Doping: The Acceptability of a Method

L. Lacedelli and A. Compagnoni at the summit of K2 in 1954. Photo: K2: Challenging The Sky

Performance-enhancing methods. This is a term we hear so often in cycling; it refers to the practice of using products or processes that elevate your performance beyond what you could naturally do. It is a terribly complicated matter for the fans, and I can only speculate as to how complicated it is for the professionals who do or do not participate in the practice. Doping occupies an indelible place within our sport; faire le métier means “to do your work” in French.  In a greater context, it means to conduct yourself as a professional.  Within the narrow scope of cycling, faire le métier means to dope.  It seems the practice of doping is so deeply embedded in our great sport that the two can hardly be separated.

I recently read K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, by Seattle mountaineering icon Ed Viesturs.  Ed was the first American to summit all fourteen mountains over 8000 meters and only the fifth climber to do so without relying on bottled oxygen. The book focuses specifically on the history of the attempts to summit the world’s second-highest peak and details the circumstances surrounding the various accidents that have resulted in the loss of life during those attempts.

A recurring theme in mountaineering is the effect that being at high altitude has on the body and mind. Being at high altitude has various physiological complications – some of which can be treated, like muscle deterioration and cerebral edema, and some of which that can not, like death.  The lack of oxygen to the brain diminishes cognitive capabilities with the unfortunate effect of increasing risk of accidents through making poor decisions in an environment where the margin of error is often already greatly diminished due to external factors. Using bottled oxygen can help alleviate many of these problems; it improves a climber’s health at altitude and improves their ability to reason, reducing the risk of errors made through lapses in judgement. Climbers like Viesturs who are able to summit the highest peaks without using bottled O2 are rare; for most they are impossible to reach without oxygen.

The first successful summit attempt on K2 was made by an Italian team in July of 1954.  The circumstances that surrounded that summit bid have fed a fifty-year debate in the climbing community, the salient point of which is that the summit team claimed to have reached the summit without using supplemental oxygen, while photographic and circumstantial evidence suggests that they did.

The controversy sounded a lot like that surrounding doping in cycling and it got me wondering what it is, precisely, about riders using performance-enhancing methods that bother us so.  After all, the use of supplemental oxygen amounts to the same thing as does doping: athletes are using an external method to enhance their performance on the world’s highest peaks. “Performance-enhancement” in this case may mean “staying alive”, but never-the-less, being alive does represent a pronounced performance enhancement over being dead and it is the use of an external method that makes the feat possible, or at least more healthy and less risky.

It surprises me that few, if any, in the climbing community consider the use of bottled air to be doping. Debates rage over the purism of it’s use, but those swing wide of labeling the practice as cheating. Looking at the matter objectively reveals little difference between supplementing blood with red-blood cells in order to compete in a three-week bike race and using supplemental oxygen to reach a mountain top.  Both techniques utilize an external mechanism to improve the body’s ability to get oxygen to it’s muscles and thereby improve performance.  Some doctors have even gone so far as to state that racing a Grand Tour is dangerous for most riders and have justified their involvement in doping practices by claiming that the use of EPO and other drugs make the sport of bike racing more healthy and less risky for the athletes.

There is a void in my brain at the spot where I’m supposed to store the justification for why using EPO and blood transfusions in cycling is labeled as ‘doping’ while the use of supplemental oxygen in mountaineering is not.  It appears, however, that in mountaineering we have two conditions that work together to justify the use of the practice: the mountaineers are transparent about whether or not they use supplemental oxygen, and the community largely agrees with the assertion that it’s use is required in order to accomplish their feats.  In cycling, neither of these conditions are met: cyclists are not transparent about whether they dope or not, and the public disagrees with the assertion that it is unhealthy to participate in races like the Tour de France without the use of performance-enhancing products or methods.

I think many in the professional peloton believe they need to dope in order to compete in a Grand Tour.  The public, by and large, disagrees.  Frankly, I don’t think either party has the data to justify their claim. Such data would need to come not from a lab, but from data collected from the professional riders in a three-week stage race.  The difficulty in accumulating this data is that we are evidently pretty bad at figuring out if a rider is doping or not, and as such it would be difficult to say whether such data is valid or not.  If we somehow overcame that obstacle and definitively found that either yes, it’s dangerous, or no, it’s healthy, then we could start to build an objective case for or against using these processes – both inside the peloton and with the public – and start dealing with the matter rationally.  For doping to stop, the riders have to believe they can do without their use.  And if a three-week race can’t be done in a healthy and safe way without using performance-enhancing methods, then public needs to accept they are required in order for the athletes to safely accomplish their feats. Their use should then be regulated and used in a medically safe way.

What it comes down to is the acceptability of a method through the justification of it’s use, and cycling community has failed entirely in building that justification. That leaves us with a terribly complicated matter on our hands which few are equipped to handle appropriately.

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60 Replies to “Doping: The Acceptability of a Method”

  1. Great Article.

    What puzzles me is how 100 years ago, guys could do the tour on 30 or 40 lbs bikes without any of the gear, support, or nutritional information that we have today. Sure, they were slower, but they weren’t solely cyclists. A lot of them worked in factories or mines for a living, and Le Tour was a method by which they could get out of that lifestyle, if only for 3 weeks.

    It’s not a question of whether the human body is capable of doing such things without the use of performance enhancing drugs. We already know that it is. It’s the entertainment that we’re looking for that encourages the use of doping. Would we be able to see the multiple series of vicious attacks we see in the mountains of the Pyrenees without doping? Would we be able to see the spectacular chases and breakaways without doping?

    That is where the acceptance or disapproval of doping lies. You don’t need to dope to ride the tour, but to win it, you do. For us to be entertained, the pros need to dope.

    I think we can all agree that it doesn’t make the racing any easier.

    But it sure does make it a lot more exciting to watch.

