

One day this young pedaller is approached by his team’s manager or physio and offered an injection prior to a big race. The young rider is curious and acquiesces. He takes the shot, pulls up his bibs and murders his competition. When normally he might flag in the fourth hour of racing, relegating him to a pack finish, on this day he has the juice to follow the day’s final break, and he finishes third.

Encouraged by his finish and thrilled by the feeling of strength, he begins to make regular use of shots and potions, eventually settling into a pattern that catapults him up the amateur rankings and onto the radar of a number of pro teams.

At this point, he’s addicted to the feeling of power, speed and strength the dope gives him. He knows it’s wrong, but he fears that if he races clean he’ll get crushed, slip off the radar, slip out of cycling. Now he’s bouncing back and forth between the thrill of speed and power and the fear of crashing out of the sport.  He continues on, and as he climbs the ladder from amateur to neo-pro to pro, he engages in more and more sophisticated doping programs.

Now his drug use is multi-faceted. He uses so he can feel strong, but he also has to maintain and mask his drugs. His body can’t simply stop being doped without serious risk to his health. On certain drugs, like EPO, riders run the risk of their blood thickening and clotting if they simply stop their program. They’re constantly being injected with anti-coagulants and being monitored for blood pressure issues.

Now our young rider has ALL the hallmarks of addiction. He is physically dependent on his program. He is mentally addicted to the results it produces and fearful of losing those results. And finally, his slow, steady descent into nefarious racing has caused him to lose sight of the ethical barriers that once would have kept him from ever taking that first step. Addiction is a gradual process. It rarely announces itself directly, but rather makes itself known by the accumulation of its consequences.

In my view, the great paradox of addiction is that you are at once powerless over that slow steady descent AND simultaneously, completely responsible for it. No one makes anyone stick a needle in their arm. And once you start down that path, as I did when I was thirteen, no one can make you stop except yourself.

Cycling has done a lot of positive things by creating a set of consequences for its wayward athletes. It has become more transparent and more interested in helping riders ride clean.

But, as I can attest, recovery is a slow, steady process. There are no silver bullets. There is no one test that will clean the dope out of the peloton. There is no one protocol. Recovery for cycling is rooted in our continuing to talk about that recovery, and our continuing to support even those riders who have made some mistakes as we move forward with what are, at the end of the day, just a bunch of bike races.

Images: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Jim

    This calls for a most Christian approach: love the sinner, hate the sin. I feel some sympathy for dopers-as-addicts, but not all that much. Asking for sympathy for a person who lies constantly, cheats, steals, and destroys those around them on a quest for self-gratification is asking a bit too much. The best thing we can do to a doper riding the drug road is to shun them force them to confront the error of their ways, to stigamtize drug use, and to not be complicit and enabling of their addiction and the little nest of lies they weave to bed down in.

    A recovering doper is a bit of a different story. I’m willing to forgive and root for somebody who has realized the error of their ways, and who is willing to work to try to make amends. No error is without price, and the price must be paid afterwards. Still, I root a little bit for somebody like Millar, and hope that he makes it, clean. Yet we should not forget what he did. To forget would be to remove the stigma and to take away an important motivator that may help keep the doper from going back to his old ways.

    1. Padraig

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      If I may, I think there’s one additional truth we should bear in mind when it comes to addicts: This “person” has a disease. Their brains have been hijacked by their drug use and deep down in a very reptilian part of the brain this thing called the amygdala has come to believe that those drugs, whichever they are, are the key to survival. Continued life depends on getting those drugs, so the lying, cheating and stealing stealing isn’t about self-gratification, but a view of survival that is diseased. Further, those old ways are beginning to be viewed as a relapse, just as you might get the flu again.

      For that reason, it is vital that we do all we can to stigmatize drug use before a rider considers going down that road. Getting them back can be like trying to get a fish on the hook a second time.

  2. cowboycramer

    This makes me think that a 2-4yr penalty is not enough. Physical affects aside, taking drugs to increase performance, and thus perform well (and make decent money)actually makes sense economically. Economically, the punishment for breaking doping laws will not bring doping down to a “socially ideal” level.

  3. mark

    This is a good explanation for why people dope. In no way, however, does it excuse it.

    All people make mistakes. I understand that. I strive to forgive others their errors, just as I hope mine are forgiven. But explaining the circumstances that led to the error doesn’t make it justifiable.

