In light of current admissions and events, we re-read Pack of Lies—and thought others would find it interesting, too. Enjoy. —Ed.
By Vernon Felton
Illustration by Steve Smith
In late April , Floyd Landis sent an e-mail to USA Cycling that immediately eclipsed every other event this year. Sure, Ivan Basso won the Giro and Alberto Contador took home his third yellow jersey, but five years from now the only thing most of us will remember about 2010 is that it was the year when Floyd Landis spilled the beans.
Blood transfusions on team buses, lies, payoffs and stolen victories…Landis’ e-mail, which quickly made the rounds on the Internet, bristled with jaw-dropping accusations.
Landis not only admitted to doping his way to a Tour de France victory in 2006, but he also accused Lance Armstrong and past teammates (including American greats Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie and David Zabriskie) of systematically blood packing and using EPO and steroids.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg….
Landis’ e-mail also charged that Armstrong tested positive for EPO during the 2002 Tour de Swiss, and that he and longtime team manager Johan Bruyneel bribed the former UCI President, Hein Verbruggen, into concealing the entire affair.
The Landis affair was front-page news around the world. What’s more, the federal government quickly launched an investigation and issued a rash of subpoenas throughout the bike industry.
Which begs the question: Is Landis a whistle-blower or simply a bald-faced liar?
It’s too early to tell. Besides, Armstrong and all the other accused (see “Landis’ List”) deserve to be considered innocent until proven otherwise. As for Landis’ claim that the peloton is rife with dope? That’s beyond dispute.
It’s been that way from the start.
RAT POISON AND BRANDY
Do you know how we keep going? Look, this is cocaine, chloroform, too. And pills? You want to see pills? Here are three boxes—we run on dynamite. —HENRI PÉLLISIER, 1923 TOUR DE FRANCE WINNER
People like a good car wreck, which explains the international fervor surrounding six-day racing during the late 1800s. The premise behind these competitions was simple: Plop some riders into a velodrome, see which one can ride the most miles in six days and watch the madness unfold.
Any real chance of winning a six-day race meant riding around the clock—sleeping as little as four hours over the course of nearly a week of grinding torment. Competitors were quickly reduced to gibbering, hallucinating wrecks. America’s first cycling star, Major Taylor, once refused to finish a six-day race out of fear for his life. There was, Taylor insisted, an invisible man chasing him around the track with a knife.
To fend off fatigue, racers turned to chemical solutions, initially consuming mild stimulants such as coffee and peppermint, and gradually upping the ante as the days wore on. Whiskey took the edge off the pain. Cocaine gave a rush of energy. In small doses, strychnine (the key ingredient in rat poison) tightened muscle contractions and gave users a more powerful pedal stroke. Nitroglycerine and brandy “opened” the lungs.
As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, six-day races were replaced by events like the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. Drug use made the transition in fine form. Strychnine, cocaine and heroin were en vogue for decades, but eventually were dropped in favor of pharmaceuticals better suited to the new race formats. Racers were riding for even longer stretches and sought drugs that not only gave them quick bursts of energy, but also helped them recover from week after week of racing.
Amphetamines provided those energy boosts and were already in circulation at the 1936 Olympics. Both the Allied and Axis forces consumed massive quantities to help stave off combat fatigue during World War II. British troops alone swallowed an estimated 72 million “speed” pills during the first two years of the war. By the 1950s, amphetamines had become a fixture in the peloton. “Speed” made riders confident and aggressive, and supplied a solid boost during do-or-die moments in a race.
Steroids were first isolated in 1939, and by the 1960s they were in wide circulation in almost every competitive sport. The key benefit to cyclists? Steroids, cortisone in particular, helped exhausted riders recover from day after day of all-out racing.
Rampant drug use in events such as the Tour was never a secret. Indeed, the Tour de France’s founder, Henri Desgrange, distributed a rulebook to riders in 1930 that clearly outlined the official position on performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals, which was that riders couldn’t expect free drugs from the Tour organizers.
In short, officials and racers alike shared a laissez faire attitude toward doping for most of the twentieth century. That changed, however, the day Tom Simpson died.
