Thursday, 16 June 2011

Doping in Cycling

Depending on who one talks to, doping (the use of drugs to have an effect upon peformance) is either the biggest problem to face cycling or one of the more amusing and interesting aspects of the sport. Doping allegations have been a part of the Grand Tours since the inaugural Tour de France in 1903 when riders used alcohol and ether to deaden the pain felt during and after the phenomenally long stages. The use of performance enhancing drugs dates to even earlier days, having been a part of the sport before the Tour began. Health concerns - as opposed to allegations of cheating - didn't appear until the years following World War 2 and  began in earnest following the death of British rider Tom Simpson from heart failure brought on by  amphetamines, alcohol and sheer exhaustion on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967, though concerns had been raised earlier including in 1960 when Frenchman Roger Rivière plunged into a ravine and broke his neck, choosing to blame a mechanic for leaving oil on the wheel rims. Doctors who treated Rivière later stated that their patient had such high levels of drugs in his body that, in their opinion, he would have been either unable to judge when to brake or physically incapable of doing so. Rivière later admitted this and confessed to having a drug addiction and swallowing thousands of tablets each year.

Tom Simpson brought doping to the public's attention after he died as a result of heart failure brought on by amphetamine use in 1967. A memorial erected where he fell on Mont Ventoux has become a site of pilgrimage for cyclists from around the world.
Since the criminalisation of doping in 1965, the UCI and race organisers have introduced ever more sophisticated measures designed to prevent doping, whereas those riders willing to risk it have strived to keep one step ahead - as one observer put it, "The Tour, in fact, is only possible because - not despite the fact - there is doping." Mandatory testing in French events began in 1966, revealing that a third of the riders subjected to tests at that year's Tour returned positive results.

Tests for other drugs became available in the 1970s including for Pemoline, a drug which has a similar effect to amphetamines and saw Eddy Merckx (considered by many to be one of the greatest cyclists in history) caught out in 1977. Steroid and corticoid use became so prevalent during that decade that it was said that only the high cost of obtaining them in the sort of quantities cyclists got through limited their use; when Jan-Luc van den Broucke tested positive in 1978 he went on record saying, "There was a mass of steroids used in the Tour, everyone will admit that. How can we stay at the top otherwise?"

EPO, erythropoietin, was a revolution in cycling on a par with the invention of derailleur gears and had a correspondingly enormous impact on the sport. Not only did the drug boost the production of red blood cells, thus allowing the muscles to receive more oxygen and nutrients for a longer period, it was also impossible to distinguish it from the testosterone naturally produced in the body. Organisers were forced to adopt a system whereby any rider tested and discovered to have a haematocrit level (red cell count) in excess of 50% (45% in men and 40% in women is considered normal in healthy adults) would be required to "rest" from a race for a given period. However, since cyclists frequently use high-altitude training to boost red cell counts, this system could lead to false accusations and was far from ideal.

Richard Virenque confessed to using EPO, a drug that became so prevalent in cycling that the term was almost synonymous with doping.
EPO use became so prevalent that estimates of how many riders were using it in the Tours between the late 1980s and 2000, when a test was finally developed, and the term became almost synonymous with doping. To this day, messages still appear painted on the roads of the Tour accusing riders disliked by those respinsible of "l'EPO." Matters came to a head in 1998 when the Festina team soigneur Willy Voet was arrested as he attempted to enter France with a bag full of banned drugs including EPO, testosterone amphetamines and an assortment of various growth hormones and narcotics - now, even those with no interest in cycling became aware that drug use was rife within the sport and there were even calls for all cycling events to be axed from the Olympics for fear of giving out the message to young sports fans that drugs could be used to enhance performance. Such has been the furore surrounding the matter since that accusations of doping, even when based on no evidence, are now used as an underhand tactic designed to undermine an opponent's credibility and tire him out with the rigourous testing to which anyone under suspicion will be subject - and testing can be rigourous indeed; as Lance Armstrong, himself the target of several doping allegations based either on nothing or his association with Michele Ferrari, who was convicted of supplying drugs to athletes, reveals in his autobiographies the UCI testers can strike at any time, anywhere and any attempt to escape them is liable to result in increased suspicion. They can even show up at a rider's private home and demand a test there and then - and a positive test isn't the only way to get a ban, failure or refusal to give a sample can also be viewed as legitimate reason.