  2. I have to disagree a bit here w/Omar. I think spectators would get more enjoyment from seeing the riders race clean.

    Sure we might not see the number of vicious attacks by the same rider, but I believe we would see more entertaining racing. The ability of some of these chaps to mark every move by a competitor is boring. Knowing that they would really have to pick their spot and commit is exciting. Complete collapse could occur at any time if they tried to mark all and every attack by a leading foe. The time gaps I believe would be huge and open up the Grand Tours to a whole new group of riders than before (Chavanel this year comes to mind).

    Baseball comes to mind as a sport similar to cycling. The uproar over the use of PEDs only came when Barry Bonds was approaching his record breaking feat. Similar to cycling when Pharmstrong was surpassing the victory streaks of the legends.

    My point is this, as long as the playing field is level, than have at it. Bonds was hitting against doped pitchers and competing against doping rivals as was Lance. The problem is that only the best financed players or riders can effectively dope and not get caught, so the playing field is not level, and the best may not actually be winning, just the best financed. A clean sport is much more fair.

  3. What it comes down to is that mountaineering isn’t a competitive sport in the same way as cycling is. Now if mountaineering has a structured calendar with mass-start races each year, your analogy might be getting closer.

    Difference between climbing 8000m plus mountains and riding as a professional cyclist? Doping doesn’t help you avoid dying, in fact it is generally considered that it increases your chances of dying. Whereas going over 8000m will guarantee your death if you’re there long enough.

    I think what Omar meant to say was, “You don’t need to dope to ride the tour, but to make it exciting for people with really fucking short attention spans, you do”

    Fucking doping apologists *shakes head*

    @Frank, the phrase you’re looking to fill the void is, I believe: “oh yeah, mountaineers aren’t competing against one another”

  4. The health perspective – haematocrits of 50%+ are dangerous. Putting shitloads of steroids and r-EPO and God-knows-what-else into your body is likely very dangerous (self-interested apologist doctors who wouldn’t know the Hippocratic oath if it walked up and smacked them with a bag of blood notwithstanding). Transfusing blood – even if its yours – is dangerous. There is precious little evidence or allegation that PEDs are taken simply (or at all) to reduce the dangers of cycling (cf mountaineering).

    The sport perspective – like Jarvis said, different sports, different requirements.

    The fairness perspective – turning donkeys into thoroughbreds doesn’t seem like a particularly compelling justification, or particularly fair to the genuine thoroughbreds.

    The morality perspective – rules is rules. If you compete you are obliged to play by the rules. Of course you, and everyone else, are going to push the boundaries here and there, some more so than others. But since when did that mean you could just forget about all the rules. The sport with no rules is a different sport.

    The sporting spectacle perspective – why is it axiomatic that superfuelled racing is better than unfuelled (or lower fuelled)? The popularity of the GT’s long before major EPO suggests it isn’t. There are plenty of other things we could try first to make things more exciting, if needed – radios, time bonuses, different stages, etc.

    Nope, Frank, I’m not there. I still feel very sorry for the poor bastards who feel they have to dope to continue in the sport they love, or who find they are doping before they are old and wise enough to understand what they’re being turned into. I still acknowledge the persistence of cultures, and the difficulty of rooting out endemic cheating when ther is no sure-fire way to guarantee chets will be caught. I still love watching the Ullrichs and Pantanis and Virenques etc. But I still hate doping.

  5. This is a great post and I hope to have some time this weekend to give it some more thought. At first glance, it becomes a chicken or the egg kind of problem; riders would most likely prefer not to dope, but they rationalize doping by the thought process that “if I don’t do it and this other team or rider is, then I’m not going to be competetive” I don’t think it’s really an issue of whether or not a Grand Tour can be ridden without doping…I’m sure many have…but the question is, can you trust that the other team isn’t..the answer to which (currently) and perhaps, forever, will be “doubtful.”

    Why? Because people are always going to be looking for a performanc enhancement edge…it’s a natural inclination, and it’s why we take supplements, watch our diets (or experiment with crazy diets), and it’s that kind of urge that led Lance Armstrong to suffer all kinds of silliness at the hands of Allen Lim this last season.

    Elite athletes will always look for some kind of edge, and PED’s will most likely always be ahead of testing standards. Because any intelligent rider knows this, I think it makes it hard to resist the temptation, as their professional reputation and income depend on it.

    But it’s a fuzzy edge. In an article in Bicycling Magazine a few months ago on PED use by amateur athletes, the magazine was aghast that some lower-tier racer used DHEA during a race! Hell, my aunt and uncle (in their 70s) use DHEA every day and anyone can walk into a Whole Foods and buy a bottle. I have one on my shelf. It’s a natural hormone that declines with age. Where do we draw the line? Some people don’t manufacture creatine in their bodies well (or are vegetarian) so they take creatine – it’s legal. But, as a 40-year old man, if my DHEA levels are really low for my age, I can’t take DHEA?? In my mind the PED situation is a hopeless mess, and I doubt that we’re ever going to see “clean” cycling, if we ever have. It’s human nature to win at all costs. That said, I am deeply troubled by the lack of transparency, by the idea that those who don’t want to feel like they have to. Since someone like Huevos can be the “most tested” athelte and yet apparently/likely is a doper, how much faith can we place in testing for declaring cycling a “clean” sport?

  6. @KitCarson
    There’ll never be a clear brightline between what’s in and what’s out which everyone agrees on. There’ll always be anomalies. But that’s just life. The sport can either keep plugging away to try to make the banned list rational, minimise the “but what about this drug / supplement?” issues and test for and ban cheats and their assistants. Or it can throw up its hands and say “too hard – bring it on – take all the crap you like (whatever the long-term consequences) and may the best donkey-turned-thoroughbred win”. At which point, sponsors will desert the sport in droves, and a whole bunch of fans won’t be far behind. Because something so openly cynical just doesn’t capture hearts and minds in the same way as something which at least tries, sort of, some of the time, more or less, to Do The Right Thing.

