Hopeless Dopes

Trying to untangle cycling's long history of performance-enhancing drugs raises more questions than it settles.
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Illustration: Cole Nielsen

The significance of this mass ceremony… is paradoxical.  It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull.  Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by… others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.

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Most of my cycling heroes are dopers, probably all of them. Anyone who pays attention to professional cycling for any period of time must come to grips with the sport’s relationship with doping. Earlier this month, Lance Armstrong was let off the hook by the federal prosecutors who had been investigating him for the past two years. Less than a week later, Alberto Contador, the man currently atop the sport, was suspended for a positive doping test from 2010. Armstrong can now rest on his laurels without fear of censure, while Contador has to sit out a significant portion of what remains of his prime, in addition to having his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia titles stripped from him. The two greatest cyclists of my adult life have just been judged, one deemed safe from prosecution and the other branded a cheater. Both verdicts seem to be the fairest course of action, but what more are we to think of them? Is Armstrong’s legacy safe? Is Contador’s ruined? In a sport with as complicated a doping history as cycling, there can be no single correct answer to what to think of a doping conviction, or even exoneration. The International Cycling Union revokes the victories of caught dopers, but this practice ignores the realities of the sport’s past and raises more problems than it solves. Such institutional whitewashing is an attempt to control history, to excise things the UCI wishes hadn’t happened from the record, instead of dealing with them honestly. It cannot change the fact that Contador both won the 2010 Tour and failed a doping control, and it should not try to control how we view that tainted victory.

Performance-enhancing drugs are judged grotesque when they fundamentally change the environment for a sport. The bigger the break from the past, the greater the outrage, especially if records fall. East Germany’s Olympic athletes fueled Cold War rivalry and ridicule. Ben Johnson’s revoked 1988 gold medal raised questions about sprinters’ speed and strength that have lingered since. The “chicks dig the long ball” euphoria that brought Major League Baseball back from its 1994 strike curdled when it became impossible to ignore the comic book physiques of the sluggers driving interest. Doping is the dark shadow of the modern training methods that have revolutionized sports over the past thirty years. The same biomedical progress that led athletes to weight training, targeted peak performance, and other such wonders also led to increased interest in organic chemistry.

The discourse of doping in America has focused mainly on use of anabolic steroids since the ‘80s, but doping in cycling is a much older tradition and has little to do with steroids. The modern sport was born in the 1890s, and from its genesis riders used chemicals to gain an edge. Coffee was spiked with extra caffeine, cocaine, and strychnine. Far from being illegal, these tactics were seen as medically necessary to help cyclists compete at the edges of human exertion. The Tour de France, the first of the grand tours and a race around which the sport grew, spent its first few decades as a test of human limits.Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour, wished he could engineer a race in which only one rider would make it to the finish line in Paris. The drugs didn’t transform performance—they made it possible. They also weren’t forbidden at all: when the Tour de France switched to national teams in 1930, that year’s rulebook explicitly stated that teams, not race organizers, would have to provide the riders’ drugs.

As new drugs were invented, cycling adopted them. Amphetamines, used militarily during World War II to keep soldiers awake, were adopted by racers when the sport resumed after the war. Vasodilators followed, with their ability to increase blood flow and aerobic efficiency. Nitroglycerin was used to help sprinters recover after the end of races. Jacques Anquetil, the five-time Tour de France winner who ruled the sport in the ‘50s and ‘60s, summed up cycling’s position on doping when he said that “you would have to be an imbecile or a crook to imagine that a professional cyclist who races for 235 days a year can hold the pace without stimulants.” Anquetil was known to use morphine to soothe his lactic acid-deadened legs, amphetamines to counteract the drowsiness from the morphine, and then a sleeping pill to allow him to sleep despite the amphetamines. His contemporaries all had similar routines.

Following the death of a Danish cyclist at the 1960 Olympics, Tour doctor Pierre Dumas led a crusade to outlaw doping, first in the Olympics and then in France. His efforts led to a French ban on performance-enhancing drugs in 1965, so the Tour de France started doping controls in 1966. Riders were urine-tested, and anyone testing positive for banned substances at a race was thrown out, though not suspended further. Despite this system, doping continued more or less unabated. Tom Simpson, Britain’s only real post-war champion before Mark Cavendish’s recent rise to prominence, died from amphetamine-related exhaustion while climbing Mount Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. Eddie Merckx, the greatest cyclist of all time, was twice thrown out of races for positive tests. Doping was a cat-and-mouse game in which every rider unabashedly doped, and the stupid and unlucky sometimes paid a price for it, but not a steep one. A caught rider would be right back in the peloton for the next race. Riders, and sometimes whole teams, would occasionally botch doses badly enough that they would have to abandon races, but the newspapers would just chalk it up to food poisoning or “bad fish.” No one would bat an eye.

In the ‘80s, when other sports were discovering the wonders of anabolic steroids, cycling made its own, more specialized discovery. Oxygen-vector doping, which increases the body’s ability to deliver oxygenated blood to its muscles, arrived when cyclists started to use the drug EPO, originally developed to treat kidney failure. Suddenly racers could go faster and longer than before, and recover more quickly. The ‘90s were an era of explosive riding, of superhuman tactics and an aggressive riding style that had never before been possible. Steep alpine passes, previously a place of suffering and attrition, were now raced like the flats, with blistering attacks and counterattacks. The riding was faster and better than ever before, thanks to EPO’s illegal benefits. Riders considered the racing as fair as ever because, as Belgian Frank Vandenbroucke put it, “[they] raced with equal weapons.” EPO mimicked natural hormones, and was therefore undetectable in tests, so it was everywhere.

