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Tour de France, Tour de Doping

One of my pleasures during mid-winter evenings is to while away an hour or two watching the highlights package of the day’s stage in the Tour de France.  I love it.  I love the actual race, the tactics, the history, but Francophile that I am, I most of all love watching the scenery as it unfolds throughout whatever region of that beautiful country the tour happens to be passing that day.  The tour is claimed and celebrated by all of France and the sporting world.  Its extensive coverage (screened in 188 countries) ensures that places of historical and tourist interest get deliberate focus and comment.  The race, despite always ending in Paris and taking in mountain stages in the Pyrenees and the Alps, has a different route each year, and therefore gives every part of the country an opportunity to showcase itself.  I know quite a few people who watch the event more for the wide-angled aerial sweeps of the day’s vistas than for the actual racing.

For all its tradition and pageantry, the Tour de France remains one of the world’s most physically taxing sports events.  The tour consists of 21 stages over three weeks.  Here you’re up against the world’s cycling elite, many of them national champions.  Tour de France riders are exceptionally tough physical specimens and particularly tough mentally.  They have to combat suffering and pain.  In a typical Tour, cyclists cover around 3500km, climb a cumulative 60km+ in vertical height and maintain an average speed of around 40km/h.  They successively swelter and freeze during ascents from sea level to a lung-busting 2770 metres.  On stage nine of the 2016 Tour, a cyclist was measured at 130km/h on a descent.1  Crazy.  Cyclists burn around 3500 calories on average per stage of the Tour.  This compares to 2000-3500 calories expended in a marathon.   It is difficult for some cyclists to ingest that many calories during the Tour, so foods need to be nutrient dense instead of voluminous.  Some cyclists even feed themselves intravenously to get the required amount of fuel into their bodies as eating on its own cannot do it.  It’s been said that many cars would break down under the effort of the Tour de France, let alone people.  To win the Tour, you need special talents, exceptional reserves and a top-notch team.  It is brutal.

Which is where the dark side of the Tour slinks in.  Given the effort required, and given the sorry bent of human nature, unfair advantage has been sought throughout the 116-year history of the Tour.2   This has ranged from hitching illegal lifts in the early days, through endemic chemical assistance over decades to the current misuse of therapeutic exception drugs.  Suspicions of mechanical assistance have been raised.  The history of the Tour is littered with cases of illicit drugging and cyclists dying from drug overuse.  The Tour de Doping has continually been a feature of the Tour.  Of all the celebrated cases, none is more infamous than the large-scale fraud committed by Lance Armstrong and his US Postal Service team which helped him to win seven successive Tour de France yellow jerseys in a row, all of them subsequently annulled by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).3

I got drawn into this fascinating underworld last week when I checked up on some technical information on the day’s stage on the internet.  I got the relevant information in a YouTube clip, and in the way that YouTube traps you deeper into its web, I found myself watching a Tyler Hamilton talk on how he came to cross the line into doping.4  Tyler was a top cyclist, a team-mate of Lance Armstrong and an Olympic gold medal winner.  He says that he came from a tough but fair family, where truth was a high honour.  When he was training for a race in Europe, Tyler often heard the Spanish expression pan y agua (bread and water) as in “that guy cannot win this race, he’s only on pan y agua.”  In other words, the guy could not win as he was racing clean, being on bread and water only i.e. not on drugs.5,6  One day after an exhausting team training session, Tyler collapsed exhausted on a bed, practically passing out.  A team doctor entered his room and told Tyler he could see he was suffering, but that he had something to help Tyler.  It was nothing illegal, just a little something for his health.  Tyler took it, and in so doing crossed the line.  It was a testosterone pill.  From that moment, Tyler became an insider, and thenceforth got the special “lunch packs” reserved for those in the team destined for the top.7

Tyler Hamilton with his Olympic Gold medal

Tyler Hamilton with his Olympic Gold Medal

Tyler Hamilton revealed a world of widespread doping which took place not only with the connivance, but with the clear encouragement of managers, doctors and team leaders.  The doping doctors were all-important.  They administered the drug programme, they ran the show, they gave the cyclists cheat sheets which, if stuck to, would evade detection.  Every drug had a ‘glow period’ during which you had to avoid being tested.  In a bizarre YouTube video, Tyler Hamilton actually goes into a hotel room in which he was doped in one of the Tours.  He demonstrates how they closed the curtains, how they covered up mirrors and other possible surfaces where hidden cameras might have been lurking, how they switched off their mobile phones and how blood transfusion bags would be hung from coat hangers and their contents silently run into the cyclists’ veins.  Syringes would be smuggled out in crushed Coca-Cola cans.8

