Tour de France 2008  //  3 weeks in July 2008: Are we optimistic to expect a clean tour?

02 Jul 2008 Posted by
The Tour de France begins on Saturday. And while I wish that I could be as optimistic and excited about it as I was perhaps five, maybe ten years ago, there is so much water under the bridge for cycling that my enthusiasm is drastically tempered by my cynicism!

It’s true that so far in 2008, we’ve given cycling a very poor run here at The Science of Sport. In fact, I don’t think we’ve done a single post on the sport, including through the Classics season and the Giro d’Italia! That’s partly because there’s been so much to write about in other areas, but it’s also because, I must confess, the constant negative press, the deception and the farcical attitude of certain people within cycling has really put me off the sport a little – Pat McQuiade, the head of the UCI, last year denied that cycling had a doping problem, despite the fact that millions of dollars was being lost as sponsors pulled the plug on their riders.

So just as those sponsors decided to jump ship, I guess our own attitudes reflect the general malaise around the sport of cycling. The 2008 Tour will start without its defending champion, Alberto Contador, who happens to be on a team (Astana) with a track record of doping. It also starts without one of its great sprinters, Tom Boonen, who returned a positive test for cocaine recently. And then of course, it starts with memories of last year’s Tour, where two high profile “heroes” were expelled for positive tests. And the memories of the last ten Tours, where drugs have never been far from the headlines.

However, since no one likes a cynic, we do eventually have to find some light, and so over the next few weeks, as cycling’s greatest race unfolds, we’ll focus on the action. Funny thing is, last year, we promised the same thing – as I recall, we did a series of posts leading up to the race on doping, but we promised that as soon as the racing began, we’d leave the doping and discuss only the action.

Turns out the action in 2007 was the doping! First it Landis, who didn’t even take to the line, the first “Champion” to be stripped due to his 2006 positive test. Then was Vinokourov, one of the “heroes” of the sport, who tested positive and got the boot. Then it was Rasmussen, the yellow-jersey wearer, sacked from his team in sight of the finish line. And so the 2007 Tour, which began with much hope, ended as perhaps one of the three most controversial tours ever. Let’s hope 2008 is not the same.

There is some light on the horizon, I’ll concede. In what is a telling indictment on the sport (the UCI, that is), most of the pressure to “clean up cycling” has come from the free market – the sponsors, the media, the event “owners”, and the riders themselves, who are sick of the negativity surrounding the sport. The “clean up” campaign includes profiling of athletes’ blood to establish a baseline against which subsequent testing can be compared, and also the somewhat powerless committment by cyclists to race drug free. The talk has been loud and it has been positive. Whether this is a true revolution remains to be seen, because the culture of doping in cycling is so deep, it may take generations to remove.

A culture of doping in cycling: History tells a story

But since we have a few days until that action starts, I thought I would go back to a post that was done last year in the lead-up to the race, and rework it for now. That post concered the culture of doping in cycling, and how historically, cyclists have taken to drugs just as you or I would take to a Gatorade during our training runs or rides.

It was about last year this time that Bjarne Riis, the winner of the 1996 Tour, admitted to doping. The problem is that he does not appear to be an isolated case, and even within that race of 1996, the top 4 riders all have some sort of history or track record of doping. The same goes for every single winner of the Tour de France since 1996 – either they are known drug users, or they are rumoured to have doped (with plenty of circumstantial evidence), or they are currently being tried (as in the case of Floyd Landis). And so I wrote last year that the “deeper you dig, the uglier it gets” for the sport of cycling.

The first point is that the Tour de France must be one of the first sporting events where doping was practiced. As far back as the early 1900′s, riders were drinking wine and using strychnine to “dull the pain”. Then, with World War II came the introduction of amphetamines, which were initially created to assist soldiers in battle to remain alert and focused.

They were soon used by professional cyclists, among them Tom Simpson, who famously died near the summit of the Mont Ventoux in the 1960′s. In the legendary book Put me back on my bike by William Fotheringham, Simpson is credited with the following quote:

“I know from the way they ride the next day that they are taking dope. I don’t want to have to take it – I have too much respect for my body – but if I don’t win a big event soon, I shall have to start taking it”

Also at this time, one of the men to have won the Tour five times, Jacques Anquetil, was in his prime. Anquetil perfected the use of “the Anquetil cocktail” comprising a painkiller, morphine or palfium, injected directly into painful muscles even whilst cycling; an amphetamine to offset the somnolent effect of morphine; and a sleeping tablet, Gardenal, to allow sleep when the stimulatory effects of the amphetamines were still active. Anquetil’s recorded comment is that:

“You would have to be an imbecile or a crook to imagine that a professional cyclist who races for 235 days a year can hold the pace without stimulants”

Anquetil also reportedly stated:

“For 50 years bike racers have been taking stimulants. Obviously we can do without them in a race, but then we will pedal 15 miles an hour (instead of 25). Since we are constantly asked to go faster and to make even greater efforts, we are obliged to take stimulants”

A final quote comes from a cyclist, Jesus Manzano (I do acknowledge that these quotes and statments are sometimes inspired by ulterior motives and might be sour-grapes, but given the number of them, they need to be heard), who was banned in 2004 for using doping products:

“They said that I was a rotten apple, but I now believe that the whole tree is rotten … When you train a lot your haematocrit goes down, so how is it possible for someone to go to the Dauphiné or the Giro with a (haematocrit) level of 52%. How do they get it up to this level? With EPO. But it’s the UCI’s (Union Cycliste Internationale) fault. Because they could sort it out very easily. They could take that cyclist to Lausanne, get him to spend a year training (without access to EPO) and see what happens. He won’t end up (with a haematocrit) at 52%, but at 38%. He won’t even be able to get out of bed. But it’s all a farce. The only ones who are getting rich are some of the doctors, and not the cyclists… I have a witness who said that one doctor was asking for six million pesetas (£30 000) to use his preparation methods. Will they be asking for six million for just aspirin and mineral salts?”

So this is the culture of the Tour de France, unfortunately. I once attended a presentation by Dr Alejandro Lucia from Spain, who was a research scientist of the Banesto team that included Miguel Indurain and Alex Zulle. His opinion on the matter was that to the cyclists, the use of doping products had become as acceptable as drinking Gatorade or some other energy drink during the race.

So just as you might plan to run a marathon or go for a long ride and feel that you can’t do without some energy bars or gels, so too professional cyclists feel that doping is not an option but a necessity. And this may also be the reason why many cyclists can so easily deny the use of anything illegal – they genuinely believe that it’s not illegal, just that it is necessary!

So when they say they have “done nothing wrong”, they may actually believe it to be true, even when they might have used hormones or other drugs!

A final quote comes from the judge who presided over the doping case of Richard Virenque. His name is Judge Daniel Delegrove:

“These are not racers, they are pedalling test-tubes”

The 2008 Tour: Optimistic or naive?

Much has happened in the last year since we ran the article that contained these quotes, including the disaster-Tour of 2007 with Vino and Rasmussen. And for the next few weeks, we’re going to focus on the racing action, not the doping (unless the doping supercedes it again) with the optimistic belief that we may see a clean Tour for once.

There are interesting ways to analyse this, including estimations of the power output during the mountain stages – there’s already some evidence that a typical climbing day in the multi-stage races is being done at a LOWER average power output than it was three years ago.

Also, the somewhat erratic performances of cyclists does tend to suggest a ‘cleaner’ Tour – the days of a dominant rider cycling away from the field day after day like a Terminator on wheels seem gone. Does that mean less doping? Who knows? It certainly suggests it, because the recovery of riders seems worse now than before, and putting in two big efforts in the mountains seems beyond the normal physiological capacity of the riders. Or is that just a weaker Tour without its big champions? I believe the more open, competitive racing is a reflection of a more even race, where a few riders don’t have the clear upper hand they once had. Time will tell if that’s true…

Join us over the Tour de France 3 weeks for a race round-up and opinions!


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.