The shadow of drugs over the Tour de France

23 Jun 2007 Posted by
The 2007 Tour de France begins in about 2 weeks from today, and yet again, an ominous shadow is looming over the race and the sport in general.

You’ll see a doping alert news search down the left hand side of our blog, and unfortunately, it’s been in overdrive since we started out. It seems as though every day, something new emerges from the murky underworld of the sport, and not a week goes by before another high profile cyclist either confesses or is implicated in what is becoming an increasingly messy situation.

Bjarne Riis admits to doping

Bjarne Riis admits to doping

Most recent of these was Bjarne Riis, winner of the 1996 Tour de France, and the man who ended Miguel Indurain’s quest for 6 consecutive titles. Riis, who rode for Telekom, admitted to doping in the following statement:

The time has come to put the cards on the table. I have done things which I now regret and which I wouldn’t do again. I have doped. I have taken EPO. For a while it was part if my life.

When a journalist questioned Riis about what else he took besides EPO, he responded that he also took hormones and cortisone.

This announcement was part of a mass confession of sorts, with Erik Zabel, who also rode for Telekom, admitting to doping. The world waited with baited breath for Jan Ullrich to admit, but he has continued to deny the use of drugs, despite the fact that his blood was found in a laboratory of a doctor who was known to be involved in blood doping.

The list reads on – Ivan Basso, heir apparent to Lance Armstrong as the Tour champion, and Floyd Landis, who did succeed Armstrong, are but two others to be implicated, or even test positive, as in the case of Landis. Yet they continue to deny, steadfastly sticking to a story that most people are becoming increasingly sceptical of.

So what do the cycling authorities make of this? Do they, for example, strip Bjarne Riis of his 1996 title? They may well, but here is the problem. If they take the title away from Riis, and award it to second place that year, it goes to…..Jan Ullrich, of the Operation Puerto scandal, and a possible drug cheat. So never mind that, let’s jump down to the third place rider that year, and then the title goes to…Marco Pantani – another known drug cheat, who was tried and convicted by an Italian court, backed by evidence of blood measures that you can read about in the great book The Death of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell. So that’s out. So we jump to fourth from that year – Richard Virenque. Oh, wait, he is also a self-confessed drug user, having broken down famously at a press conference after the Festina scandal of 1998.

So you see the problem – the deeper you dig, the uglier it gets. And it gets even worse – look at the list of winners since 1996:

  • 1996 was Bjarne Riis – confessed to using EPO and other drugs
  • 1997 was Jan Ullrich – widely believed to be guilty, having been implicated in blood doping practices
  • 1998 was Marco Pantani – tested positive and served a ban for doping later on
  • Jump ahead to 2006 and you have Floyd Landis, who tested positive and was stripped of the title, and who is currently fighting tooth and nail for his credibility.
Lance Armstrong and Zulle Alpe 1999

Lance Armstrong and Zulle Alpe 1999

All this leaves the period between 1998 and 2006, which was dominated by a certain Lance Armostrong. Armstrong has never been far from rumours, and we may never know the truth. The latest development sees David Walsh bringing out an Engligh follow up to the French L.A. Confidential book of 2004, containing yet more allegations. Armstrong goes on the attack every time, and so we have a game of tennis – accusation and denial, back and forth. Then there are the numerous rumours and even positive tests that have never been proven, but continue to smoulder beneat the surface, occasionally bursting above it as witnessed by the sensational l’Equipe articles of a few years ago when they ‘proved’ that Armstrong had used EPO in 1999.

And while we will stop short of passing our judgement on any cyclist who has never been convicted, we are obliged to consider the facts and present a somewhat scientific spin on things.

And the first point that we must make is that if it’s now known that Ullrich, Pantani, Basso, Virenque, Riis, Zulle and others have all used doping products during their careers, then is it possible for one person to be so dominant that he can defeat these men WITHOUT the use of drugs? Unfortunately, there is no evidence of just how much EPO or blood doping would improve performance, so we don’t know just what the drugs are doing. But it would be quite safe to assume that they improve performance by 5% – that’s 20W on an Alp d’Huez climb, about 30 seconds. Now, if Ullrich and co. are using, then is Armstrong so much better that he can win by 30 seconds DESPITE not using? The answer may be yes, but it’s an important point to remember. Elite athletes will all say that they are “forced” to use drugs because without them, it’s not possible to be competitive – well, if that’s true, then the effect of drugs is probably much larger than our conservative guess of 5%, and the difference between a “clean” cyclist and a drugged one must be even greater if the clean cyclist is winning.

Now the second point, which has implications for the sport as a whole, is whether cycling has in fact cleaned up its act. And for this, we turn to Richard Virenque. After his tearful confession in 1998, he served his two year ban and then returned to the sport. And on returning, he professed that he was now clean and not using drugs any longer. Yet his performances were almost identical – his climbing power output and times on the major climbs were the SAME as before he served his ban. So we can make one of two possible conclusions:

  1. Either the drugs he was using before his ban did not work at all, because he is now clean and able to ride the same times and power outputs, or;
  2. He is still using the drugs that gave him the ability in the first place!

So that’s where we’ll leave it, I realise it’s a very controversial post, but the idea is to stimulate thought and discussion. We are not closed to any possibility and so of course it is possible that there are no drugs in the sport and that it is possible for a clean cyclist to be 10% better than the second best cyclist, but these issues need to be discussed if we are ever going to watch a race on equal terms again.

In our next post, we’ll look at some of the drugs that have made the news recently, a little bit more of a scientific post, because I think it will be quite interesting to consider why the cyclists are using the drugs they are.

Join us then!

This post is part of the following threads: Tour de France Analysis, Tour de France timeline – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.