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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Living in L.A.

[photo caption] Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong and rival T-Mobile squad during Armstrong's farewell '05 Tour.

Paris, France --
Professional cyclists are all either a) doping, or b) dopers, just not at the moment. Seven-time Tour de France champions included.

The world of professional cycling, like the landscapes of so many other professional athletic pursuits, is rife with cheaters. Some cheats are more benign, illegally shaving ounces of the weight of a bike or illegally drafting off of team cars during a race. Other cheats, however, are more aggressive, positioning themselves at the forefront of biological and chemical research -- in other words, acting as pharmaceutical guinea pigs and gambling on desirable racing results.

The drug of choice among pro cyclists is undoubtedly EPO. EPO (short for Erythropoietin, pronounced ah-rith-ro-poy-tin) is a protein hormone naturally produced by the kidneys. When the EPO comes into contact with bone marrow, red blood cell production is stimulated. As red blood cells carry oxygen, introducing artificial EPO into the body is designed to produce greater amounts of red blood cells and thus a greater amount of fuel for the cyclist in the form of oxygen.

A greater capacity for oxygen storage and usage is the holy grail of cycling.

Casual observers of cycling often wonder why, if an athlete is going to cheat, they don't just take designer steroids or human growth hormones (HGH) like other pro athletes, like baseball players. The short answer is that some riders do -- but not for the same reasons as their mitted counterparts. While baseballers attempt to build muscle, cyclists inbibe in steroids or HGH to repair muscle. To a cyclist, adding muscle is akin to cycling with lead weights attached to the bike -- adding muscle adds weight and weight is an enemy.

It is this fear of weight that keeps most riders away from steroids.

Anti-doping authorities have wised to the usage of oxygen-enhancers like EPO, however. By introducing hemacrit checks and innovative tests that can detect the difference between natural and artificial EPO have made cyclists recalibrate their methodology.

Some riders now only dope during the off-season, using drugs like EPO as training enhancers. As artificial EPO takes several weeks to leave the body, many otherwise talented riders are notably absent from early-season races. Coincidence?

Additionally, some riders have begun to harvest their own red blood cells, then to re-introduce them into the body at strategic times. This form of "blood doping" is completely undetectable.

As the off-season shenanigans begin, plans for next seasons racing schedule are being unveiled. Last Thursday, the grand poobas of the Tour de France unveiled the course for the '06 race. In classic European fashion, outgoing Tour Director Jean-Marie Leblanc used the opportunity to once again drag Lance Armstrong's name through the mud.

"Without doubt ... what we have learned has increased the lassitude toward him," Leblanc said. "He was not irreproachable in '99. EPO is a doping product. So this tempers and dilutes his performances and his credibility as a champion."

Leblanc, of course, is referring to allegations published in a French newspaper this August. The newspaper alleged that a vial of Armstrong's blood, taken during the '99 Tour, had tested postive for EPO. Armstrong made a well-publicized and ill-planned defense broadcast nationally on Larry King Live days after the allegations surfaced.

[photo caption] Jean-Marie Leblanc and Lance Armstrong during happier times at the 2004 Tour de France.

Johan Bruyneel, Director Sportif of Armstrong's former team (Discovery Channel) was angered by Leblanc's outburst.

"I felt targeted," Bruyneel said, explaining, "They talk for 12 minutes about ethics rather than presenting the race itself. I would have taken a different direction."

Though Armstrong was never disqualified from a race or sanctioned by the UCI (cycling's international governing body) during his career, there has always been an air of mystery and a shroud of suspicion around him. In fact, during the '99 Tour, one of Armstrong's urine samples did come back positive (for steroids). Though the finding was overturned due to a doctor's prescription of corticosteroid skin cream (for saddle sores), rarely has another rider been cleared of such a high concentration of a banned substance, skin cream or not.

In his international best seller, Lance Armstrong's War (2005), acclaimed author Daniel Coyle did little to quell the rumors. Coyle, while writing as an "embedded" sports journalist with the blessing of both Armstrong and his Discovery Channel team, carefully laid out the case, albeit circumstantial and anecdotal, against Armstrong.

"[Former Amstrong mechanic Mike Anderson] said he was cleaning the bathroom in Armstrong's Girona apartment when he found a white box bearing...a trademark name for Androgen, a banned steroid," Coyle writes. He also relates Armstrong's reaction, again according to Anderson, when informed that Belgian cycling great Johann Museeuw had been pinched for doping. "Everyone does it," Coyle attributes to Armstrong.
[photo caption] The legacy-impaired Johann Museeuw.

Armstrong and Anderson now have countersuits on-going against one another, challenging the validity of Anderson's contract and Armstrong's breach of contract, respectively.

Ultimately, the truth may be revealed by reviewing the death certificates of pro cyclists. Prolonged use of EPO -- especially at high levels -- can be lethal. Several studies (including one by Rice University used as a basis in this article) warn that EPO can severely shorten life-expectancies.

One only hopes professional cycling can cleanse itself before there are no cyclists left.

1 Comments:

Blogger AdamB said...

I think it's a pretty good explanation for why Lance quit racing. Michael Jordan came bank twice--you don't get that good without really loving the sport. But the pro cycling is different from basketball in that it's dangerous. He's just scared he'll have a stroke, that you can only play Russian roulette so many times before it catches up to you.

The other thing is that Lance sure as hell didn't survive cancer on steely will and good luck alone, but also what had to be a good deal of ability to tolerate extreme doses of drugs. Therein might lie his real ability to outdope the dopers.

Sun Feb 12, 09:48:00 AM 2006

 

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