In 1998, the authorities caught up with the riders. French customs agents cracked down on teams during the Tour de France. During their raids, they arrested a worker for the Festina team for possession of EPO, growth hormones, testosterone, and amphetamines. The sub rosa culture of doping was suddenly very public, and the sport suffered a massive black eye. As a result, doping controls became more frequent, included blood testing and EPO detection. The World Anti-Doping Agency was set up to help governments control PED use. Since then, the arms race between racers and anti-doping controls has continued, but with much higher stakes. Riders caught doping are suspended from the sport for a year or more and face public criticism and diminished professional prospects upon their return. Riders still dope, because doping still leads to victory, glory, and money. But now one slip can ruin a career. 

Lance Armstrong, as odd as it seems to say, couldn’t have timed his cancer better. He was out of the sport from 1996 until 1998, and upon his return was at the head of the U.S. Postal Service team, which had previously been a bit player in the sport. Had he not endured the caesura of treatment and had to form his own team upon his return, as a major young talent he would have spent 1997 and 1998 on one of the major European teams, all of which were later caught in various doping scandals. All of Armstrong’s major rivals throughout his run of Tour victories have been tied to illegal drug use, more often through investigations that unearthed evidence of team-wide doping than individual failed tests. Whether you think Armstrong doped or not, the USPS position as an American team trying to break into a European sport protected them from falling into the same patterns and traps his European adversaries did. He spent his post-comeback career fighting allegations from the English and French media of cheating, but he passed every doping control and no evidence was ever tied to him or his handlers.

Since his retirement, he has been fighting Jeff Novitzky, the FDA agent whom you may remember from his (largely fruitless) pursuit of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Several of Armstrong’s USPS lieutenants, like proven dopers turned public accusers Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton and loyal friends (at least publicly) Frankie Andreu and George Hincapie, gave sealed testimony. Armstrong himself was never brought before the grand jury to testify, presumably because, unlike Bonds or Clemens, he is both charismatic and not delusional. The federal prosecutors made noises to suggest they were getting close to indictments at several points of the investigation, but now they have given up, and it seems like Armstrong will remain officially pristine.

Alberto Contador, on the other hand, has exhausted his possible appeals, and now must serve his two-year suspension, minus time already served before his initial appeal. This is not his first suspension; in 2006, Spanish Guardia Civil arrested Eufemiano Fuentes, a doctor who had worked with many professional cyclists, after finding steroids and blood doping equipment during a raid of his home. A list of riders was found which included Contador’s name, and those riders were barred from that year’s Tour de France, the first after Armstrong’s retirement. Contador’s name was cleared later that year, and in 2007 he signed on with the Discovery Channel team and won his first Tour de France. During the 2010 Tour, he tested positive for a minute amount of clenbuterol during a rest day. He claimed the meat came from tainted Spanish steak he ate, which is plausible, but trace amounts of plasticizer were also found in his blood. Although not forbidden, as the test to detect them is new, plasticizers indicate a recent blood transfusion, which in cycling means blood doping. Contador appealed the ruling, and the Spanish Cycling Federation accepted his explanation. The International Cycling Union and the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed that ruling, and now the ICAS has ruled against him.

We will never know whether or not Lance Armstrong cheated. He was never caught or tied to any illegal activity, and he complied with the authorities fully throughout his career. He has also been accused of organizing team-wide drug use throughout his career and linked to disgraced doctor Michele Ferrari. More circumstantially, but also most damning, he whipped all comers in the sport’s toughest and most prestigious race for seven straight years that included the back half of the EPO era. If he did it clean, he is better than an entire generation that rode dirty. Similarly, we will never know if Alberto Contador was the victim of a bad cut of meat, or if he got caught using blood he had stored up during the offseason after chemically modifying his body. Both explanations are plausible, and irrefutable proof would have come out by now if it existed. In cycling, doping is a crime shrouded in privacy and secrecy, where innocence is impossible to prove beyond doubt and guilt is always accompanied by protests of innocence.

The UCI (like the NCAA) attempts to change events ex post facto by vacating the victories of caught cheaters. We cannot re-race the 2010 Tour de France, and we cannot know what would have happened if Alberto Contador had been removed from the race after his test on that July 21. Despite that uncertainty, Andy Schleck is now officially the winner of the 2010 Tour de France. The man who lost the race when Contador gained twenty-six seconds on him after his chain popped off on a climb, the man who has finished second in that race the past three years running, is now the winner of record. Putting aside the fact that a yellow jersey awarded in a courtroom must be a singularly unrewarding trophy for Schleck, what is gained by erasing Contador’s name from the UCI’s records? It may please the UCI to officially revoke his yellow jersey, but to do so changes nothing. Contador failed a test and lost his appeal, so he should be condemned and exiled for his two years. To erase him from the races entirely is to pretend that he was never there, that the Tour de France we watched was not the true Tour.

Many of cycling’s great victories were won by riders racing with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. Many of the competitors they bested were also doping. It is a great sport, but also a sport that has been intertwined with doping since its inception. The UCI can wish it otherwise, but to remove cyclists caught doping from the results in a Stalinesque erasure assumes an ownership of history that the organization does not have. It controls the sport’s present and future, but the history belongs to all of us. To eject a guilty rider from a race is only fair; to erase a winner from the record books is not. The punishment a rider bears, beyond his suspension, is in the loss of public esteem. The UCI doesn’t have the power to take Alberto Contador’s memories of winning, nor does it drive our censure. All the UCI can control—all it should try to control—is who races in tomorrow’s races and how they’re tested. Leave the rest to us.


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