  7. @Good Geofelephant I’d have to agree with your assesment, which means, things will most likely continue on as they are. You certainly can’t just throw in the towel for the whole thing. I was just riffing on how it’s this viscious cycle, a game even, that will seemingly continue. I think Lemond’s points and some of the info that has come out from the Flandis revelations really implicates cycling at the highests levels: UCI,various other regulatory bodies, team directors, it’s really like a cancer — in fact a good metaphor. How do we rid our beloved sport of a metastasized cancer, without killing it?

  8. @KitCarson
    Yep, agree with that. But, as ET demonstrated, no matter how nasty the cancer looks you don’t give up, because there’s always hope. And, er, drugs.

  9. @Good Geofelephant Yes, it’s important to have hope (damn, even “hope” has been co-opted by a certain politician)and in fact, sometimes I feel the same way about voting! A vacillation between hope and optimism and a dark “realistic” cynicism…Yeah, the doping situation is something I can’t seem to wrap my head around fully. I have a hard time seeing how “clean” cycling is going to happen, and yet, something must be done…

  10. @KitCarson Perhaps, if the Landis revelations bring down Pharmstrong, some of the regulatory bodies, etc, etc, maybe if something that big happened, then maybe some kind of change is possible?? it seems like a revolution of some kind is needed.

  11. @KitCarson
    I prefer to take a sceptical approach rather than your cynical line. I think things have and are still changing. I could just take some time.
    Why is it hard to resist the temptation? It all comes down to is greed and there is nothing more ugly than greed.

    None of the racers have to take drugs, they can easily go off and do and office job or manual labour that doesn’t require a whereabouts system and rigorous testing. Privelage, not a right.

  12. It’s very interesting to watch the posts develop here on this topic. First of all, everyone has really great points to make, and I love where it’s gone. It seems the article has been interpreted within the context of Cycling, which is the lens through which a Velominatus views the world. And that’s good.

    What’s most interesting to me is that everyone seems to have interpreted my comments as a justification for doping. It surprises me because I did my best to be neutral and felt that if anything, I was making the case for the opposite. Maybe I failed in that.

    But what I’m trying to do is ask the question that if we step away from Cycling and look objectively at the matter, what does it mean to dope? What I’m wondering aloud about is why increasing the body’s ability to carry oxygen in the bloodstream by using an external method is considered doping in one sport and not in another. I’m asking this question out of context of the rules and regulations (which are there for a reason and should be respected), or of the culture inherent, or whether or not doping is taking place in Cycling today.

    The question is simple, but very complicated at the same time: why is it OK to supplement in one activity, but not the other. What I’m saying is I think the answer is that the consensus says it’s justified in one case, but not in the other.

    The problem with justification of either side is that we don’t have the data to support or argue against the claim that riders need to dope in order to compete. We all know you can ride the Tour without doping, albeit a lot slower (and maybe over more days). But, to race the Tour is a different question. Currently, there are about 200 people who know whether they themselves raced this year’s Tour without doping – the riders. Everyone else has some degree of uncertainty in making a claim that the riders are clean or not. (We also don’t know if the hardmen who raced the original Tours were clean, although we know that any doping methods were inferior to those we have today – provided you consider riding a train inferior to blood doping. I actually think that might be a brilliant way to dope – healthy, safe, quick.)

    The argument that mountaineering isn’t a competition seems wrong to me since competition isn’t really what spurs doping. Cycling is a business. There are huge amounts of money to be made by wining races, especially Grand Tours. That is the driver for doping, at least on the scale we’re talking about. Remember that the domestiques – the Ralf Aldags – have doped, just to keep up.

    Mountaineering has the same issue of profitability. Sure, it’s not competition in the same light, but it is also a business, if at a smaller scale. Ed Viesturs made a living securing sponsors who believed in his quest to claim all fourteen peaks without oxygen.

    Climbers fight over sponsorship. The fight over book deals to tell their tales after the feat has been accomplished. There is a finite amount of money in the sponsorship pool, and that money is earned through competition, direct or otherwise; the motivation to cheat is the same. Yet, using supplemental oxygen doesn’t turn sponsors away like it does in cycling.

    It’s the lies that turns them away. Cyclist lie about doping. They think they need to do it in order to make a living in this sport. The public and fans (and maybe the sponsors) disagree. We don’t know which party is right because we can’t think up a way to test either theory.

  13. @frankWhat’s interesting in mountaineering is the money comes from the clients – the people (usually the rich, adventurer type) that pays tens of thousands of dollars to be “guided” up the world’s major peaks. None of this – business – would be possible without the use of supplemental oxygen.

    I’m sure most of us have read “into thin air,” so it goes without saying that there are a number of ethical issues around the use of supplemental oxygen, and the huge industry that it created because the vast majority of those who scale the major peaks of the world couldn’t do so without it.

    So, Frank, you use the term “sponsors” in regard to mountaineering scene and how they are not “turned away” by supplemental oxygen. I think it’s safe to say that the major “sponsors” of most mountaineering businesses – that is the clients – are the ones who are using the “dope” so to speak! For the Guides, it’s “how many clients can I guide up Mt. Everest” or “How many famous clients can I get, which will get me more future clients.” The whole climbing world – at least in terms of the business of guiding people up the world’s major peaks, is a pretty big mess and joke, IMHO. They have their own problems. It’s also a joke that any idiot with a big enough bank account and in reasonable condition can “climb Mt. Everest” — using the “climb” here rather loosely.

    Viesturs is an interesting chap and a bit of an exception in that he is an amazing natural climber, and has other ways of making money, so hasn’t taken the client-money route in the same manner that other climbers have done.

