måndag 27 juli 2009

If you think this is just a cycle race, you’re a dope

The French minister for health and sports, Roselyne Bachelot, raised more than a few eyebrows when she dropped in for a one-day visit to the Tour de France and declared herself delighted that not a single doping case had been discovered during the race, which began on July 4 and ends today on the Champs-Elysees. “I say bravo, it’s a great success for the organisers and the drug inspectors,” she announced.
Then she returned to her office in Paris, possibly dismayed to read in French newspapers the next day that, because journalists have heard this so many times before, her remarks rated only the tiniest headline, no bigger than the one on an article reporting that two Spanish riders had failed drug tests before the Tour.
In other words, business as usual: some riders continue to use illegal performance-enhancing drugs and some officials, well-meaning but oh so naive, continue to proclaim that the absence of convictions means nobody is doping.
Madame Minister, face facts. In last year’s Tour there wasn’t a single positive test for doping until the race was over. Then the rider who finished third, the winner of both time trials and the winners of two demanding mountain stages were all found to have been illegally drugged. All were disqualified.
On Wednesday, international authorities announced the provisional suspension of the Italian cyclist Danilo Di Luca for testing positive for doping during the Giro d’Italia in May, in which he finished second. The 33-year-old LPR team leader, who is not competing in the Tour de France, won two stages in the Giro and wore the leader’s pink jersey for eight days.It is an axiom of the sport that, because of their doctors, drug users are always ahead of drug inspectors. The inspectors are plodding types – technicians really, underpaid and overworked – and the doctors are cutting edge. In the early 1990s, for example, they discovered that the drug Erythropoietin, or EPO, developed to deliver more red-blood corpuscles to the bodies of kidney patients, could boost the same oxygen-bearing corpuscles in the tired muscles of riders. Even before EPO was certified safe for patients on dialysis, it was prevalent among cycle racers, boosting their endurance by 20 per cent.
But now there are tests for EPO – so enter CERA, or third-generation EPO; and blood doping, a recent favourite, which involves drawing a rider’s blood, rich in red corpuscles, and then transfusing it back into his body near the end of a race. So far no test can detect the transfusion.
So why do riders cheat? Why is this one sport under a constant cloud of suspicion and innuendo?
Riders would say that professional cycling is an exhausting endurance sport, with six or more hours in the saddle at high speeds every day for three weeks. Temperatures fluctuate from torrid in valleys to chilling atop mountains. The sport takes a lot out of the men who practise it and they rely on medical help, both legal and, in some cases, not. As long ago as the 1960s, when drug tests began in France, riders used to say the Tour wasn’t won on water.
So corners are cut. Dismayingly, court cases show that this goes on at all levels of the sport, starting with clubs for teenage riders up to the professionals.
Some Tour de France teams – notably two from the United States, Columbia and Garmin –have instituted strict anti-doping programmes with frequent medical examinations. Many teams will automatically suspend any rider who fails a drug test, and often fire him. The governing body of the sport, the International Cycling Union, suspends for two years riders who prove positive and has begun a blood profiling programme to detect abnormal swings in hematocrit, or red-corpuscle, levels.
Yet every now and then, eyebrows are raised. A day after the French sports minister spoke at the Tour, the race stage was won by a 34-year-old Russian, Sergeui Ivanov, six times his country’s road-race champion and the winner of the Amstel Gold Race one-day classic this spring.
Also on his record, according to the French sports newspaper L’Equipe, was this: in the 1998 Tour, he and the rest of his TVM team quit the race to avoid a police investigation of doping. In 2000, he was barred from starting the Tour because his hematocrit level was too high. In 2007, he and the rest of his Astana team were forced to withdraw from the Tour because the leader was found guilty of blood doping.
Some really bad memories, L’Equipe added, without further comment. And none was needed.

Samuel Abt
Samuel Abt has covered cycle racing for more than 30 years and is the author of 10 books on the sport

Inga kommentarer: