There’s been talk that an amnesty for past doping offenders is the path to a new era in clean cycling. But it’s not that easy to disperse years of pollution from a sport that is, more than ever, haunted by ghosts of doping past. An amnesty may be one step toward the goal of putting the dirty decades behind us, but it’s going to be far more difficult to purge professional cycling of its systemic sins.
We hope that the latest round of riders coming out or being outed is the start of a final phase in the cleansing process; but for it to be a truly effective process it has to be extended to the other tainted players, including team owners, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, coaches, team doctors, rider agents, event promoters, the sport’s administrators, race officials and, yes, journalists.
When I first became immersed in the European racing scene almost 50 years ago, there were no rules against using drugs in cycling (or any other sport). I raced for an amateur team in France and was aware that some teammates popped amphetamines to help them win lap primes in circuit races. I was offered the same drugs but knew that no amount of performance-enhancement would turn me into a Tour de France rider. I also knew that ex-pros with a dicey reputation worked as a mini-mafia in the same amateur races I competed in, and that top British riders I trained with were reluctant to sign for continental pro teams because of those teams’ doping cultures.
The cycling authorities didn’t legislate against performance-enhancing drugs until 1965. The very first tests were carried out at the amateurs-only Tour of Britain Milk Race, and the country was shocked when it was announced before the final stage that race leader Luis Santamarina of Spain and two others had tested positive for amphetamines and were being thrown out of the race. That shock was somewhat tempered when Britain’s Les West won the last stage by a couple of minutes and took the overall title. The fight against doping had begun….
The British public was even more shocked two years later when their former Sportsman of the Year, Tom Simpson, died at the Tour de France on the climb of Mont Ventoux. The coroner said that the amphetamine pills discovered in his racing jersey pockets were only part of the reason he died from heat exhaustion. Simpson was my cycling hero. I met him and saw him race many times, including at the foot of the Ventoux on that tragic day at the 1967 Tour. It was hard to accept that he’d doped and died.
Simpson’s death forced the Tour organizers to introduce daily drug tests, and the 1968 edition was dubbed the “Good Health Tour” by J.B. Wadley, my editor at International Cycle Sport, the magazine where I began my first full-time journalism job. Everyone was hoping that the new testing program would end doping practices, but all it did was make the riders and their teams more secretive as they found ways to elude positive tests. That was confirmed a decade later when Tour leader Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the 1978 race at L’Alpe d’Huez. The anti-doping inspector discovered under Pollentier’s shorts a rubber bulb containing clean urine, with which he’d intended to fill the test tubes at the post-stage medical control.
I was one of a half-dozen journalists who visited with Pollentier the next morning on the balcony of his hotel room. We learned that his actions weren’t much different from what many (most?) riders had been doing for years to avoid testing positive. That candid conversation on doping with the disgraced yellow jersey was the basis of a 2,000-word news story I wrote that week in 1978 for The Sunday Times of London, one of the first mainstream articles to look at the underbelly of pro cycling.
Pollentier’s transgression led to more stringent anti-doping rules, but another 10 years on, at the 1988 Tour, another race leader, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for a steroid-masking agent. He wasn’t sanctioned because the incriminating product (already banned by the International Olympic Committee) had yet to be added to the UCI’s list of proscribed drugs. We again wrote our stories about the hidden depth of cycling’s drugs problems—but when no one would talk to the press about what was actually going on inside the peloton, it was impossible to give details or to know the full extent of doping in cycling.
Yellow jersey Delgado’s escape from disqualification was the highest-profile “doping” incident in the ’80s, when the punishment for testing positive at the Tour was a cash fine plus a 10-minute time penalty. As a result, not much was made of the slap-on-the-wrists doping violations of top Dutch pros Steven Rooks, Gert-Jan Theunisse, Johan Van der Velde and Joop Zoetemelk. It was only years later that they and other Tour riders admitted to their abuse of amphetamines, steroids or testosterone.
For the few English-speaking cycling journalists who traveled to Europe in the ’80s, those were heady times. We wrote about the break-through successes of Sean Kelly, Steve Bauer and Phil Anderson in the classics, Greg LeMond’s and Stephen Roche’s victories at the worlds and Tour, and Roche’s and Andy Hampsten’s wins at the Giro d’Italia. Some skeptics said they couldn’t have achieved those successes without doping, but we never saw anything suspicious in that pre-team-bus era, even though we’d chat with the riders in the showers at Paris-Roubaix, interview them during massage sessions at the Tour, and do extensive one-on-ones at their homes.
The amazing performances of Kelly and Roche in that period made them Ireland’s biggest sporting stars, a fact that encouraged Irish sportswriter David Walsh to move to Paris with his young family to cover their stories. We became friends and followed many Tours together over the following decade or so. Walsh also made friends with journeyman Irish pro Paul Kimmage, who was then racing for a French team and shared some of the doping stories with Walsh that became the basis of Kimmage’s 1990 book, “Rough Ride.”
