Friday, July 18, 2008

Doping
[add/edit: 7/21 7:00 AM]
...[add/edit: 7/28 9:00 PM] ...[add/edit 7/29 11:00 PM]

It's one thing to ride around town wearing "Dopers Suck" socks; it's quite another to really get your head around the problem and successfully articulate your feelings.

I've intended to blog about doping in cycling for a long time, but I always stall at word-one because: (A) it's a really complex issue; (B) it's emotionally charged; (C) I'm neither a good enough writer, nor do I have the time, to do justice to the subject; and (D) there are plenty of other folks who could talk much more authoritatively about it, some of whom may read this blog.

And yet here I am, finally, typing about doping in cycling.

Rumbling around inside me are a bunch of poorly-formed thoughts ...about Ricco and Piepoli, the rest of the pro peloton, history, solutions, lower-level doping (i.e., in local/regional racing), victims, LeMond, and more. There's no point in waiting for inspiration to produce the perfectly-formed vowel movement on this topic. It will never come. Rather, this will be a bout of verbal diarrhea, if you will, and it will be spread out loosely over a few days perhaps. I'll leave this blog post on top for awhile, and add to it as time and motivation allow. Maybe the process of writing about all this stuff will help focus my thoughts. You are free to read along, or ignore it and wait for the regularly scheduled programming to resume.

Of course, if you have an opinion you want to share, anonymously or otherwise, feel free to comment. Or you could even email me some text and I'll put it in the post, again anonymously or not. The address is over somewhere on the right of the page.

OK, so why write about it now?

My Dream
Literally, my dream last night. Doping has invaded my sleep, dammit! Gina and I were at a party. In a giant living room, like the size of a basketball court, and all the people were formally dressed ...men in tuxedos, women in long gowns. Wide variety of ages, teenagers to grandparents. It seemed to be some kind of graduation party. We didn't know anybody and we were dressed normally, read weekend casual slobbish. We felt an urgency to get out. For some reason I had with me an old Schwinn Stingray with banana seat and hi-rise bars, and fortunately Gina's rear end is perfectly sized, so she sat on the handlebars and I started to ride us out of the party. As I pedaled through the crowd in the giant living room, we noticed that most of the party-goers had hypodermic needles and they were poking themselves. That seemed odd to us, but I was more concerned with two other issues. First, I didn't want to get dirty chain grease on any of the fancy-dressed people, and second, the headset on the bike was very loose. About this time, the location somehow morphed into an office building and the party-goers morphed into middle-aged businessmen wearing suits. And it got way more crowded. I was bumping and elbowing people to get through and the businessmen were reacting with typical alpha-male aggression. I thought I was going to get into a fight. All of a sudden, Gina and I were at a wide double door and no more people were around. And then I woke up.

As far as I can recall, that's the first dream I've ever had involving hypodermic needles. I've never seen anybody use needles, other than in a doctor's office or the hospital.

All I can imagine is that the dream resulted from yesterday's Tour de France bust of Ricardo Ricco using EPO (or whatever it was). I was a sucker, and that one hit me pretty hard.

Sucka!!!

Yes, I was suckered again this year. Just like Charlie Brown, always thinking that finally Lucy will hold the football. Each of the last five years I've felt that, finally, it would be mostly a clean Tour de France.

So, at this point, with three separate doping busts already, what confidence can we have that the rest of the TdF peloton is clean? None.

So Charlie Brown becomes dark and cynical. He believes that there hasn't been a clean Tour podium since 1990. He wonders if the new American teams, with their highly touted internal doping controls, are just the latest Lucy tempting him with the football. He remembers that VDV came from that Bruyneel machine, just like Heras, Landis, Hamilton, and Beltran. He wants to believe, but how many times can Charlie fall and still trust Lucy?

... long pause ... sorry about that ...

Alrighty then, now that the 2008 Tour is over, whatcha think about doping? Are you ready to line up and kick that football, confident that Lucy will not pull it away so you flop on your butt?

