Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Doping on my mind, Part II

Tuesdays with Wilcockson

In last week’s column, I began to trace my journey in cycling from the 1960s, first as a racer then a writer, in connection with the sport’s escalating problems with illicit drugs. This week, I’ll continue the story from where I broke off, at the 1998 Tour de France, when the French team Festina was thrown out for organized doping. What the Festina Affair revealed was the degree to which EPO had transformed cycling in the worst possible way.

“Before EPO,” the 1988 Giro d’Italia champion Andy Hampsten told me, “we knew we were always racing against guys on drugs, but I don’t think those drugs gave them more of an advantage than the advantage we had knowing they’re gonna come crashing down. We didn’t lose energy worrying about what other people were doing; we just focused on ourselves, and we didn’t need to win every race.”

That “higher ground” attitude of Hampsten’s American team, Motorola, began to change in 1994. “There was a lot of grumbling on the team,” Hampsten said, “and we did get technical data from team doctor Massimo Testa because he’d talk to his colleagues on other teams. He was always straight with me. ‘Sure enough,’ he said, ‘if so-and-so who you raced with for eight years and you always dropped on the climbs, if that guy’s beating you now, his hematocrit is 15 points higher, and he’s gonna kill you in the mountains.’”

Because the new drug couldn’t be detected in anti-doping tests, no one knew for certain who was using EPO—and riders kept that secret to themselves. So, for the best part of a decade, until the Festina Affair, rumors were the only source of what was happening in the peloton. And rumors, without any corroborative evidence, were not things that professional journalists could write about. And when we did ask questions about doping those questions were sidestepped more often than not.

The situation began to change slightly in 1997 when the UCI mandated a maximum hematocrit level of 50 percent. Cyclists who tested above that level were not allowed to compete for at least two weeks, or until their red-blood-cell count returned to a “normal” level. But that couldn’t be translated into knowing a rider had used EPO. In any case, the new “health” regulation was a tiny deterrent because riders soon learned how to use portable centrifuges to test their own blood and keep the hematocrit level below 50—or so it was rumored.

The full extent of doping in the 1990s didn’t emerge until well after the Festina team was busted. First came the 1999 tell-all book, “Massacre à la Chaîne,” by soigneur Willy Voet who was fined and given a suspended prison sentence for his part in the Festina Affair. He wrote the book with French journalist Pierre Ballester, who worked for the Paris sports newspaper, L’Équipe, whose writers were just as shocked as everyone by the Festina Affair, the subsequent revelations in Voet’s book and the facts that later emerged in French courtrooms.

Testimonies at a December 2000 tribunal, which investigated the inner workings of the Festina team, showed that the French squad had engaged in organized doping since 1993. Prior to that year’s Tour de France, the tribunal’s report states, “the team riders who had yet to use EPO were growing impatient to get access to it several days before the start…. The main reason had to be that other teams were already administering this substance.”

Luc Leblanc, a French leader of the Festina team, admitted he used EPO in 1994 at the Vuelta a España and Tour de France, but he denied that EPO helped him win that year’s UCI world road title. But another witness, who worked for the team throughout the 1990s, testified that “all the Festina team riders at the 1994 world championships were given the same preparation: EPO with supplements. Luc did the same as everyone else.”

Riders entering the sport at that time were faced with a much more difficult decision than my racing peers had faced in the 1960s, when popping speed or getting injections of bull’s blood might have given riders a psychological edge but not much of a physical one. The dilemma in the ’90s for new professionals was to accept the use of EPO or risk never making the grade. That’s what Tyler Hamilton says made him begin doping in 1996, according to his new autobiography, “The Secret Race,” written with former Outside magazine journalist Dan Coyle.

Hamilton’s decision to use EPO coincided with his small American team, Montgomery-Bell, getting title sponsorship from the U.S. Postal Service that allowed them to start racing in Europe. By coincidence, I bumped into Hamilton on a flight back from Brussels to the U.S. in April 1996. I’d been reporting the spring classics for VeloNews, and Hamilton, then 25 and in his second year as a pro, told me about events he and the team had raced in the Netherlands, including his winning the Teleflex Toer stage race. Obviously, he didn’t say anything about EPO.

Like most other cycling journalists, I saw Hamilton—who majored in economics at the University of Colorado prior to turning pro—as part of a new generation of young riders from North America who were not polluted by Europe’s doping culture. Clean cut and quietly spoken, Hamilton seemed to be too smart to risk his health by doping, especially with the litany of dugs that appeared to be necessary to maximize the use of EPO.

