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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bo Hamburger admits to EPO use

Danish pro Bo Hamburger has, after denying it for so many years, admitted to using EPO from 1995-1997. This adds yet another pro athlete who denied, denied, denied, and now finally admits he took drugs. In fact Hamburger was the first rider to test positive under the UCI's new testing procedure in 2001. He was later cleared as one of his "B" samples came back negative, even though he admits to doping again in 2005 after an injury.

And the bad news for Danish cycling fans continued as Michael Rasmussen admitted not to doping, but to lying to the UCI about his whereabouts when he missed two pre-tour doping tests earlier this year. He maintains that the nature of his absence was marital problems, and the he lied to protect his private life. He also insists that his team knew about this and even gave him money to travel in France during this time period when he missed the doping tests.

"I have never taken (the banned blood-booster) EPO (erythropoietin) at any point during my career."

Well, that is all good and well, and we believe Rasmussen. It would be insane for a cyclist now to take EPO. The test is improving all the time, and numerous pros have tested positive for it. However, what he has not yet denied is taking a substance called dynepo, which is similar to EPO but one for which there is no test yet.

Where to now?

Since our last post on EPO and this drug's measured effects in a laboratory trial, we have received several comments from readers about doping in sports. The gist of these comments centers around reluctance to believe that the winners are actually doping, and also the real advantage athletes gain when (ab)using performance-enhancing drugs.

In July we wrote on this topic as the Tour de France provided a topical backdrop for these posts. We painted quite a dark picture, it seemed, leading many cycling fans to ask, "Why watch when they are all cheating and on drugs?" We responded with a post about why we should still be fans, and how not to let doping get you down. So we want to reiterate and elaborate a bit on this topic and why, even if so many (top) athletes are doping, why we should still be fans.

Training still predicts performance

In our model we believe that the athlete with the superior training adaptations will ultimately have the best chance at winning an event. How does that work? Well, simply put, the more training and more specific training one does, the larger and better the adaptations one will produce, and it is these adaptations that will predict how well you perform as they allow you to do more work in a shorter period of time (i.e. you ride or run faster).

"Ok, great, but they are still doping," we hear you saying. Indeed they are, but even when doping, the athletes still must go out and train themselves into a coma on a day to day basis. It is still necessary for them to punish their physiological systems, as that "punishment" represents a stimulus for the body to adapt. So in other words, doping does not necessarily make it easier all of the sudden---the athlete still must train day in and day out, and therefore doping is not a short cut in this respect.

Let's be clear, though, that we are not condoning the use of performance enhancing drugs. What we are saying, though, is that when taking drugs an athlete still must put in hours and hours of mind-numbing training. The drugs' role is that they reduce the recovery time, therefore making more (harder and longer) training a possibility. And it is this longer and harder training that ultimately produces larger and more specific training adaptations that then give the athlete an edge.

In addition, the use of drugs during a stage race such as the Tour de France make it possible for a cyclist to maintain a high level of consistency from day to day. So instead of attacking to take the yellow jersey on the first day in the mountains and then melting down the next day from such a heroic effort, the drugs allow for consistent racing, therefore reducing the chance of having a "bad day," and, again, they do this by reducing the recovery time between hard efforts so that it is possible to go again the next and race hard.

So they are all taking it. . .why watch?

In our perhaps cynical opinion a majority of the peleton is indeed using performance-enhancing drugs. However this will not deter us from watching, and here is why. As we mentioned above the drugs do not necessarily make it any easier for a rider to race up a mountain. Do they increase his total capacity to do work? As we mentioned yesterday, the answer is a resounding "Yes." However the athlete is still pushing himself to his limit. The limit has been extended, for sure, as a result of the drugs and their effects, but still they have to attack each other all the way to the top, fighting for every second. So in other words whether they are on drugs or not, they still race at the same intensity---it is just that their total capacity has been enhanced, meaning they can do more, but again at the same intensity as before.

Being fans at heart, we continue to hope that admissions from pros like Hamburger, Riis, Brian Holm and Jesper Skibby continue to encourage others to 1) come clean and admit to past wrongs, and 2) encourage new and younger riders to ride clean.


Meg & Dave said...

The issue of recovery time is probably true, but I think that the law of diminishing returns applys to recovery too. It must. As the super pro athelete adapts to continued abuse, it must get better and better at recovering. I don't think the study you mentioned proved anything about the professional level atheletes ability to recover from great efforts like they have to in a Grand Tour.

Take an athelete like Floyd Landis, for all of his adult life, he pushed his body to the limit practically every week. In his book, he describes some tests he did to see if he could overtrain. It resulted in him essentially going into a comma for a couple days. I would think this kind of training has long lasting physiological affects on a person. Kind of like, if not better than taking drugs.

So maybe they aren't all on drugs, maybe just the less extraordinary ones are on drugs.

Stan Silvert said...

The Landis episode made me tune out the next year's race entirely. I didn't care to watch a single minute. I just wasn't interested any more.

I love nothing more than to see a great athlete perform in triumph, but only when it is done with honor and dignity. Sport without honor isn't sport at all.

There is no dignity left in cycling. I just hope this doesn't happen to the marathon.


Meg & Dave said...

That is sad, all the honest athelets out there deserve more then a write off.

Landis's case has not been closed yet. The arbitors ruled 2-1 against. It is truely unfortunate that athelets are guilty until they can prove their inocence in a court of arbitration set up by the prosecuting agency.

bk said...

Quote: So in other words whether they are on drugs or not, they still race at the same intensity---it is just that their total capacity has been enhanced, meaning they can do more, but again at the same intensity as before.

Does this mean that if all the bikers were on drugs it would be ok and fair and we should enjoy their drug induced performances? This seems to be a blatant acceptance of drugs in sports.

And secondly, if all the top guys are doping what does it say about the actual winners like L. Armstrong? Probability seems to suggest he should have been on something too.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi bk, and thanks for visiting The Science of Sport.

The argument you describe is one to which many people subscribe---that is, using drugs just levels the playing field and therefore is not really giving anyone an edge. This is also an argument that many athletes use to justify taking banned substances. For them it is not cheating---it is simply (re)leveling the playing field and giving them a fair chance.

That is the argument. However we are not condoning the use of performance-enhancing drugs. All we are saying is that regardless of the drug use, they still must fight each other to the line. Do drugs give one cyclist an advantage over another? Most certainly.

However even if one is using and one is clean, they still race each other and the clean cyclist is still fighting for the win. He has the cards stacked against him, but at the same time performance is such a dynamic thing that it does not mean the cyclist on drugs wins every stage. On paper he should, but again performance is a very dynamic and complex thing that is predicted by too many variables to list.

In addition, the differences between these guys are so small. So it is possible among the 3-5 guys left to battle it out on the final climb that one or two of them are clean. They probably will not win the stage, but they won't be that far behind, either.

Cycling is a beautiful sport, and we should all try to do what we can not to let the doping rob us of our enjoyment of it. I think we can still admire the efforts of these cyclists, even though if they are winning they are likely taking something.

With regards to your last comment about all the top cyclists: one only must examine the winners of the Tour de France back to Bjarne Riis, for evidence is available that all of them doped. Even a further examination of the podium in those races will reveal that all of the top cyclists were at some point linked with doping.

So was one single athlete so much better than all of those cyclists that he could beat them (handily) year in and year out? We will let our intelligent readers interpret the data as they see fit, although this topic probably warrants a post on the full analysis of this at some point in the future.

But, as you say, "probability seems to suggest that should have been on something too."

Thanks again for reading and participating in this discussion.

Kind Regards,