For the past year, little has been certain in the sport of cycling. One year ago, on the eve of the start of the 2006 Tour de France, it was anticipated that Italy's Ivan Basso was the heir apparent to 7-time victor Lance Armstrong. But just before the start of the Tour, Basso, along with several other prominent riders, was implicated in the Puerto Scandal and was barred from riding in the race. Then, after what many had called the greatest comeback in the history of the Tour, 2006 champ Floyd Landis' win was thrown into doubt when doping tests came back positive.
For the past few months, new scandals have arisen. Basso, once thought to have been exonerated, joined Armstrong's Discovery Channel team, only to leave the team when new facts came to light and Basso was forced to admit his involvement. Nearly every day, a new rider is under suspicion or has been suspended. The question isn't who will win this year's Tour, but, more to the point, who will even get to ride in it? (I'll be rooting for Thomas Voeckler.)
My friend, Eric Matthies, and I have been talking a lot about the upcoming Tour. I must admit that my feeling over the past year is that the riders were getting screwed over, that the strange actions of the testing labs and the non-sensical results and sloppy evidence handling, were at least implied evidence of some kind of nefariousness. Unfortunately, recent developments have not tended to support my conspiracy theories. Eric, meanwhile, has spoken from a more informed POV, and so I asked him to write something about the doping scandals for the blog.
In addition to being a fine person to talk over sports scandals (and a committed cyclist), Eric is a filmmaker. His first doc short, Ayamye, which he co-directed with partner Tricia Todd, has been screening in the traveling Bicycle Film Festival, after premiering earlier this year in Santa Barbara (there's a YouTube interview with both of them here). Eric and Tricia just completed principal photography on their new documentary feature, a year in the life of "The Father of Rap", legendary R&B/rock and roll musician Andre Williams. Furthermore, he writes the Human Powered Transport blog, where he will no doubt be keeping tabs on the latest news regarding this year's Tour de France.
Here's Eric lengthy look at the doping scandals, complete with a long list of links for further investigation:
“The teams are no longer made up of sportsmen, but of professionals who take all the measures necessary to do their work” – Willy Voet, 1999
“It's perverse, but the doping system is just, because everyone dopes. Cycling without doping is only just when really no one is doping any longer. The logic is you adjust your performance level to the rest, because everyone is doing it. In cycling, you live in a parallel world.” - Jorg Jaksche, 2007.
Despite the air of suspicion, the tumultuous accusations of doping and the amnesty-seeking confessions of washed up heroes, I will watch and enjoy the Tour de France this year. I can now approach this, and the enjoyment of all sport, with a veil lifted. Regardless of the arguments made by sanctioning officials that all possible means to ensure fair fights are taken, I know the truth. I will watch le Tour with amusement, placing private bets with myself as to which rider is on which combination of drugs, who has not planned their ‘preparation’ correctly or grew impatient and boosted the load, who is boomeranging from too much of a ‘charge’ earlier in the season, who had what injection on a particular stage. It will be fun, this new way of viewing the race, guessing at the true science behind each thrilling feat of human endurance. With the assurance that all but a few in the field are equally prepped and charged, I will know that the terms are level. Perhaps not the ‘level’ that is portrayed by the public face of the riders and the media but an even field just the same.
Think of it like this: In motor sport, all aspects of the vehicle are regulated by set limits and controls that each team must adhere to. Doing so means keeping the fuel mixture right up to the numbers issued by the governing body, tuning the engine to the maximum allowable outputs, trimming the aerodynamic bits of the car to the exact millimeter specified and so on. In cycling it is no different, save for the fact that the engine is a human being. A cyclist is prepared for his racing schedule by a network of doctors, directors, soigneurs and mechanics. In addition to deciding the routes, planning the training rides and maintaining the bicycles this team also tunes the racer’s body to meet the limits set by the sanctioning organizations. To ensure the racer’s endurance, stamina, output and recovery certain treatments are used; some permissible, some not and some that fall in grey areas. The UCI, National teams and in small part the Olympic Committee determine not only what medicines are allowable but in what amount these substances are permissible in the body. Additionally they measure various chemical levels and have set limits based on naturally occurring results in control tests. The most famous of these is the hematocrit, or red blood cell levels of the riders, which has been capped by the UCI to limit at 50. Blood balance determines oxygen levels in the blood and relates to muscle endurance, power output and recovery. Natural levels would run around the 40’s, so it behooves the athlete and his or her team to ensure that they are raised and a maximum level is maintained. Before this limit was set, riders frequently boosted their hematocrit levels to 60 or above. Many died, which I will discuss shortly.