The 2006 Tour looked set to become farce when Operation Puerto carried out by the Spanish police revealed yet more widespread drug use. Five members of the Astana team were banned, leaving an insufficient number to start the race, along with two members of T-Mobile and one each from CSC and AG2R-Prevoyance. Floyd Landis of Phonak tested positive for suspiciously high testosterone after Stage 17 and was later banned from the sport for two years.

2006 was possibly the worst ever year for doping in the Tour de France with one team unable to start after five members received bans. A number of other riders were also later caught out.
The Tour in 2007 began with suspicions flying all over the place - even Alessandro Pettachi, an asthmatic, was suspended after he tested positive for salbutmol, a very common anti-asthma drug. The suspension was later overturned after further tests revealed that the drug was present only in quantities confirming to standard therapeutic usage but too late, he'd already had to miss the Tour. Two German television companies abandoned their plans to film and televise the event and Astana abandoned the race after Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov tested positive following the second time trial, subsequently retiring from the sport (though he has since returned and raced in the 2011 Critérium du DauphinéThen following Stage 16 and a positive result supplied by Christian Moreni, Team Confidis also abandoned and Michael Rasmussen was ordered to leave the event by his team Rabobank for failing to provide a sample when required to do so during two consecutive days a fortnight before the Tour.

A list of riders convicted, sanctioned or suspected (with some grounds) to have doped is virtually indistinguishable from a list of the great names in the sport: Jacques Anquetil, Tour winner in 1957, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1964 who managed to achieve detection whilst active, confessed to doping following his retirement; Eddy Merckx, five time Tour winner and one of the most successful cyclists in history, provided four positive samples and was banned from one Giro d'Italia; Stephen Roche, tour winner in 1987, was believed to have used EPO in 1993 but never supplied a suspicious haematocrit; Jan Ullrich, Tour winner in 1997, banned for apparently recreational amphetamine use; Marco Pantani, received a six month ban following the discovery of insulin in his hotal room; Alberto Contador, involved in the Operation Puerto case and later banned in a 2010 unrelated test; Bjarn Riis, Tour winner in 1996 and current owner of Saxobank Sungard, later admitted to have won with the help of performance enhancing drugs; Pedro Delgado, Tour winner in 1988, tested positive for a questionable substance but escaped sanctions as it was not yet banned by the UCI; Laurent Fignon, Tour winner in 1983 and 1984, positive test results after two separate events in 1989; Joop Zoetemelk, tested positive in three different Tours de France; Bernard Thévenet, confessed to doping (but wasn't caught) in the 1975 and 1977 - but not, coincidentally, in the 1976 Tour which he won; Lucien Aimar, Tour winner in 1966, banned from the Vuelta the same year after a positive test... In the last half decade, a mere nine have never tested positive for doping - Carlos Sastre in 2008, Lance Armstrong (tested positive for non-prescribed drug hormone, but result believed to be false and caused by the large number of drugs used during his cancer recovery) with his unprecedented seven wins, Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, Lucien van Impe, Luis Ocaña, Jan Janssen, Roger Pingeon and Felice Gimondi. Were they truly innocent or were they lucky enough to escape detection? Unless any confess, we'll never know.

What would professional cycling be like without doping? Bernard Hinault, winner of five Tours de France and the only man to have won all three Grand Tours more than once, is apparent proof that results can still be achieved - he's never given a positive test.
So what will the 2011 Tour bring? The madness of 2006 and 2007 has long since died down and some commentators are willing to suggest that anti-doping tests are now so effective that the problem has been brought into check, but past history suggests it never will be and it's only a matter of time before the latest doping methods emerge into the daylight. 2010 was an unusually dope controversy-free year: French newspaper l'Equipe published a leaked document listing all the riders and the level of suspicion they were under, from 0 (no suspicion) to 10 (extreme suspicion), with examples likely to give rise to suspicion including:

 1. sudden drop in hemoglobin one month before the summer of 2010 which could point to an important loss of blood possibly destined to be re-injected during the Tour

2. suspicion of EPO use during the 2009 Giro

3. hematocrit, hemoglobin or stimulation index superior to 2010 values, which could have led to a start ban before the UCI rules were changed

4. low parameters off-race

...which revealed that the vast majority of riders were rated less then 4 - winner Contador, who returned a positive test for the banned bronchodilator Clenbuterol during the race but was not banned after successfully claiming that contaminated food was the cause, was rated at five. At present, there's no way of knowing but the riders can be sure of scrutiny this year as cycling attempts to show the world it's cleaned up its act.

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