As a sports journalist, you have to draw a fine line between writing about an athlete’s accomplishments and getting to know him (or her) through interviews and chats at races so that you can put those performances in perspective. Having had friendly working relationships with most of the sport’s successful modern “Anglo” riders—from pioneers Phil Anderson and Jonathan Boyer, followed by Steve Bauer, Greg LeMond, Robert Millar, Sean Kelly and Sean Yates, along with Andy Hampsten, Allan Peiper, Davis Phinney, Stephen Roche and many others—it seemed natural that I should do the same with the next wave, led by Lance Armstrong, Hamilton, George Hincapie, Chris Horner, Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer, Kevin Livingston, Fred Rodriguez and Christian Vande Velde.

It was difficult not to like all these guys. They were all young, intelligent and ambitious. And they were all making their mark in pro racing. When you did a one-on-one interview with those American cyclists you expected them to be truthful. That was the case in nearly all aspects of what they said about their lives, their training and their races—and you hoped it was true when they condemned doping and dopers.

Hamilton says in his book that he lied about his doping practices, even with his close friends and family. He was not the only one. I will write more about doping next week, but for now I’ll end with a quote from Brian Holm, now a highly regarded directeur sportif with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. The Dane wrote about his 13 years as a pro cyclist in his 2002 autobiography, in which he admitted to doping, just as Hamilton has today.

After Holm and many of his counterparts elaborated on their use of EPO at the Deutsche Telekom team, he said this to a Danish publication: “When I turned pro there was not that much talk about doping…and finally it was so normal that no-one thought it was illegal anymore. Many from my generation say that they were never doped, just as I said myself for a long time, because you thought that it really wasn’t doping or cheating. I actually think I could have passed a lie-detector test when I stopped my pro cycling career [in 1998], because I was convinced I was clean. It is only years later that you start realizing that it may not have been the case after all. It had become such a big part of your daily routine.”


Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. e-RICHIE

    I am inclined to believe that journalists knew the score and back-stories in real time and said little or nothing. The hypocrisy had no boundaries – it’s almost as if the press and the sport all were adherents of the same (im)moral code. It’s refreshing that some are writing so many years about what they heard back then. Clearly, telling us about what most knew all along has become the new black atmo.

  2. Full Monte

    While I appreciate the fact journalists and former racers are admitting the extent to which the peloton was doped “back then,” what I would most appreciate is if current racers and journalists would write about the extent the peloton is doped now.

    Reading between the lines in many of these stories (and in The Secret Race), the test seems to always lag behind doping innovation and technique. That being the case, are we to assume current riders are just as doped as they were in the 90s and 00s? Just doping differently? And with as-yet unknown substances? Or the same old stuff, just in new ways?

    And as with Frank (and before him, Alberto), does the UCI simply throw one or two riders on a cross each year, claim to have caught the bad guys, and sacrifice them in order to claim the rest of the peloton is clean?

    Perhaps, due to the current level of doping admission stories, I’ve become cynical, and cannot believe it’s not still happening. All I know is, I’ll never watch a bike race the same way I used to. And I’m losing interest in watching another bike race…at all. I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling. And I’m not sure if pro cycling, at this point, can do anything to change that.

  3. Paul

    I’m not losing interest in watching the bike races, I’m certainly reading more about cycling than I ever did. Like you I’ve become cynical though, ex. instead of enjoying Contador’s Vuelta attack, my first thought is ‘it’s the day after the rest day and hmmm, . . .’

    (don’t mean to sound anti-Contador there, that’s just the most recent example, I used to be a fan and am a little sad that I’m not a fan anymore)

  4. peter lin

    @Paul, glad to see I’m not the only one who had that thought. Not that I have any proof of anything, but my first thought was similar.

  5. Les Borean

    Full Monte says:”Perhaps, due to the current level of doping admission stories, I’ve become cynical, and cannot believe it’s not still happening.”

    I wonder how much the spectre of having one’s titles voided in the future discourages pros from chemical enhancement. The detection technology lags behind the doping technology, but it has always eventually caught up.

  6. Rod Diaz

    Paul and Peter – I wrote earlier that the big sad thing for me is that Contador’s attack reminded me of Landis, not of Gaul. I’m fully cynical and skeptical now.

    Ashenden wrote in Cyclingnews that current riders have come to him but won’t go public with some declarations – Omerta alive and well according to him.

  7. Skippy

    All very well to tell us what took place over the years WHAT YOU SHOULD HAVE DONE THESE PAST WEEKS is to tell ” Delegates to the UCI Management Meeting in Holland ” the steps that they could take to STOP this recurring FARCE !

    You are read by many , and i am sure they respect your POV , whereas i would be regarded as a ” KNow nothing ” blowing hard !

    Until WDA together with the IOC contact ALL Governments and Establish an ” AMNESTY PERIOD for ALL Sports ” , nothing will change ! Certainly we will see the ” SOL ” pass for many of the near current racers , and they will then write their memoirs , to cash in on the latest craze of outdoing each other with their exposes !