    We can convince ourselves that a lot of acts are justifiable. I imagine in the case of Dr. Thompson, he felt his assault on the cyclists was justifiable for the inconvenience they had caused him over the years. His anger could rightly be called a sickness just like addiction is a sickness. That doesn’t mean we want to put him behind the wheel on Mandeville Canyon Road tomorrow. Treatment and rehabilitation does not necessarily mean someone should be restored to their prior status.

  4. jza

    Absolutely, both PEDs and the painkillers pro athletes use are extremely addictive.

    One who suffers from addictions to PEDs should not be participating in sports. Plain and simple. They need to step back from everything, get their life together and prove to themselves that a life can exist outside of playing a game.

    These aren’t people that fell on hard times, maybe started drinking too much, dabbling in other stuff and slipped down the spiral. These are physically talented people making good money. Then they turn to substances that can make them even more money.

  5. Larry T.

    What we need to do as a cycling community is get rid of the doctors, trainers, managers and others who either start or aid the riders in cheating. The entire “culture of the needle” has been described countless times whether in “From Lance to Landis” or “Rough Ride”. Better living through chemistry is too popular and easy in western society. If the sport’s infrastructure of governing bodies as well as sponsors, trainers, coaches, support staff, etc. could be convinced that long-term they’re ruining the sport (and the business) not with doping scandals but with DOPING, there might be some chance for improvement. But just like Wall Street, the lure of the short term gain from cheating is a tough thing to fight against.

  6. trev

    This would all mean that ‘if’ Lance were to have taken PEDs in the past and then retired. He would have enjoyed 3 yrs of living clean. So if, and if he gets caught next season with something in his system…………he can’t use the ‘addict’ card. As he had 3 yrs clean. I assume.

    I think the comparison to alcoholism is neat but you could easily say that a bank robber who gets a high from it, and then gets dependant on robbing for his living and way of life can also be excused. I don’t have much sympathy for alcoholics, smokers, dopers or bank robbers. 2-4 yrs is fine. I am a petty petty man.

  7. Da Robot

    @ trev

    I don’t make excuses for other people. It’s not about excuses. It’s about understanding. It’s about de-demonizing dopers as bankrupt moral agents, when they’re actually just humans making bad decisions.

    Sanctions are good. For an addict, consequences are almost always the thing that saves them from themselves. I actually think a 2 year ban isn’t enough for a first offense. I would peg it at 4 years myself, but I don’t think it would be fair to up the ban without also significantly improving the efficacy and efficiency of the testing program.

    I mean, we still haven’t had Mikel Astarloza’s Tour positive confirmed. WTF? Valverde’s CAS appeal is grinding on and on. The wheels of justice need to roll a bit more smoothly, but I think longer first-time bans are a good idea, because they weight those bad decisions much more heavily. Anything that gives a doper pause is good. It allows right thinking a chance to take hold.

  8. Doug

    One could say the 300Lb gorilla in the room is blood doping. I don’t believe a conclusive system of testing exists for that. Aside from dumb luck (operation Puerto, for example) The sport appears unable control blood doping of one’s own blood. So only the fools who continue down the chemical path(EPO,ect.)of cheating are still caught, and we congratulate ourselves on catching them. Meanwhile those with the means and the opportunity to blood dope continue to make a mockery of the sport we all love. What is the answer? I wish I knew!

  9. Steve Christensen

    What upsets me the most about cycling is that it pays to cheat!

    Changing the culture is going to take a decade of increasingly-stringent regulation that ensures that any emerging talent with professional aspirations will realize that ergogenic aids will not be tolerated in the sport.

    I look forward to a day when doping violations result in a lifetime ban from competition. Until cycling (and many other professional sports) balance penalties with potential benefits from doping, many athletes will take their chances knowing that the likelihood of success is greater than the likelihood of cheating.

  10. Josh

    I agree; doping and recreational addiction share some common attributes. But I see preventing doping in cycling as more similar to reducing crime in a low-income neighborhood than to drug treatment. If so, cycling would be wise to look at what works in the real world. I think two points are important:

    1. Increasing the likelihood of getting caught quickly is an effective deterrent. Increasing the severity of punishment (e.g. the death penalty) is not.

    2. Improving economic conditions makes crime less attractive relative to legal ways of earning a living.

    To me, this indicates that cycling’s all-stick-and-no-carrot anti-doping system will never be a complete solution. If you think back to Frankie Andreu’s admission, he was just trying to survive and support his family. There are a lot of guys in that position and a stronger financial safety net in the sport would make doping seem a lot less necessary to those riders. It’s hard to say where that money would come from but I think it would an effective investment in preventing doping instead of just trying to catch people who’ve already cheated.

