Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

When-if Ever-Was Cycling Drug-Free?


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.

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

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