Tyler Hamilton Today

Tyler Hamilton Today

Watching Hamilton’s talks, one is taken in by his fascinating story, his gnawing conflicted state, but most of all, by his contrition.  When it comes to Lance Armstrong, the legend, the cancer survivor, the hero, the icon, I must say one’s sympathies wilt.  He came a long way from his cycling days in Texas, where he had been a junior national champion, to Europe, where in his first four attempts at the Tour he could only achieve a highest placing of 36th.  Armstrong then comes back from cancer and goes on to win the Tour seven times in a row.  Before his doping was revealed, I misguidedly admired his effort despite his suspected doping as “everyone was doing it”.  I admired him for his Livestrong foundation work, a cancer-supporting organisation that did much good and that conferred a saintly status on him. (But at the same time, of course, it served as a social cover-up for his ruses.)  However, evidence shows Armstrong to be a nasty piece of work who ran a massive doping ring.  He bullied people who accused him, threatening to destroy them.  He was a master of spin, claiming never to have taken drugs and never to have tested positive despite being the most heavily tested athlete on the planet.  He is alleged to have bribed anti-doping officials with gifts.  He insisted on a culture of omertà from everyone in the peloton towards doping, like a mafioso would.  He unleashed his pack of lawyers onto people who accused or even suspected him, like the Irish sports journalist David Walsh who gamely pursued Armstrong for thirteen years despite sustained attacks on him until Armstrong’s fall from grace.9  Armstrong eventually confessed all in a television interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013, under duress no doubt.10  He had allegedly been doping since the early 1990s.

Walsh’s proof of Armstrong’s doping included the personal testimony of certain key people, people whom Armstrong systematically threatened, vilified, abused, and denounced.  It took Floyd Landis’s testimony, a former teammate and Tour de France winner himself, to eventually turn the tide against Armstrong.  Walsh and others also questioned some of Armstrong exploits on certain of his stage wins, where the whole press room and cycling experts shook their heads in disbelief at the miraculous effort they were seeing.  Scientific proof that these were not humanly possible without some form of assistance was later given.11  Further doubt came from three-time Tour winner and fellow American Greg LeMond, who put an additional layer of suspicion on Armstrong’s performances.  Greg LeMond hinted that apart from chemical doping, which many other cyclists were using, Armstrong was in addition using mechanical doping, in other words a bicycle with a hidden power source.12, 13, 14

Maximal Sustained Cycling Power Output over Various Periods - Cycling Analytics

Maximal Sustained Cycling Power Output over Various Periods – Cycling Analytics

Where does this leave us with the Tour de France and sporting honesty?  As always, today’s champions insist that they are clean.  David Walsh still thinks that they’re not, as do many other cynics who have been duped once too often.15  When the rewards are large and the task arduous, the incentive to cheat is all too enticing.  As with any sort of cryptography, at one stage the coders are ahead, at another the codebreakers.  The human biological matrix is complex and equally complex to test.  I hope for the sake of humanity and sporting fairness that cycling will finally clean up its act, but I somehow doubt that it will ever fully succeed.  Cheats have always and will always be with us.  As Tyler Hamilton reminds us, cheats abound not only in cycling, but in life in general, be it those who inflate their CVs to get a plum job, or those who fudge numbers to gain a business advantage.  We all get close to that line at some stage of our lives, and it’s a deep test of character once we face it head-on.  Once over the line, Tyler tells us, life can become unbearable.  The life of lies and the web of deceit you weave eventually engulfs, then throttles you.  Only the truth can set you free.  Hamilton says that he got greater pleasure from the liberation of handing back his Olympic gold medal than when he received it, standing on the podium while his country’s flag was being raised and the anthem was being played, knowing full well he had cheated.

On Saturday I watched the 14th stage of this year’s Tour. What a day it was.  It was the first hard mountain stage which included the infamous hors catégorie climb up the Col du Tourmalet.  It was supposedly the day where the serious jostle among the winning contenders would emerge.  President Macron himself made an appearance, shook people’s hands and even, ahem, kissed a baby.  I saw a 10th century Benedictine monastery, various châteaux, beautiful villages, an eagle soaring above the mountain range, forests, an astronomical observatory at 3000 metres altitude above the clouds and a hard-fought race. The commentators reminded me that it was the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.  What a way to spend an afternoon.  Tomorrow the Tour takes to the Alps.  I cannot wait.

Vive le Tour!

 

ooooooooooooooooooooo

 

NOTES:

 

