So this week the well-respected journal the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study that human growth hormone (HGH) does, in fact, improves athletic performance by helping to build fast-twitch muscle fiber. Specifically, the study found that in men HGH would improve performance by 3.9 percent—shaving .4 of a second from a 10-second sprint time in the 100-meter dash. And while sprinting performance was dramatically improved, HGH did nothing for endurance (unsurprising) or overall strength (somewhat surprising).
In cycling, an improvement of 3.9 percent isn’t the difference between steps on the podium, it is the difference between pack fodder and crushing the competition. Whether you look at the results from a Grand Tour or from one of the Monuments, a single percent range in performance can include the top-20 finishers.
Some of the men in the study also received injections of testosterone. For those men, the performance increase was a whopping 8 percent. Imagine for a second being an 8-percent-improved rider. That’s going from a 1-hour 40k time trial to a 55:12 40k time. Eight percent could turn you from a climber into a time trialist or a nobody into a god.
The study begs several questions. First, is anyone really surprised by this? There has been strong anecdotal evidence that HGH produced results for anyone looking for an illegal edge.
A bigger question is, what is the dosage size that athletes taking HGH normally use? Dr. Ken Ho, who ran the study, gave his subjects modest doses for only eight weeks, as compared to what guys like Mark McGwire were taking, which is alleged to be a much higher dosage for extended periods of time. Obviously, the gains could be more than 4 percent. Much more, perhaps.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) helped fund the study. One wonders why they wanted the results printed in a peer-reviewed journal. This would seem to be information that they wouldn’t want athletes willing to dope (or their doctors or coaches) to find out. One can safely assume that some aspect of this study will aid those who are trying to evade detection of their drug use.
The amateur athletes who participated in the study reported several side effects. The HGH caused fluid retention that resulted in some swelling as well as joint pain. One man reported that his breasts grew.
Maybe drug testing in the future should include looking for pros who are wearing jog bras.
More seriously, the media has reported the publication of this paper with a certain amount of surprise. As I read about it, I’ll admit my jaw went slack, but my expression was more “duh” that “holy cow.”
There have been whispers about who in the peloton has been using HGH, but so far, the most substantive accusation was that the entire T-Mobile team was using the stuff along with EPO. And of course, boatloads of the stuff was in Willy Voet’s Festina team car when he arrived at his fateful border stop in 1998.
I don’t want to accuse you readers of being a cynical bunch, but are any of you surprised by the results of this study, either in general or the more specific aspect of just how much performance can be improved by either HGH alone or in combination with testosterone?
And in other news … there’s this little cycling tour that’s going to take in some great sights in Italy. Disingenuousness aside, most of the cycling media outlets are saying this is the most wide-open Giro in years. That may be right. With no Menchov, no Killer, no Pellizotti and no Contador, Evans would seem to be the heir apparent; he seems to have developed a taste for actually winning instead of just showing.
Does anyone think Garzelli has something like a chance to win? Even Simoni seems to have conceded that he is over the hill and will hope for a stage win in this, his final Grand Tour.
So two questions to you all: Who will take the maglia rosa in the prologue? We’ve got stickers for the first correct answer on that. Also, who do you think will get to go home with the pink jersey once the last kilometer is ridden? Stickers to the first correct prognosticator.
I’ve got my money on Evans.
The Tour de France first controlled for drugs in its 1966 edition. It has taken the better part of 40 years for the UCI to convince both the riders and the public that they mean business about making the sport clean.
Truly, that rather inauspicious day back in 1966 was a turning point. Without the Tour de France being controlled, the sport was essentially uncontrolled because by the 1960s, it was the one event other than the World Championships that was virtually guaranteed to feature a truly international field.
Interestingly, the first test—Raymond Poulidor’s famously lax urine sample that resulted in a protest the next day—didn’t occur during the prologue or even stage 1, it was taken following stage 8. That Poulidor was the first controlled rider demonstrates that officials had some sense impartiality. Through those first eight stages German rider Rudi Altig wore the yellow jersey following his victory in the prologue and not a single French rider had won a stage. Or were they afraid to catch a real doper?