    Regarding “the lies,” yes, this is a big issue. Someone like Huevos, for example, who is a “hero” to so many — but lacks an integrated shadow. There is no examined shadow, only “light,” and since the “bigger the front, the bigger the back,” it’s most likely the shadow is as big, or bigger than the ‘”front.” It’s why i can’t watch him anymore. What would be heroic, would be for him to tell the truth, explain the circumstances that riders get into, explain how it works from the top down – the pressures, that is — implicate the big names (why is it that the riders are always getting the hammer?). That – simple honesty, truth, would be heroic, and maybe someone at his level, with that kind of courage and truth telling, could actually effect major change. Not that there’s any evidence that he’s anywhere near doing that, which says a lot. Everyone lies, everyone denies, but of course, that’s because they’d lose their jobs and get banned if they told the truth.

    That said, I’m a little unconvinced that we need to test theories here. People can race the tour without doping (at the level that is happening now). I think it’s safe to say that most doping practices, as they have been performed over the last decade, are probably not particularly healthy, nor safe. I wasn’t aware that there were even questions about that. I had always assumed that that was a given, and that for the riders, the “ends justify the means.” Anyhow – a good discussion!

  14. I’m going to go out on a limb here – so be kind – but I’d venture to say, that what we’re really dealing with, at its essence, in ALL SPORTS, is an unholy alliance between science, technology, and capitalism (greed). I’d say it’s that alliance that has ruined my former love of any number of sports (golf, tennis, baseball) because it’s killed or at least wounded the “spirit” of the game. Why is it that whenever I watch any sport it seems, I’m faced with what Laurent Fignon refers to as “the robots”?

    Well, it’s because of all the advances in sports physiology, training, and especially the technology of training, and so we’re all very very efficient now, uber efficient, and doped up to the most spectacular level possible, and what we get is Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods or you name them: the uber efficient, highly paid, robot. We lose wildness. We lose intuition. Instead we are hooked up to heart rate monitors, power meters, cadence calculators, you name it. Those things are even starting to make me miserable when I ride, and i’m thinking of giving my fancy-ass cadence cyclometer the ol’ heave ho. It ruining the aesthetics of the ride for me.

    So, we have the issue of super-sophisticated doping, super-sophisticated training practices, the best technology, and a lot of money behind it. I’d take any sport in the 1970s or early 80s. To me they were far more wild, unpredictable, and full of very interesting characters. There was life. There was “spirit.” Now, as Jarvis mentioned earlier, it’s all about money — greed. And science and technology become slaves to that greed. And this is most likely why we all get nostalgic about the “golden years” of cycling, or any other sport for that matter. Hell, I just excitedly ordered a copy of Laurent Fignon’s “We were young and carefree” this evening because I want to taste more of what it was like to be a pro-cyclist before the robotization came along…Ok – I’m going to stop posting as I seem to be rambling a bit : )

  15. @KitCarson
    You make some great points. I hadn’t considered the “guided mountaineering” side of things. Viesturs has always used Oxygen when guiding; for safety reasons. Again, transparency. It raises his cognitive capabilities, which makes it safer for his clients.

    Adding guiding to the picture adds a really interesting dimension. I’ll have to think about that before I can type something that sounds authoritative later.

    I was referring to individual mountaineers who make a living of simply climbing mountains, like Viesturs and the various characters that pass through his books (I don’t know much else about the mountaineering world, I’m a Velominatus, for Merckx sake!) Even guys like Scott Fisher, before they turned to guiding and dying on Mount Everest, were individual people, making a living by climbing and fighting over sponsorship dollars. That’s more the area I was talking about. But good point about guiding.

    I think something to remember about the drugs is that each and every one was developed for a medical purpose; to treat a physiological condition of some kind. One of my clients in Seattle produces a type of EPO. They didn’t develop it for sport. They developed it to keep people from dying.

    Most drugs used in cycling are medical in origin, so I think there is always a claim to be made that their use may be healthy. I think the bigger question is, is it unhealthy to race the Tour without drugs? If so, do drugs make it more healthy? Which ones? To what point would drugs make it healthy? At what point do they start to make it unhealthy?

    Dr. Michele Ferrari likened taking EPO to drinking orange juice, saying if you drank a gallon of OJ, you’d die, too (I’m paraphrasing, or maybe even errorphrasing). Obviously that is a bullshit comment, but there’s truth to it. It’s 100% healthy for a cancer patient to take EPO. That’s what the drug is for. After that, the healthiness for someone to take it probably diminishes, but I don’t know how unhealthy it is to race the Tour without taking drugs, either. Maybe it’s 100% healthy, in which case the cheats should go fuck themselves and everyone should race clean.

    I don’t think we know – anyone knows – what the answer is, because it’s impossible to study accurately. And so we’re fucked, and we continue to deal with an irrational problem in an irrational way. It’s like dividing PI by E.

    You like-a da juice?

  16. @KitCarson
    Missed your second post.

    Ok – I’m going to stop posting as I seem to be rambling a bit : )

    The only thing bad about that post is the emoticon! It offends the aesthetics of the Internets!

    I think you might have a point here, though. Drugs or not, racing is very mechanical these days. The drugs, the radios, the training, the computers (I threw out my polar graph-everything-plot-how-weak-you-are years ago. Speed, distance, time. That’s all a Velominatus requires.) As you and Jarvis are saying, it’s become a business fueled by greed, and greed is ugly.

    I find myself coming back around, though. Greed is ugly. Maybe that’s what turns us off from doping. But I still maintain that we don’t know – really know – if using drugs is greedy or necessary. We believe it’s unnecessary, but is it? Do we know this?

    At the end of the day, what makes watching a race interesting is to see Rule #5, and I want to see it laid out on the road. I want to see spectacular attacks, I want to see spectacular cracks. I want to see unpredictability. I want to see the Man with the Hammer bop a guy like Contador on the neck for not wearing team-issue shorts with his yellow jersey.