CONDOMS IN THE HIDEY HOLE
If it takes 10 [pills] to kill you, I’ll take nine.—TOM SIMPSON,
1965 WORLD CHAMPION
Tom Simpson was on top of the world in 1965. He was 28 years old, the current World Champion and, indisputably, Great Britain’s greatest cyclist. Two years later, Simpson was a desperate man. A skiing accident sidelined the racer for much of the ‘66 season, and the Brit was no longer in top form during his 1967 return to competition. He needed a stage win in the worst way, and he chose the thirteenth stage of the ‘67 Tour—the brutal climb up Mount Ventoux—as his moment.
Simpson took a gargantuan load of amphetamines, topped it off with some alcohol that he stole from a bar at the base of Ventoux and proceeded to assault the mountain. About two miles from the summit, Simpson fell off his bike. Spectators helped him back on. He got in a few more pedal strokes and hit the deck again. This time he didn’t get back up.
Simpson was the first rider to die from drug use during the Tour, but he was not, however, the first rider to die during competition. Seven years earlier, Danish rider Knud Enemark Jensen dropped dead during the 100-kilometer team time trial at the Summer Olympics in Rome. The autopsy showed he had taken, among other things, 15 amphetamine pills, eight phenylisopropylamine pills and a couple cups of coffee. Jensen’s death was officially ruled a result of “heat stroke,” but this was merely an attempt to give the tragedy a more palatable spin. Behind the scenes, cycling’s governing bodies decided that something had to be done. The advent of drug testing had arrived.
The organizers of the Tour de France began, in fact, testing riders in 1966. As Simpson’s death proved a year later, the early tests were anything but thorough. There were dozens of ways to cheat the tests. Some steroids, such as cortisone, were undetectable. Others stayed in your system for days or weeks. You could play it safe and ratchet down your steroid intake before big races or you could inject yourself with masking agents, such as diuretics, and dope with impunity.
Amphetamines were harder to hide; they showed up in urine for up to two days, and since racers were taking speed before and during the race, they needed to give the testers someone else’s “clean” urine. Racers initially showed up for their tests with a flask of donor urine tucked into a bandage or hidden in their clothes. Cold urine, however, is never convincing.
Racers then began to conceal donor urine in a rubber bottle beneath their armpit. To the bottle, they attached a rubber tube that ran beneath their jersey and into their shorts. The upside? The apparatus kept urine warm. The downside? If a suspicious doctor lifted your jersey, the jig was up.
The most innovative and long-lived approach to smuggling urine was undoubtedly the “Hidey Hole” technique: You take a flexible rubber tube, attach a cork to one end of it and an empty condom to the other end. Next, glue pubic hairs to the length of tubing between the cork and condom. After you finish your race, go somewhere private to change clothes and insert said condom into your anus. Now, you take the cork out of the tube and use a syringe to fill the condom full of clean urine. Re-insert the cork, tape the hair-covered tubing to your perineum and carefully stride over to drug control. Simply drop your drawers and make a show of fiddling with your plumbing (while carefully extracting the cork from the tube) and—voila—you’ve filled the cup with piping hot, dope-free urine.
JET ENGINES ON MOPEDS
It’s like being on the highway. The law says there’s a speed limit of 65, but everyone is driving 70 or faster. Why should I be the one who obeys the limit? So I had two options: either fit in and go along with the others or go back to being a house painter. —ALEX ZULLE, TWO-TIME VUELTA WINNER
Although drugs have been a mainstay of professional cycling from the start, clean riders have stood atop the podium at times; that’s because steroids and amphetamines gave riders an edge, but not necessarily a golden ticket to the top. Erythropoietin (or “EPO”), however, made the prospect of a drug-free champion seem miraculous.
EPO, a hormone developed by Amgen during the 1980s, stimulates bone marrow to produce additional red blood cells. If you’re anemic, EPO can save your life. If you’re a professional racer, EPO can make you a winner. Bumping up your red blood cell count improves oxygen delivery to your muscles, and that means more endurance, more strength and much less fatigue.
