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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Tour de France 2008

3 weeks in July 2008: Are we optimistic to expect a clean tour?

The Tour de France begins on Saturday. And while I wish that I could be as optimistic and excited about it as I was perhaps five, maybe ten years ago, there is so much water under the bridge for cycling that my enthusiasm is drastically tempered by my cynicism!

It's true that so far in 2008, we've given cycling a very poor run here at The Science of Sport. In fact, I don't think we've done a single post on the sport, including through the Classics season and the Giro d'Italia! That's partly because there's been so much to write about in other areas, but it's also because, I must confess, the constant negative press, the deception and the farcical attitude of certain people within cycling has really put me off the sport a little - Pat McQuiade, the head of the UCI, last year denied that cycling had a doping problem, despite the fact that millions of dollars was being lost as sponsors pulled the plug on their riders.

So just as those sponsors decided to jump ship, I guess our own attitudes reflect the general malaise around the sport of cycling. The 2008 Tour will start without its defending champion, Alberto Contador, who happens to be on a team (Astana) with a track record of doping. It also starts without one of its great sprinters, Tom Boonen, who returned a positive test for cocaine recently. And then of course, it starts with memories of last year's Tour, where two high profile "heroes" were expelled for positive tests. And the memories of the last ten Tours, where drugs have never been far from the headlines.

However, since no one likes a cynic, we do eventually have to find some light, and so over the next few weeks, as cycling's greatest race unfolds, we'll focus on the action. Funny thing is, last year, we promised the same thing - as I recall, we did a series of posts leading up to the race on doping, but we promised that as soon as the racing began, we'd leave the doping and discuss only the action.

Turns out the action in 2007 was the doping! First it Landis, who didn't even take to the line, the first "Champion" to be stripped due to his 2006 positive test. Then was Vinokourov, one of the "heroes" of the sport, who tested positive and got the boot. Then it was Rasmussen, the yellow-jersey wearer, sacked from his team in sight of the finish line. And so the 2007 Tour, which began with much hope, ended as perhaps one of the three most controversial tours ever. Let's hope 2008 is not the same.

There is some light on the horizon, I'll concede. In what is a telling indictment on the sport (the UCI, that is), most of the pressure to "clean up cycling" has come from the free market - the sponsors, the media, the event "owners", and the riders themselves, who are sick of the negativity surrounding the sport. The "clean up" campaign includes profiling of athletes' blood to establish a baseline against which subsequent testing can be compared, and also the somewhat powerless committment by cyclists to race drug free. The talk has been loud and it has been positive. Whether this is a true revolution remains to be seen, because the culture of doping in cycling is so deep, it may take generations to remove.

A culture of doping in cycling: History tells a story

But since we have a few days until that action starts, I thought I would go back to a post that was done last year in the lead-up to the race, and rework it for now. That post concered the culture of doping in cycling, and how historically, cyclists have taken to drugs just as you or I would take to a Gatorade during our training runs or rides.

It was about last year this time that Bjarne Riis, the winner of the 1996 Tour, admitted to doping. The problem is that he does not appear to be an isolated case, and even within that race of 1996, the top 4 riders all have some sort of history or track record of doping. The same goes for every single winner of the Tour de France since 1996 - either they are known drug users, or they are rumoured to have doped (with plenty of circumstantial evidence), or they are currently being tried (as in the case of Floyd Landis). And so I wrote last year that the "deeper you dig, the uglier it gets" for the sport of cycling.

The first point is that the Tour de France must be one of the first sporting events where doping was practiced. As far back as the early 1900's, riders were drinking wine and using strychnine to "dull the pain". Then, with World War II came the introduction of amphetamines, which were initially created to assist soldiers in battle to remain alert and focused.

They were soon used by professional cyclists, among them Tom Simpson, who famously died near the summit of the Mont Ventoux in the 1960's. In the legendary book Put me back on my bike by William Fotheringham, Simpson is credited with the following quote:

“I know from the way they ride the next day that they are taking dope. I don’t want to have to take it – I have too much respect for my body – but if I don’t win a big event soon, I shall have to start taking it”

Also at this time, one of the men to have won the Tour five times, Jacques Anquetil, was in his prime. Anquetil perfected the use of “the Anquetil cocktail” comprising a painkiller, morphine or palfium, injected directly into painful muscles even whilst cycling; an amphetamine to offset the somnolent effect of morphine; and a sleeping tablet, Gardenal, to allow sleep when the stimulatory effects of the amphetamines were still active. Anquetil’s recorded comment is 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 also reportedly stated:

“For 50 years bike racers have been taking stimulants. Obviously we can do without them in a race, but then we will pedal 15 miles an hour (instead of 25). Since we are constantly asked to go faster and to make even greater efforts, we are obliged to take stimulants”

A final quote comes from a cyclist, Jesus
Manzano (I do acknowledge that these quotes and statments are sometimes inspired by ulterior motives and might be sour-grapes, but given the number of them, they need to be heard), who was banned in 2004 for using doping products:

“They said that I was a rotten apple, but I now believe that the whole tree is rotten … When you train a lot your haematocrit goes down, so how is it possible for someone to go to the Dauphiné or the Giro with a (haematocrit) level of 52%. How do they get it up to this level? With EPO. But it’s the UCI’s (Union Cycliste Internationale) fault. Because they could sort it out very easily. They could take that cyclist to Lausanne, get him to spend a year training (without access to EPO) and see what happens. He won’t end up (with a haematocrit) at 52%, but at 38%. He won’t even be able to get out of bed. But it’s all a farce. The only ones who are getting rich are some of the doctors, and not the cyclists… I have a witness who said that one doctor was asking for six million pesetas (£30 000) to use his preparation methods. Will they be asking for six million for just aspirin and mineral salts?”

So this is the culture of the Tour de France, unfortunately. I once attended a presentation by Dr Alejandro Lucia from Spain, who
was a research scientist of the Banesto team that included Miguel Indurain and Alex Zulle. His opinion on the matter was that to the cyclists, the use of doping products had become as acceptable as drinking Gatorade or some other energy drink during the race.

So just as you might plan to run a marathon or go for a long ride and feel that you can't do without some energy bars or gels, so too professional cyclists feel that doping is not an option but a necessity. And this may also be the reason why many cyclists can so easily deny the use of anything illegal - they genuinely believe that it's not illegal, just that it is necessary!

So when they say they have "done nothing wrong", they may actually believe it to be true, even when they might have used hormones or other drugs!

A final quote comes from the judge who presided over the doping case of Richard Virenque. His name is Judge Daniel Delegrove:

"These are not racers, they are pedalling test-tubes"
The 2008 Tour: Optimistic or naive?

Much has happened in the last year since we ran the article that contained these quotes, including the disaster-Tour of 2007 with Vino and Rasmussen. And for the next few weeks, we're going to focus on the racing action, not the doping (unless the doping supercedes it again) with the optimistic belief that we may see a clean Tour for once.

There are interesting ways to analyse this, including estimations of the power output during the mountain stages - there's already some evidence that a typical climbing day in the multi-stage races is being done at a LOWER average power output than it was three years ago.

Also, the somewhat erratic performances of cyclists does tend to suggest a 'cleaner' Tour - the days of a dominant rider cycling away from the field day after day like a Terminator on wheels seem gone. Does that mean less doping? Who knows? It certainly suggests it, because the recovery of riders seems worse now than before, and putting in two big efforts in the mountains seems beyond the normal physiological capacity of the riders. Or is that just a weaker Tour without its big champions? I believe the more open, competitive racing is a reflection of a more even race, where a few riders don't have the clear upper hand they once had. Time will tell if that's true...

Join us over the Tour de France 3 weeks for a race round-up and opinions!



Andrew said...

Question for Jonathan:
Speaking of cycling, I noticed in your bio that you ride with xXx Racing. Do you know Matt O'Keefe? He's a friend of mine in Chicago that rides with that team.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

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

Well, all I can say is that it is a small, small world! I do indeed know Matt, although I think he is a Cat 3 rider and I am still a Cat 4, so generally we do not race in the same bunch.

Funny. I will ask him about you the next time I see him on a ride!

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent blog, please keep up the good work. I very much look forward to reading your new content.

Anonymous said...

Hello Ross and Jon,

While I'm certainly not in favor of athletes putting themselves at mortal risk just to have a chance at winning, I can't help but feel that the recent escalation of negative media about drugs in sports has more to do with raising money for Anti-Doping Agencies.

I can't see what's special about cycling or Tour de France when it comes to drug use by the athletes. They seem to be doing much more about it, while ironically receiving higher criticism, then say American football and baseball.