    OK, now I’ll stop posting, too. (Note the lack of emoticon. The smirk is implied.)

  17. I was just about to type something meaningful and insightful, my fingers were poised above the keys of the laptop, but I now have to go and change a nappy.

  18. why is it OK to supplement in one activity, but not the other.

    I still think that you’re way off the mark. I stand by my earlier comments. Supplementary oxygen on climbs over 8000m is carried as a medical necessity in order to prevent the climber dying. Even if it is not biologically needed for life, it can be needed to ensure the senses are not dulled to the point where you walk off a mountain and die. Blood-doping is used in sport to go faster. It has no medical benefit at all and increases the risk of dying.

    Why not use scuba diving as the analogy instead of mountaineering? It’s the same, humans aren’t designed to exist in those hostile environments. Procycling takes place in environments that humans are able to operate in without supplementary equipment. No comparison really, irrespective of any competition element. Speaking of which, I refer to competition and it’s driver for doping as organised events such as the Tour de France where there is a winner at the end. There is no inbuilt competition in mountaineering, any competition is created by the climbers themselves, but your better off comparing it to round the world cyclists.

    I’ll agree that we can never know with 100% certainty as to whether someone is clean, but anyone can race the tour without drugs. It appears that some fans have taken on the same mindset as the riders and can’t accept racing without drugs in the mistaken belief that the racing was more exciting in those days. Maybe some people made the most of the benefits and attacked repeatedly, but am I the only one who found the Armstrong Tours tedious and there is always the legendary clip of Frank VDB towing the field up to a mountain finish in the ’99 Vuelta. Literally towing the best riders in the world in a long line, no-one able to attack, or Mapei at the ’99 Gent-Wevelgem: two riders towing the rest of the break into a block headwind at such a pace that no-one could attack. How are those exciting? Personally I think that this year has produced some of the best racing for many years and we know that the peloton is cleaner.

    but I don’t know how unhealthy it is to race the Tour without taking drugs, either.

    Ah, but Frank, like the mountaineering analogy, you are again confusing the issue. It is irrelevant whether it is healthy to ride the Grand Tours (it isn’t particularly healthy to be a PRO) the riders choose to become professionals, they choose to race the Tour. People with cancer don’t choose to take EPO, they need it to help recover.

    As for ‘The Robots’, it baffles me that people don’t like Cavendish as he is clearly not a robot (other than his ability to win). He nearly didn’t get into the British team because his numbers were so poor. He is instinct and he is an interesting character. Dave Millar has mentioned how he has rediscovered the soul of the sport and loves the beauty of it – by all accounts he is a velominatus.

    Anyway, I have to go and change another nappy

  19. @JarvisYou make some very elegant points here. Very subtle and clear distinctions; and far more effectively than my longwinded, emotional rants!

    Yes, you bring up Cavendish, and I was just thinking of him in this context this morning. Yes, he can be a douchebag, but at least he has a personality, and he has balls, and a bit of the flamboyant, which I really appreciate. I also appreciate Millar. It’s also the reason (like Frank) that I hold Jan Ullrich and Pantani in such high regard… they were not robots. Which gets back to my earlier point, which I have been thinking of more and more. Take golf, for example. There was a time on the PGA tour – say pre-Jack Nicklaus, when golfers “trained by racing” so to speak – they played, got blasted on martinis after, and drove to the next venue and did it again. You had a bunch of personalities. Things were not “specialized.”

    Take Eddy Merckx and the riders of his day: they trained by racing. The reason that everyone (except Lance fan boys) knows that Merckx is the best cyclist ever, by far, is because he didn’t just train – specialization – for one race a year. He raced his ass off, and won most of them. This is incredible. Then, sometime in the 80’s – Fignon fingers Lemond for this, which is unfortunate (but perhaps true) because I like Lemond, but this idea – in accordance with the new exercise science info – of “specialization” and focused training started to take off. People no longer “trained by racing” and just focused on a few events that — well, as we like to laugh about — they “peaked for.”

    This idea of uber focused, rationally planned efficiency, became the norm in tennis, golf, cycling and other sports, and with these “advances” in training and specialization, came even more advances in doping – the so-called EPO years up to the present. I guess I’m just kind of grasping at a bigger picture here. I’m grasping for what has happened to the “spirit” of some of the sports that I’ve loved and played. While doping – in our sport – has played a part in it, so has the money factor, and the ruthless training efficiency and specialization.

    Yes, Jarvis, the Armstrong years were indeed tedious (except for my intense hope that Jan might win), because he was the epitome of this kind of thing that I am railing about: ruthless, terminator-like efficiency, whether it is in training, or, apparently, doping, as well as training that was about as specialized as possible in our sport: The Tour de France only. This is why Lance, 7 Tour wins not withstanding, is no Eddy Merckx.

    Maybe I’m also thinking about this because after getting VO2 max and lactate threshold tested at a sports performance lab recently while developing a training program with a coach, with the goal of doing some racing next year, I’ve been really focused on “training properly” lately, rather than just riding for the love of the sport. And I’m not sure that I’m really enjoying that, or whether it’s even a worthy goal for me, after all, does the world really need another 40 year-old Cat3/4 racer?? I’m not really loving my riding lately because I’m focusing on my cadence, on my intervals, etc, etc. I’m trying to be – like the pros – more efficient to be more competitive, but I’m losing the spirit of it.

    So, now I’m thinking that maybe like Ty Webb in Caddyshack, I should “measure myself against other men by height, rather than by keeping score.” Somehow all of this is tied into finding the inner “spirit” of the sport, which I tongue-in-cheek dub Velomingnosticism…the inner, intuitive, spiritual side of the ride, rather than the external focus, which could include anything from externally used PEDs legal or illegal, looking at the cadence meter more than the trees, or even too much obsession with bike technology and upgrades (hence the sage advice “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades”).

