Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Doping on my mind, Part III

Working as a full-time writer and editor in cycling for more than 40 years, and having raced and trained with elite athletes in Europe before that, I was always aware of the sport’s netherworld. The place where riders decided to cut corners, imitate their peers, or accede to the desires of their team directors; the place where soigneurs, sports doctors and charlatans made it possible for those riders to use performance-enhancing drugs or methods. None of them, especially the riders, was willing to talk about that netherworld because they feared reprisals from their peers, penalties from the authorities, or loss of respect from the public.

And without true details, other than rumors or circumstantial evidence, it was impossible for journalists to write accurately on that netherworld. Like others, I did write what was possible. Over the past two editions of this column, I’ve mentioned some of the many stories I wrote about doping in cycling at a time when very little was known about the subject outside of Europe, including lengthy pieces I did for The Sunday Times of London.

I’d become that newspaper’s first ever cycling correspondent (and its sister daily, The Times) in the mid-1970s, but only after writing long and persistent query letters to the editors to plead my case. That led to those once-stodgy British publications taking cycling as a serious sport, and I began contributing daily reports from the major events (including road, track and cyclo-cross races), which heightened the editors’ and the readers’ interest in our sport.

Because I developed a good relationship with the newspapers’ sports editors, they put their trust in me to write that first long piece on the Tour de France doping scandal of 1978 (when race leader Michel Pollentier was thrown out of the race after trying to cheat the anti-doping control). That article was among the first in the English language to (slightly) lift the curtain on modern cycling’s doping culture.

As with the decade before that Tour and for five years more after it, I followed the race alone, taking lifts with journalists from Belgium, France and Spain. That experience allowed me to get their different perspectives on cycling and to learn about their general reluctance to say much about doping. From 1984 onward, I traveled in cars whose expenses were paid for by the magazines that I edited: Winning for three years, Inside Cycling for a year and VeloNews for more than two decades.

Through the years, I traveled with a lot of different sportswriters. One was Irish journalist David Walsh who first came to the race in the mid-1980s. We often shared interview opportunities, like with Sean Kelly on the evening of a stage, when the three of us sat on the curb outside Kelly’s hotel, chatting about the race. David was with Irish newspapers at first, and beside his reporting work he wrote books about Kelly (published in 1986) and the other Irish star, Stephen Roche (1988).

While driving Tour stages, we had lively discussions about developments in the race and problems in the sport. Those discussions increasingly turned to doping after David’s pro cyclist friend Paul Kimmage retired from the sport and wrote his book “Rough Ride” about his four years in the European peloton, detailing the widespread use of drugs. Not a cyclist himself, David grew more skeptical about the sport, but that didn’t stop him writing “Inside the Tour de France,” his 1994 book of interviews that included a chapter on Tour rookie Lance Armstrong.

During our Tour discussions, I was often in the minority when David and VN colleague Charles Pelkey were in the car, talking about our suspicions on which riders were or weren’t doping. I liked to give riders the benefit of the doubt, but I always listened to their arguments, and their views inevitably influenced what I’d write—especially after the disastrous “Festina Affair” Tour of 1998. By then, David was a full-time reporter for The Sunday Times covering several sports including cycling. As a result, my lengthy piece on that doping scandal was one of the last I wrote for The Sunday Times after more than 20 years as its cycling correspondent.

Like many other longtime cycling journalists, I’ve been accused of being too close to the athletes and the teams to write with detachment about doping, and as such I’ve been complicit in cycling’s doping problems. That’s a subject I want to address in a future column. For now, I want to add that we always suspected that Tour contenders and champions in the 1990s, including Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, Bjarne Riis, Tony Rominger and Jan Ullrich, were using EPO.

But there was never any evidence of that possibility until a trunkload of EPO (and other banned drugs) was discovered by the French police in Festina soigneur Willy Voet’s team station wagon on his way to the Tour in ’98. That opened everyone’s eyes to how cycling’s doping problems had escalated in the EPO era when use of the blood-boosting drug was so prevalent because it was not only very effective but also remained undetectable in lab tests for more than a decade.

I’ll continue my thoughts on doping in my next RKP column, focusing on the years when more truths started to emerge from cycling’s netherworld.