Once again, ...perhaps, ...just maybe, ...I think this might have been a cleaner Tour. Why? Well, maybe just blind optimism. Or perhaps because some guys that were top contenders in the past few years were really struggling this time. Also, much has been made about Sastre's time up Alpe d'Huez, which was a few minutes longer than some of the more notorious winners on that mountain. Dunno...

Of course in today's environment you have the flip side, namely, immediate suspicion of any performances by riders that surpass their previous efforts. How many people around the world think that Bernard Kohl and/or Stefan Schumacher might still be on the program, based solely on their superior performances? I have no opinion on either of them because, honestly, they were barely on my radar before this year's Tour.

One thing I would bet on however, is that this year's Tour still had a fair number of dopers. No way could you go from most all the riders doping a few years ago, to a 100% clean race this year. Does anybody think that this year's four busts cleaned out all the dopers? And by the way, I must disclose that my viewpoints are strongly influenced by books like these...



You owe it to yourself to buy or borrow them and give them a good open-minded read.

I've heard many people wonder in amazement how any riders (e.g., Ricco) could be dumb enough to dope this year, with the increased scrutiny and publicity. I think that's an easy one. Guys like Ricco, and certainly others, are in a no-win situation. They've doped for so long--in many cases, before they reached the top level--that if they stop now, they'd be hopelessly off the back and an embarrassment to themselves and their team. Bottom line for some of those riders is...

No Dope = No Tour


Think about this: doping probably doesn't raise everyone's level equally. If your natural hematocrit is 40, and you boost it up to 49.9, you've increased your O2-carrying capacity by nearly 25%. Compare that to a doper whose natural HCT is already higher, thus realizing a smaller percentage increase by upping it to 49.9. That may or may not be a good example, but the point remains... doping probably helps some guys more than others.

So, now suppose everyone races clean. The guys whose ability was increased dramatically by doping are suddenly going backwards relative to those riders who saw modest benefits. I think the psyche of a doper can't handle that.


It's All About the Red

It's been reported that just a couple years ago, a substantial majority of Tour riders had HCT very near the 50% limit. So you ask, what are the odds of that occurring naturally? Zilch, that's what. For males the average hematocrit is in the 43%-44% range, with a standard deviation of around 2%. That means, to be at 50% you're 3 standard deviations away from the mean. Or put another way, out of 100 people, you'd expect only a couple to be at 50%.

I wish we could see the HCT statistics of this year's riders. That data would speak volumes about how the doping fight is going.

And by the way, if you are at all unsure about the significance of hematocrit (either with EPO or blood packing) then let me suggest you try this experiment. Not only will you appreciate how important red blood cells are to your cycling, you will also be helping somebody in need of blood!

Solutions

Who knows!?! I think the "Biological Passport" concept is a good start. Basically, all the top riders will have detailed blood profiling done to get a baseline look at various hormone levels. Future testing can compare to those baselines. Anomalous values can indicate the presence or use of foreign substances, thus giving the testers an idea who to focus on and what to look for.

I think the penalties should be more harsh. A lifetime ban should be considered for convicted dopers, along with strong repercussions for the rider's team. There was outrage at first when Astana was excluded from the tour... it seemed unfair to penalize riders and staff who weren't even on the team when Vino, etc., were caught. Well, too bad I say. The buck has to stop somewhere. The team ownership persists, and the no-tolerance policy must come from the top. If you want to ride the Tour, don't sign with a team that turns a blind eye toward dopers.

Of course, if you implement harsh penalties, it's also essential that the testing process be highly credible. Procedural screw-ups like in the Landis case are unacceptable, and heads should roll for those kinds of problems.

Money, money, money

It seems to me a huge issue in the doping fight is cost. For example, a single urine EPO test costs about $300. Not sure about testing for other substances like steroids, but probably similar. The few teams who are implementing internal controls are spending large sums too. I've read that Slipstream, aka Garmin-Chipotle, spends more than $300,000 per year to test their 23 riders weekly.

