Dopers on wheels

A month ago, Prof. John Hoberman wrote a scathing review of drugs in professional cycling for MSNBC. As the Tour de France collapsed in scandal this week, it’s worth reviewing Dopers on Wheels: The Tour’s sorry history.

Hoberman says that drugs have always been a part of professional cycling, beginning with caffeine and cocaine fuelled six-day races back in the 1890s. These were dangerous experiments on the limits of human performance and the effect of drugs. And little changed in the sport until the Festina drug scandal during the 1998 Tour.

According to journalist and Dr. Hans Halter:

“For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. No dope, no hope. The Tour, in fact, is only possible because — not despite the fact — there is doping. For 60 years this was allowed. For the past 30 years it has been officially prohibited. Yet the fact remains: great cyclists have been doping themselves, then as now,”

Hoberman is especially critical of the International Cycling Union and cycling teams that publicly condemn drugs, but privately ignore institutional doping. Race organizers might arrest and make examples of individual cyclists, but do little to procecute doctors, trainers and other co-conspirators.

The UCI’s so-called doping controls have been inadequate or even fraudulent, depending on how one views the integrity of its officials.

The UCI leadership, whose doping controls did not produce a single positive before the disaster of the 1998 Tour, remained in office. What’s more, average rider speed has increased steadily since the introduction of (presumably) stricter drug-testing to prevent the use of blood-boosting drugs.

Swiss rider Alex Zülle explained the pressure on cyclists:

“As a rider you feel tied into this system. 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 speed limit? So I had two alternatives: either fit in and go along with the others or go back to being a house painter. And who in my situation would have done that?”

Cyclists earn less than most professional athletes, yet must train constantly, endure incredible hardship and risk deadly crashes every day. They may never get much recognition, and must support the team leader who gets all the glory. All this to hold on to a spot on a team, the only job that many of them know. It’s no wonder so many are willing to risk so much for an edge over the competition.

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