What kind of boost do you get from taking EPO? It’s been likened to strapping a jet engine onto a moped. More scientific assessments have found that the hormone can boost performance by five to fifteen percent. That may not sound like much, but consider this: there was less than a five percent difference between Alberto Contador’s overall winning time in this year’s Tour de France and the time of the guy (Italy’s Adriano Malori) who finished dead last in the Tour.
EPO began to make its presence felt in the early nineties, when the peloton suddenly began to move at two different speeds: the EPO speed and the off-the-back speed. Suddenly, sprinters who once wilted at the sight of a Category 2 climb were blazing up the L’Alpe d’Huez.
Andy Hampsten, a dominant climber during the late ‘80s, recalled his frustration in an interview with cycling journalist David Walsh.
“My horsepower was pretty much what it was in every other year, but in the mid-nineties it became cruel,” said Hampsten. “I don’t know that everyone who was climbing faster than me was on EPO, but instead of dealing with the same 10 or so characters on climbs, I was struggling to stay in a group of 50 riders. It is very easy to say I was 33 or 34 years old, physiologically going down, but quite honestly, I believe there was a huge amount of the peloton taking EPO…”
EPO was initially undetectable, so in 1997 the UCI began to indirectly test for the substance by measuring racers’ hematocrit, the percentage of blood containing red cells. Your garden-variety, male athlete has a hematocrit level of around 42. The UCI set the legal limit at 50. It was a compromise. Setting the level at 50 allowed riders to legally cheat, but at least they weren’t doping themselves at the preposterous levels that were common prior to ‘97. The 1996 Tour de France winner, Bjarne Riis, for instance, frequently rode with a hematocrit of 60 or more, which earned him the nickname “Mr. Sixty”.
The shortcomings of the EPO tests were highlighted in 1998, when the soigneur of one of the Tour’s leading teams, Festina, was caught crossing the French-Belgian border with 234 doses of EPO, 24 vials of human growth hormone and testosterone and 60 capsules of Asaflow (a blood thinner that enables riders to beat the EPO test). The entire Festina squad was booted from the Tour and another six teams quit in protest. The public clamored for a clean race. Advertisers packed it in and took home their sponsorship money. The ’98 Tour (quickly nicknamed the “Tour de Dopage”) was a public relations disaster.
SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN
You can’t ride the Tour de France on mineral water alone. —JACQUES ANQUETIL, FIVE-TIME TOUR DE FRANCE WINNER
When Lance Armstrong won his seventh and final Tour de France in 2005, he boldly pointed his finger at the skeptics. “I’m sorry for you,” said Armstrong. “I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”
Armstrong asked that we believe in our heroes and our sport. He asked us to believe there are no secrets and that hard work wins the greatest race on earth.
Who doesn’t want to believe those things?
Here’s the problem: It’s getting harder and harder to believe. The two guys sharing the podium with Lance during that famous speech (Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich)? Both have since been implicated in doping.
In fact, the list of riders mired in doping scandals during the past decade includes the very crème de la crème of the sport: Dario Frigo, Marco Pantani, Gilberto Simoni, Frank Vandenbroucke, Johan Museeuw, Danilo Di Luca, Tyler Hamilton, Michael Rassmussen, David Millar, Roberto Heras, Manuel Beltran, Iban Mayo, Alessandro Petacchi, Alejandro Valverde…and, worst of all, we’re just skimming the surface here.
Meanwhile, there seems to be little cycling’s governing bodies can do to rid the sport of dope. The cheaters always manage to stay a step ahead of the testers. When the UCI began measuring hematocrit levels, riders simply used blood thinners to squeeze beneath the legal limit. When a test for EPO was developed in 2000, racers simply resorted to blood packing (withdrawing their own blood and re-injecting it later) to boost their hematocrit and still slip beneath the radar.
By the time World Anti-Doping Agency developed the biological passport program (a long-range approach to testing that establishes baselines for each athlete and highlights any deviation that might signal drug use), athletes had already learned they could fool the passport tests by simply micro-dosing EPO. There’s no use, however, in fretting about EPO’s return, because most anti-doping authorities believe that athletes are already experimenting with genetic doping—injecting synthetic genes that convince their bodies to, for instance, produce more muscle or become less fatigued under stress.