Until fairly recently, doping control has been a fairly hit or miss affair. Due to the rate at which riders who have been known to dope have evaded detection, even targeting a particular rider for additional tests often didn’t result in a positive test. But there has been enough of a correlation between positive tests following great performances that we now associate success with the specter of doping. It’s unfortunate, but that is the promise of doping: You go faster and win races.
But with that understanding comes a dangerous corollary: We have begun to suspect that any rider who wins is probably—if not certainly—doped. Bicycling Magazine’s Joe Lindsey put forth an idea a few years ago that uses a sort of Keatsian negative capability to make sense of the pro peloton and help put a lid on overactive suspicion. In effect, Lindsey said, we must accept the peloton is doped to the gills. However, each of the riders deserves the presumption of innocence.
This is where the principles of American jurisprudence can inform the rest of the world. Without actual proof of an infraction, we should presume each individual to be innocent.
The average cycling fan can say what he or she wants about any pro and the slight is, well, slight. But once members of the media, even ones as fringe as bloggers, start couching their concerns as actual allegations, at that point a racer’s reputation can be harmed.
There’s been a perception by some readers that I have it in for Greg LeMond and that the only altar I kneel at has a picture of Lance Armstrong hanging above it. My personal feelings for both riders aren’t really important. I have a duty, however, to be very careful what I publish about Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping—or any other rider’s alleged doping. Yes, there is some very incriminating evidence that would suggest he engaged in tactics common to riders of his generation. But he has the presumption of innocence on the side of his reputation as he hasn’t been convicted of an infraction. Open, shut.
As a writer and cycling fan, my opposition to LeMond pursuing Armstrong as a doper is simple. It’s simply not his job. He’s overstepping bounds in a big way and unfortunately, to many people who follow cycling, his single-mindedness about Armstrong eliminates the even-handed justice that would be on his side if he offered to work with the UCI to use his incredible knowledge to help them refine the profile for suspicious riders. In short, LeMond is not an enforcement apparatus and needs to understand that.
That said, if it is true that Armstrong said to LeMond, ‘I could find 10 people that will say you took EPO,’ it is one of the uglier statements he is reported to have made. I’ve got no place in any mudslinging that takes place between these two, but because Armstrong’s statement seems to have raised questions about LeMond using EPO, I’m going on the record to say that I don’t believe we have any reason to suspect LeMond took EPO.
There is much to suggest that the spread of EPO at the Tour in 1991 was LeMond’s downfall. LeMond has said of ’91 that the racing was faster and attacks more frequent than in previous years. We know Claudio Chiappucci, who finished third that year, was on EPO. It’s easy to be suspicious and just say that from 1991 on, everyone was on EPO, but the situation isn’t that simple.
Conspiracy theorists like to point to how LeMond managed to get in shape just in time for the Tour as evidence that he must have been on EPO. While LeMond and Ullrich might have had getting fat over the winter in common, the only other thing they had in common was phenomenal talent. The real mark of EPO is better evidenced by the example of Bjarne Riis who raced both with and without EPO.
Bjarne Riis finished the 1991 Tour in 107th place, more than two hours down on the yellow jersey; he had yet to discover the miracle elixir. Back then, he was riding for Castorama in support of Laurent Fignon. Only two years later he finished in fifth place while riding for Gewiss-Ballan, a team that was later revealed to have had an organized program. In his press release in which he admitted his “mistakes,” Riis pointed to the years ’93-’98 as the years in which used EPO, human growth hormone and corticosteroids. His results seem to bear this out.
LeMond and Fignon (who finished sixth in ’91) were Grand Tour riders who won the Tour prior to the advent of EPO. Had LeMond been on EPO in 1991, he would likely have won the Tour that year. However, he was riding for the French team Z and the spread of EPO as administered by teams started with Italian and Dutch formations; the French teams didn’t catch on to “the program” for a few years.
As a writer, I’m unwilling to point a finger at a rider who hasn’t been convicted of doping and call him out; there are basic ethical rules against this. The flipside is different. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that LeMond was an unusually clean racer for his time.
Image by John Pierce, Photosport International