The drugs EPO, Aranasp and newer experimental medicines are what do the work. These are treatments with very important real-world applications in saving the lives of cancer and kidney disease patients. They are quite expensive and also require much more than a simple injection to work. Because they thicken the blood, running risk of clots and heart failure especially during rest, a body under preparation with a drug like EPO requires observation and balance. This comes in the form of perfectly legal medical operations such as intravenous drips and the spinning of the blood in a centrifuge to track the hematocrit levels. An athlete on a course of EPO must also be awakened periodically through the night to prevent the pulse rate from slipping so low as to cause risk of seizure or heart failure. In this century it has come full circle as newer methods of extracting, modifying and then re-introducing the athlete’s own blood have once again become the standard practice.
These are not operations that can be done cheaply or single-handedly and of course this is where the team doctors and soigneurs come into play. A soigneur is the masseur but much more; they are the riders’ confidants, psychologists and nutritionists. They also transport, store and administer the drugs, usually with the cooperation of the doctors and often within an organized program set up by the team from the top. On lesser teams, perhaps it is the riders themselves who independently seek particular doctors and soigneurs known for their ‘programs’. Many of the sought-after masseurs in this odd profession are shaman, magicians, charlatans and occasionally, innocently, just a damn good pair of hands. Willy Voet was one of these men, whose famous border crossing with a car full of dope led to the Festina Scandal of the 98 Tour. Willy broke the chain of omerta – the code of silence - after only four of his sixteen days in prison. For his honesty he received a 3-year ban and never returned to the sport. He wrote a book on his experiences, outlining not only the drugs employed to prepare racers, but also the methods used to hide them, to cheat urine tests and to avoid detection. Perhaps most spectacularly, he revealed that he and his fellow support team workers were also quite often ‘charged up’.
Jorg Jaksche, recently defrocked (in the same Puerto scandal that nabbed Basso) cycling saint, has come forward recently with some interesting statements. Instantly, his peers, who once celebrated him as a gentleman of the peloton, turn against him with the old refrain; he’s telling tall tales for the money. Among the highlights: "Yes, I did dope, but I never overdid it, I never took artificial hemoglobin or stuff like that, where you can get an allergic shock. And you calm yourself by saying that a guy who does bodybuilding takes 16,000 units of growth hormone a day, and I only took 800 units once in a while for regeneration. Then you think: Well, it's not that much after all.”
In light of the recent murder/suicide of a prominent pro wrestler, Jaksche’s statements are worth considering. In the murder case, ‘roid rage is widely discussed as the cause, compounded when the deceased athlete’s doctor was charged last week with prescribing 10 month quantities of steroids to the man every month. In a less-reported story, but one closer to cycling, an Eastern European world champion of the track hung herself the same week as the Benoit incident. In this case too, the effect of steroids on the mental state are considered contributors to the tragedy.
In 1998 the courses of EPO to prep for a major tour cost at least ten thousand dollars. Not the kind of money most journeyman cyclists could afford. Certainly not the kind of money that, once spent, he could afford to lose by blowing a piss test. If you factor inflation, it’s hard to believe that individual athletes are self-funding these programs. In the Festina team of the late 90’s, a pool was created into which everyone’s winnings went. The drugs used were individually tracked in a journal and the riders were ‘billed back’ from the slush fund before the year-end divvying of the pot. Some of today’s elite level professional outfits are rumored to have comprehensive doping programs built into the package – a team sponsorship with added bonuses. Until the cycling and sporting press chooses to ask hard questions of the top moneymen funding the teams, very little light will be shed on this element of the debate. Voet’s book has been out since 1999 in his native Flemish and translated to English in 2001. It has been a best seller, yet the clear facts it presents are almost never quoted in today’s press when covering modern cycling controversies such as Floyd Landis or the Puerto affair.
“(The riders) had no idea precisely how the EPO was going to be delivered to them…To calm his charges, (The Director Sportif) called Spain, then put down the receiver and reassured us; ‘It’s coming in tomorrow by plane.’” – W. Voet, 99
Might not any of the long-time journalists covering cycling, who have no doubt read Voet’s book (if not seen these truths with their own eyes), mentioned this quote in the summer of ‘06, when the Spanish police cracked the blood doping ring known now as Operacion Puerto? If nothing else, it shows a historical connection between nefarious doctors in Spain and the primary scandal in the sport. Well, they didn’t. Even today, publications support and defend suspected and convicted dopers while their editor issues snarky blog postings that insinuate a much more detailed knowledge (wink, wink) of the cheating. Why not tell the truth, print names and send out the investigative pit bulls to tip the can? Well, then they’d not get all the gravy; the free trips to Europe, the insider/cool-guy status, the expensive bikes to test and keep and, most importantly, the fat paycheck for keeping up the illusion of an honest sport. It’s telling that the man Voet fingers as the money man - the financial connection to the suppliers of the drugs used by the French national team - was also the team's publicity man.
