Cycling’s dark era

Professional cycling and performance enhancing drugs. For almost two decades these went hand in hand as the sport was ravaged by a wild west era of professional doping programmes, in which the sport lost almost all it’s credibility and those who cheated prospered whilst those who chose to remain clean rotted on the outer reaches of success in the sport they loved.

Doping has always been a problem in professional cycling, as athletes faced with three weeks of immense physical pain have always looked for ways to numb or dull the pain. In the early days cyclists would use alcohol to numb the pain, however from the 1950’s onwards recreational drugs such as amphetamines become the latest technology in doping. Amphetamines were common place during the peloton for the next 30 years, although whilst they would give riders extra energy they would also alter their thinking and often led to ridiculous breaks which were never successful.

During the 1980’s amphetamines were prevalent in the pro peloton, although not every one was using performance enhancing drugs. One of those include ex-pro rider Theo de Rooij, who states in an interview with http://www.theouterline.com his own experiences with amphetamines ” That stuff made me do crazy things; it made me feel strong, but I also realized that the stuff was very addictive, so I decided to stay away from it.” (ed: For more information on doping check out their amazing article series called Perspectives on doping!)

De Rooij in action during his pro career in the 1980’s.

The game changer in performance enhancing drugs was the development and abuse of EPO. This drug which boosted red blood cells in blood and designed for people with anaemia (low blood count), it was tailor made for endurance athletes such as professional cyclists. Pioneered by Italian riders during the early 1990’s it’s use quickly became widespread, with a sworn secrecy over it’s use leading to increasing doses as riders became paranoid of other riders using more doping products to enhance their performance and gain an advantage on the peloton.

During the 1990’s it truly was the wild west in terms of doping as huge quantities of EPO were used and abused to enhance performance. EPO was a game changer not only because of it’s ability to greatly enhance your own performance, but because it was impossible to be caught using it as throughout the 1990’s there was no test available to detect EPO. EPO quickly became the holy grail of doping as a large majority of professional team set up an organised doping programme using highly sophisticated and knowledgable doctors, alongisde high tech equipment to give them an edge over the rest.

At the time the UCI, cycling’s governing body, both seemed to have little resources and interest in properly investigating systematic doping in cycling. By the mid-1990’s the first obvious signs of doping distorting race results became clear, with examples being the “miracle” three man break from the Italian Gewiss-Ballan team, that simply powered away from everyone else on the final portion of the race to claim a 1-2-3 at Fleche Wallone in 1994. After the race team doctor Dr Michele Ferrari made his infamous quote about EPO “EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink 10 liters of orange juice.” It’s probably no coincidence that Dr Michele Ferrari later became synonymous with EPO and doping, as he was a major factor behind the dominance of Lance Armstrong and the United States Postal Service team as they won 7 straight Tour de France title between 1999 and 2005.

Youtube Footage of the infamous Stage 16 Hautacam climb made famous by Bjarne Riis in 1996.

Another example is the apparent ease with which Danish rider Bjarne Riis was able to tackle the infamous Hautacam climb in 1996. During the later stages of the 1996 Tour de France the riders approached the notoriously tricky Hautacam, known as one of the most challenging climbs in world cycling, yet TV footage showed Bjarne Riis riding it like a Sunday afternoon relaxing training ride. He repeatedly launched himself from the peloton before slowing and allowing the group to catch him again before repeating the process several times. Eventually Riis broke away for good and claimed the stage win comfortably, although his actions were peculiar to many cycling experts as his process of riding hautacam defied convention. 11 years later the public discovered his secret to victory that day as Riis announced he had used performance enhancing drugs including EPO during his career.

