The Cycle Life

Nobody—Not Even CIRC—Knows How Many Pros Are Doping

"Cycling has to be vigilant about protecting the gains it has made because complacency risks a slide back into past practices." Photo: Flowizm/Flickr

Nobody—Not Even CIRC—Knows How Many Pros Are Doping

Cycling is finally grappling with its dark past. But until today’s pros speak out about practices within the peloton, nobody will know how far the sport has really come.

Pro cycling’s biggest problem with doping isn’t that most riders are still doing it. It’s that we still don’t seem to have an idea of how big the problem actually is.

One of the top-line findings in the Cycling Independent Reform Commission’s report, issued Sunday night, was that 90 percent of cyclists are still doping.

At least, that’s how it was reported by some news outlets. But that 90 percent figure, we learn, was quoted to the panel investigating the sport’s past by a single rider, albeit a “respected professional.”

And the commission seemed to throw up its hands at arriving at any real estimate of the current prevalence of doping, by also quoting a low-end estimate of 20 percent offered up by another rider. That’s not the extent of the range either; one CIRC interviewee told me that he placed the prevalence at closer to 10 percent.

But that range is so laughably broad that there’s really only one conclusion you can draw from it: the CIRC doesn’t know.

The commission wasn’t convened purely to determine the state of doping in cycling today; it was more focused on investigating the UCI’s own past actions in the fight against doping. That was a fight, the panel made clear, that was dysfunctional and hamstrung by ineffectual, ethically compromised leadership, to put it charitably.

But one of the mandates of the commission was also to look into the historical underpinnings of cycling’s doping culture and how things came to be so bad. And while it’s reasonably good at cataloging the sport’s past, it’s remarkably fuzzier about the present.

Given that the third and final directive for the CIRC was to come up with recommendations for the future, it’s worth asking: How can they make those if they don’t understand the sport’s present?

There are a number of troubling passages in the CIRC report. It divides cycling’s modern doping era into three periods: the go-go years of EPO, which lasted from the early 1990s until about 2001; an “adaptive” period from 2001-2007, when dopers shifted tactics to evade detection; and a post-2007 to present time frame they optimistically title “The End of Widespread and Team-Organized Doping?” (The question mark is in the original document.)

And yet, take a look at various incidents in the most recent period: The 2008 Tour de France was marked by a flurry of positives for CERA, a next-generation EPO product. In 2009, we got the so-called Mantova investigation, into doping on a number of teams, notably Lampre. 2010? Fondly recalled for Alberto Contador’s clenbuterol positive at the Tour de France. In 2011 it was a return to Italy with the Padova investigation, covering the actions of a number of riders and a certain Dr. Michele Ferrari in 2010-2011. And of course last year we had the run of positives at Astana.

That’s not including the low-level but steady reports of positives, bio-passport investigations, and other minor scandals that form a kind of background beat to the sport. If that represents progress, it’s only as measured against past actions, the depths of which we only really began to discover… after 2007. Can you blame the public for mixing it all together?

But in doing so, we risk confusing recent past and present. The sport, the commission found, has absolutely made stunning progress since 2007, including most prominently the use of the biological passport, which pro cycling pioneered.

The biggest obstacle to the CIRC’s understanding of the sport’s present may be its sources. Over 13 months, the CIRC conducted interviews with 174 people, an impressive amount. Because of the strong focus on the UCI’s role, the largest group was UCI personnel—43-44 people*. Some 45 interviewees were riders or team personnel.

Of the 26 riders interviewed, 16 consented to be named. Just one—2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome—was active in 2014. In a pre-race press conference in Italy, Alberto Contador also confirmed he’d spoken to the commission, which makes two. And a VeloNews report noted that roughly a half-dozen other active riders cooperated but on condition of confidentiality.

So, of 174 total interviewees, at most, 11 active riders participated, out of over 1,000 licensed pros—a response rate of one percent. At least initially, the CIRC relied on interviewees to come to it; that changed in later phases. And I don’t know how many active cyclists were approached and declined to talk; the commission had no power to compel testimony.

It seems apathy was as much an issue as distrust. David Millar, in an op-ed in the Telegraph, indicates that was invited to talk but, as a busy pro, never found time to travel for the interview and the commission never offered to come to him. But travel wasn’t required. Two people I spoke with did their interviews with the CIRC via Skype.

The result is many of the riders interviewed were ex-pros and committed, hardcore dopers, some of whom were motivated to talk by the offer of a possible reduction in their ban. It stands to reason that if you interview a guy like Riccardo Ricco, his testimony will involve lurid details of experimentation with outlandish substances and methods. When Ricco is included alongside Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Jorg Jaksche, Joe Papp, Leonardo Piepoli, and Michael Rasmussen, just the collective personal experiences of that rogue’s gallery might skew the results.

Without naming sources, the commission cataloged a stunning array of doping exotica that interviewees said are in use today, including things like ozone therapy; a synthetic allosteric hemoglobin modifier called myo-inositol trispyrophosphate (ITPP for short); and Gas6, a protein of the growth arrest-specific Gene 6 that was shown in one study to boost hematocrit in anemic mice.

This is the kind of arcane stuff that riders like Ricco, and the doping doctors they work with, get really excited about. They pore over obscure technical journals to find studies of what boosts hematocrit in anemic mice, in the hope that what works in mice works in men. They buy designer steroids from China. They infuse units of blood, cross an international border and then withdraw the blood for storage and later use. How secret agent-y of you! (Blergh.)

It’s all sensational stuff. I’m a little surprised the media didn’t make more of it. But it may not be that reflective of pro cycling today. The commission simply didn’t talk to enough pros to know what’s the case.

In fact, one of the strongest sections of the report, to me, was a few paragraphs early on where the commissioners muse on what, exactly, is meant when someone says they’re clean. It can, in classic Lewis Carroll fashion, mean whatever its speaker chooses it to mean.

There is no “one size fits all” definition, the section begins. Aside from a generally accepted understanding that it means an athlete doesn’t use products or methods that are on the WADA Prohibited List, it can mean many other things:

“Some riders will take substances on the List but, having not been caught, consider themselves clean. Some will take substances that are on the List but are not yet detectable, and therefore believe that they are clean. Some riders stop doping before a big event and therefore consider themselves to be riding clean. All definitions have been described by riders and other stakeholders.”

How, I’d ask, is it possible to arrive at any real understanding of the current doping culture in cycling when we can’t even agree on what we mean by “clean” and “cheating”?

The CIRC report, while applauding major progress by the sport, sounded any number of warnings. Doping absolutely still exists, the report said. Legal processes like Therapeutic Use Exemptions are twisted to facilitate doping under the pretense of medical need. Riders show up to events unaccountably thin and yet still produce remarkable efforts, facts that interviewees freely admit are difficult to explain in context of clean sport.

But the biggest challenge, the commission noted, was the culture itself. Doping adapts, they wrote, and when it comes to fighting it, there is no such thing as “job done.” Cycling has to be vigilant about protecting the gains it has made because complacency risks a slide back into past practices.

As the commission put it, “Only the participants themselves can decide when enough is enough, and act to effect change.” Totally true. And certainly, actions are the true test of change, not words. But how do we know how much the sport has changed if we’re not actually asking the racers?

*NOTE: The CIRC stated that it interviewed 174 people. Of them, 135 interviewees consented to their names being made public. But using the CIRC’s own statistics on Page 18 of the report, it’s possible to extrapolate the total number of interviewees in each sub-classification. In some instances, these figures are exactly between whole numbers. In that instance, I’ve used a range of whole numbers (eg. 43-44) to describe the totals. When un-rounded, the totals add to exactly 174.

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