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When–if Ever–Was Cycling Drug-Free?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Lance Armstrong Tour de France

Armstrong riding in the 2005 Tour de France. Credit: Bjarte Hetland via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s a great rarity today for someone to achieve athletic success who doesn’t take drugs.” That quote seems rather timely, in the wake of the news that cyclist Lance Armstrong will no longer fight the accusations of doping leveled at him by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The charges may cost Armstrong all seven of his Tour de France titles. The development in Armstrong’s case follows two recent drug suspensions in baseball—in the past 10 days Melky Cabrera, an All-Star outfielder for the San Francisco Giants, and Bartolo Colón, a starting pitcher for the Oakland Athletics, both received 50-game bans after testing positive for artificial testosterone.

But the quote above has nothing to do with modern-day athletics. It comes from a retired track coach quoted in a 1971 New York Times Magazine article. (The article’s author, sportswriter and activist Jack Scott, who died in 2000, has one of the more interesting biographies you’ll find—Oberlin College athletic director, Bill Walton confidant, onetime suspected associate of the Symbionese Liberation Army.) Whether or not the coach’s statement then was somewhat hyperbolic, it’s clear that the drug problem has loomed over the sports world for a long time. And although the abuses in cycling have become harder to ignore in just the past two decades, the sport has been home to all manner of chemical enhancements for more than 100 years.

Jacques Anquetil, a French cyclist who won the Tour de France five times in the 1950s and 1960s, openly admitted to doping. “Everyone in cycling dopes himself,” he said in Scott’s 1971 article. “Those who claim they don’t are liars.” In Anquetil’s era, the agents of choice were stimulants such as amphetamines, but as early as the late 1800s cyclists fueled up with a mixture of coca leaf extract and wine called Vin Mariani, according to a 1983 Hastings Center report.

Baseball, too, had its period of rampant amphetamine use, which is viewed in an almost nostalgic light now that stronger performance enhancers such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormone have tainted the game’s image. But in endurance sports such as cycling, performance enhancement can be especially deadly. At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, a Danish cyclist named Knud Enemark Jensen lost consciousness during a race, fell from his bicycle and died. Postmortem tests reportedly revealed the presence of amphetamines in his system. After English rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died during the 1967 Tour de France, amphetamines were found both in his bloodstream and in a vial tucked inside his jersey.

More recently, cyclists have boosted their endurance with the use of an artificial version of the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, which stimulates red blood cell production and boosts the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Danish cyclist Bjarne Riis, who won the 1996 Tour de France, later admitted that he used EPO during that time.

EPO thickens the blood, and it also has proved dangerous. After a spate of suspicious rider deaths, a 1991 New York Times article highlighted the deadly potential of the drug du jour. “There is no absolute proof, but there’s so much smoke that most of us are convinced,” University of Oklahoma hematologist Randy Eichner told the newspaper. “You just don’t get 18 deaths in four years, mysteriously, with 10 of them attributed to cardiac problems.”

Cycling insiders, too, noticed drastic changes in 1991. That is the year that three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond thinks that EPO took over his sport. As he told Scientific American writer Michael Shermer in 2008, “Something was different in the 1991 Tour. There were riders from previous years who couldn’t stay on my wheel who were now dropping me on even modest climbs.” LeMond had won the race the two previous years, but he fell to seventh place in 1991.

Indeed, since the mid-1990s there have been few Tour winners who did not later run afoul of antidoping authorities. A quick look at 15 years of victors:

  • 1996: Bjarne Riis (EPO; retains title)
  • 1997: Jan Ullrich, Germany (found guilty of doping in 2012; race results annulled back to 2005)
  • 1998: Marco Pantani, Italy (failed a blood test at the 1999 Giro d’Italia; died of a cocaine overdose in 2004)
  • 1999–2005: Lance Armstrong, U.S. (accused of doping; titles likely to be stripped)
  • 2006: Floyd Landis, U.S. (race-day tests revealed elevated testosterone levels; title stripped)
  • 2007: Alberto Contador, Spain (see below)
  • 2008: Carlos Sastre, Spain (clean)
  • 2009–2010: Contador (tested positive in 2010 for clenbuterol, an anabolic agent; 2010 title stripped)

It’s a sad state of affairs, but perhaps the latest developments will provide some vindication for LeMond, who has long voiced suspicions about Armstrong, Contador and others. If Armstrong’s seven Tour wins are vacated, just as Landis’s 2006 victory was, LeMond will once again become the only American cyclist to have officially won the world’s most prestigious race.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. GG 7:39 pm 08/24/2012

    Cycling hundreds of miles is not a natural activity, and we should question whether this can be considered a natural sport.

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  2. 2. Kurt Erlenbach 9:42 pm 08/24/2012

    I became a cyclist after being diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, and I credit cycling with being a big part of my recovery. I started cycling while doing chemo, and I got a few shots of EPO (Aranesp) when my red blood count crashed. This I know. That stuff is magic juice. It can turn a bad day into a good day, and I expect that it can turn a good day into a great day. I fully understand how adding a few points to the hematocrit can make a huge difference to an endurance athlete, so long as you don’t overdo it and give yourself a heart attack.