Bjarne Riis shows the pain of his 1996 Tour de France victory.
Sourced from https://leagueofbikes.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/bjarne-riis-hautacam-1996/3acdc4b4a3184a59956bbd432998c716_400/

By 1997 the UCI finally took action against rampant doping in cycling, by implementing a 50% limit for riders hematocrit, a.k.a the amount of red blood cells they have in their blood. Some counter however that infact the teams themselves came to the UCI pleading them to implement some measure as they deemed the riders doping to be getting out of control. Whoever implemented the measure it did have an affect in curbing doping slightly, as gone were the days of Bjarne Riis winning the Tour de France with a hematocrit of 60% and over.

Hematocrit is vital to cyclists and endurance athletes as the more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen you have being carried to the muscles. This means your less likely to fatigue or get lactic acid build up in your muscles. Therefore, if you can perform at your peak for longer than your rival it’s likely you’ll be able to beat them. For cyclists this became the holy grail in the 1990’s, with a normal persons hematocrit likely to be between 40-45%, however for cyclists before 1997 regular use of EPO and other performance enhancing drugs such as testosterone, Human Growth Hormone and Cortisone would boost their figures to between 55-65%.

The UCI implemented the 50% ruling as a “health measure”, therefore when riders were caught with a hematocrit over 50% they were simply suspended for two weeks before being reinstated. From here the status quo remained until July 1998. The Tour de France was eagerly anticipated like any other Tour, however in the days prior to the start in Ireland, a chain of events began which would lead to a complete change in the doping culture of professional cycling. The most successful team in the 1998 Tour de France was the Festina team. Packed with top line riders it was likely one of their riders would win the Tour de France. This would soon change however as team soigneur, effectively a team helper, Willy Voet was stopped by French customs in Belgium as he tried to enter France through a small border crossing by Lille.

A routine check of his Festina team car found an insane amount of doping products within, which included 234 capsules of EPO, 82 vials of Human Growth Hormone, 160 capsules of testosterone and various other doping products. After the team at first distanced themselves from Voet, it soon became clear everyone from the team would be questioned once they returned to France. Once it became clear French police had uncovered a systematic doping programme on the Festina team, directeur sportif Bruno Roussel and team doctor Eric Rijckaert were forced to end their denials and admit to a systematic doping programme on the team, which was later discovered to have been funded by the riders. From here all the key players from the Festina team were questioned by police, including star riders Alex Zulle, Richard Virenque and Laurent Dufaux.


Virenque clearly bewildered at the 1998 Tour de France.
Sourced from http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/virenque-hopes-french-senate-list-includes-festina-riders

The team would be subsequently thrown out of that year’s Tour de France and all riders apart from Virenque would admit to doping. From here French police searched other teams at the tour and found doping products at almost all the teams. In turn the riders protested about their harsh treatment by police and stage several protests during stages whereby the riders would deliberately ride slowly or even stop for several hours. In the end the incredible victory for the Italian Marco Pantani, who also won the Giro D’Italia that year also, was overshadowed by the ongoing Festina affair.

From here things settled down again, with the next major storm surrounding the Italian Marco Pantani. After winning two of cycling’s biggest races in the Giro D’Italia and Tour de France in 1998, Pantani looked for a repeat in 1999 as he dominated the Giro. Only days before the end however, he fell foul of the 50% limit of the UCI and was suspended for two weeks. Although this created many news headlines, the significance in the story was whether he had been set up and did center on doping like the Festina affair had.

http://blogs.as.com/.a/6a00d83451bf7069e201a5116e3fb0970c-450wi
Pantani being led away by police after his expulsion from the 1999 Giro D’Italia.
Sourced from an AS blog http://blogs.as.com/pedaladas/2014/02/las-ense%C3%B1anzas-del-pantani-valiente-y-del-pantani-oscuro.html

After the Public Relations disaster that was the 1998 Tour de France over, the UCI and Tour organisers were eager to renew the public’s faith in the race for 1999. They both promised a slower race to show they were curbing doping in cycling. Little did they know however that their biggest problem around doping were just about to begin as Lance Armstrong was coming back to the Tour and was determined to claim victory, whichever way possible. For more on this story please view my second part to this blog entry which will be posted in the next few days. Hope you enjoyed it!

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