After that whistle-blowing book was published, Kimmage became a pariah in the European peloton, which remained highly secretive about its use of drugs. But it was clear that athletes and sports doctors had moved on from the haphazard use of amphetamines and other stimulants. I wrote an editorial in VeloNews in 1989 titled “EPO: The scourge of the 1990s?” that pointed out the dangers of the new blood-boosting hormone, which had just been approved for use with cancer patients by the Food and Drug Administration.
The speculation, unfortunately, became a fact. An early, but unconfirmed, indication of EPO use came at the 1991 Tour when, one by one, the high-profile PDM team fell sick and dropped out. The last man standing was Kelly, who a few of us, including Aussie colleague Rupert Guinness, chatted with the morning before stage 11 when he and the rest of the team flew home. Kelly said that they’d all been sick, as if they had food poisoning, though it was later confirmed it was due to injections of a badly stored nutritional supplement, Intralipid, used for recovery … though doping was still suspected.
The wheels started to come off the EPO wagon in 1998, when Belgian soigneur Willy Voet was caught with a station wagon packed with EPO, human growth hormone, artificial testosterone and amphetamines that was destined for the world No 1-ranked Festina team at the Tour. The race took a back seat as revelation after revelation emerged from the Festina camp, and when the French police intervened to arrest team officials, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc held his infamous late-night press conference in Brive to exclude the whole Festina team from the Tour.
I sat up all night to write another doping story for The Sunday Times, this one based around Festina’s Aussie team member Neil Stephens, after he spoke with companion Rupert Guinness about his criminal-like treatment at an overnight questioning session in a French jail. The subsequent riders’ strike, further police raids and a second strike, followed by mass team withdrawals almost ended the Tour—and drowned out a dramatic comeback by eventual winner Marco Pantani to beat defending champion Jan Ullrich.
The Festina Affair began a new wave on the battle against doping, a story that I’ll continue next Tuesday.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
If you’d asked me before the Tour started to list ten things that might happen during this year’s race, I don’t think the list would have included Alberto Contador losing time on multiple stages. I wouldn’t have suggested Andy Schleck would pull up timid on a rainy Alpine descent and brake his way out of contention. And I certainly wouldn’t have listed an assertive ride by a yellow-jersey-wearing Thomas Voeckler as perhaps the best single piece of evidence that the peloton is cleaner than it once was. God knows I wouldn’t have envisioned Thor Hushovd winning two mountain stages.
Nope, I wouldn’t have considered any of those as even remotely possible. But every one has come to pass.
With his ride in stage 16 Contador has proven that to count him out is to define foolhardy. I’m doubtful of his chances to win, but one can afford to be nonchalant in his presence the way one can be nonchalant around a cobra. Even if he can manage 15 or 20 seconds on all his rivals over the three remaining mountain stages and the time trial, that won’t be enough to boost him onto the podium.
One wonders whose ambition it was to even dream Contador could sweep all three Grand Tours this year. Was it Contador himself or was it Bjarne Riis? And if it was Riis, what will the repercussions be should Pistolero not pull a rabbit out of his hat before Paris? If Contador can’t pull off this victory, the age of the Giro-Tour double will truly have passed.
With the piece of descending we saw Schleck exhibit on the drop into Gap, the timidity that resulted in him losing 1:09 to Cadel Evans and 1:06 to Contador probably dashed his hopes to win this Tour. Frankly, his riding was so un-PRO that he doesn’t deserve the podium.
Darwin wrote that the story of the world was one of adaptation, descent with modification. Faced with obsolescence at the legs of Mark Cavendish, Hushovd has reinvented himself more thoroughly than any rider since Laurent Jalabert’s phoenix act in the 1990s. I consider him one of the three smartest riders in the race. He is the embodiment of the adage, “le tete et le jambs.”
As to Voeckler, he was already on what is arguably the best season he has ever enjoyed even before arriving at the Tour. So we must grant that he’s a better rider than he was in 2004, the first time he took the yellow jersey at the Tour. That said, in the era of Armstrong et al, sheer combativeness and tenacity weren’t enough to hold on to yellow. To suggest that will alone is enough is to believe that you really can stop a bullet by putting your finger in the barrel of a gun.
French cycling has been very nearly the laughingstock of the peloton since the Festina Affair. I’ve wondered if French athletes didn’t take some lesson from the incident to heart. Following the confessions that came as a result of the Festina Affair only six French athletes have tested positive (many countries have had two dozen or more), and the only one of them who was a notable GC rider was Pascal Hervé (yes, he of the Festina Affair), and that was in 2001.
I’ve often thought the fact that there has been only one prominent French GC rider (Christophe Moreau) in the last 10 years and the fact that French cycling has been curiously devoid of doping scandals weren’t just coincidences. I see it as cause and effect.