In the current case of Floyd Landis, much was made early on that the drug he had tested positive for, testosterone, would not have contributed to his astounding comeback victory on Stage 17. Domestic pro Joe Papp, himself busted and serving a two-year suspension for doping, outlined in court exactly how he had used testosterone and other drugs to achieve just such remarkable results. These products are not always used to enhance a spectacular performance but rather to recover fully and quickly from a maximum exhaustive effort the days before. Willy Voet knew it for twenty odd years and published accounts of its use and successes in his book last decade. So quickly we are willing to forget, dismiss and ignore.
Landis has now come out with a book, co-written by a journalist who covered his hearings without ever announcing her participation in writing the novel. The principal issue with this apparent lack of concern for journalistic integrity are statements made in the book that don’t match transcribed testimony from the courtroom. Fair and balanced reporting indeed. Around the same time, Irish journalist David Walsh has published an incendiary book detailing allegations of a deeply embedded organized doping program within American cycling. Of course, he is vilified, particularly in the press whose noses are most browned by their kissing up to the king US cycling, himself a widely accused doper. Witnesses involved with both the Landis and Armstrong cases find themselves smeared and tainted in the racing news with nary a balanced question asked. Given the voracity of attention given to the content of Walsh’s book, look for the tide to turn as major sporting news outlets swoop in to do what our own press will not: that is, practice investigative journalism.
In recent times a small number of professional cyclists have dared to speak out and ignore the code of silence about drug use. While most of them did this after getting busted for doping, they have taken various routes to trumpet their truths about cheating. Some have written books, others created websites; all have spoken to the media. To a man they have been portrayed as crybabies, rabble-rousers, sore losers, sellouts and out-right liars, primarily by the cycling press. With the current retroactive confessions of high-profile racers in Germany, the trials of fallen champions in Italy, America and Spain and last week’s raids in Belgium these outspoken men don’t look like such crackpots to me. Jaksche in particular might be the loudest voice actually heard, as his accusations cover a decade of top-flight teams now accused of engaging in well organized doping. About Telekom he says: “It was a well-established system. Godefroot didn't want to prevent doping, but he wanted to prevent inept doping."
Tragically, many cyclists – and no doubt athletes of other stripes as well – have died as a direct result of doping. How many heart attacks of people between the ages of 24 and 38 does it take to arouse suspicion? Apparently many more than the thirty or so who have succumbed thus far. In the 60’s and 70’s it was amphetamine abuse, which continues on to this day and famously claimed Tom Simpson as he struggled up a French mountain road in the 1967 TdF. Gradually steroids, pain killers, EPO, Human Growth Hormones, cortisone, testosterone, synthetic stimulants and other dangerous blends entered the panoply of substances used to gain advantage in a race. EPO was probably the quickest to be accepted among this new lot as it replaced blood packing –the extremely risky practice of oxygenating or thickening the blood by training at high altitude, extracting and storing it, then re-introducing it to the body before a race. Taking injections to achieve the same result seemed much less dangerous but in the early days before the drug’s full effects were known, its abuse could prove fatal. Tour de France winners like Alex Zulle and Bjarne Riis regularly stomped up the cols with hematocrit levels of 60 or more, later admitting it was due to the EPO they were hoovering into their bodies. Sadly, lesser-known names like Mauro Gianetti, Joachim Halupczok and many others are now in the grave for trying similar methods to achieve the same results. The controversial doctor doom to the cycling pros – Michele Ferrari, himself investigated and implicated in numerous doping scandals - once famously claimed that EPO was no more dangerous than orange juice. (He now advises on his website on how you can learn to "ride faster, longer, higher".) The irony has certainly been lost on the families of the fallen.
My attention turns back to the respected sports journalists. I find it’s not so much that I want them to ask questions and speak to the obvious; it’s the lack of interest in what’s not clear that is at the crux of the issue. When Greg LeMond states ‘No one owns me” the inference is that others are bought – who? And by whom? Lance Armstrong is very careful to say ‘I have never tested positive’ but he is less direct in answering weather he has taken banned substances. This apparent contradiction is never thoroughly questioned; when it is the reporter often finds himself sued into submission. Why is the random screening for drugs conducted after a race, when all empirical evidence points to more accurate results if testing is in the morning, before the start as well as at the finish? Much of the illicit history of doping that can be researched tends to circle through Belgium, yet our own National Junior development team goes to no other country for elite training camps. The company that invented EPO and Aranasp sponsors the largest race in North America, yet they do not test for these illegal stimulants in any of the screens at their own race. This fact is reported, and then followed up by little more than articles praising the sponsor for supporting education programs about proper use of their medicines.