Follow me on twitter: @johnwilcockson 

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. e-RICHIE

    “Like many other longtime cycling journalists, I’ve been accused of being too close to the athletes and the teams to write with detachment about doping, and as such I’ve been complicit in cycling’s doping problems. That’s a subject I want to address in a future column.”

    Tick tock atmo.

  2. Mike

    The name conspicuously absent from that list of the 90’s is Indurain.

    “Big Mig” was my hero back then, and the reason I fell in love with cycling again

  3. Q

    I was thinking the same thing. Nobody seems to put Indurain on the lists of “people who were probably doping in the 1990s”, and I’d like to know why. Does anyone have good information on when EPO became widespread? I’m willing to believe Lemond was clean, and that while others of his era (Delgado) can be pretty safely presumed to have used illegal substances, the stuff they were using then wasn’t so effective as to make a clean rider completely uncompetitive. At some point between 1991 and 1995, that seems to have changed, right during Indurain’s reign at the Tour. Everyone from 1996 to about 2007 is suspect or has admitted to using EPO. So, it makes me wonder, was Indurain the last Tour champion before the EPO era, or was he an EPO pioneer? Lemond and other riders who retired from the sport earlier than they could have during the early 1990s seemed to think something was already going on. I’d be interested in the perspectives of other insiders.

  4. armybikerider

    God this makes me sad….when we find ourselves second guessing athletic performances as enhanced by PEDs and wondering who was and who wasn’t.

  5. nuovorecord

    It is sad indeed. But I think it’s necessary to rid cycling of PEDs once and for all. Sunshine is disinfectant. I applaud the efforts of Walsh, Kimmage, Landis, Hamilton and others to tell the real story. The UCI seems implicit in covering up drug use…wonder how long that’s been going on?

  6. Sidamo

    One of the theories behind the benefits of EPO was it allowed the bigger guys to get up the mountains as they were no longer constrained by delivery of oxygen to larger muscles.

    Given that “Big Mig” was big, and was relatively useless until he started working with Cecchini, I’d say he was an EPO pioneer.

  7. Anthony F

    Know who else was complicit?

    The fans.

    The bloated Belgians, the condescending French, the arrogant Dutch, the lunatic Italians, the hysterical Spaniards, the indifferent Germans, and us, the naive Americans.

    None of us wanted to know. Actually, that’s wrong. A lot of us knew. No? Come on. You or most of you knew. Like I knew.

    How can I make such an accusation? Well, you see there are events occurring around us all the time which I’ll just refer to as other sports. Like NFL? Like pro wrestling? Like motorsports? Like Olympic anything?

    We’re surrounded by cheating. And, it’s not that we don’t know. It’s that we don’t really, truly care. It’s the deal we make in exchange for the entertainment. We like superhuman performances. So we agree not to question it.

    Sorry to have to point it out but a bunch of 6 foot, 170 lb guys tackling each other isn’t going to generate much in tv ratings. Watching a bunch of cat 1s negatively race each other around a city block brings out the yawns.

    We like guys like Simpson, Pantani, Jimenez, VDB … I mean, there are memorials to those guys. Those are the performances we want to see.

    So, we’re part of the problem too. But if you insist that you’re not, well, you’re in a small group. Cause the Euros don’t care.

    Finally, if you still insist that you didn’t know, I suggest you examine your beliefs and attitudes about other sports. Ask yourself why you’re being so hard on pro cycling.

    1. Padraig

      Anthony F: I can’t really go along with the idea that the fans were complicit. Bitching out people who love cycling is seriously misplaced anger, in my facile estimation. It suggests that we had a responsibility that we, in some way, shirked. Really, the fans never had the power. All the fans can do is express their frustration and disgust any time there’s another doping scandal. But all we can do is either watch the sport as presented, or turn our backs on it because we don’t believe it’s clean. Sure some fans knew the score and watched anyway and did their best not to think about what was happening backstage. Some had no clue; I genuinely believe that. And some turned their backs on the sport.

      Some people can go through life blissfully unaware of realities that make the rest of us crazy with frustration. That’s no reason to insult or condemn them; it’s just how they’re wired.

  8. Nick L

    Regarding Indurain, I’ve seen a paper that used power outputs in the Tour over various eras to try and guess when EPO usage became widespread.

    Indurain won in ’91 & ’92 with power levels that were lower – or roughly equivalent – to winners throughout the 1980s.

