Healthy Horizon? Doping In The Tour de France

Steven P. Timmons

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By Steven Timmons

This year, an amazing spectacle began just off the coast of France, on the isle of Corsica, on June 29. If you happened to be on the roadside, you might have seen 22 teams of nine bicycle riders, dressed in colors that only a peacock might find routine, passing by at an extraordinary rate of speed. If you were the peacock, you might be astonished to notice that the high performance machines were nestled into each other so closely as to appear linked together, and were powered only by the blood, sweat, and leg-churned gears of the human riders.

During this race, these riders would bring their bodies to incredible limits of power output and oxygen use, and keep themselves in this exhausting state for up to 6 hours. The same thing would be repeated in wave upon wave of suffering over 21 stages accomplished in 23 days, and culminating with a few comparatively lazy circuits on the Champs-Elysées (a street in Paris).

In attempting to keep their bodies in condition during this race, each rider must eat the best balance of natural foods, fruits, and berries, along with row upon row of natural vitamin supplements, from amino acids such as creatine, glutamine, and carnitine, to minerals, B-Complex, and the list goes on and on. Actually, the supplement list is similar to what I might take in an attempt to prevent the aging process from overtaking me as I venture into my late fifties!

There is a difference however. The professional cyclist is not allowed to take all that is good for him, even if it is prescribed. He cannot use natural testosterone, human growth hormone, HCG, Erythropoietin, or even DHEA, or basically anything else that can increase his performance beyond basic nutritional supplements.  There are exceptions for certain drugs with a doctor’s approval, but in general, no diuretic or cardiovascular drug or stimulant of any kind except caffeine can be used. Prior to  2004, even caffeine was forbidden.

For a moment, let’s forget about cycling. Let’s say you were one of several rats, lured into a treadmill, running with a set of shock wires near your rear end (this “testing method” is used in some laboratories to this day). Let us say you know you will be shocked if you turn out to be one of the slow rats, but you will be rewarded with all kinds of goodies if you are the fastest of the rats. Well then, in that case, how likely would you be to take a forbidden substance that would help you to win? You wouldn’t? How likely would you be to take it if no one could find out, and it really wasn’t bad for you?

The real problem for you as the hypothetical rat, and for the professional cyclist riding in “Le Tour”, is in the testing. If there is no good test, then for all practical purposes, a rule will be ignored, because the pain of competitive bicycling is real. The testing agencies cannot catch up with each new method of doping, and have even had to resort to bullying riders into telling on each other. If you win the Tour, you are immediately an object of an investigation.

There is no other sport like this one. In the first 50 years of the Tour De France, no testing was done, and bicycling served as the perfect test laboratory for all kinds of drugs and methods for increasing endurance. The first year of any testing was in 1966, but testing was not very sophisticated until the end of the century, with various types of doping staying under the radar. During the 1970’s, steroids and amphetamines were used, until testing began to sweep up too many riders. During the 1990’s erythropoietin, a hormone used to increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood by stimulating the production of red blood cells, could not be tested for accurately. More recently, after a test for this was developed, athletes began switching to an erythropoietin receptor activator, avoiding detection for the same basic “dope”. These are just a couple of examples out of hundreds of methods for “illegal” doping.

Over the last 15 years, at least one of the top three finishers has eventually been implicated in doping, except in 2012.  Testing continues to lag behind the ingenuity of the riders and scientists, and every year we are promised a clean race.

There are even darker clouds on the health horizon for those who want a “clean” race. With the possibility of gene therapy, where spliced copies of genes are inserted into cells, there will be no way to tell if an athlete has been born with a specific advantage in metabolism, or if he has added some genetics in order to “even” the playing field with his more gifted competitors.

I enjoy watching the Tour De France every year, and I do not know the answer to the dilemma faced by professional cycling. The most important thing to me is that the riders remain healthy. Doping has reached the point where it may be in the rider’s best medical interest to dope, because many of the banned substances can be shown to be good for tissue repair and cardiovascular health.

What, as an outsider, can I say?  I salute the bicyclists, and like the peacock on the side of the road, I enjoy the spectacle. If there is any guilt involved in this whole affair, I think it should be shared by all of us: the anti-doping agencies, the bicyclists, all of the associated team personnel, the press AND the spectators. We all benefit from the spectacle. Maybe we all need to forgive one other. Rather than pointing fingers, perhaps we need to focus on the health of the riders.

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