I have a question about your comment that all TdF winners since 1996 have been involved, or suspected, of drug use. Is there any indication that Lance used drugs, beyond the mere speculation that "since the next 10 guys did, he must have too"? I think one thing in Lance's favor was that he only did the one race, while others were appearing in other Tours and championships.

I did cycle myself up the Mont Ventoux (several times -- without drugs, unless you count bananas), and did stop once to pay my respects to Tom Simpson. I didn't really know who he was before that.


PS: I have a big complaint about your blog -- sometimes you don't write often enough!

Anonymous said...

I cannot resist telling a story:

When Pierre Brambilla (a well known user of amphetamines)lost to Jean Robic on the last day of the Tour in 1947 he reportedly buried his bike at the bottom of his garden. When asked by a reporter about the incident and he replied sarcastically it was to grow bamboo for a new pair of wheels. "Good job you didn't plant your feeding bottles then," the journalist replied, "You'd have grown a pharmacy."


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Ray

Thanks for the mail. Good to hear from you!

I agree with you that cycling has received a much bigger share of the negative press 'spotlight' than other sports, and it's certainly not for a unique problem - baseball's dirty laundry was finally aired towards the end of last year, and it revealed a sport that had pretty much covered up its own drug use for many years.

the same would no doubt happen for many other sports, where the attempts to curtail drug use have not been as strong. cycling still gets attention it deserves though, it's more that the other sports should be scrutinized as closely, not that cycling should not be. I think that cycling for many years also denied its own problems.

if you think back to the big drug busts in the sport, they came from outside "interference" - a police raid on a doctor's practice, a border check that stopped Willy Voet's car in 1998, and so on. Very rarely has the initiative come from the UCI or people within cycling - the only reason those authorities are now "co-operating" is because they have to. McQuaide still denies that there is a problem despite the fact that his sponsors are jumping ship and the ASO don't want anything to do with the UCI (for a number of reasons, including the drug issues).

so the sport is a mess, but I agree that so are others. I guess the Tour de France represents the most powerful spotlight around and it has highlighted those blemishes...

As for Armstrong, well...that's a huge debate. I know what I believe, but unfortunately, "PROOF" is hard to come by (just look at oscar Pistorius and the IAAF!). Actually finding "proof" that people would believe is very difficult - think for a moment about what it would take to believe that Armstrong doped...

Perhaps you say you want a positive test? Well, they have one, but Armstrong, though his media army, managed to bury that result in controversy and doubt - great tactic. Perhaps you need testimony from at least two dozen people, but then that's not proof because it's batted away as "slander". I think that the weight of "circumstantial" evidence - the known benefits of doping is one line of evidence, given that everyone Armstrong beat was a doper, and he somehow did it clean, though i concede that this is not "proof" - the answer is quite clear to me. but people believe what they want to believe.

it's very similar to the Pistorius story - if people want him to run, they will find the evidence suggesting no advantage. Same principle, different situation...

And finally, I'm flattered that you'd like to see more writing, thank you for that!

I wish I could write more - doesn't pay the bills, unfortunately, so often good intentions have to be set aside in the name of "real" work, and I can't do nearly enough. If it was a full time job...ah, one can but dream....


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI George

That's a great joke - it's being published in our next post!


Anonymous said...

Thanks Ross,

I was just pointing out that, even though cycling has its problems, for some reason, the TdF seems to be some kind of scapegoat. People seem to be disgusted with TdF specifically, misunderstanding the scope of the problem.

Don't get me wrong though. Regarding Lance, I'm not looking for iron clad proof to sway some deep conviction, and don't want to reopen any huge debate. I was just wondering, out of my own ignorance of not following everything, if he was ever implicated in a scandal, or anything else. Seems like the only foolproof evidence is when the athletes themselves come forward and 'fess up.

Anonymous said...

The joke of doping in cycling is that the system is so widely acknowledged to be broken, the efforts of WADA, UCI, and others to be so ineffective, that even being under suspicion for doping is enough to get a rider fired, blacklisted, or worse. We know that many of the tests used are unreliable or ineffectual, and that for some doping methods there's no test available at all.

The solution that cycling groups have hit upon is to have an increasing-arcane system of rules for behavior, and to can anyone who breaks them. It's not merely a case of "presumed guilty until proven innocent," but "presumed guilty with no chance to prove innocence." If someone says Rasmussen was in Italy on a day he says he was in Mexico, or that Iban Basso knew a guy who doped, the result is the same as if they had been caught red-handed.