    1. Padraig

      Josh: Thanks for joining the conversation. You bring up a very true and interesting point in comparing doping cyclists at the slow end of pro with residents of low-income neighborhoods. But what about those motivated at the high end of the sport, the Bernard Kohls and such? Are the any less motivated by money? I’d say not. I’d compare those riders at the top tier of the sport with Bernie Madoff. Wouldn’t you agree? Paying for better enforcement is going to be tough; it’s certain to become more expensive as the doping becomes more sophisticated and one might suggest we’re not spending enough as it is.

  11. lachlan

    I go both ways on this one.

    On the one hand:
    cycling does way more than most sports, but gets kicked in the nuts for its efforts. That bugs me.
    And we’re too easy to jump on suspocion and say ‘everyones a cheat’. In my book if no proof, there’s no point in casting doubt, and you should stop worrying and get on and enjoy the performances… eg. there may be many suspicious things in Lance’s past for example, BUT I’ll never say he obviously doped unti, there is real proof (with a reasonable chain of evidence/time etc. Which I dont think can be truly said of the Le Monde EPO retesting story)

    On the other hand:
    The sport’s ruling bodies, and journalists, and fans tend to be a bit too lienient on people who are getting off on technicalities… Valverde… and even worse Di Luca who prior to his CERA bust had been in court on voice-tap arranging his doping etc etc, but got off on a legal technicality, yet still during the Grio everyone was all-over how great his attacking style was etc. Duh! an obvious doper with real proof in the past, that the system didnt deal with…

    And, yes as we all know the process for dealing with testing + action both sucks and blows… again, Valverde is as good a case as any.

  12. Big E

    Da Robot,

    I just wanted to thank you. In a strange and very round about way you helped my family and I get some closure on a very sad subject. I’m a step dad. My wife’s ex-husband and father of three wonderful boys (fourteen year old twins and a nine year old) died on the 9th of this month from an apparent heart attack. He as been an alcholic for a very long time. Proun to disappearing for long stretches at a time. And then after getting back on the wagon again. Would go about trying to repair and to regain a relationship with his sons. Unfortunately this pattern of behavior had been going on for years. When the news came of his death we hadn’t heard from him for about three weeks (with the exception of one drunk phone call the Friday before his death). Of course it was still quite a shock to us all. But due to noncommunication with his parents we were left with a lot of questions about what had happened in his final hours. Then your article popped up on my screen (I have always enjoyed reading RKP and BKW) with the line: “… the shakes, hallucinations and possible cardiac arrest.” All of a sudden a light went off in my brain. I did some searching on the internet and read about the DT’s. Which I personally had never heard about before and it all started to make sense. In his last phone conversation he said he was going to “de-tox” himself and get back on his feet. If that was true, then the timeline would make perfect sense. And to be quite honest with you this made all of us feel a little better. The idea to boys that their Dad died trying was comforting. And even if it’s not exactly how things happened it at least gave us all a little closure on an extremely sad chapter. I guess that’s why I felt compelled to write this. It was just one of those moments in life when you run accross something that is just to relevant to be chance. So thank you Da Robot, I just wanted you how much I appreciate your words.

    Big E

    PS I appologize on my terrible gramar and spelling. I’ve never been very good at this sort of thing.

    1. Padraig

      Big E: I’m so terribly sorry for the loss you family has experienced. When we set out to write our posts we hope to connect to our readers and say something they believe to be true. Filling in a missing link, helping a reader make a connection is what makes this such a profound experience, but I dare say we never dream of helping anyone during such a time of need. I’m glad we could help. It’s an honor to serve.

  13. Da Robot

    As a recovering addict, one of the things I am trying to do with my life is help people, both addicts and “normal” people, understand addiction better. Once the disease takes hold, good people do bad things. Addiction affects the addict in physical, mental and spiritual ways. Our bodies break down and become dependent on the poison, our minds become obsessed and the combination of those two cause us to compromise our moral principles in ways we’d never imagined we could.

    It sounds like your kids’ father really wanted to do the right things, but the disease got him before he could find a way out. I’m sorry for your loss as well, and I couldn’t be more pleased to have illuminated what was a dark corner for you.


  14. Shrek

    Doping has become a sophisticated process, it is done on the team level and the teams know all about it. When a rider gets caught they pretend he did it all on his own. Until such time as whole organizations start to pay for the the sins of their riders not much will change, because there is always a supply of fresh meat to grease the wheels.

