Doping in Bicycle Racing – Fact and Fiction
What are the facts about doping and athletic performance in the Tour de France?
Is there a magic potion that can turn weak little Asterix into a superhuman
athlete who can win the Tour de France?
By James D Adams, Jr., PhD, Associate Professor of
Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Southern California, School
We are being harassed almost daily by news stories about professional bicycle
racers cheating by using illegal drugs to increase athletic performance. These
news stories have resulted in a general acceptance by many people that drugs can
really improve athletic performance. Many amateur athletes now use these drugs,
sometimes with devastating results.
What are the facts about doping and athletic performance in the Tour de
France? Is there a magic potion that can turn weak little Asterix into a
superhuman athlete who can win the Tour de France?
Bjarne Riis admitted, in May 2007, to using erythropoietin in the 1996 Tour
de France when he was the overall winner. The administrators of the Tour de
France have stripped him of his title because of his admission. Did
erythropoietin really help Bjarne Riss win the Tour de France?
Erythropoietin certainly helped Riis increase the amount of red blood cells,
hematocrit, in his blood. His hematocrit was 60% but should have been less than
50%. Erythropoietin can increase the delivery of oxygen to muscles by 5-7% and
endurance performance of a bicycle racer by perhaps 1-2% in single day events.
An increase in hematocrit, thickens the blood, is potentially dangerous and has
resulted in heart attacks and strokes in amateur bicycle racers.
During multiple day endurance events such as the Tour de France,
autohemodilution normally occurs. This means the blood becomes thinner due to
increased plasma volume and a lower hematocrit. This lower hematocrit actually
increases athletic performance, called exercise tolerance, during multiple day
events as shown in scientific studies. An increase in hematocrit, such as from
dehydration, during the Tour de France can result in the overtraining syndrome,
where the blood becomes too thick and performance decreases.
What is the truth about Bjarne Riis? Riis was a strong rider in the Tour de
France in 1993, 1994 and 1995 when he was fifth, fifth and third overall. He won
the Tour in 1996, when he admitted to using erythropoietin. In 1997, he was
seventh overall, without erythropoietin. Riis was a strong rider who had the
talent to do well and even win the Tour. Erythropoietin probably hurt him as
much as it helped him.
How about Richard Virenque? He was found guilty and admitted to using
erythropoietin during the 1998 Tour de France. In 1992 and 1993, he finished
twenty fifth and nineteenth overall. From 1994 to 1997, he was the king of the
mountains. In 1996 and 1997, he was third and second overall. He and the Festina
team were removed from the Tour in 1998 for using erythropoietin and other
drugs. In 1999, he was king of the mountains, without doping. In 2000 and 2002
he was sixth and sixteenth overall, without doping. In 2003, he won the king of
the mountains, without doping. Clearly, doping did not help the Frenchman,
Virenque. By the way, his king of the mountains titles have not been taken away
by the Tour de France administration. In addition, his two year suspension was
made retroactive so he could ride in the 1999 Tour.
How about Marco Pantani? He was found guilty of doping with erythropoietin in
the 1999 Giro d’Italia. In 1995 and 1997, he won the Tour de France stage at
Alpe d’Huez. In 1998, he won the Tour. In 2000, he won the stage at Mont Ventoux,
without doping. Clearly, doping did not help Pantani. He had the talent to do
well or even win the Tour.
How do athletes who do not dope compete with dopers? Hematocrit increases
with high altitude adaptation. This is the train low (below 2,000 feet), sleep
high (above 10,000 feet) training method. Hematocrit increases to about 50 with
this training and does not return to normal for 12-16 days. In addition, the
high altitude increases the efficiency of the lungs. Oxygen tents and altitude
chambers can be used to increase hematocrit. Tour de France winners are also
born with muscles that are much more efficient than most. This is how Lance
Armstrong and Floyd Landis prepared for and won the Tour.
Many drugs have placebo effects, especially testosterone and stimulants.
Testosterone makes athletes feel strong without improving performance, as Joe
Papp demonstrated during the 2007 Floyd Landis trial. Papp admitted to
microdosing with testosterone which helped him feel better even though he never
won a stage of the Tour. However, testosterone damages the heart. Stimulants,
such as amphetamines, ephedrine and cocaine, make an athlete feel superhuman,
without improving performance. Tom Simpson demonstrated this in 1967on Mont
Ventoux when he died of a heart attack due to amphetamine use. Human growth
hormone use causes diabetes and does not improve athletic performance.
One of the facts about athletic performance is that you have it or you do
not. To win the Tour de France, you must have trained hard to prepare, must rest
properly between stages and must have been born with the body needed to win.