Professional cycling is the sport most keenly associated with the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Other sports such as athletics and baseball have similar problems which blighted their sport, however the story of Lance Armstrong was so captivating it brought the sport’s problem to the forefront of our minds.
In the last decade it has made a sizeable attempt to change the culture from one of doping to a cleaner, purer public image. Innovations such as the biological passport and greater out-of competition testing have made it much harder for cyclists to dope.
All of these testing measures and the attempts to change the culture within the sport have meant and end to the wild west era’s of the 1990’s and early 2000’s when riders were transfusing multiple blood bags, EPO, testosterone, cortisone and HGH to name just a few. Despite all of these new preventative measures being put in place some within the peloton still give in to temptation and use doping products.
In recent months the sport has been hit with a setback from Operation Aderlass. Whilst this is not Operation Puerto where multiple top name riders were linked with doping, this German police investigation into blood doping has uncovered links with cyclists. So far the majority of named athletes have been cross country skiing, but so far two Austrian cyclists have confessed to blood doping during this investigation.
The doctor at the centre of the scandal, Dr Mark Schmidt, has previous experience in cycling with links to the Gerolsteiner and Milram teams in the late 2000’s as team doctor. Disgraced Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl previous alleged that Schmidt organised doping within the Gerolsteiner team at the 2008 Tour de France. Kohl finished third in that race but was later busted for using EPO variant CERA at the 2008 Tour.
The police investigation is still ongoing, and so far Austrian cyclists Stefan Denifl and Georg Preidler have confessed to blood doping using Schmidt. The police have uncovered 40-60 blood bags from athletes from a diverse range of sports and more names are sure to be revealed as the investigation progresses.
Along with this news Trek-Segafredo climber Jarlinson Pantano was found last month to have failed an out-of competition test in late February for EPO. He was a previous winner of a stage at the Tour de France in 2016. The important thing with all of these cases is that none of these riders with respect is a superstar within the sport. These are not contenders for the major races and yet they have been busted for doping.
Whilst this is not an indictment that the top-level riders are doping, it does raise the question as to the sincerity of the results we see in recent years if riders who are not achieving massive results are doping would they not be better contenders than they have been if everybody else is not doping. This is a simplistic mindset not backed up by facts but this is how ordinary fans of cycling might think.
It’s likely that these riders were doping merely to compete or to give themselves a better chance at success to earn a lucrative new contract in the future. Only they can explain their actions if they ever will.
The sport of cycling is making massive progress in it’s fight against doping, with all sides making proactive steps after years of burying their heads in the sand about the problem. All of these steps are helping make the future of the sport much healthier, however it is also very difficult to quickly change a doping culture that has existed in the sport dating back over 110 years to it’s origins. This will take time and a sustained effort from all involved to change this culture and ensure the public can have faith that the results they are seeing are credible.
Cycling is on the right path for the first time in a long while, and it needs to continue doing everything it can to combat doping. In all sport athletes will cheat because of the massive fame and fortune at stake if they can get away with it. Cycling is no different in this regard. The UCI and the national anti-doping bodies need to continue to punish those who do cheat to send a clear message to the peloton that doping will not be tolerated in any form. The UCI currently has 19 male and female riders under suspension for doping, showing they are taking the right steps to combat this problem.
Of course all of this talk might be a smokescreen as we do not know what exactly goes on within the world of professional cycling. Riders might have found a way around the testing measures although until we see major evidence indicating this we can’t assume this. Only time will tell if this era of results we are eagerly watching are credible or just another grand deceit.
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By Jordan Wilkins