03 July 2009

A culture of doping in cycling

Cycling and drug use have become synonomous. FitnessDoc traces the history of drug use and reveals some startling historical cases which shed light on a culture of drugs.

Doping continues to cast an ominous shadow over cycling, with the Tour de France no exception. Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, traces the history of drug abuse in cycling.

Every single winner of the Tour de France since 1996 – are either known drug users, or they are rumoured to have doped (with plenty of circumstantial evidence), or they are being tried for doping. It appears that the deeper you dig, the uglier it gets for the sport of cycling.

But why does it seem to be so 'rotten' with drug use? It’s by no means a simple matter.

Where it all started
The Tour de France must be one of the first sporting events where doping was practised. As far back as the early 1900s, 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 reportedly 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 that "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 statements are sometimes inspired by ulterior motives and might be the result of sour grapes, but given the number of them, they need to be heard), who was banned in 2004 for using doping products. He said, “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?”

Some think it's a necessity, not an option
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.

Most cyclists doing everything possible to gain the advantage
But the question remains: why would a cyclist use EPO when they could get the same effect from altitude training? There are a few reasons. One is that EPO is a more effective means to achieve this, but the real answer is that they have to do everything possible, because it seems to be the culture within the sport.

Believe it or not, I actually know one of the better known cyclists who has been implicated in this whole affair (I won't reveal the name here). And I was part of a group that was showing him and some team-mates around our training and research facilities in Cape Town, and the one question they wanted answered was whether it would be possible to do altitude-simulations in Cape Town?

It later emerged that he (and others) were using EPO, blood doping and probably using altitude tents anyway, but that doesn't matter, because if you are not doing everything possible to gain an advantage, you might as well do nothing.

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."

(Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, July 2009. Dr Tucker also blogs on




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