    In 1993 his power level jumped significantly and was closer to the level of winners in the Armstrong/Pantani/Riis era.

    I’ll try and post a link to the paper if I can find it again

  9. Nick L

    Re Indurain again, here’s the paper. I found it interesting:


    Looking at it again, I’m not sure it supports what I said previously about Indurain.

    http://www.phys.washington.edu/users/savage/Cycling/LookingAtTheData/figures_html/TdFAverageSpeed.html shows how the average speed of the Tour in Indurain’s 1995 win increased to roughly the same speed as the Riis/Ulrich wins, while his 1991, ’93 & ’94 wins were at roughly the same speed as LeMond in 1991. However he was much quicker in ’92 and much of the other data in the paper puts all his power output in the Riis/Pantani/Ulrich category.

  10. Nick L

    @Anthony F: I think that’s pretty unfair on the French. They certainly cleaned up all the French teams after the Festina affair at quite a high cost to their success.

  11. e-RICHIE

    Forget EPO and the testing for it that is part of this chapter – even IF it’s behind the times. Riders get away with (ab)use on a regular basis because the org and the testers are typically a half-step or even a generation behind them. Before the EPO era it was ____ . After the EPO era it will likely be ____ . The issue I have here is touched upon in the original text. Some writers are too close to the all of this for the good of anything. A true journalist – a real journalist – would write about what he heard, or knew, in real time. He wouldn’t wait until it’s fashionable or accepted practice to go against the grain.

    These days, more people from the pro ranks are speaking about their experiences. No one was ever fooled by what is being served up atmo. We all knew that PEDs use was part of this sport going back to week one, year one. But the fans love the drama, and the vistas shown on the feeds and in magazine pages when reports are printed a month later, and all the beauty that is bicycle racing. We have accepted the back story because the rewards to us have been worth the watching. But no one ever likes being lied to, or to be condescended upon. That is what we have been exposed to since the Lance Inc thing became this current news story (again). He and his co-conspirators will get their just due, the public hanging they deserve, or they’ll get away with a slap on the wrist and have to spend eternity dealing with their consciences.

    My point (in my first reply above) is that the writers HAVE to tell the stories, and tell them in a timely way. If JW is at all intimating that he “knew something was up…” but only now, in this climate, has decided to expose it, I think – fine, better late than not at all. But where were all of these hunches and hearsay stored before the current USADA chapter made talking about what you did/saw/knew/heard a varsity sport?

    Men like Paul Kimmage and Willy Voet get my respect for stepping up to the mic and telling their stories when they happened. These men are sports journalists and should be held in high regard. Anyone else who followed the races, the racers, and the related stories and wrote nothing (until writing anything at all became the new black) might not be complicit (to use that word…). But it could be argued that, in suppressing it, he’s less of a reporter and more of a press secretary for the sport he’s covering.

  12. Running Cyclist

    Nick L: boy, that’s a mountain of data that could lead to volumes of conclusions. I think one variable it doesn’t seem to account for in average speed is course difficulty. This would explain the faster speed in ’92 when there were relatively few mountains. That said, in a general manner, it does seem to provide tangible evidence of what many are saying to be true: that use of IPET’s has been rampant for quite a while and that re-writing the record books is a tricky, if not futile, exercise. Thanks for sharing.

  13. LD

    E-Ritchie. Great second post. Nobody wants to stand up anymore. The reality is that you don’t get invited to whatever and you don’t get the special pass. Fuck it. Where are the real men anymore? Indeed, Walsh and Kimmage should be applauded.

  14. tinytim

    The peloton always doped. Even way back when, dudes were all taking narcotics, booze, weird ass tranquilizers all in the name of performance enhancement. EPO came along and the whole peloton was on the good juice. But what about now? No one seems to be doping. That seems like a stark counter-example to what was considered the norm not too long ago. No one dopes now, cause the risk for getting caught is too great. Thats why EPO was so appealing: everyone knew what was going on, but they couldn’t prove it. My prediction is this: thers a man in the shadows (maybe even this very second), a criptic fucking mad genticist/sports physiologist (this man would make Allen Lim jealous as all get out) mastering the art of gene-splicing. Now you don’t need epo, cause that scientist synthesized a gene (which is then injected) from fucking Nepalise sherpas that enables one to fill that eyrthrocyte with as much hemogobin as cellularly possible. Want thighs that will make T.Boonens look like pegs? Easy. Gene splicings there for you. No joke. While everyone is beating the dead horse that was the EPO era, something else is out there. Why do you think Britian is as cool as a cucumber?