    I think, essentially, I am grasping to define a particular ethos, and there is something about the work of the Velominati that absolutely resonates with that ethos. Hence, here I am working all this shit out and undoubtedly driving some people crazy with my lengthy “broad spectrum” posts. No emoticons, but please bear with me….

    Sorry to Frank – I’m not really addressing your medical perspective on EPO and other PEDs. Need to think about that.

  20. It seems that the gold standard in climbing has always been to summit w/o the use of supplemental oxygen. Why is that? Those that do are the hardmen of the sport and all successful summit bids are noted as being performed with or w/o oxygen. Its hard to say what the analogy to cycling is, but I have a hard time calling some twiggy armed pharmaceutical experiment a hardman.

  21. @Jarvis

    It is irrelevant whether it is healthy to ride the Grand Tours (it isn’t particularly healthy to be a PRO) the riders choose to become professionals, they choose to race the Tour. People with cancer don’t choose to take EPO, they need it to help recover.

    True, but the mountaineers are choosing to climb a mountain, as well. It’s no different. No one is putting a gun to anyone’s head and saying, “Climb this mountain, or else.” I don’t think the “choice” argument has any relevance to the question of whether why bottled 02 is justified but doping isn’t.

    I agree, though, that the notion that doped racing is better or more exciting is totally flawed. Undoped, or at least less doped, is much more exciting. Again, I’m not justifying doping. I’m a broken record, but I just want to see people lay it on the road. I felt that ’07’s Giro was one of the best, even though it had some positives. The ’08 Tour. This year’s Tour. This year’s Spring campaign was awesome. Nothing was worse than the Pharmstrong years. ’95, ’96, ’97, ’98, and ’99 all had different winners. That in itself was good racing, even if it was EPO-fueled. When was the last time we had five different winners of the Tour in five years?

    Merckx, that was the shit. Hinault, et al – that was great racing. Of course, they were doped as well, but it was a different kind of doping; none of this donkeys winning Tours business.

    Cavendish is unlikable for me not for his skill or ability to race; he’s a douchebag. That’s all. He’s got a personality, that’s good. Too bad it’s crap.

    It’s an interesting observation, by the way, that two of the guys with the cleanest reputation in the sport – Sastre and Evans – both finished way down on the GC. They were 1-2 in ’08. It’s also interesting that they finished alongside Pharmy in the 20’s or 30’s or where ever they were. In light of the allegations, did Pharmy race clean this year? Did his name always belong way down the list? Just wondering.

  22. I don’t think the “choice” argument has any relevance to the question of whether why bottled O2 is justified and doping isn’t

    OK, ignore the “choice” issue and return to the fact that the O2 is there to prevent people dying, doping – and don’t forget this includes more than just blood manipulation – isn’t needed at all.

  23. Great article Frank, and great posts by everyone. There is not too much to add, there are valid points made by all.

    Kit, I hear you on the ‘training taking away the fun’ aspect. I haven’t used a HRM or cadence computer for god-knows-how-long, as it became too much of a focus and did my head in. I think the turning point was reading that Ned Overend didn’t use any electronic data devices in his training, but went by feel.

    My good friend Mike and I were both training for the Karapoti Classic mtb race in March, and when I found out he had spent a large amount on a program, and a Garmin, and was so focussed on the sub 3 hour goal, I thought I’d run a little experiment by training by feel, and using my own knowledge picked up over the years. Whether or not my methods were better, or he overtrained, or I just had a better day, I was a happier chap at the end of the race. The previous year I had spent a large sum on altitude simulation training, basically sitting in a room breathing rarified air for an hour 5 times a week. I would’ve been better off riding my bike, and Mike had a better day that year.

    Re EPO, the racing in the 90’s seemed to be a bit more even still, than the Armstrong years. Even when Indurain was dominating, guys like Pantani would have days where he’d be dropped in the mountains, then come back and smash everyone the next day. Mig would still have days where he’d just mark his rivals, maybe because he couldn’t dominate them totally. Armstrong was always, always at the head of the race, and his rivals never, never had an answer. That made his era of dominance a lot more tedious for us to watch, whereas Migs era there was still exciting racing, even if the final result was in little doubt. Plus (Lance) having a team of potential ‘leaders’ all juiced up and driving it for hours on end didn’t hurt.

    EPO really can turn donkeys into thoroughbreds. Landis was a mediocre mountain biker even at US National level, so when he was suddenly riding at the front of the Tour I couldn’t really comprehend it. Whereas Cadel, he was at the front of World Cup mtb races when he was a teenager… he had a natural talent, whereas Landis made an amazing step up. And that’s what grates me about Armstrong… that he was a great talent, but a talent in one-day races, and was never going to be a Tour GC contender. Never. Great drug, that one…

  24. Good article and points lads.

    I’ll randomly add my two cents to some of them…

    * I postulate that when you boil it down to the nth degree, training is “performance enhancing” (as is drinking water, eating sugar, etc). It will always be a grey area as to what is and isn’t ok to use. It comes down to value judgements that will be driven by – to greater or lesser extents – riders, administrators, sponsors, fans and the media.

    * I think the point of it being “ok” to use oxygen for climbers is similar to it being “ok” for riders to be able to refill their water bottles (a relatively recent rule change) and for them to be able to finish a stage in different kit to that in which they started (a mind-bogglingly ridiculous rule from an era when they could start at dawn in the mountains and finish a few hundred km away at the end of a hot summer day). It was/is detrimental to their health to manage without. It’s not really an ethical question.

    * It is possible to finish Grand Tours clean, and to be healthy afterwards. Statistically it must be so. We haven’t had THAT many premature deaths/strokes/heart attacks, and we have had over a thousand (thousands?) of riders finish Grand Tours since the 70s. There is no way they all doped. Paul Kimmage for one will personally be hunting you down if you so much as HINT at that. So the hypothetical argument of “for your health” falls on it’s arse with the slightest breath.

