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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Vino tests positive for blood doping - will the last clean rider please step forward?

Well, we did our best. We tried hard to write Tour de France posts without referring to doping or making lame science jokes about doping in some way. But just when we thought we might make it to Paris having seen a great, competitive Tour, which could have been remembered for the ferocious attacks launched by the climbers on the way up to Tignes, the Galibier and Plateau de Beille, it now seems we have a Tour that may again be remembered for the wrong reasons.

First Michael Rasmussen, yellow jersey wearer and aspirant Tour champion hits the headlines for failing to give notice of where he was training leading up to the Tour. That in itself is no problem, he has done nothing wrong, but all of a sudden, journalists and riders are debating doping again. Then today, Alexandre Vinokourov, the hero of the race, the poster boy for the human spirit, is reported to test positive for a homologous blood transfusion. He is suspended, his team quits the Tour, and yet again, on the eve of what might have been one of THE great battles of the Tour de France - Contador vs Rasmussen on the Col d'Aubisque - we are rudely reminded of the fact that we must think twice before we celebrate any rider's performance in the Tour, especially the great ones.

What a tragedy! For the last three days, commentators Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett have done nothing but sing Vino’s praises. A true champion. We even dedicated a whole post to Vino’s remarkable Time-Trial performance in Albi on Saturday. A remarkable performance which, it now seems, was powered by blood infusions! Vino, who conjures up images of gladiators, courage, warriors and mental toughness. Vino, who stands for the guts and determination and strength of character. Of all the cyclists in the peloton, he is the one that the sport could least afford to lose to a positive drug test. Because if Vino is doping, then how are we supposed to react to a great ride from a "lesser mortal"? Forgive the dramaticism, but it’s really very sad.

Of course, we may be reacting too soon – it wouldn’t be the first time a positive test is announced by a French newspaper, only to be squashed/challenged/defied later on – remember Floyd Landis a year ago? So perhaps we should not pass judgement too soon. In fact, we know we shouldn’t. It would be nice to give him the benefit of the doubt, remaining hopeful that Saturday and yesterday were indeed examples of the depth of performance that is possible given the desire and will to win. But the point is, we now have doubts. Cycling nearly managed to pull itself out of the drug-induced malaise it was in, thanks to Soler Hernandez, Gerdemann, Contador and co. But first Rasmussen and then Vino, and we’ll step back down to join the legions of sceptics, unfortunately.

But just as the Tour goes on, so do we. And so over the next few days, we'll keep going on our plan to bring you the physiology of the Tour, and maybe we'll restrain our cynicism until later, when this is all confirmed.

Bring on Paris


alan sleath said...

If drugs is so rife in cycling
why then cant it be legal and surely then it levels the playing fields and those who want to risk their health by doing it sign some
i acknowledge the risks etc etc.

LuckyLab said...

What a real shame. Like Floyd's ride, however, I still take the joy at the performance and the entertainment I got from the ride. It worries me a tad that these races requiring such a superhuman effort will never totally get clean.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Alan and LuckyLab

I guess to answer the first one, it's a difficult one to try to respond to. There has to be a ceiling, and in the case of drug use, that ceiling is represented by the banned list. So while drug use is probably rife, I do suspect that the laws keep a check on it. if they didn't, then cyclists would die as a result, and that's morally wrong. Because more people would take drugs, firstly (it's not 100% prevalent at the moment), and secondly, they'd take more than they currently are. And then the winner would be the guy who's willing to risk the most, but will also be the one who is dead at 35, with his 4 Tour titles! So I can't see that being an option, just because morally, it's wrong. That may sound oversimplified, but this is actually one of the big debates in the sports sciences - about a year ago, there was a series of articles suggesting exactly this, plus all the counter-arguments.

To LuckyLab, agreed, it was fantastic to watch, and I'm sure today, if Contador and Rasmussen attack on the Aubisque, it will be enthralling. But there's always that seed of doubt, if Rasmussen manages to break away from Contador - is it drugs? Is it his training?

Not that this wasn't there before, it's just that of all the pro cyclists, Vino was the one who most needed to be clean, because he stood for the potential of the human spirit, unaided. Now he's no longer that person, so let's hope a new guy stands up.

But like you, I worry it will never be totally clean, there's always this shadow hanging over any great performance.

Thanks for your comments.
R & J

Anonymous said...

A great tragedy.I almost felt cheated for having felt so inspired by his rides on saturday and monday.Once I managed to put my emotion aside, I realised that Vino is not the only guilty party. I am sure he is not trained at blood transfusion and even if he was it might be tricky to do it to himself.Ross and Jonathan, maybe you will be able to shed some light on something for me. Do pro cyclists have freedom to go as they please during the tour. I mean could Vino have gone round the corner to his doctors offices for a quick transfusion? I am guessing not. Their every move must be watched by team doctors or managers. I am not saying he didn't have a choice or didn't instigate the doping, but he should not be the only one to pay for this. And pay he will. One years salary and a two year ban. Ouch!But as you say, lets give him the benefit of the doubt until the B sample comes back. Lets just enjoy todays stage and hope it is an epic battle.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for your interest and support.

You have highlighted a very important part of the doping in sport, and that is the emotional toll it exerts on the fans.

I feel at once confused, angry, and doubtful, yet also sympathetic when I hear athletes profess their innocence only to to entirely caught out by positive samples and a heap of secondary evidence that proves they were doping. Yet they remain steadfast and as vehement as ever that they did not do it. Tyler Hamilton is the case in point here.

And I find myself thinking. . ."Well, what if he really did not do it?" Surely with all the evidence he would just fess up or at least shut up? But no, they go on and on and on, which leaves us in this emotional no man's land, not knowing what to think or feel!

Re their movements during the tour: There must be corroboration with other individuals, and most likely with a team doctor. The most recent allegations are that the teams use motorcyclists with refrigerated panniers to bring in the blood for transfusions.

Also, many former cyclists have mentioned how in the 1990's everyone had their EPO in thermoses to keep it cold, and in the hotels at night between stages they would all see each other filling their thermoses with ice.

For a great article written by Professor Tim Noakes on why we cannot allow drugs in sport:

Should We Allow Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Sport? A Rebuttal to the Article by Savulescu and Colleagues

International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching

Vol 1, No 4, 2006

Contact us at sportsscientists@gmail.com. I have a pdf of this text.