  15. Thorny Brown

    More self serving BS from Wilcockson. This is along the same lines as the ‘disquiet’ rubbish he churned out for the Guardian. A piece in which all the comments asking hard questions of the author were moderated. As were all questions pointing out various discrepancies in Team Sky’s narrative and urging the author to start asking some pointed questions.

    Wilcockson can keep writing these ‘it was difficult for me’ articles for the forseeable future, while the Walsh’s and Kimmage’s continue asking the tough questions.

    Same shit different day, i guess. Nothing has changed in that those who didn’t have the courage to question the peloton and the teams before, don’t have the courage to question them now.

    1. Padraig

      Thorny Brown: You can accuse us of moderating comments as a way of protecting John, but that doesn’t make it so. We use moderation of a commenter’s first comment as a line of defense against spambots. It’s not an effort at censorship.

  16. Thorny Brown

    I’m not accusing you of protecting John by moderating posts. I was referring to a piece of his on The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, and how all of a sudden he feels the need to voice his ‘disquiet’.
    They moderated the posts so he didn’t have to answer any of the questions that challenged his assertions.

    Look I don’t know John Wilcockson personally. It’s just frustrating that all these guys kept quiet for so long. To come out now and say we needed proof, my counter is – how hard did you look for proof? Did you expect it to fall in your lap? Why not just admit that it was easier to file race reports and be done with it?

    This is what I find so grating. And now we have Sky (who’ve achieved tremendous success practically overnight) who said one thing a couple of years ago but have now changed course. Sky who proclaimed that they would have no truck with anyone tainted by doping on their staff – have 3 staff members with a doping history. There are questions that need to be asked. If only to make sure that teams are aware that people are paying attention. But no-one’s asking them. Instead we get puff pieces.

    As I said, same shit different day.

  17. Chris Hepp

    Should anyone doubt that Indurian doped, they should look at the results of the three times the Tour has used the time trial at Lac De Vassiviere. In 1985, Lemond did the 45.7 k. loop in one hour, two minutes and fifty seconds. Hinault was second, five seconds back. In 1990 _ with aero bars now in use _ Breukink won in one hour, two minutes and forty seconds. Indurain was fourth, forty seconds back. Five years later, Indurain won _ 57 minutes and 24 seconds; He trimmed more than five minutes from his 1990 time. Oh yeah, Lemond’s winning time in 1985 would have landed him in about 33rd place in 1995.

  18. MCH

    I believe that Anthony F has a very valid point. Are fans 100% at fault? No. But, are we complicit? IMO, absolutely yes.

    Pro sports are commercially driven. Fan purchases of tickets, media (in all forms), team/rider-related shwag, etc. all contributes to the sporting status quo. Like most other aspects of a capitalist society, we vote with our dollars. The question is, why don’t we penalize leagues, teams or athletes when a simple scratch of the surface would reveal something much darker?

    I believe that when it comes to professional sports, there is a whole lot of cognitive dissonance going on. On one hand we love the amazing physical achievements of pro athletes, we build myths around athletes and teams that overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to win. We hold up athletes and athletic achievement as role models and examples for our children. And in truth, all of this is can highlight the best of humanity. But here’s the challenging part – it can also drive the worst in humanity. And that’s the part that most don’t want to think about. Many seem to believe that if you expose the worst, you undermine the best. Witness Big Mig’s recent statement about the investigations destroying cycling. Or witness most fans of US major league sports belief that there is no doping in football, basketball, or baseball because the athletes are tested. Never mind that everyone knows that testing has been essentially regulated out of existence by the player’s unions.

    So is it the fan’s fault? Not completely. But let’s not kid ourselves that the fans don’t have access to enough information to develop a good insight into the truth. How many decades of scandals and revelations (in any sport) does it really take to recognize that there’s a serious problem? Let’s not kid ourselves about the fan’s ability to influence a change – stop spending and change will come quickly. The real problem with the fans is that they’d rather believe the myth than the truth.

