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Monday, July 09, 2007

How not to let doping get you down - Why you should watch le Tour

Le Tour, or the Grand Boucle, is upon us again, and, as seems only normal, with a mix of doping scandals and allegations. Many of us are no doubt depressed by this, and can become cynical and turned off by the sport. We have both heard ex-Tour Fanatics express a sense of apathy, and who can blame them? Not a single champion since 1995 has been untouched by rumour, positive tests and allegations. In fact, there isn't even a defending champion in this year's race, with last year's winner (is that Floyd Landis or Oscar Pereiro?) still being decided by a court of arbitration!

Our advice is don't let this get you down, and enjoy watching the next three weeks of the Tour for what it is - a test of physical endurance and strength. Here are two reasons why we should continue to watch and enjoy this year's tour and the sport of cycling.

First, it is quite possible (if allegations are believed, and if it is true that when there is smoke, there is likely to be fire) that more than 70% of the pro peleton is using performance-enhancing drugs. However, this should not detract from how we view the day-to-day battles, racing, and tactics. In an earlier post we talked about how doping does not guarantee a winning performance. In that discussion we described the model of how it is the training that an athlete performs that will ultimately predict performance, and that current doping techniques (such as EPO use, blood doping and growth hormone) permit an athlete to do more frequent, more intense, and longer training by decreasing the recovery time between hard training sessions. The take-home message here is that the athletes still must put in incredible amounts of hours and intense efforts to be at the top of their sport.

Doping (EPO, growth hormone, testosterone, IGF-1, steroids) likely has little effect on motivation and desire to win. So picture this. . .it is late in the Tour and the last mountain stage. Several riders are still in contention. . .as the last climb approaches they all move to the front with their lieutenants. . .and as they begin the climb the fireworks go off and the group of leaders attacks each other all the way to the finish. . .and we ask ourselves two questions:

Question 1: Are they all doping?
If they are in contention, then yes, it is possible that they are doping.

Question 2: Does doping affect their will to win?
The answer to this is less "cut and dried." However, although doping might provide a rider with the ability to do, for example, 20 W more up a climb like l'Alpe, he still must ride his guts out to do it (unless he is on amphetamines, which is unlikely as it is incredibly easy to test for these drugs, and they are an older drug of choice from the 1950's to the 1980's). He still must answer each attack with another and yet another until he cracks or wins.

So while doping with the substances mentioned above certainly enhances performances, the athlete still must exert an incredible effort to win, and the battles we see unfold on the slopes of the grand climbs are just as dramatic as ever---even though the contenders are likely using performance-enhancing drugs. At this stage, let us just stress a key point - we do not condone in any way the use of drugs. People have said that "They all do it, so it's a fair race in the end anyway." This is subtly different from what we are trying to say here. We argue that drug use or not, what you are witnessing is a man-on-man battle in the saddle to see who can win the biggest cycling test on the planet, and for the 45 minutes it takes to climb Plateau de Beille, for example, that's really all that matters. Drug use is something that must be stamped out, that's unquestionable, but you still get to watch the greatest riders in the world do battle, and that's the reason to watch the Tour.

Finally, cycling is a beautiful sport. We are attracted to cycling for different reasons. However, one dominant theme for all of us is that cycling is, indeed, a beautiful sport. There is something very special about watching the peleton roll along a country road, or shatter to bits as riders attack up a climb. The dramas and battles that the riders fight during a race all seem so human, and somehow this strikes a chord deep down in all of us who are drawn to cycling. The sport has a rich and deep history, and therefore is steeped in tradition and its own culture. Admittedly, that culture is rife with doping. But regardless of any cries of cheating (and we know cycling is rife with these, too!), it remains beautiful and majestic to watch.

So do not let it get you down. In the end it is a magical sport and carries with it all the human drama and battles that keep us coming back for more. Drugs or not, it is a spectacular sight to see riders attack each other on a legendary climb, and drugs or not, it is an incredible feat to do what these athletes do. They are all talented athletes, and to watch them perform and push themselves to the limit stirs something deep within us.

So watch with confidence, vote in our online poll on who you think will win, and try not to let the current state of the sport get you down!


Anonymous said...

Whilst agree with much of this post, it is worth remembering that fundamentally if it is man vs artificially enhanced man, the essence of the competition is removed and what we are watching is fake and the experience of the viewer is cheated.

I am a TdF fan and believe in the beautiful sport of cycling, but for me this beauty stems from the simplicity of one man and his bike reaching then pushing the boundaries of his limits. Drugs / doping / cheating will steal this beauty if they are not beaten.

I believe we also need to support the Tour especially at this time when more serious steps are taken to clean up the sport (this may be the cleanest tour ever).

The article seemed to me to be a little bit soft on drugs (I know this was not your intention) almost saying that it doesn't matter, we are still witnessing an extreme physical competition. You have previoulsy referenced the attached link detailing the performance gain of a doper: http://outside.away.com/outside/bodywork/200311/200311_drug_test_1.html I think this is absolutely recommended reading and clearly demonstrates the performance gain of doping - not just the ability to train longer or harder. I see no beauty in a performance based on a syringe.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Thanks for your comment, Jon, and for visiting us here at the Science of Sports.

Yes, this post was a bit "soft" on drugs, and yes, as you mentioned, this was not meant to be the focus of this post.

I agree that doped vs. doped is not an even contest. And unless doping is stamped out, drugs will almost certainly shroud cycling's beauty.

This post was intended to encourage us all to keep some optimism alive, and not to surrender entirely to our cynicism. Even though it might be an unfair battle as a doped and clean athlete attack each other on a climb, we are still witnessing two guys gutting it out and pushing themselves.

Will the doper have the advantage? Almost certainly, but again I maintain that he still must exert himself and fend off attacks. Just because he is doped does not mean he pedals up the climb easily while the clean athletes puke their way to the finish.

I find it difficult to make this point because it seems no matter how I say it, it sounds as if I am soft on the dopers. So again, I do not condone it and it will ruin the sport. . .but I will try to remain optimistic and enjoy the athletic feats of these guys from stage to stage.

Finally, you make an excellent point that we need to remain supportive of the tour (and the sport) even in lieu of the doping allegations and scandals.

Thanks again for your honest comments!

Lei said...

However, if everyone dopes, then isn't the competition even again?

After all, if you gave me drugs, I wouldn't win the Tour de France.

So if all the competitors were given drugs, then the strongest cyclist would still win the race.