Following this year’s Giro d’Italia, three famous riders tested ‘non-negative’ for a steroid used in asthma inhalers. Thanks to doctors' notes, the riders got a hall pass. Sadly, at first no journalist bothered to do a simple webMD search to find that the drug in question, Salbutamol, is also an injectable steroid used to relax tightened muscles and help cut weight in seriously ill and bed-ridden patients. Now with the on-off-on banning of Petacchi from le Tour having reached a crescendo, the facts are clearly in print. Perhaps it is not the journalist’s responsibility to uncover controversy in these potential coincidences but it is clearly their job to maintain the mysteries and uphold the myth of sporting legend.
It’s not just the media that is complicit in upholding this illusion. The core fans are just as guilty. Someone who has followed racing obsessively and read the histories has to have seen some ugly truths. When another racer confesses or tests positive these certainly aren’t shocking revelations to the tifosi. Yet the willingness to shutter our eyes is so great that the emperor’s new clothes are always beautiful. This extends beyond cycling; it’s no different in home-run derbies or runs for championship cups. When the man said ‘no longer sportsmen but professionals…’ he wasn’t just talking about the rolleurs. Anyone who really believes that the endurance needed to play any sport at a world-class level is achieved through calisthenics and a hearty meal is seriously deluded. The stakes are simply too high to allow the results to be up to fate and physical conditioning. The audience is merely the catalyst for monetization in every sport; the men who fund and gamble on the teams call the shots. If you missed the pun, the shots they call for are often cortisone, nandrolone, HGH and Aranasp. It’s no coincidence that at least seven major on-line betting shops sponsor top-flight football and cycling teams on the world stage. Perhaps slightly more intriguing to this line of discussion is the handful of major pharmaceutical companies who sponsor elite cycling clubs and major stops on the professional tour. The fans accept all of this without a blink so long as there’s a summer full of races and a calendar full of championship tournaments.
Of course I have favorite racers; athletes who seem to be not only fantastic bike handlers with race winning speed but also come across in the media as sincere and genuine people. I want to believe they are clean, and that is the fan’s conflict; the reason we are so willing to participate in the charade. Surely our personal picks aren’t the ones cheating. I want to believe in the Jens Voigt’s, the Michael Rich’s, the Hincapie’s and the Betini’s. I will cheer for them but under no illusions of their saintliness; perhaps it needs to be enough that they simply never test positive.
Within the networks of teams at the elite level of cycling, many illustrious figures from the pages of doping history still populate the races. They are racers, director’s sportif, soigneurs, managers and doctors. You can find names from the police blotters of Europe safely ensconced with cushy positions in the sport. Names have been named in ex-racer turned journalist Paul Killmage’s book “Rough Ride”, in Voet’s writings and in the testimonies of racers like Manzano and others. The very records of the UCI tell the stories of suspensions, fines, conspiracies, convictions, suicides and deaths. It’s not just the racers who are using; if one is to believe Voet, the jester’s court that keeps the whole operation running are also ‘charged’. When that caravan of team vehicles goes careening down the road after the racers, figure that more than half the drivers are zooted out of their heads on speed, having stayed up half the night for weeks on end juicing the riders. Lest we forget, and it bears repeating, the connection between the team and the suppliers in Voet’s story is the PR flack. How is it possible to believe that every effort is being made to clean up the sport when factual accounts of cheating by these methods can be documented decades back in the history of the sport? Furthermore, the very men and women proved in those histories to have cheated, doped and lied – to have perfected the systematic abuse of drugs - are for the most part still integral to the game.
As a cyclist and occasional amateur racer it’s all enough to make me hang up the cleats, or at least go puke in my shoes. Too quietly, a case is building around a series of raids in Belgium, widely suspected to involve the team of the current and previous World Champion. A politician linked to the case has said evidence will show a deep program of doping extending through the amateur ranks and even into the youth levels of the sport. It is doubtful that much will come out before Saturday’s launch of la Grande Boucle.
In our own country, HGH, steroids and other performance enhancing substances are widely available on-line and through mail order ads in the back of sports and health magazines. These drugs are openly discussed, shared and used by weekend warriors and gym rats. Celebrities endorse the same products to fight aging, ensure good looks and promote virility. The message to the youth, in fact to the average citizen athlete, is clear – any means necessary to achieve success and fame. Don’t worry; we’ll look the other way if we have to. Think the kids are all right? Look no further than the headline story about a 17 year-old track and field star that so obsessively used an analgesic sports crème she died of methyl salicylate poisoning.
