With Queen's rock anthem "Bicycle Race" blaring from loudspeakers, the Tour de France sets off for another day, the riders a blaze of colour in their lurid shirts. This, undoubtedly, is one of sport's most spectacular sights. But is it believable?
A decade ago, when Lance Armstrong won the first of his record seven Tour titles, the answer to that question was largely "no".
Doping had rotted cycling to the core. At least 80% of riders in the grand tours of France, Spain and Italy were doping, anti-doping scientists in Switzerland now calculate using blood tests from that time. Back then, researchers in Paris who were
working on a method to catch one of the most common forms of
cheating struggled to find clean samples to try out their new test.
They defrosted a batch from the 1998 Tour - and were thrown when
all came back positive for the blood-boosting hormone EPO. Concerned that their test might be malfunctioning, they tried
"I had real trouble finding a negative," says Francoise Lasne,
the doctor at France's anti-doping agency who conducted that
groundbreaking research. "I thought the test wasn't working."
Dope-free Tour an illusion?
Now, in Armstrong's comeback year, cycling can honestly claim
that things are changing, that the dirt is not caked so thick.
Whether Armstrong was among those who doped in the past has
never been adequately proved. He insists not but did not sue a
French newspaper that reported otherwise.
Either way, it appears that the Tour peleton he has returned to
is now cleaner than it has been for a long, long time.
Pristine? No. But perhaps somewhat more believable.
The change can be seen, literally, in riders' blood. A costly
state-of-the-art blood monitoring programme started last year in
cycling is making the illicit use of performance-enhancing
transfusions and blood-boosters like EPO riskier and harder. Only
those riders enrolled in the anti-doping programme are allowed at the
Tour, hence its name - the "biological passport".
It uses computer software and a panel of recognised experts from
Europe and Australia to scrutinise riders' blood-test results, looking for the abnormal variations that doping causes. A few years ago, when transfusions and EPO use were rife, riders' readings were often all over the dial. That is not the case today.
"The vast majority of the peloton has very normal blood values,"
says Anne Gripper, anti-doping manager for cycling's governing
body, the UCI.
No dopers or better dopers?
That likely means two things - that the passport is deterring
riders from blood doping but that others have found ways to slip
under its radar.
Micro-doses of EPO, if timed right, still might not be showing
up - although they may be so small now that they aren't giving
cheats much of a performance kick either.
Same goes for smaller transfusions. A half-litre of a
rider's blood transfused when the Tour heads into the Pyrenees this
week or the Alps after that, might not show up clearly enough with
the passport for the UCI to be able to say definitely that cheating
occurred and initiate disciplinary proceedings. Larger transfusions
Experts agree that the passport represents a large and
significant step forward for cycling. It is the first sport to seek
bans using this technology. Riders whose blood readings appear
suspicious but not sufficiently so to be actionable are also being
targeted for follow-up testing that may help trip them up.
But no one is naive enough to believe that the passport has
fully closed the net on the smartest cheats or those who can afford
the help of crooked doctors.
"It's clear that riders have learned to dope within the
passport," says Michael Ashenden, one of the nine experts the UCI
uses to analyse riders' blood readings for the programme.
’It’s possible to manipulate tests’
Correctly manipulating transfusions and mini-doses of EPO
requires a certain amount of know-how but not a PhD.
"I could write it down on a post-it note," Ashenden says.
Nevertheless, the passport is better than anything else science
currently offers and the deterrent factor does appear to be
One of the most encouraging signs is that some riders are
starting to volunteer tips to drug testers about rivals they
suspect are still cheating, breaking the doping code of silence
that long prevailed in cycling, says an official directly involved
with testing at this year's Tour, which will roll into Paris on
Because of the necessary secrecy around drug testing, the
official spoke on condition of anonymity. He believes that
lesser-paid riders can no longer afford doping programmes that are
sophisticated enough to evade the passport regime and so are
spilling the beans on those they suspect still can.
Hope that cycling image is improving
That is a somewhat cynical view. Riders may also be volunteering
information for the simple reason that they have grown sick of
cheating in their midst.
Either way, the evidence suggests that cycling's long-tarnished
image is due to a degree of rehabilitation and that those fans along
the Tour route who shout "all dopers" - are wrong.
With the UCI, teams, riders and race organisers together forking
out €3 million a year on the passport programme, cycling at least deserves credit for owning up to its doping habit and trying hard to wean itself.
That is more than can be said for some other sports. – (Sapa, July 2009)
Doping: Tour cyclists targeted