Problem Is: Doping Begets Doping

Times Staff Writer

Exploding in anger, Frenchman Henri Pelissier dumped the contents of his bag on a table in front of reporters. The defending Tour de France champion had just quit because race officials penalized him for a minor rules violation.

"You have no idea what the Tour de France is," Pelissier raged. "But do you want to see how we keep going? Cocaine for the eyes. Chloroform for the gums. You want to see the pills too? Under the mud our flesh is white as a sheet. Our eyes are swimming and every night we dance like St. Vitus instead of sleeping."

The year was 1924.

In 1967, British world champion Tom Simpson died on a hot day during a punishing climb up Mont Ventoux in Provence. Found in his pocket were amphetamines. Simpson had wanted a little extra boost.

It also has been documented that early Tour riders used strychnine, a deadly poison that, used in the right dosage, helps an athlete by causing his muscles to constrict faster.

"The Tour de France was started with a bunch of vagabond riders who used everything at their disposal," said cycling journalist David Walsh, who co-wrote "LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong," a book that lays out a case that seven-time Tour champion Armstrong used blood-doping techniques. "They used strychnine, cocaine, caffeine, amphetamines."

And now it is thought that many of cycling's top riders also use dangerous means to improve their performance.

"The drugs have changed, but the culture hasn't," said Walsh, who considers the drug culture in cycling to be self-perpetuating. "Most of the team sports directors are former pro cyclists. They teach what they learned."

Before this year's Tour even started, 13 riders, including three of the top five finishers from the 2005 race, were sent home by their teams after their names showed up in connection with a raid made by Spanish police on the laboratory of a Madrid doctor in May.

It hasn't been proved that any of the 13 are guilty of blood doping, but team leaders and race officials agreed to abide by an international cycling rule that any athlete involved in a doping investigation would not be allowed to compete.

The suspensions followed a continuation of doping accusations against Armstrong, a cancer survivor who retired last July after winning his seventh consecutive Tour. Most recent is testimony under oath by Betsy Andreu, wife of former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu, that Armstrong told doctors three days after he had cancer surgery in 1996 that he had used performance-enhancing drugs.

But these are hardly the first drug scandals to hit the sport.

Just before the 1998 Tour de France, a Belgian masseur for the Spanish team Festina was caught by the French border patrol with a trunk full of blood-doping equipment and erythroproeitin (EPO), a synthetic hormone that boosts the number of red blood cells. That Tour was thrown into disarray as three teams were kicked out, police raided team hotel rooms, and riders twice stopped in protest during a stage. Racing purists hoped that might be a landmark turn for cycling, when the sport might once and for all become clean.

"Clearly," Walsh said, "that didn't happen."

Although there is little solid proof, there is strong speculation within the cycling community -- from team officials, riders and former riders -- that EPO has been abused on the circuit for years.

In a period of 18 months from early 2003 until the summer of 2004, nine world-class cyclists -- none over the age of 40 -- died of heart attacks. Another, Italian hero Marco Pantani, died in his sleep alone in a hotel room at age 34, six years after winning the Tour de France. Cocaine was found in his system, but Pantani also had been barred from the 1999 Giro d'Italia race after failing a blood-doping test.

The science of cheating has managed to stay ahead of tests designed to catch athletes using illegal performance-enhancers. Sports officials, therefore, have little chance to act until they are presented an opportunity such as the recent police action in Spain, which turned up frozen blood and medical equipment.

As a result, suspensions such as those at the Tour de France are likely to be hit and miss.

Among those suspended from the Tour this year was Ivan Basso, an Italian hailed as the prerace favorite after his impressive nine-minute victory in the Giro d'Italia this spring.

But Walsh said that an expert looking closely at Basso's effort in the Giro d'Italia would have suspected cheating.

"You look at Basso's time gaps in the mountains and that's not competition, that's a distortion of competition," he said, adding that it's his opinion that no rider who has finished in the top 30 at the Tour de France in the last 15 years hasn't cheated.

A former rider who still has close connections to the sport agrees, saying, "There's not a rider who finishes near the top of this race that isn't on something. Come on. The normal human body isn't cut out for this."

This year, Tour cyclists will pedal 2,270 miles in 21 stages. They will climb mountains in the Pyrenees and the Alps. Some years they ride in temperatures that climb higher than 100 degrees and melt the pavement; in others they ride to mountaintops in sleet and rain while stuffing newspapers under their skintight suits to keep warm.

At first, the riders made no secret of their use of whatever it took to keep going.

In his book "Chasing Lance," Martin Dugard wrote, "As early as the 1920s, cyclists carried a special personal suitcase containing pharmaceutical assistance.... The cyclists were open about popping pills before World War II."

Cycling historian John Wilcockson said the sport is filled with stories, some true and some apocryphal, of great champions using whatever aid they could find. Jacques Anquetil, a Frenchman and a five-time Tour winner who rode during the 1950s and '60s, once told French reporters that "only an imbecile" would think that pro bike racers don't use stimulants.

Wilcockson said that in 1966 French police first began taking anti-doping measures at a stage in Bordeaux. "It was followed the next day by rider protest," Wilcockson said.

The Simpson tragedy in 1967 was followed by the first official anti-doping tests at the Tour in 1968. "That was dubbed the 'Tour of Good Health,' " Wilcockson said.

Yet, by the late 1980s EPO was being used by endurance athletes not just in cycling but in track and field and other sports.

Jonathan Vaughters, a another former Armstrong teammate and director of TIAA-CREF, a U.S.-based team, said that he doesn't believe cycling is any more or less dirty than many other sports. "In America, in baseball or football or basketball, players have been unionized for years," he said.

"Cycling has not been unionized ever. You're not going to see police raid the rooms of baseball players or an NFL locker room. When I was a cyclist I could be on vacation in Tahiti and they could come in my room in the middle of the night looking for stuff.

"It's not the governing bodies of the sports that find the drug users. It wasn't the Tour or the cycling federation. It was the police in Madrid. You tell me if police raided the New York Yankees' locker room tomorrow unannounced you'd find nothing? Or an NFL locker room? You might find stuff that would put to shame what they found in that Spanish lab."

Several coaches and riders said they believe there have been periods when the Tour was dominated by clean riders. "When Greg LeMond won in 1986," Vaughters said, "I believe he won clean."

But no one would say with certainty that since EPO came into the sport that has been the case. In 2001, a test for EPO became common. Now, athletes are taking out their own blood and reinjecting it later to increase their red blood cell count -- and there is no test for that.

"When you are dealing with the top of the peloton," Vaughters said, "those guys are genetic freaks to start with. They are people who are very, very gifted physically. They are training very hard, and there is almost nothing different between them. So it's enormously important if one member of that gene club, who has trained all his life, finds out somebody else is blood doping. You can't beat someone who is blood doping."

Vaughters and Frankie Andreu, who is now director of the Los Angeles-based Toyota-United team, said it is possible to ride the whole, grueling Tour and finish while only training hard and well. "The speeds might go down a little," Andreu said, "but not that any fan watching, not even those of us who have ridden, would notice."

With the suspension of the riders last week and all the attention on the sport now, Andreu and Vaughters said they believe this year's winner will be free of blood doping and EPO.

Dugard, who fell in love with the sport when LeMond was riding and is attending his fifth consecutive Tour, is less certain.

"I have to wonder if the Tour isn't enjoying all this publicity," he said. "The drug problem has made a rather mundane 2006 Tour front-page news around the world. In a year without Lance Armstrong

And the sport's culture suggests that competitors will use anything they can get their hands on to win.

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