    Had you and other ” Sports Journos ” set out a set of circumstances regarding an ” Amnesty ” ,for the Public to put to their ” Delegates ” , then those people would have had to go into this coming UCI Management Meeting with ” Proposals ” and then their failure to act would cause action by their National bodies ! Currently they can sit back and enjoy the ” Gravy Train ” that they are ” elected ” and let the whole matter pass them by !

    Hein & Fatpat have a record of doing things , their way , for so long that it appears ” Complacency ” , is the operative description , for what is the current situation !

    Today is the eve of a revisit to the ” Festina Affair ” that UCI thought would never reoccur ! Sorry folks , it’s back , and bigger and more dangerous than before !

    Years ago i suggested one of the Aussie Women Team Managers could do a better job than fatpat , but i can see that Schrenk , Ashenden , le clerc and perhaps those like me , could do a better job ! None could make a worse job of the current situation that the UCI finds itself !

    The past is over , All Governments should cooperate and waive their legislative procedures for an ” AMNESTY PERIOD ” , a ONCE ONLY Op.for those who used PEDs ! Criminal suppliers will be named , no doubt , and they had better depart the scene PRONTO since they will have no client base , once the Amnesty ends !

    Those not declaring their past will face LIFETIME BANS when their co conspirators find that they are ar risk of a LifeTime Ban also for not disclosing their involvement !

    The ” Amnesty period ” should start 1st October 2012 and be for two months , during this period , each week those declaring themselves to the ” Clearing House appointed ” , will be listed on the website with brief details of the periods involved . Those who were their coworkers or support staff should pay attention , since IF , the Athlete does not declare their wrongdoings and they do not act to declare themselves , then they will almost certainly find on the 1st Jan 2013 that they are also subject to LIFETIME BANS !

    On the 1st December 2012 there will be NO FURTHER OPPORTUNITY for Athletes to disclose their past ! THe Website will be published and any Athlete NOT THERE will be subject to the severest penalties ! During December only , Co workers , Team Managers/Owners , Team Doctors/Soigneurs , DS & Mechanics associated with an Athlete that failed to disclose their wrongdoing will have the right to declare themselves for investigation thus avoiding the consequences created by their athletes non compliance !

    1st Jan 2013 , the Sporting World will enter a new Regime where 4 year bans and confiscation of Accrued Salaries will be the minimum for a first Offence ! Team Staff will be subject to penalties if during a 3 month period more than one Athlete is Suspended . Third Athlete in Six Months and the team serves a three month suspension ! Fourth Athlete in a twelve month period will mean that the Team is suspended until the next season when they will rejoin two steps lower for a season !

    An Athlete on completion of the 4 year Ban will be allowed to rejoin at ” Steps below the level that they left their sport !

    Athletes receiving a ” LIFETIME BAN ” will find that they and their family will not be allowed to attend ” Sporting Events ” , booking ” online tickets ” will be impossible and those choosing to circumvent the system will enjoy the same ban . Of course they may be able to buy tickets at the turnstile , but would they want to be asked to leave when discovered ?


    You can do better ?


    Thursday in Holland could be a START to make a difference but those there will be busy trying to stay in the ” Gravy Train ” , not seeking the solutions so obviously needed !

  8. randomactsofcycling

    This is a fascinating series John. Thanks.

    I wonder: Can a Doper be sued in Criminal/Civil Court for Fraud? I would think that the prospect of losing everything, financially, would be incentive enough for a young Pro to stay clean.

    Oh and “Skippy”!!!, I love your passion but be sure to leave some oxygen for the rest of us.

  9. Wsquared

    Thanks John for bringing historical perspective to this discussion. I was following pro cycling during this period, and it’s great to have it laid out here so cogently to refresh our collective memories. I look forward to the next installment.

  10. MCH

    Great series John – thanks! Placing today’s “scandals” in a historical perspective provides needed insight.

    In reading the 1st and 2nd parts of this series, I keep thinking about Claude Rains in Casablanca when he says in Rick’s bar / casino, “I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling here.” A casino employee then hands him his winnings. John’s first post outlines how doping has been an accepted part of doping culture going back decades. After every scandal, the response seems to be the same – momentary “outrage”, followed by business as usual. Brian Holm’s comments about the general belief in the peloton being that they weren’t doping, I believe to be very telling.

    Flash forward to today, and I can’t help but believe that history is repeating itself one again. The scandal du jour is quickly fading, the governing bodies are shocked, shocked to find doping in the peloton, and we’ll likely be back to business as usual before anyone really notices.

    Until everyone, top to bottom, admits, acknowledges, accepts, that there is a problem, nothing is likely to change. I’m not holding my breath.

  11. rick

    “As a sports journalist, you have to draw a fine line between writing about an athlete’s accomplishments and getting to know him (or her) through interviews and chats at races so that you can put those performances in perspective.”

    And yet you were one of the biggest contributors to building “The Myth”. Too bad some journalistic integrity from someone over the years didn’t bull back the drapes…

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