NOW I KNOW how Floyd Landis feels.
A few years back, I had an idea for a magazine article: I'd profile an ordinary weekend athlete who cheats by taking performance-enhancing drugs. Although I found evidence of what I call citizen doping, I could never pin down someone who both fit the bill and would cooperate, so I decided to cut out the middleman and do the cheating myself. Under medical supervision, I took testosterone for about a year, even as I continued to train and compete as an amateur bike racer. I chose T, as it's sometimes called, in part because it was the same stuff Landis apparently used to win the 2006 Tour de France.
My experiment evolved into a book project, and I soon learned plenty about doping and the facts and myths that surround it. For example, some scientists don't think that synthetic T, a lab-produced hormone that can be used to augment the human body's natural testosterone, benefits endurance athletes. (Could've fooled Landis.) But powerful sports-policing federations like the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have no doubt that it does, so synthetic T is forbidden in amateur and professional bike racing (as well as intercollegiate sports, Olympic competitions, and so on). The T, which WADA categorizes as an anabolic steroid (a type of hormone), unquestionably builds muscle mass and is thought to aid in recovery after rigorous exercise—like Tour stages.
As word about my book project spread, I was treated to a small-scale version of the wrath Landis experienced when it was announced, shortly after his Tour victory, that he'd tested positive for synthetic testosterone. When officials at USADA—WADA's U.S. affiliate—learned of my misdeeds (I told them), they let me know that I was in for swift retribution, probably a multi-year ban from amateur racing. I've also been getting ripped by bloggers and tweeters, including Joe Papp, an ex-pro who was busted for using performance enhancers in 2006, a saga I wrote about in Outside. Linking to an Amazon description of my book, Papp tweeted, "Wonder how aggressively @usantidoping will come out against the author of this filth.... 'I doped b/c I could?' "
"About Tilin," one commenter said on a blog critical of my stunt, "if doping didn't vault [him] onto the podium ... then maybe it's no big deal. No big deal, because you'd still kick his 45-year-old hypocritical ass, clean."
Of course, any similarities between Landis and me end there. In 2006, Landis apparently used T after faltering badly in one Tour stage and before an epic victory in the next, and his performance triggered questions about how fast testosterone works. (Not that fast.) Subsequently, like the typical busted pro, he spent years denying what he'd done and didn't offer any insights about doping. In contrast, the whole point of my exercise was to experience testosterone and write about it. Over a nearly yearlong stretch that started in January 2008, I doped almost every day and kept records about the effects the drug had on my middle-aged body.
During that time, I competed in more than a dozen races, and in the end there was little doubt in my mind that testosterone provided performance boosts, though they weren't as obvious as many people assume. Take what happened during one of my early races as a doper, back in April 2008. It was a sunny, crisp Northern California Saturday, and I was struggling through the third of four laps in an obscure 51-mile contest called the Wards Ferry Road Race, pedaling against a bunch of thirty- and fortysomethings in a category reserved for non-elite amateurs. Sweat running down my back, I waited for the T to kick in—or at least to give me some sign that it was working. Why couldn't a light start blinking on my handlebars? Or my power meter play several notes of "Don't Stop Believin' "?
Near the end of the hilly course's third lap, however, something happened: I felt a subtle but unmistakable second wind. At the top of a rise, I turned around and realized that our original group of 30 riders was now a group of seven. Everyone else, as bike racers say, was off the back. I finished sixth, which for me was a great result.