Fitness & Health, Sport & Exercise Science

Doping still widespread in cycling

Lance-ArmstrongCycling continues to struggle with widespread doping, according to a landmark report into the sport’s troubled recent history.

Set up in January 2014 to investigate how cycling so badly lost its way during the 1990s and 2000s, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (Circ) has heavily criticised the sport’s leadership throughout that era.

While 227-page report clears the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) bosses of outright corruption it censures them for a raft of failings.

Foremost among these are that the UCI did not really want to catch cheats as it would give the sport a bad image and therefore turned a blind eye to anything but the worst excesses.

The report’s authors also accuse former UCI presidents Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid of failing to follow their own anti-doping rules and showing preferential treatment to disgraced former champion Lance Armstrong.

A total of 174 anti-doping experts, officials, riders and other interested parties were interviewed.

These are the main points:

  • One “respected cycling professional” believes that 90% of the peloton is still doping, another put it at 20%
  • Riders are micro-dosing, taking small but regular amounts of a banned substance, to fool the latest detection methods
  • The abuse of Therapeutic Use Exemptions, sick notes, is commonplace, with one rider saying 90% of these are used to boost performance
  • The use of weight-loss drugs, experimental medicine and powerful painkillers is widespread, leading to eating disorders, depression and even crashes
  • With doping done now on a more conservative basis, other forms of cheating are on the rise, particularly related to bikes and equipment
  • Doping in amateur cycling is endemic

The report explains how a sport that had always taken a lenient approach to doping and a culture of not talking about doping, entered a new phase when the “game-changing” blood-boosting drug EPO became readily available in the early 1990s.

With no test for it until 2000 and performance benefits of 10-15%, it did not take long before almost everybody in the sport was using it. As the report says, “it would have been hard to overestimate the prevalence of drug use in the peloton” at this time.

Numerous interviewees told Circ the UCI’s view was it should only try to contain the problem and make sure the riders did not kill themselves and that actually catching cheats was bad for the sport’s reputation.

The report’s authors also accuse former UCI presidents Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid of failing to follow their own anti-doping rules and showing preferential treatment to disgraced former champion Lance Armstrong.

The pair will be relieved to have been cleared of the most serious allegations against them, namely that they were bribed by Armstrong to cover up positive tests in 2001; and that he paid for what was meant to be an independent report commissioned by the UCI to investigate reports he had tested positive during the 1999 Tour de France.

But Circ did not spare them on a number of glaring errors of judgement and examples of poor governance:

  • World champion Laurent Brochard in 1997 and Armstrong in 1999 were both allowed to backdate medical prescriptions to avoid sanctions, a clear breach of the anti-doping rules
  • McQuaid abruptly and unilaterally changed his mind to allow Armstrong to ride at the 2009 Tour Down Under despite not being available for testing for the required six months beforehand. At the same time it was announced that Armstrong would later that season ride in the Tour of Ireland, an event organised by what is described in the report as “people known to McQuaid”
  • While Armstrong did not pay for the 2006 report into his alleged positive tests at the 1999 Tour, his lawyers did draft large sections of it, along with senior UCI staff desperate to shift blame away from the rider and onto the laboratory that leaked the results and Wada
  • The UCI asked for and accepted two large donations from Armstrong, and enquired about a more regular gift as late as 2008
  • Repeatedly came out to defend Armstrong against accusations of cheating, supporting him in two high-profile legal cases

There is also considerable criticism of the UCI’s cost controls, ethics procedures and electoral practices, with Verbruggen and McQuaid accused of breaches of the rules in the 2005 and 2013 elections.

While many senior figures within the sport will be feeling very bruised by the report’s assessment of what happened during the EPO era, Circ did acknowledge the huge improvements made in the anti-doping effort, particularly after 2006.

It noted a far more aggressive approach to catching cheats, greater investment in anti-doping and the early adoption of the biological passport, the most effective tool in the fight against cheats since the EPO test was introduced in 2000.

But the interviewees also made it clear that doping had not been eradicated.

The report listed dozens of substances and cutting-edge doping methods that riders are still believed to use. It also noted that teams do not know where their riders are training at all times, or with whom they are training.

The report concludes with a raft of recommendations to help prevent cycling from ever returning to the dark days of a decade ago, with ideas such as centralised pharmacies at races, a powerful riders’ union, a greater push to encourage whistleblowing and more testing done overnight to catch micro-dosers.

Read the full report

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