I have personally turned up at a local race, discovered syringes in the parking lot and reported them to the race judges, only to be waved dismissively away. After retrieving the evidence myself in a double plastic bag I was sneered at and told ‘junkies’ often used the lot in the night. Perhaps, but given the current climate of our sport, wouldn’t it be prudent to investigate the situation a little more thoroughly? Especially when the race was being contested and ultimately won by members of a team sponsored by the makers of EPO?
Another time, at the peak of my fitness, bundled up and riding at a quick pace midway through a timed 100 mile ride in a cold drizzle, I was aggressively passed by a screaming, muscle ripped 50 year-old flying by in little more than shorts and a singlet. Roid rage was pretty much the only explanation that I could accept. No proof of course, but my point is that doping is not just for the professionals. Anyone with the money to afford it and the ego to abuse it can and frequently does take whatever advantage they can. This is promoted to us all not only in back page muscle magazine advertisements but by the very fact that our heroic cheating professionals are rarely caught and then only lightly punished. Plausible deniability and the powerful spin of media illusionists simply excuse the offense away until the athlete can safely mount a comeback, often touting clean living and innocence despite the charges for which they served their suspensions. These wrist slaps serve to embolden the kid who aspires to be a Tour de France champion like his heroes by using all measures necessary.
There is some fair and balanced bike-racing going on out there in the world if you know where to look. More appropriate to say perhaps that if you’re willing to look to the fringes, you’ll find exciting competition based on the principals of speed, endurance and above all, fun. This may be construed as mocking or sarcastic; the reality is that these were the most exciting races of the year so far. Unsanctioned street races like Monster Track *, Stuporbowl and The North American Bicycle Courier Championships featured blazing speeds, unique challenges and pretty much guaranteed that any substances being ingested were detrimental, not enhancing to the performance of the cyclists involved.
Off-road epics like Iditabike, TransRockies, TransScotland, Chainbreaker, Leadville and others feature hard men and women from mostly privateer teams racing across gut-wrenchingly beautiful terrain without a drop of EPO in sight. At least I hope that’s the case. You never know, the Brooklyn bike messengers might be totally hopped up on ‘roids, but I kinda doubt it. Our cycling heroes should be regular Joe’s and Jane’s who push themselves and their machines across challenging courses against the clock, and then return to a desk at an accounting firm somewhere in middle America.
So back to le Tour. As I started out saying, I will watch with renewed enthusiasm this year. Not for the spectacle of competition between hard working sportsmen, but for the circus of lies around their professional cheating. The first thrill will be in who actually makes it to the start line at the London prologue. From there I will watch for the mysterious bandage that may hide a condom full of clean urine to dupe the test at the end of the stage. I will wonder aloud at the reports of viruses and colds laying an athlete low early in the race, only to see them make a remarkable attack at the first mountain passes. When the young bucks that fought so valiantly this past spring to make selection to The Grande Boucle start to falter, I will cry ‘boomerang!’ and devour another waffle. Who knows, one of these unknowns lucky enough to have gotten the preparation correct may win the whole bloody thing. With the prospect of many big names and big teams yet again being struck from the rolls by raids and accusations, it could be a very open field. When each stage ends, still early in the morning here on local TV, I will walk out to the garage fueled up on sugar and caffeine and last night’s bar tab, grab my bike and as ever enjoy the ride.
Links to ponder:
Fox Sports: Book it - Doping stories will eclipse tour
Ask the Doctor: The surprising dual toll of doping
Sports Illustrated: Some athletes allowed to bend drug rules
Marco Pantani official site
Simeoni testifies: Dr. Ferrari prescribed EPO
Wikipedia: Filippo Simeoni
Growth Hormone Schemes and Scams
Do Anabolic Steroids Cause "Roid Rage"?
Salon.com: 'Roid Rage
Pigs fed on bodybuilder steroids cause food poisoning in Shanghai
Another Drug War
NY Times: Two Aides to Armstrong Doped
Winning at All Costs
Bicycling.com: Understanding the doping scandal
Cycle of Confession: As a Tour winner admits using drugs, the wall of silence is coming down
Wikipedia: José Maria Jiménez Sastre
EPO Use in Pro Cycling
Drugs and the Tour de France by Ramin Minovi
Track cyclist Ben Karsten's tour diary
Lance Armstrong lashes out at David Walsh book charges