There’s an arc to this story. French riders were late to the EPO wagon; the Netherlands and Italy led the way, but they caught up, and in a big way, which is why Richard Virenque was one of the most feared climbers in the peloton during that time. And then we get Willy Voet’s ill-fated border crossing and Virenque’s teary confession in front of a judge.
To me, that past, those details and now Voeckler’s performance en jaune are of a piece. If you’re at your limit because the peloton rides at two speeds, then there’s no way for you to respond to an acceleration by a certified contender like Ivan Basso. That is, not unless everyone’s on the same program.
This is guesswork on my part; educated, but still guesswork. Still, it leads me to say that I find it easier to believe that Basso and Contador are clean than Voeckler is dirty. If we can have guilt by association, then maybe we can have innocence by association, too.
After all the scandals, the mudslinging, the unsubstantiated accusations and crazy revelations, the best possible thing that could happen for cycling right now is for Thomas Voeckler to arrive in Paris, clad in yellow. I’m not willing to put five bucks on that happening just yet, but it’s an outcome I’d cheer for, just the way I cheered in 1999.
Image, John Pierce, Photosport International
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.
You are Marco Pantani. It is 1999, and you are winning the Giro d’Italia, the race you dreamed of winning as a teenager flogging a borrowed bike around the countryside outside Cesenatico. You’ve won four stages. You’re way ahead on GC, and you’re holed up in the team hotel, tired, mentally drained, but, on some level, deeply satisfied with the legacy you’re creating for yourself in the sport you love.
Then you’re out the side door into the bright sunlight, mobbed by press, hounded for an explanation for the impossibly high hematocrit level your tests show. You’re disqualified. You’re shamed. You are no longer a legend, but a pariah.
This is what professionals might call a “precipitating event.” In your life it might be a divorce, the loss of a job, the death of a child. In pro cycling, a doping positive can be the death of your career, the event that pushes you over the edge.
Charlie, the addictions counselor I see every Friday morning, tells me that he sees what’s called “dual diagnosis,” i.e. clinical depression AND addiction, so much that he’s not convinced the two can be separated. Depression can lead to addiction. Addiction can lead to depression. They are the chicken and egg, egg and chicken.
The vast majority of those reading these words will know how Marco Pantani’s life turned out. After his expulsion from the Giro he made a few faltering attempts at comeback, but eventually succumbed to cocaine addiction, dying alone in a hotel room in 2004.
Addiction is a disease, progressive and fatal if untreated.
Last week, in a piece entitled “Love for the Doper,” I connected the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) with the addiction to illicit drugs, the descent into a mental state that convinces you that you need the drugs to go on. At the time, Padraig (our host and proprietor here at RKP) asked me how I would explain the jump that many athletes who use PEDs make to abusing illicit drugs. The recent death of Frank Vandenbroucke, as well as the passing of Marco Pantani, are but two examples of this jump.
And I would say that the answer lies somewhere at the nexus of humiliation, shame, loneliness and the tendency toward extreme behaviors, all of these factors combined with a precipitating event. To use Pantani as an example, though Vandenbroucke’s particulars are fairly similar, you have a unique character type, a self-described loner, a guy who nearly everyone who knew him would call “socially awkward, who also happens to be an elite athlete, an occupation more or less defined by the extremity of the behavior necessary to achieve success. You take this awkward, lonely and very probably depressed guy, who is already completely inured to suffering, and you heap on top a generous serving of humiliation.
Now, that humiliation validates an underlying shame that the guy feels, because he’s doping. He becomes even more depressed. Up to that point he was able to offset the shame and depression with the thrill of victory and adulation. Later, Pantani and Vandenbroucke made an effort to find some equilibrium by turning to the one thing that made them feel better, the one thing that delivered the thrill and muted the shame, illicit drugs.
What was once just a party drug, readily available to them as wealthy celebrities, takes on a new role (Are you listening Tom Boonen?). It moves itself front and center. Forced to abandon the PEDs, the rider sticks with the illicit drugs, substituting the mental effects of one for the mental effects of the other. The central conceit of the addict’s mindset is that he can’t do without the drugs that are actually tearing him apart. Compounding the problem is that the rider believes he can’t make a living without riding and can’t ride without drugs of one sort or the other. It’s a Catch-22 that turned Pantani and Vandenbroucke into corpses in hotel rooms, the saddest possible ending for an athlete in our sport.
To be sure, not every rider involved with PEDs will make the jump to illicit drugs, but a very real link exists between the use of PEDs and depression, and then between depression and the use of illicit drugs. Think not only of Pantani and Vandenbroucke, but also of Richard Virenque, if Willy Voet is to be believed, and Jan Ulrich.
Every time I hear the name of another convicted doper I try to stifle my instinct to judge. Riders don’t make bad decisions maliciously. They slip a little, and then a little more, and day after day, week after week, year after year, they become something they never meant to be. They can make deals with the devil that take them to the very top of the sport, and then one event, one vial of blood spun down in a centrifuge, one tainted jar of piss, pushes them off the edge.
Some don’t make it back.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International