    * Douche is a douche, but he’s like the “heels” in pro wrestling. He definitely adds a certain something to the sport. We just need someone to step up as the good guy. Anyone else excited by Cav vs Greipel next year? “My grandmother could sprint faster” was one of the great Greipel lines (I think! Heard it from someone who heard it from someone who read it somewhere…)

    * To me at the end of the day, doping in sport is not okay because of the so eloquently described “donkey to thoroughbred” issue. And the chain of knock-on effects as far as people receiving funding from sports bodies for places, sponsorship dollars, making teams, making semis or finals (in other sports like swimming and athletics particularly), getting to stand on podia, etc.

    I think that’s about it. And cycling is WAY cleaner than ANY other sport I’d reckon. The talk from your esteemed selves about it’s inherently dirty aspect is saddening to me when seeing the big changes to results, tactics and racing that we’ve seen in the last couple of years. It’s undoubtedly still dirty, but cleaning up more, and faster than any other sport.

  25. “Contador’s case bears little comparison to that of table tennis player Dimitrij Ovcharov…”

    Seriously! They dope in ping pong too? That’s an after school let’s go down to the rec. center game that eventually turns into a university let’s put a bunch of full beer cups on one end of the table and see who has to drink the most game.

  26. @Marko
    What? You didn’t secretly train for hours in order to pound as much free beer as you could? I wish I’d thought of performance-enhancing drugs to complement my training regimen. I was unstoppable in that game (the university game, not the after school rec. centre kind).

    Re. Ovcharov: dude can serve. Clenbuterol didn’t invent that. The man’s an artiste. If he was a cyclist, he’d have the sweetest stroke. We’d be calling him “Honey” it would be so sweet.

  27. Seriously! They dope in cycling too? That’s an after school let’s ride down to the rec. center thing that eventually turns into a riding to the university and putting a bunch of full beer cups on one end of the quad and see who has to drink the most game.

  28. @Marko
    Did you read the article? The article says this is a case of actual food contamination because it was in China where their meat is total shit and other people that ate the same meat also tested positive for Clenbuterol.

    Table tennis, as an Olympic sport, is a member of WADA, and thus is subject to drug testing. Whether or not doping actually occurs is a separate question. Though, I would imagine that Adderall or similar focus-boosting drugs would be a definite benefit when playing.

    A question: should we drug test college students? I have a number of friends that did Adderall or similar drugs while studying for/taking exams. Does it really matter? They certainly gained an advantage over me as I just stuck to caffeine. Taking a drug that keeps you in hyper-focus for 36 hours before you just crash to a puddle of incoherent goo sounds like a bad idea to me, so I abstained.

    The issue of “performance enhancement” is EVERYWHERE. Does the line need to be drawn? And if so, where? Is “what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger” a legitimate line? Damned if I know.

  29. @Collin
    Yea, I read it and got the point. It was just a lame attempt at humor at the expense of ping pong players, or as they say in China, ping pong.

  30. @Marko
    Careful: the elite of the ping pong world could teach a thing or two about Rule #5 to the cycling world. These guys are fierce athletes.

  31. Suplemental O2 is doping – without question. It is not a medical necessity, which is proven by many, many ascents of 8000m peaks without supplemental O2.

    Choosing to use it is not an issue of safety (only) it confers an advantage that may be the difference between success or failure. The consequence of failure has less to do with the choice to use O2 than does the need to succeed, to perform well, to accomplish the goal, etc. If O2 allows one to accomplish a task when he or she otherwise could not do do or was not willing then O2 is a PED and should be treated as such. Make no mistake, O2 is not the only PED used in the mountains it is simply the most blatant.

    Cheating is cheating – no matter the sport, the apparent advantage, i.e. there is a huge difference between 4-liters/minute and 8-liters/minute of O2 at high altitude, or the consequence. One is either equal to the task presented by the natural world or not.


  32. What it comes down to is not whether or not it’s justifiable, but whether or not it’s transparent. If EPO were legal, and riders were open about it’s use, no problem. The health benefits/risks become immaterial. The problem with doping is that it’s cheating. Nothing more, nothing less.

    In mountaineering there are two categories, with supplemental O2 and without. It’s clear who’s in each camp (mostly, your point about the Italians notwithstanding). If racers were clearly in the EPO/doping camp or not, there could even be a separate winner for the clean competition versus the doped competition in a race. Fans could decide which was their favorite. No need to even have a separate event.

  33. mark: agreed.

    WRT ethics in climbing we have always said, “We don’t care what you do as long as you say what you do.” But most cheaters can’t own their actions – even when it is clear.


  34. @Mark Twight, @mark
    Thanks for your great input; I agree that what it seems to come down to is transparency – that’s really the difference between cheating and not, isn’t it?

    cheating(a): violating accepted standards or rules

    The rest is all murky ugliness, but that’s at the heart of it. Of course, so long as public opinion diverges from what the athletes believe (wrongly or otherwise) to be required, transparency is impossible, but that gets beyond the point of the question.

    Thanks for contributing, mates.

  35. “It surprises me that few, if any, in the climbing community consider the use of bottled air to be doping. Debates rage over the purism of it’s use, but those swing wide of labeling the practice as cheating. ”

    Agree that not that many climbers are VOCAL enough about this but there are some like Mark Twight, Steve House and Vince Anderson who has been outspoken along time.

    I’m Swedish and the alpine community is small like in really small. I have been loud and vocal and “slammed” the O2 zipping pretenders hard in public. I raised this issue in an outdoor community and out of plus 11.000 views and about 160 posts i’d say 3 people agree with me that O2 is doing. The rest send hate emails to me and my some of my sponsors….