  1. See “Marcus Burghardt descended at 130.7kph on stage nine of the Tour de France, according to his Strava upload” by Stuart Clarke in Cycling Weekly, 11th July 2016 at https://www.cyclingweekly.com/news/racing/tour-de-france/122kph-jeremy-roy-went-even-faster-tour-de-france-stage-nine-258371.
  2. The Tour de France started in 1903 and has been raced every year apart from during the two world wars. It is the sporting event that draws the largest crowds of any in the world and is seen by an estimated fifteen million people on the roads and hundreds of million on TV.
  3. The iconic yellow jersey is worn by the leading cyclist of the Tour, i.e. the cyclist who has completed the Tour in the lowest cumulative time up to any particular stage. The cyclist who has completed the Tour in the lowest time after three weeks wins the Tour and is said to have “won the yellow jersey”.  The yellow jersey (maillot jaune) has been part of the Tour since 1919, and is yellow in honour of the newspaper that sponsored the race at the time, l’Auto-Vélo, which was printed on yellow paper.
  4. There are many videos of Hamilton’s talk on the internet: Here is one at the Oxford Union: “Tyler Hamilton – The Truth About Doping in Cycling” on https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=UM7mdreB-Yc, and another at a Discovery-sponsored event in Johannesburg: “Tyler Hamilton – The true price of winning at all costs” on https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=aK61nmEBTcc.
  5. Everyone, from Tyler Hamilton to Floyd Landis to Lance Armstrong, agree that at the time you could not win the Tour if you were clean.
  6. What advantages do drugs confer? How big is the effect?    In a BBC Special Investigation “How I became a Drug Cheat Athlete to Test the System”, Mark Daly describes how he drugged himself, not for the purpose of winning a medal or making a team, but to test the effectiveness of the athletes’ biological passport – the latest tool in the global fight against drugs in sport.  Daly managed to buy the banned substance EPO on the internet, micro-dosed on it for eight weeks and then tested clean for it three weeks after stopping (2013).  EPO enhanced his VO2-max measurement (a measure of oxygen intake by the body) from 58 to 63 and increased his power output from 350 Watts to 375 Watts over a ten-minute trial.  This is an improvement of 7%.  Now when you consider that even half a percentage point can make the difference in elite sport, that is a huge bump.  Daly was climbing big hills over four hours as if they weren’t there and would be home fresh after that.  The conclusion: You cannot beat cheats, their advantage over the clean rider is enormous.  See Daly’s article on https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-32983932.
  7. See the videos cited in Note 4 above.
  8. See “Tyler Hamilton Explique le Dopage” on https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=325XtRyoDh4.
  9. David Walsh’s books Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong and From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France were initially published only in France as he could not get them published in Britain or America, so great was the aversion in these countries to the notion of Armstrong’s possible cheating.
  10. See Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Armstrong on https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=2jtDH-10m2s.
  11. In the YouTube video in Note 8 Above, “Tyler Hamilton Explique le Dopage”, sports trainer Antoine Vayer, in collaboration with an aeronautics expert, determines Armstrong’s power output on one of the mountain stages of the Tour de France. Given the gradient, Armstrong’s weight, the coefficient of air resistance, etc., they calculated that Armstrong was attacking with a power that flirted with 600 Watts for around five minutes.  That cannot be achieved by a human being without some sort of assistance.  In an article on human cycling power output, Cycling Analytics gives a chart of maximal sustainable power output for various periods of time.  Vayer’s calculations show that Armstrong exceeded those.  See https://www.cyclinganalytics.com/blog/2018/06/how-does-your-cycling-power-output-compare.
  12. Greg LeMond in Cycling News, 22 July 2016:
    A former teammate of mine had heard, shortly before the Tour, that he was sure to win because he had an undetectable thing’ but I took that with a smile because there were so many rumours and suspicions around him. Then in April 2001, at a conference I was present at, his former physician Ed Coyle revealed Armstrong’s data; his thoracic capacity – 5.6 litres of oxygen, and especially his VO2  To me that was evidence that he had cheated.”
    When I raced, I had a VO2 max of 93, and I never developed more than 400 Watts. Armstrong’s VO2 max, which Ed Coyle mistakenly revealed, was no more than 78. So, considering his weight – 73 kg, he could never produce 500 Watts to ride up the Madonna as he said, or 475 Watts on the climb of l’Alpe-d’Huez. With his VO2 max, he couldn’t exceed 375 Watts.  To increase his performance by 30%, he had to dope.  But did he achieve his performance only with doping? What doping did he use that others didn’t? All I know is that there are 50-70 Watts missing, which we don’t know the origin of. There is something that I still do not understand.”  – Greg LeMond.  See http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/greg-lemond-miracles-in-cycling-still-dont-exist/
  13. For a video on the latest power-assisted bikes see Global Cycling Network’s (GCN) YouTube video Mechanical Doping –How Does A Road Bike With A Hidden Motor Ride? at https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=Wv5F5N6mFf0. According to GCN, a hidden motor can give you a boost of between 100W and 200W for an hour, which is considerable given that 400W is an effortful power output for a cyclist.
  14. The Swiss former professional cyclist Fabian Cancellara was famously accused of mechanical doping. In fact, mechanical doping is even called the ‘Cancellara Effect’ in some circles.  See the following Italian video: “Bike with engine (doped bike) and Cancellara (Roubaix – Vlaanderen)”.  He apparently pulled away from other cyclists without any visible increase in pedalling effort.  See https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=8Nd13ARuvVE.  The Tour de France nowadays routinely tests bicycles for mechanical cheating with scanners.
  15. David Walsh accuses Sir Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky, winner of the 2012 Tour de France and 2012 gold medal winner, of borderline cheating in the post-Armstrong era. Wiggins is alleged to have used huge amounts of Kenalog, the trade name for the treatment containing triamcinolone, under the guise of asthma medication.  This drug is apparently far more performance-enhancing than Armstrong’s favoured EPO, derisively called ‘Edgar Allan Poe’ by Armstrong’s team.  (It pleases me no end that they in the least have literary pretensions.)  See “David Walsh: I Believe Bradley Wiggins is a Cheat – Good Morning Britain” on https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=t0zWJwUDnzs.