USADA is the official anti-doping agency in the US, and they test around 300 cyclists a year. Most of them are international-level track riders, domestic pro roadies, and top mountain bikers. And USADA does catch dopers... Adam Sbeih, Adam Bergman, Dave Fuentes, Joe D'Antoni, Matt DeCanio. All former low-level domestic pros. By the way, if you are curious about the stats of USADA testing... which sports, how many athletes, how often, even the list of names, then click this USADA link and explore.

So if you do the math, you quickly realize that quite a few high-level races have no testing at all. Why not require testing for all podium finishers at NRC races, plus one or two randoms? And at National Championships too. All it takes is money.


How Far Down Does it Go?

And so eventually every doping conversation makes its way around to another vexing question, namely, do you think that lower-level racers dope? We know that a handful of domestic pros do, as evidenced by the USADA sanctions mentioned above. But what about regional-level Cat 1's and below? How about Masters racers? And if such riders are doping, does it matter?

Hell yes it matters. Which is why my skin crawls when I hear rumor and innuendo. It even makes me uncomfortable when guys joke about it. You know the scenario... weekend group ride, Rider A is pulling like a horse, friend yells from the back, "Hey A, you blood doping again???", or some such comment. Just joking of course, but it feels too edgy to me...

...and that's partly because I hear so many comments that are not jokes at all. Earlier this year in a SoCal Pro/1/2 RR there was a guy we'll call #### who was attacking left and right trying to escape the field. Over and over, total Energizer Bunny. I was dwelling in the back half of the pack, as I'm prone to do, and my ears perked up at a conversation nearby. One teammate says to the other, in total seriousness, "#### is back on the drugs obviously", to which the other guy responds, "Yeah, I can't believe he wasn't busted last year." Now, it would be easy to attribute these dude's comments to jealousy or envy, as #### was definitely stronger than them and has some good results to his name. Except that I'd already heard similar rumors about him from another person, totally independent of the two teammates. Other circumstantial factors related to #### could be construed in that direction too, but I can't mention them or some people could solve ####'s identity.

So how does a person process these things? Ignore them completely? Challenge the rumor mongers about it? Internalize it and let it fester? Blog about it?

And of course there's &&&& in SoCal who has reportedly offered to sell steroids to other racers. Two people told me they were approached by &&&&, one even claimed to have seen the drugs. (Note: neither took him up on the offer, they say.) I have no reason to doubt their stories. And a third person, who's very much an insider, claimed to know that &&&& was being investigated by Federal authorities for interstate steroid distribution. That I heard third-hand. In this case, I believe where there's smoke, there's a good chance of fire.

A couple more rumor and innuendo situations... Two years ago I had just finished a race that rider **** completely DOMINATED. It was a thing of beauty. Afterward, standing around in our lycra, three of us were chatting about ****'s performance, and one of the guys made no secret about his belief that **** is on the program. As he was ranting, it became clear to me that his conviction was based mostly on how good **** is for his age (mid-to-late 40's) which clearly violated his sensibilities. The thing is, **** has demonstrated a phenomenal aerobic engine since a very early age, and by phenomenal I mean like Greg LeMond class. Plus, that was long before the drug era in the US. I completely dismissed this accuser's comments, and he lost a lot of credibility with me. He's since moved out of the district ...bitter I'm sure.

But another situation does eat away at me. I was told that %%%% was a doper, and since I know %%%%, I challenged the person who made the comment. He clearly stated his rationale, which was that %%%% flew across the country to do a big race, but bailed out at the last minute. I had known that already, and although I thought it a bit weird, it didn't mean very much to me. People get sick, or have anxiety, or whatever. Then this person told me that when %%%% arrived at the race and picked up his packet, he discovered that there might be doping controls at the race, which was also a surprise to everyone else who attended. That bit of info is troubling. Let me restate the accuser's argument: %%%% trains for this big race, has a legit chance to win, travels 3,000 miles to the race, discovers that he might get drug tested, so turns around and flies home. I also heard that %%%% has a 50% hematocrit.