In this arms race between dopers and testers one thing holds true: If riders want to cheat, they’ll find a way.
We’ll have to live with doping. Pure cycling is just an illusion. —FRANCESCO MOSER, FORMER WORLD CHAMPION,
GIRO WINNER AND HOUR RECORD HOLDER
Every discussion of cycling’s doping problem inevitably reaches a point when someone suggests that perhaps the best course of action is to take no action at all: Maybe we should legalize performance-enhancing drugs.
If we let everyone dope, the reasoning goes, wouldn’t that create a level playing field? A higher field, sure, but a level one all the same.
Legalizing performance-enhancing drugs, however, would bring its own share of problems, including dead riders.
In a sport in which a few poor results can end your career, the pressure to win drives riders to take risks. If a little bit of a drug will make you ride faster, won’t a whole lot of the same drug make you a whole lot faster?
The repercussions can be deadly.
EPO is a great example. Until 1997, EPO usage was undetectable, and therefore, for all intents and purposes, legal. What ensued was a cheaters’ free-for-all: Riders routinely raised their hematocrit levels over the 60 mark. The result? Eighteen fantastically fit racers died in their sleep within three years of EPO becoming street legal in Europe. They’d consumed so much of the hormone that their blood took on the consistency of jelly— coagulating in their vessels and causing massive heart attacks and strokes.
Legalized doping would not only kill cyclists, it could kill the very spirit of cycling. Why do most of us shelve a Sunday afternoon to watch the Paris-Roubaix or the Giro? Why do we care? It’s because we believe that we are witnessing something extraordinary: That through training, dedication and determination, our heroes are flying along the pavé or scaling a col with a speed and grace we could never match. The day we are certain that everyone in the peloton is on dope, all of this is lost. Cycling ceases to be a sport and becomes a spectacle. A sham. If what we are witnessing is fantasy, we might as well tune in to the WWE Smackdown…because at least that fantasy includes women in thongs wrestling one another.
There’s yet another reason to try and rid our sport of drugs: Many of us simply feel that, on a gut level, it’s wrong.
Clean riders—the Christophe Bassons of the peloton—might have always been a minority, but they exist and they deserve a chance to win. Instead, doping sends the trustworthy packing. It ends careers.
Perhaps that sounds sentimental and overblown, but it’s true all the same. Greg (Chopper) Randolph knows that storyline by heart. He lived it. In 1996, he joined Team Motorola and raced in Europe alongside a young Lance Armstrong. Doping, however, quickly soured Randolph’s dreams and prompted him to quit the peloton for good.
“To be honest, it’s why I left road racing and became a professional mountain biker,” says Randolph, who went on to enjoy a long career as a top cross-country racer. “Did I see people doping with my own eyes? I didn’t, and I didn’t want to see it, but it was there in the peloton—a real wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of thing, but also some really dark, macabre shit. It shocked and kind of scared me. I was raised in small-town America. The whole play fair, work hard, do your best and become somebody code? I grew up on that. I believed in that, but that’s not what I found over there. To know that I was never going to be as good as those guys unless I did things I knew were wrong? It was demoralizing and I left disillusioned. Doping killed my whole love of the sport, and I think that’s true even for people who don’t race. We’ve reached a point where the only reason we can imagine that a rider is going fast is that they must be taking ‘the good stuff,’ and we keep getting proven right time after time. That’s tragic. That’s gotta change.”
DOPER HALL OF FAME
Here are just a very few of cycling’s best riders—including 10 former Tour de France winners—who either tested positive or eventually confessed to doping.
WHO / WHAT
Francesco Moser—Blood packing
Sean Kelly —Amphetamines
Bjarne Riis —EPO
Jan Ullrich —Amphetamine/blood packing
Ivan Basso —Blood packing
Floyd Landis—Steroids (since admitted to EPO as well)
Tyler Hamilton—Blood packing/Steroids
Alexandre Vinokourov—Blood packing