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  3. 3. Roto2 2:12 am 08/25/2012

    Hmmmm, have to wonder now. How do you win a race, any race, without a level playing field? If everyone is on drugs what do you do? Just saying. Not sure the answer. Obviously, better that no one is on drugs, but then you loose? Not pointing guilt, just asking for thought here.

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  4. 4. wasteking 7:38 am 08/25/2012

    if everyone is free to dope— then the playing field is level. you choose your equipmemt–your training–your drugs

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  5. 5. geojellyroll 8:26 am 08/25/2012

    Award the medals to the chemists.

    I don’t follow this sport or any sport. I’m not into worshipping dopeheads.

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  6. 6. psittacid 10:51 am 08/25/2012

    It’s not like the Tours Armstrong won will easily be given to others. How far down the standings do you have to go before you find someone who didn’t dope.

    On a different tangent, I’ve always thought that LeMond always professed his perfection and innocence a bit too loudly. Hey Greg, say again how you pulled off that miraculous time trial when you stunned the world by crushing Fignon? Really?

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  7. 7. DInkSinger 11:08 am 08/25/2012

    What has been most unfair about the reaction to the steroid era a baseball is that it has ignored the amphetamine era that began long before it, in the 1940s, and continued until baseball decided amphetamines should be banned along with the steroids. The accounts of Roger Maris’ 1961 race to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, for example the movie “61*”, describe his anxiety and how his hair was falling out in clumps. This is attributed to “pressure”, but both are very common side effect of the use of amphetamines and similar drugs.

    When it was revealed that Alex Rodriguez had used steroids, one of the harshest critics was New York Mets’ broadcaster Keith Hernandez. Years before Keith Hernandez had at first vehemently denied using cocaine and then under oath not only testified he had used cocaine frequently but that during the season he was named MVP was using it every day and during games. Alex Rodriquez once described his reaction, as a ten year old, to that news “As a fan, you don’t want to believe it. It’s surreal. My hero was Keith Hernandez. If you had said anything bad about Keith I would call you a liar. It tarnished the purity of the game.”

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  8. 8. Fanandala 12:31 pm 08/25/2012

    I understand that after 500 or so drug tests on Armstrong no proof was found. If they can not find physical evidence of drug use they should drop the persecution. In this case it is alleged that others were threatened to make incriminating statement. His last race was in 2005 and now they want to take his titles and rewrite the record books. That is really stupid.

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  9. 9. 5:47 pm 08/25/2012

    The ethical issues of performance-enhancing substances are a great deal more complex and nuanced than a brief post can cover. But one obvious question is “Why would anyone object?” If the claim is that a “level playing field” is wanted, what about all the many other advantaging means that operate? Is Lasik surgery unfair? Is access to better training methods or equipment or mentors unfair?

    The 1997 article “Fooling Mother Nature: An Ethical Analysis of and Recommendations for Oversight of Human-Performance Enhancements in the Armed Forces” by Dr. Evan G. Derenzo and Richard Szafranski covers the issues well and is available on line.

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  10. 10. Mythusmage 5:40 pm 08/26/2012

    The big problem I see here is the author’s assumption that a plea of no contest is the same as a plea of guilty, or that a plea of guilty is a finding of guilt. What I see here is the US Anti-Doping Agency getting so caught up in their need to have Armstrong be guilty they will do most anything, say most anything to get him to say he’s guilty, regardless of the facts of the case. Some people just get so engrossed in their cause they become afraid to face any possibility they are wrong.

    I have yet to see the USADA provide a scintilla of evidence pointing to Armstrong’s drug use, only accusations. I don’t trust accusations, no matter how heart felt they are, I want proof. Show me, don’t tell me. I want the vials, I want the needles, I want the blood screens and the stress tests. Otherwise you, sir, are nothing more than a jealous little twerp with a bad case of envy and raging inadequacies.

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  11. 11. Roto2 7:43 pm 08/26/2012

    I agree, if you don’t you loose, if you do you loose. How do you win?

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  12. 12. fredaevans 7:55 pm 08/27/2012

    “I have yet to see the USADA provide a scintilla of evidence pointing to Armstrong’s drug use, only accusations. I don’t trust accusations, no matter how heart felt they are, I want proof. Show me, don’t tell me. I want the vials, I want the needles, I want the blood screens and the stress tests. Otherwise you, sir, are nothing more than a jealous little twerp with a bad case of envy and raging inadequacies.”

    +1 here.

    Google Livestrong, both as a dot com and as a dot org. Huge money in ether. One ‘good causes,’ the other for personal profit (why not?). From personal experience (nothing to this scale) you respond to this type of tosh all you’re doing is feeding the alligator. Blurb on this AM’s radio: ‘If he’d just admit to doping we’d leave five of the seven awards in place do to the Statute of Limitations.’

    Words don’t fail me on how to respond to that bit of trash talk.

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  13. 13. gmperkins 11:08 am 08/28/2012

    Apparently one of the teammates of Lance Armstrong also saw Neil Armstrong snort nasal steroid spray once. Since Neil is dead and can’t defend himself he is assumed guilty by the USADA which will now be revoking his first moon walk and giving it to someone else.

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