Any number of other examples... so-and-so was killing it last year, landed on a good domestic team this year--one that claims to test internally, and his performance has dropped way off. Evidence of doping? Not in my opinion. Unless bike racing is truly your job, and you give it 100% focus, then lots of other things in life could interfere with training from one year to the next.

I suppose the bottom line is that I believe there probably are a handful of regional-level racers who use performance-enhancing drugs. Even perhaps some Masters and lower-cat riders. But I also think it's a very, very small minority.

Which is not to say I don't care, in fact, it's quite the opposite. My disgust and disdain for dopers at all levels is disproportionate with the impact on me personally, which is nearly nil. Maybe a couple times a year I might race with a doper, but he's just one of a whole bunch of guys who beat me. Eliminate him and then I might get 14th instead of 15th. Big whoop!

No, the issue is that dopers violate us more abstractly.

To be a bike racer, to really try your best, means living in a world that only other bike racers can understand. You may have lots of non-racers in your life, but they don't really get it. How can they? The total-body fatigue after five-hour training rides in the hills and heat and wind. Quads too sore to touch. Reaching max heart-rate. Putting your life in the hands of thousands of faceless drivers in 4,000 lb SUVs. Getting honked at, buzzed, and flipped off. Running out of food and bonking. Crashing and sliding on rough pavement at 25 mph. Snapping bones. Day after day, year after year...

What I'm saying is that bike racers are a tribe, uniquely bonded by extremely hard work and sacrifices and danger. Dopers are assholes who take shortcuts. They should be kicked out of the tribe.

And in the words of my immortal prophet Forrest Gump, that's all I have to say about that.

14 comments:

Greg Knowles said...

It doesn't take a real genius to figure out why I expressed my displeasure with the latest round of dopers on the b team blog the same day you wrote your post. My emotions have fluctuated from being ticked off, to glad they busted the bums. I'm still compelled to watch the Tour though for the thrill of the sport, but any time I see someone climb away from their competitors like it was easy I can't help but be cynical. I look forward to the rest of your vowel movement.

TnA said...

Marco,
You weren't sampling some of them Habaneros before bedtime, were you?...

jen said...

ricco? really? i mean, you thought he was clean? gah. he's had a less than savory rep for some time now. suspended as an amateur, using pantani's ex-soigneur, blah blah.

dutch press reports yesterday that a third rider from saunier duval is positive, though official confirmation hasn't appeared just yet.

expect more positives before this thingy is up. the three so far date from the stage 4 crono. that's a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Dopers.....
Check out Mr. Clean...
http://www.platinummtb.com/ ;-)

John

Anonymous said...

Our best hope at ending the doping cycle is criminalization of the act. France has done this and Ricco faces some real jail time. I want to believe that the threat of time in a French prison (among the "worst" in the First-world) will deter the idiots. The racing yesterday into Italy was superlative and great to watch - racers actually got tired! I think we're transitioning into a new era in cycling...

Druber

Boelter said...

Druber I would like to think you are right. But..........
I have a feeling that Mark's Charlie Brown analogy is closer to the truth.
The whole thing is such a slippery slope. Cytomax, Endurox, vitamins, Red Bull, espresso, recovery drinks. All legal performance enhancers. I don't know the other items that are between those things and HGH, EPO and such, but I am sure there are some semi legal substances. Like Creatine was to Mark McGuire.
Any time you have a sport that is stoopid hard like the TDF, Giro or Vuelta, you are going to get people pushing the envelope, to get any and every edge. Human nature. Especially with the hyper-competative people who are racing at the highest level of a sport. I don't see that there is much to do, but continue on the path we are on. Keep coming up with better and better tests. Catching more and more of the cheaters. And Druber, I like your idea of making it a criminal offense. Maybe then there will be more people who will think

jen said...

Ha! Nice cartoon :-)

Marco Fanelli said...

First off, sorry for the delayed reply... too much work these last couple days, including ~7:00 AM to midnight yesterday (except for a lunchtime ride of course!)