    I wrote this one for R&I in October 2010

    David Falt

  36. @Mark Twight

    Hold on, is this THE Mark Twight, the climber? Wow, if so, welcome to the site! (I have done a bunch of climbing all over the world as well and am very good friends with Geoff Tabin.)

  37. It is also interesting in the climbing community b/c climbers also use other PED’s besides oxygen. This goes WAY back as well. Hermann Buhl’s first asecnt of Nanga Parbat in ’53 was credited as without oxygen but he was taking amphetamines to stay awake and keep going. Diamox is commonly used prophylatically even on small mtns like Rainier and I have seen increasing numbers of climbers using dexamethasone on larger mtns before they are in trouble.

    Very interesting thread but I have to agree that using oxygen is definitely a PED use.

  38. David, nice, cogent letter to R&I. I’m sure it didn’t win many supporters. The O2 emperor has always been without clothes for anyone who cared to look. Sadly, when someone who has climbed Everest with the aid of supplemental O2 and a “servant” to carry the extra bottles and prepare the route tells a group of normal people that he climbed Everest that is all he says. He fixates on the outcome and not the means used to achieve it. And if the audience isn’t well-informed enough to ask about the means the speaker lets the omission alone, allowing them to think better of him.

    When I started racing a bike it never occurred to me that at my meager level (now a Cat 3 and not a young man) any of those others on the road might be using PEDs. Then Chodroff spoke up and Coyle and Schubel were suspended and I had to open MY eyes, to inform myself. Apparently no one is special and no one is immune: when a group of human beings get together some percentage of them are going to cheat or be susceptible to the idea of it. Sadly, it appears this is true for any sport and at some point our habit as an athlete or spectator one of distrust.

    We dearly want to believe in extraordinary human performance but there will always be a voice inside urging skeptical review. That is what the cheaters have done to us.


    p.s. Buck Rogers, yes, the climber. I found my way here via a link to The Rules – to which I refer frequently.

  39. @Mark Twight
    Beautiful account of the way people “forget” to mention the details of how something was achieved – not just Mounteering, but everything. I think Mountaineering – and I say this as someone who reads about it but doesn’t practice it – is undergoing a very off-camber growing pain. You’ve got the pure sport which is largely an indy sport with a (relatively) small base. Then you have the appeal of Everest. Inexperienced Fuckwaffles going for the top with no class and no skill.

    (It might be comparable to how cycling is viewed in the States, with only the Tour getting attention.)

    From the various books I’ve read, the way people get to the top of Everest is completely lacking in class and dignity – which is everything The Rules are about. Getting into the sport, doing it well, and being a good athlete, well – fuck – that’s up to you; you’re on your own for that one. But The Rules are about how you do it. It’s about the subtle things. About making it all worth while. Various people have (rightly) pointed this out: there are about 6 Rules that have anything to do with actually riding your bike. The rest are about class, style, culture, and dignity.

    And while that may well be embraced by the group of non-Everest Trophy-seekers, I’m under the strong impression that Mountaineering is really struggling to deal with the commercialism presented through the publicity of that particular hill.

    As far as cheating goes, it goes against everything that we believe when we start out. We fall in love with the challenge and pursue it. Then we become acquainted with the pain that first seemed such an unfamiliar companion. Then we start down a slippery slope.

    I’m an asthmatic (a real one, unlike 80% of the Pros) and I have an inhaler. I don’t need it ever in the summer, but fall/spring my lungs can’t deal with the change in weather and I have to use it pretty regularly. One time I took it right before a ride. I felt the oxygen coursing through my body. I was strong that day. Could be the inhaler, could be I was on form. I don’t know, but I credit the inhaler. I can’t deny it’s been tempting – when the legs are lacking – to use it even though I don’t need it. It’s human nature.

    But that’s what makes us different from animals, we have morality, dignity, and self-control. I don’t take my inhaler when I don’t need it because it isn’t right. It’s as simple as that.

    Side note: I hold a coworker last Spring that I was riding Tour de Blast and she asked, “Oh, is that the one where you ride up Mount Everest?” I don’t know how to respond to that.

  40. frank:
    Side note: I hold a coworker last Spring that I was riding Tour de Blast and she asked, “Oh, is that the one where you ride up Mount Everest?” I don’t know how to respond to that.

    “Yes, that’s the one. Then you swim back down.”?

  41. G’phant :

    frank:Side note: I hold a coworker last Spring that I was riding Tour de Blast and she asked, “Oh, is that the one where you ride up Mount Everest?” I don’t know how to respond to that.

    “Yes, that’s the one. Then you swim back down.”?

    Frank, I assume your co-worker’s sole job responsibility was to check the expiration dates on the bottles of Liquid Paper.

    As for PEDs in cycling, I’m inclined to take Anquetil’s position–they are pros. They can’t do what they do on bananas and water. However, I would want disclosure that PEDs are allowed. I think I’d stop at full disclosure. Part the competition is coming up with newer better synthetic elements for injecting, ingesting, snorting, or shoving up one’s ass. Maybe we could see the cycling version of this:

    I’ve heard the argument about how legalizing PEDs turns any sport into professional wrestling–basically scripted entertainment. Isn’t that what we had in professional baseball in the 90’s? Isn’t that essentially what we have in the TdF now?

  42. @Jeff in PetroMetro
    It’s what we had in Pro cycling (or the Tour de France as you call it) in the 90’s. As for Anquetil’s position: how does one become a PRO? They are good amateurs, amateurs start out as juniors and youths. So the argument for legalising PEDs is bullshit. It will mean that anyone who finds themselves as being good enough to become a PRO will know that if they want to take that step, they will have to take drugs – if they aren’t already as the logical result of PRO filling themselves full of pills is that the practice will trickle-down to lower ranks and age-groups.

    Fuck. Took the bait again.

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