    As for only idiots use chemical means, well there are a whole host of drugs that are not tested for so don’t fool yourself that the only thing that is undetectable is homologous blood transfusions. There are PFCE’s, HBOC’s, EMP’s, HAES and HES. We needn’t even get into genetic manipulation. Many of these drugs are experimental, but don’t let that make you think that athletes won’t take them, many have gone through animals trials so most likely won’t kill you outright.

    Then there is this idea that they take it to increase their earning potential, which in some cases is true, but the vast majority are journeyman cyclist and they may take them just to keep their job and put food on their families plate. What makes me laugh is this attitude with regards to PED’s that comes from a society that routinely enhances performances for less compelling reasons than a pro cyclist. Lets look at the acceptable performance enhancement in society Viagra, Botox, Silicon breast implants, HGH as long as it’s used for longevity and youthful vigor.

    I can beat that if a drug came out that made people smarter and increased their earning potential it would be a best seller.

  15. clean sports

    while i commend the author for his long sobriety, his alcoholism has absolutely NOTHING to do with doping in sports. people drink or smoke dope for different reasons than athletes take steroids, amphetamines, or EPO. you don’t get “addicted” to EPO or androgens. amphetamines? yes, amphetamines are extremely addictive, but steroids or EPO? not addictive at all outside of possible psychological dependency that varies widely among individuals. steroids & EPO are about as addictive as coffee or even less so.

    the author is also overstating the “withdrawal” dangers of coming off EPO – the greatest danger to any human is WHEN they are using EPO, not when they are coming off EPO. EPO increases blood viscosity – thick blood that clots in arteries is what causes the EPO-related strokes/heart attacks, that risk is greatest when using EPO, not coming off of it.

    the author also goes on to talk about doping as a problem of “recovery,” when doping is actually about unethical, fraudulent, criminal activity for personal financial gain. since prize money is given out and sponsors pay athletes millions to endorse products, use of PED’s constitutes defrauding race promoters & sponsors of their money. simple fraud is a crime anywhere you go in the world, and people are routinely convicted of fraud for crimes involving a lot LESS money than many athletes receive for top placings or from endorsements.

    doping is about cheating for fame & profit, just like cheating in universities is. cheat in school, get better grades, get a better job position = make more money. cheat in sports, get better results = make more money.

    time for people to treat doping seriously instead of using kid gloves and feelgood buzzwords like “recovery.” the day i see a rider sell his wife’s diamond wedding ring to buy a vial of EPO or Winstrol like a meth addict, i might start calling them “addicts.” because that’s what addicts do, they’ll sell their house for one last high before they start living on the street and look for even more dope.

    while some illicit drug addicts start out “innocently” down the path to drug addiction, there’s NO WAY IN HELL any licensed amateur or pro rider can say the same thing if a coach or doctor whips out a syringe or provides pills to the rider. because no coach or doc will waste their time with “vitamins” or other useless crap that doesn’t work…if a coach or doc produce a needle or pills, it’s going to be something that works, and the only things that generally “work” well in sports are PED’s, which are all illegal. “but it was a vitamin B-12 injection.” lol. so, either a rider has to be living in a cave somewhere and know nothing about doping at all, then get “tricked” into doping from an unscrupulous coach/doctor, OR THE RIDER KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT THEY’RE DOING WHEN THEY INJECT/SEEK OUT PED’s – INNOCENT VICTIMS NOT!!!

    riders who dope with PED’s aren’t even remotely close to people with real substance abuse problems – because riders who dope are fraudulent criminals looking for more fame/money, not hopelessly addicted users trying to get so high they forget their name & problems. big difference between the two.

  16. Robot

    @clean sports I think you and I are so far apart on this topic that a point-by-point discussion of your thoughts wouldn’t benefit either of us very much.

    I respect where you’re coming from, and I agree with some of what you’ve said, specifically as regards not treating dopers with kid gloves. They have to know what they’ve done is wrong, and they need to suffer the consequences of their poor choices.

    The one thing I would take issue with is your portrayal of drug addicts as some caricature of bottom-dwelling urchins. We do not, for the most part, sell our wife’s wedding rings to get one last high. Most of us never sleep in a gutter. And no one is really waiting for your permission to be called an “addict.” It’s just not that prestigious a title.

    I’d also suggest that making categorical statements weakens your viewpoint rather than strengthening it. But, clearly you feel passionately about this, and that’s a good thing.

    I believe that you, like all of us, would rather watch clean bike races. I believe that realizing that goal comes from understanding the motives of those who race dirty, understanding the situations they find themselves in, and giving them the information they need to make better choices. It’s not a “one-size fits all” program. Otherwise, testing and banning would have cleaned up our sport by now, and it hasn’t.

    Thanks for writing.

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