Hmmmmm, criminalization of performance-enhancing drug use... Not sure I'm a fan of that, if only because it suggests it's a problem for society at large. Surely there are already laws in place covering possession and distribution of prescription drugs (?), plus I wonder if you could prosecute based on sporting fraud. It's illegal to "fix" games, right? Maybe that's not analogous anyway...

I favor keeping the punishment within the sport, like a lifetime ban, or some repercussion for the team. Obviously the testing must be credible, probably a lot more so than it is currently. Cycling, perhaps in cooperation with other affected sports, needs to invest more money.

BTW, Jen, I really didn't know anything about Ricky Ricardo. I must confess to being only a casual fan of euro pro races. Didn't watch a single Giro or Vuelta stage the last few years, and the only classics that make me hot are The Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, although I like to watch guys fly down the Poggio descent in MSR.

Mr. Boeltero, I suppose it is a slippery slope for those people with ethics problems, and I'm sure you are correct that there's a spectrum off performance-enhancing substances ranging from Cytomax, Endurox, etc. up to HGH and EPO. But, that's why there exists a list of banned substances. It makes it black and white. Either something is permitted or it's not.

Anonymous said...

What if the enhancer is not on the list of banned substances because it's either too new or hasn't been discovered as a sports enhancer i.e., viagra? If it's not on the list, and one knows it should be, is it fair to use it?

Anonymous said...

Sporting Fraud has become a criminal offense in France (and I think Italy) so Ricco and the rest will face charges of Sporting Fraud + illegally having controlled substances. I quote a VeloNews story: "Ricco faced charges of possession and use of banned substances, which is against French law, when he appeared in a French court last week."

Druber

Marco Fanelli said...

(OK, once again, sorry for the long delay... blog has been way back-burner lately, with work, training, and what not... I think I can catch up now...)

Anonymous said:
> What if the enhancer is not on the
> list of banned substances because
> it's either too new or hasn't been
> discovered as a sports enhancer

Yes, that's a tough one. I like the simplicity of the banned-substances list: either it's legal or not, depends only on the list. Too bad the detection and enforcement of the illegal substances is not better.

Is it at all practical to force some kind of drug-use disclosure, where riders are required to list everything beyond "basic food" that has gone into their bodies? Then, if they want to take Viagra, no problem, but it's in the public domain.

Druber said:
> Sporting Fraud has become a
> criminal offense in France
> (and I think Italy)...

OK, that's clearly a solid step beyond drug possession and/or distribution. I wonder how hard it is to prosecute? It'll be interesting to follow the Ricco case...

Anonymous said...

before we start handing out lifetime bans on athletes we should call for a clean-up of the testing protocols and labs.

as much as the Landis affair was a circus, it taught us that testing protocol, methodology and integrity is far from air - tight.

the sport, as i see, is a farce on both ends; the proceeding governing body (and their labs) lacking competence and their riders, stars, athletes and phenoms lacking scruples.

Marco Fanelli said...

> before we start handing out lifetime bans
> on athletes we should call for a clean-up of the
> testing protocols and labs.

I agree completely, and should have said so (I'll edit it). Again, it will take a lot more money to get it done right.

...it's interesting to me how dramatic the different viewpoints are on this subject. At one end are the "shoot-the-presumed-dopers-and-ask-questions-later" zealots. At the other end are folks who are so obsessed with the athlete's rights, that they believe the smallest technicality should invalidate a test. (And don't even get me started on the conspiracy theorists...)

In my typical wishy-washy style, I fall somewhere in the middle. Obviously the labs should be credible, and above reproach. But for the most part, we're not talking about criminal prosecution. The standards cannot be that high.

The question is, what level of false-positive can we accept if it means catching many more cheaters? It's a hard question.

Gary said...

Marco-
Unfortunately I am too tired and too time limited (not due to 5 hour training rides unfortunately!)to intelligently respond, but I wanted to commend you on an awesome write up and a great read. By the way, Ricco acknowledged that he took EPO and stated that it was due to "youth" and the fact that he didn't plan on doing the Tour and that it was taken after the Giro. I call "BS"!