With new drugs that can help cyclists lose weight without losing muscle mass and the rise of micro-dosing, doping triggers fewer flags than ever.
- This sport was nearly consumed by doping. In the 1980s and 1990s and deep into this century, one champion after another fell away: Marco Pantani, Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, who was barred for life and stripped of seven Tour de France titles.
- This much can be safely said: Cycling today is far cleaner than before. Testing has improved by great leaps and athletes have their blood tested out of season, as well. This is essential for any half-serious testing program. As fewer champions perform in ways that make them appear as a separate species, rival cyclists perhaps no longer feel it necessary to illegally pump EPO into their veins, which increases the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen.
- That said, cycling certainly is not altogether clean. In March, the German police found a skier tethered to a blood bag and the investigation led two Austrian cyclists to confess to doping.
- “Are we catching every cyclist who dopes? No,” says Jonathan Vaughters, manager of the EF Education First cycling team, and author of “One-Way Ticket,” a forthcoming book that examines cycling’s dirty history and his own doping. “But we are leaps and bounds better than two decades ago.”
- Ross Tucker, an internationally renowned exercise physiologist and founder of the website The Science of Sport has tracked doping and performance and notes that in the wake of multiple scandals, cycling times declined. Of late, however, those times have edged back up.
- “The breadth in which you can safely dope has greatly narrowed and that has constrained use,” Tucker said. “What we don’t know are the unknown unknowns. Are there new drugs, new ways?”
- “AICAR offers a way to cut weight without impacting performance,” he noted.
- A cyclist might still try to micro-dose — take small doses of drugs that are difficult to detect — right up to the line.
- Marc Madiot, director of the team Groupama-FDJ, raced in the bad old days of doping and was questioned intensively by the police and was nearly brought to ground in a big cycling doping scandal in 1998.
- Cycling arguably has a notably tougher testing regimen than many American sports, including baseball.
- Many in Major League Baseball’s establishment hailed from a no less dirty rotten steroid era.
- The persistence of its doping problems owes to the fact that Cycling is about power and endurance.
- Blood doping was — and still can be — a great force multiplier.
There is finally a conundrum that confronts all who would keep doping out of professional sports: The distance between the cup of suspicion and the lip of drop-dead proof is great.
- “In order to trigger a sanction, you have to have been 99.9 percent likely doped,” Tucker said. “Obviously many fall short. They are highly suspicious but not enough to sanction.”
- So fish slip through the net and maybe we’re the better for that. Better to let 99 walk free than to jail one innocent.