Thursday, June 17, 2010

Drawing the line

If you go fast, they accuse you of cheating. If you go slow, they say you’re not professional and you didn’t train hard enough.

-Fabian Cancellara, after winning Stage 1 TT at 2010 Tour de Suisse

I hate doping. I’ve made no secret of that. I was reminded of how much I hate doping while reading posts at Rabid Runner and by Mark T. via Church of the Big Ring today.

I made similar comments on both, the essence of which is that if performance enhancing drugs were legalized and therefore no longer cheating, as has been proposed in some circles, then they would make their way to the amateur ranks, as all things PRO tend to do. The decision would no longer be “do I dope so I can compete in Europe or go back to racing in the US?” but “do I dope so I can upgrade to the next category or resign myself to being a career Cat. X?”

I like to pretend to try to be competitive at the local amateur level, and I don't want to dope. I hate needles. I don't want to stick needles in my arm or butt before a race. I don't want to race knowing that I'm only as fast as I am because I put chemicals in my body. It would be hollow and not worthwhile and would take something I love to do and suck the joy and satisfaction out of it. I could not muster the passion to suffer as I do on and off the bike under such circumstances. (And really, what is bike racing without the suffering?)

But where do you draw the line? It’s fun to pretend that doping is cut and dry and you’re either doing it or you’re not. Is it really that simple?

The UCI has set bike weight limits at a minimum of 6.8kg. So if you’re riding a bike that weighs less than that in a local race that doesn’t weigh bikes, is that doping?

Caffeine has been shown to enhance performance, indeed exceeding certain levels constitutes a doping positive, so am I doping when I pop a Red Bull prior to a crit?

EPO and blood transfusions are used to increase hematocrit levels, the concentration of red cells in the blood, thus augmenting aerobic capacity. Sleeping in a hypobaric chamber (altitude tent) or at altitude stimulates a similar response (though not of the same magnitude). My house is at 6300 feet, and yes, I thought about the effect this would have on my hematocrit when I bought it. Is that doping?

Allessandro Petacchi missed Le Tour in 2007 for taking too many puffs on his albuterol inhaler. He had a therapeutic use exemption for the drug (as do something like 2/3 of the pro peloton—who knew asthma was so pervasive amongst endurance athletes); he just failed to use “utmost caution” and took too much. I have asthma and have had poor results when I forget to take albuterol before competition. Other times I’ve probably failed to use “utmost caution” and taken too much. Is this doping?

Power meters allow an athlete to test him or herself and know exactly what kind of power can be generated for a given duration, enabling pacing strategies that are much more precise, which is especially helpful in time trials or when climbing. Does using this technology to your advantage constitute doping?

In 1989 when Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon in the final time trial of Le Tour, Lemond was using aero bars, similar to a modern time trial setup, while Fignon rode old school in the drops. Lemond is a vocal critic of doping, but did his bike setup give him an unfair advantage?

The list goes on and on of course. One argument against performance enhancing drugs is that they’re dangerous. But they’re less dangerous than obesity, tobacco, alcohol abuse, or air pollution, each of which by itself is and always will be a far greater public health concern. Another argument is that it gives an unfair advantage. But could not the same be said if one competitor has power meter, carbon frame, and aero wheels when another can’t afford such equipment?

I’ll obviously utilize any legal advantage I have access to, and yet I hate doping and will go on hating doping. I hope there are some huge, visible busts that come out of the Landis allegations. I hope the riders roll on each other. I hope it becomes an out-of-control wildfire that burns down not just cycling, but the major sports like football, American football, baseball, and basketball. I hope it gets to the point that riders go beyond a silly two-minute delay or soft pedaling around finishing circuits and make a real protest, like refusing to line up and race against someone they know is dirty.

Problem is, can anyone can say definitively and precisely what “dirty” is?


  1. I crashed into a mud puddle on the Mueller Park trail. That was pretty dirty.

  2. Nothing is going to change. No one is going to do anything. European Cycling is like pro wrestling to me now. I love to watch it but I know it is fake. I watch for the drama, like a soap opera, not so much for the sporting aspect of it anymore. I think this says it all to me.

    Valverde was pretty much caught red handed and others are taking up for him??? Nothing is going to change. And in regards to Lance. I think him and Johan decided back in 98 that they are going to beat the Euros at their own game and they did it better. Also most fans dont even know the sports history. Eddie B blood doped our 84 medalists only to become part of Postal and Discovery managment down the road. HHMMM, put the pieces together people.

  3. The Gutierrez letter sounds like an accusation against Armstrong and Contador, more or less arguing that if these guys are allowed to compete, why not Valverde? That's no defense. If the sport is dying, it's from within. Only the riders can do anything about it, but it's a prisoner's dilemma.

  4. I think the line the UCI has drawn is sensible - ban artificial stuff that gives a significant advantage. But your point is well taken, where do you draw the line?

    Is it noble or foolish to attempt to create a fair race? It gets complex so quickly I just give up caring. I'm like Forrest, it's entertainment to me.

    The only purity I find in sport is my personal pursuits. I know when I'm doing well.

  5. I believe taking steroids, particularly during one's youth, can precipitate cancer. Does it make it all OK if you then start a campaign against cancer?

  6. Doug! That was a good one!

    (This is how it always works on your blog. I have something to say, but then start reading the comments, and that whatever I have to say kinda changes.)

    I'm glad you brought up the technology-in-bicycles issue. I was going to get into that - how cycling is not just about endurance, speed and skill, it's also about technology - but I got lazy. So I'm told, it seems on some levels, the quality of your bike has a great deal to do with how well you do. It does parallel the doping issue a bit in that doping is about technology.

    I propose that we draw the line wherever it suits me best. How's that?