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Problem Is: Doping Begets Doping

That is one view of cycling, where insiders say the usage has been going on for years and suggest that the sport is no dirtier than others.

July 03, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

STRASBOURG, France — Exploding in anger, Frenchman Henri Pelissier dumped the contents of his bag on a table in front of reporters. The defending Tour de France champion had just quit because race officials penalized him for a minor rules violation.

"You have no idea what the Tour de France is," Pelissier raged. "But do you want to see how we keep going? Cocaine for the eyes. Chloroform for the gums. You want to see the pills too? Under the mud our flesh is white as a sheet. Our eyes are swimming and every night we dance like St. Vitus instead of sleeping."

The year was 1924.

In 1967, British world champion Tom Simpson died on a hot day during a punishing climb up Mont Ventoux in Provence. Found in his pocket were amphetamines. Simpson had wanted a little extra boost.

It also has been documented that early Tour riders used strychnine, a deadly poison that, used in the right dosage, helps an athlete by causing his muscles to constrict faster.

"The Tour de France was started with a bunch of vagabond riders who used everything at their disposal," said cycling journalist David Walsh, who co-wrote "LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong," a book that lays out a case that seven-time Tour champion Armstrong used blood-doping techniques. "They used strychnine, cocaine, caffeine, amphetamines."

And now it is thought that many of cycling's top riders also use dangerous means to improve their performance.

"The drugs have changed, but the culture hasn't," said Walsh, who considers the drug culture in cycling to be self-perpetuating. "Most of the team sports directors are former pro cyclists. They teach what they learned."

Before this year's Tour even started, 13 riders, including three of the top five finishers from the 2005 race, were sent home by their teams after their names showed up in connection with a raid made by Spanish police on the laboratory of a Madrid doctor in May.

It hasn't been proved that any of the 13 are guilty of blood doping, but team leaders and race officials agreed to abide by an international cycling rule that any athlete involved in a doping investigation would not be allowed to compete.

The suspensions followed a continuation of doping accusations against Armstrong, a cancer survivor who retired last July after winning his seventh consecutive Tour. Most recent is testimony under oath by Betsy Andreu, wife of former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu, that Armstrong told doctors three days after he had cancer surgery in 1996 that he had used performance-enhancing drugs.

But these are hardly the first drug scandals to hit the sport.

Just before the 1998 Tour de France, a Belgian masseur for the Spanish team Festina was caught by the French border patrol with a trunk full of blood-doping equipment and erythroproeitin (EPO), a synthetic hormone that boosts the number of red blood cells. That Tour was thrown into disarray as three teams were kicked out, police raided team hotel rooms, and riders twice stopped in protest during a stage. Racing purists hoped that might be a landmark turn for cycling, when the sport might once and for all become clean.

"Clearly," Walsh said, "that didn't happen."

Although there is little solid proof, there is strong speculation within the cycling community -- from team officials, riders and former riders -- that EPO has been abused on the circuit for years.

In a period of 18 months from early 2003 until the summer of 2004, nine world-class cyclists -- none over the age of 40 -- died of heart attacks. Another, Italian hero Marco Pantani, died in his sleep alone in a hotel room at age 34, six years after winning the Tour de France. Cocaine was found in his system, but Pantani also had been barred from the 1999 Giro d'Italia race after failing a blood-doping test.

The science of cheating has managed to stay ahead of tests designed to catch athletes using illegal performance-enhancers. Sports officials, therefore, have little chance to act until they are presented an opportunity such as the recent police action in Spain, which turned up frozen blood and medical equipment.

As a result, suspensions such as those at the Tour de France are likely to be hit and miss.

Among those suspended from the Tour this year was Ivan Basso, an Italian hailed as the prerace favorite after his impressive nine-minute victory in the Giro d'Italia this spring.

But Walsh said that an expert looking closely at Basso's effort in the Giro d'Italia would have suspected cheating.

"You look at Basso's time gaps in the mountains and that's not competition, that's a distortion of competition," he said, adding that it's his opinion that no rider who has finished in the top 30 at the Tour de France in the last 15 years hasn't cheated.

A former rider who still has close connections to the sport agrees, saying, "There's not a rider who finishes near the top of this race that isn't on something. Come on. The normal human body isn't cut out for this."

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