Friday, May 21, 2010


Once again the sport of cycling is being rocked by another doping scandal. Although the Floyd Landis' accusations made front page news in the mainstream US media yesterday, it seems most of the amateur cycling community prefers to ignore it. And who can blame them? Doping is a hot potato and it is a sore spot. So much so that you can't even joke about it anymore.

Floyd's claims are by no means unique or new. He is saying what others have said before, some as recently as a few months ago, that the use of performance-enhancing substances is rampant in the peloton. But this time, the messenger and his past exploits may overshadow the message. Furthermore, in naming Lance and Bruyneel, Floyd has ensured that his message would gain high visibility but also draw attention to his, rather shaky or shady, personal past.

Yet Floyd is not the first one to point the finger at Armstrong. Nor is he the only non-Frenchman to do so. (Americans of course like to believe that the French would secretly enjoy bringing down Lance, while they seem to forget that the fortunes of Lance and the Tour de France are now willy-nilly intertwined and symbiotic). If I remember correctly, the honor of being the first insider to point at Lance, goes to Frankie Andreu, who was once a beloved American cyclist, but is now all but forgotten (and tarnished). But then again, Frankie never won the Tour or did anything as spectacular as Floyd.

It is of course easy to fault Floyd and brand him as a cheater who never really won but instead stole victory by illegal means. But that would be closing one's eyes to the many documented reports that clearly show Floyd was a very capable and fit cyclist, who was certainly strong enough to win the Tour without performance-enhancing substances. Unfortunately since his return from a 2 year suspension, Floyd's performance has been substantially sub-par, which makes it all the more easy to claim that he only won because he applied testosterone patches to his privates.

Although I believe in the power of pharmaceuticals I also know that such dramatic improvements are out of the question. No amount of HGH, steroids, EPO, and-or other concoctions is going to make an average Cat 1 racer into a Tour de France winner. I would even go as far as claim that the performance-enhancing power of most substances remains unproven.

Although there are some data on the short term benefits of HGH and EPO, and possibly on the long benefits of steroids for things such as weight lifting, sprinting, and hitting home runs, the data on aerobic endurance performance are not there. While it seems logical that to assume that these substances should work, and while all the physiological and medical knowledge points us in that direction, this remains far from proven.

Just a little bit of experience with drug trials for regular (so-called ethical) pharmaceuticals should be enough to convince anyone that trying to predict drug efficacy remains akin to trying to predict the future. While EPO may well help someone win a time-trial, its long term benefits are unknown, and it would not surprise me in the least if one found that the long term effect is nil or even negative.

Unfortunately, from a scientific perspective, the current attitude towards drugs and sports effectively precludes any serious study of the matter. Although WADA occasionally studies or supports studies that look at short term benefits (a recent study showing HGH could improve sprinting performance comes to mind), such studies are too few and far between to really make a difference.

Once again, experience from real life clinical trials shows that large studies, involving thousands of persons and running over several years are needed to disentangle such matters. What is really ironic is that such large scale testing appears to be happening right now -all indications are that large scale doping in professional sports has been going on for decades now, and continues to this day- but without the benefit of scientific data gathering and analysis.

One can only lament the huge missed opportunity here.

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