Top-level road cycling cannot seem to escape the specter of doping.
Just last month, Luxemburg’s Frank Schleck was withdrawn by his team from the Tour de France after testing positive for Xipamide, a banned diuretic that can be used to help flush other banned substances from an athlete’s system.
And then, of course, there’s the seemingly endless drama of Lance Armstrong’s legal battle with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, USADA, which, depending on your perspective is either a persecution or a necessary catharsis for the sport.
Armstrong is retired. Schleck, along with his brother Andy, was due to race in this month’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge across the mountains of Colorado. Frank will not be making the trip; Andy will. (Andy inherited the Tour de France crown in 2010 when nominal winner Alberto Contador was stripped of the title for doping.)
There will be drug testing at the Pro Challenge. And there will be riders participating whose names are currently under drug-related clouds.
Race Director Jim Birrell said his organization “works closely with UCI (the International Cycling Union, the sport’s governing body) and, yes, every day we will be testing the General Classification (overall) leader, that day’s stage winner, and two other riders picked at random.”
Within an hour of the race finish each of these four will meet with the Doping Control Officer and be asked to give a urine or a blood sample. “You don’t know ahead of time which it will be,” Birrell said.
Neither do you know what substances doping control will be looking for. “They don’t tell you,” Birrell repeated. They don’t tell you, because, as Tom Murray, chair of the ethics panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency, told me, “The contest is more even now” between those who would cheat (and their doctors and chemists) and those who would catch them cheating. “USADA and WADA have changed the landscape,” Murray said. “They are making a difference. They have funding now to conduct research, but there’s still an edge for the outlaws.”
Why dope? Because given the intensely competitive nature of sport at the highest levels, and the very small differences in physical and mental ability among top athletes, a drug or a procedure that can improve your time by even 1 or 2 percent is an immense temptation.
Murray, who has been studying ethical issues around performance-enhancement for 30 years at the Hastings Center in New York, said, “Once you believe there is an effective drug, you have three choices.” One, you can compete at a disadvantage, trusting that your innate ability and work ethic will level the playing field. This works only rarely, with freakishly gifted individuals. Murray mentioned the hurdler Edwin Moses, whose legs were so long he only needed three strides between hurdles where everyone else took four. Two, you can decide not to dope and effectively give up any hope of winning the Tour de France. And three, you can join your fellows in chemical enhancement so that you at least have a chance to compete.
The UCI website lists a cabinet full of doping techniques. Near the top is “blood doping,” which “increases one’s red blood cell mass resulting in the transport of more oxygen to the muscles.” The preferred method of blood doping these days, the one that Lance Armstrong is charged with employing, is EPO, erythropoietin, known to the athletes as “Edgar Allen Poe.” It’s a hormone that is produced naturally in the kidneys and acts in the bone marrow to stimulate red blood cell production. A racer who injects EPO risks thickening of the blood, heart disease, stroke, and cerebral or pulmonary embolism. But it can also increase his efficiency on the bike by 10-15 percent. A urine test for EPO was first used at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The UCI goes on to list the synthetic oxygen carrier HBOC, two types of blood transfusions, homologus (using someone else’s blood) and autologous (using one’s own stored blood). “A resurgence [in transfusions] is likely due to the introduction of efficient EPO detection methods,” the website says. There is currently no test for autologous blood transfusions, but WADA is working on one.
There is Human Growth Hormone, and testosterone, the latter known by the nickname “oil.” A big spike in testosterone level is likely to get you disqualified; it’s not subtle. Floyd Landis found that out at the Tour de France in 2006. Landis had had a very bad day in the mountains, all but dashing his hopes of replacing Armstrong as Tour champion. But somehow the very next day he mounted a superhuman effort, crushing his rivals by minutes and setting up his eventual triumph in Paris. As stage winner he knew he would be tested. For years, the disgraced American claimed the test result must have been caused by the whiskey he drank the night before, drowning his sorrows.
Landis eventually fessed up, though his armor-plated denial took years to erode. And he has come out publically saying Armstrong doped, too. The USADA case, which has yet to come to a hearing, claims to have testimony from 10 former teammates and associates of Armstrong’s from the U.S. Postal Service days. Four of those rumored to have testified will be at the Pro Challenge: Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriski. Leipheimer won the overall at last year’s inaugural Pro Cycling Challenge. Vande Velde came second. “Big George” Hincapie, who was a faithful domestique for Armstrong on all seven of the Texan’s Tour de France victories, has said that at age 39 he will retire at the end of the year. “60 Minutes” quoted Hincapie as saying he and Armstrong supplied one another with performance enhancing drugs. Hincapie says he never spoke with “60 Minutes” and these days slides around questions from the press with amiable but vague statements about “loyalty.”
The Lance Armstrong question – whether or not USADA should pursue a cancer-survivor hero whose alleged crimes are well in the past – has divided the cycling community. Some say, leave Lance be; draw a line through the past and try to chart a fairer future. Others say, only ripping the bandage from the wound will allow ultimate healing.
Anti-Lance factions are angered by his stonewalling. “Lance redefines innocence as simply not having been caught,” writes Edward Pickering, a cycling blogger. He supports the USADA investigation. “Cycling has its first chance in a generation to come to terms with its past,” he writes.
Tom Murray, the ethicist, thinks the tide is shifting. Is doping control doomed to failure? “No,” he told me. “Somebody will try to cheat. It will never be 100 percent. But the tide will shift [toward cleaner competition]. That’s a realistic hope.”
He said the Armstrong case “makes me think of South Africa with its truth and reconciliation commissions. Bad things were done, horrible things that needed to come to light. This [drugs in cycling] is not horrible by comparison. But it would be wonderful to rip the Band-Aid off the wound; everybody tell the truth. If Lance were to tell everything he knows, and come to a kind of plea bargain, maybe get to keep some of his titles . . . I would certainly welcome that. It’s important to get the truth out.”