    1. Padraig

      I have to say that I really do have a problem with the idea that the fans were complicit. I don’t have a problem with people pointing a finger at the cycling media; there have been some definite problems. I, for one, think that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen have been far more effective PR agents for Lance Armstrong than Mark Fabiani has been. I’m sad to write that.

      But the fans? What was the audience to do? Not spend money? How so? Like not buy bike gear? Switch sports? That won’t help. I don’t drink Michelob Ultra but that’s not really Lance’s fault, but I suspect the advertising company responsible for that campaign has trouble quantifying all the people who don’t drink that beer because they don’t like Lance. Really, how are they going to differentiate them from the people who just flat-out don’t like bikes?

      I suspect that a great many fans out there watched the sport the way I watched: I knew it wasn’t clean, but I wasn’t going to walk away from cycling and I’d much rather watch a doped-up peloton race than try to stomach a football game. I wasn’t switching sports. And unlike Paul Kimmage, whose entire career as a journalist is based on calling out riders as dopers, I didn’t want to step into that breach unarmed. Put another way, Kimmage has had nothing to lose for 20 years; it is from that point-of-no-return place that he draws his power. I, on the other hand, have had so little power, I had much to lose.

      My belief is that staying engaged and voicing your displeasure with the state of the sport vis-a-vis doping is absolutely the best thing the fans can do. It’s like voting; don’t vote and you don’t count. Whether it’s in the comments here, on forums like Velocipede Salon or Road Bike Review or even Facebook and Twitter, the voice of the people carries weight. Sure Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen are as tone deaf as a chair, but sponsors are watching what people have to say.

      To the degree that the fans wanted a myth rather than truth, I think that’s a broader statement that is true of American society, if not other societies. American society has been trained to digest simple story lines. As a people, we’ve been trained to believe that you either wear a white cowboy hat, or a black one. We don’t do well with neutral gray, so to the degree that cycling fans have wanted to believe the myth, it’s because the way the media packages its story lines, we knew the alternative, at least in the case of Lance Armstrong, was that if he wasn’t a champion, then he was in for a very public disemboweling. And because we love the sport, that was an outcome some of us didn’t want to watch.

  19. peter lin

    The passionate discussion has been quite interesting to read. I personally have doubts about Lemond being clean, but I’m probably being too skeptical. Looking at other sports, athletes try to peak at the right time. Reaching peak and maintaining it for 3 weeks to win the tour just feels unhuman to me. Sure, these guys are professional born with superior talents and genetic gifts. All of them train their butts off, but it’s hard to know how much PED’s play a roll.

    When I look at the cyclist outside of top 30, that looks more realistic to me. Some days their dragging themselves up the mountains and some days they ride well. I have zero proof, but I suspect gene doping is coming if not already in progress. Gene therapy has been used for a decade now to treat patients, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

  20. mike hogan

    Wilcockson is another journalists who bought the story hook line and sinker, is the author of “LANCE The making of the worlds greatest champion”. Who tells us I once raced but didn’t have any idea whats was going on. Was it BS when he raced, or when he covered the racing scene, or when he wrote the book LANCE, or now.

  21. Nick L

    peter lin says: “I personally have doubts about Lemond being clean, but I’m probably being too skeptical.”

    I don’t know if LeMond was “clean” or not, but I doubt he used EPO. Firstly, his ’86 & ’89 wins came before EPO was being used in the peleton at all, and his ’90 win came during the time when it was just being discovered (and cyclists were dying). Additionally, the numbers don’t lie – he was just too slow to be on EPO (I guess an alternate theory is that he was on EPO and it made no difference at all to his performance).

    Outside EPO most drugs weren’t that useful for cyclists. Testosterone and Human Growth Hormone worked some, but people on them were certainly beatable. Amphetamines and Steroids either didn’t help in a 3 week grand tour or were too easily detectable.

  22. Steve L

    Re Thorny Brown’s Sky comment, yes, if a recent interview with Wiggo at the World Championships is anything to go by. Seems that everyone but the usual suspects want to forgive and forget, meanwhile the UCI breath a sigh of relief. The reports of the death of cycling’s ‘Omerta’ has been greatly exaggerated. Which is why supporting Paul Kimmage is a total no brainer.

  23. Pingback: Where are the 'journalists' in cycling?

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