The admission by Lance Armstrong that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career may finally lead to a comprehensive account of the widespread doping during the past two decades of the sport.

Armstrong in 2002… one of 500 tests which returned nothing of interest

Drug use has been known to cycling for decades. In the early days, some riders consumed a cocktail of amphetamines to withstand the long hours of competition, day after day, in the grand tours.

But it was the discovery of Erythropoietin (EPO) in the 1980s that has cast a long shadow over cycling to this day. EPO is the hormone that regulates red blood cell production, giving the user an unfair advantage.

EPO is generally believed to have been introduced to cycling by the Italian scientist, Francesco Conconi, whose colleague, Dr Michele Ferrari, was later found guilty of sporting fraud by an Italian court, and subsequently banned for life after being charged by the USADA for administration and trafficking of prohibited substances.

Ferrari had connections with a series of teams and dozens of riders over more than 20 years. He first came to prominence in cycling when he coached the Italian star, Francesco Moser, to a new one hour world record in 1984. Riding a radical aerodynamic bike at Mexico City, Moser added over a mile to the record that had been established by the five-time Tour winner, Eddy Merckx, a decade earlier. Moser, the thrice Paris-Roubaix winner and 1977 World Champion, later admitted using blood products, that were not illegal at the time.

Michele Ferrari would go on to coach and advise some of the best-known teams and riders in the sport, including Gewiss-Ballan, an Italian team founded in 1993. The team enjoyed amazing success in 1994, winning Tirreno-Adriatico, and the one-day classics, Milan-San Remo, La Flèch Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.  Team riders, Evgeni Berzin claimed the Giro d’Italia and Piotr Ugrumov was runner-up to Miguel Indurain in the Tour de France.

It was later revealed that many of the Gewiss riders, including Berzin, Ugrumov, and Bjarne Riis, who was to win the 1996 Tour, had been found to have elevated hematocrit levels. Danmarks Radio later claimed that doping had been practiced at both Gewiss and the Spanish team, ONCE, which dominated the spring classics and the Vuelta a España in the mid 1990s. Alex Zülle, who won the Vuelta for ONCE in 1996 and 1997, and finished second in the 1999 Tour, later admitted to using EPO in the so-called Festina affair.

The Festina team was thrown out of the 1998 Tour when their soigneur, Willy Voet, was caught by police with a large quantity of doping products in the team car. Seven riders admitted taking EPO. The team leader, Richard Virenque, denied using the illegal substances, but confessed two years later.

One of the riders at ONCE during the mid 1990s was Johan Bruyneel, later to become the directeur sportif for Lance Armstrong’s team, US Postal (later Discovery and Radio Shack). ONCE subsequently became Liberty Seguros, Würth, and finally Astana. Alberto Contador, later to be stripped of his Tour de France victory for offences related to doping, claimed the first win of the year in 2005 for Liberty Seguros at the Tour Down Under.

A new round of doping investigations arose after the Spanish rider, Jesús Monzano, alleged in 2004 widespread use of blood products at his former team, Kelme. The allegations implicated a number of doctors, including Alfredo Córdova, who had been with Liberty Seguros-Würth, and Eufemiano Fuentes. A police investigation, code-named Operación Puerto (Operation Mountain Pass)  led to the arrest of the Liberty Seguros-Würth team director, Manolo Saiz, and Fuentes. The names of some 56 riders were found on lists maintained by Fuentes. Most, including Tour winner, Jan Ullrich and the Giro victor, Ivan Basso, were cleared – in some cases because there was insufficient evidence for a conviction.

Ullrich was later banned for doping. Basso was also suspended for two years after admitting that he had planned to use blood products.

In 2007, the Astana rider, Alexandre Vinokourof, was also banned for a year after blood-doping during the Tour de France.

In the meantime, Lance Armstrong, with Johan Bruyneel, his directeur sportif, was dominating the Tour de France. Both have since been banned and many of Armstrong’s team mates, including Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, have admitted to doping.

Given this long record of unlawful activity, questions remain over the international administration of cycling. It remains the case that Armstrong never failed a drug test, and many other riders escaped detection.

Great attention is now given to Armstrong, which is understandable. But to focus only on him, and to ignore the many other players in this sorry saga, is to downplay the widespread drug culture that has infected the sport for the past 20 years.

Consider this single example. Since 1993, 30 different cyclists have mounted the place-getter’s podium on the Champs E’lysees after the Tour de France, some of them like Armstrong, Ullrich, and Contador, numerous times.

Of those 30 riders to finish in the top three on General Classification, 15 have been banned or suspended for doping-related offences.

From time to time former riders such as the Irishman, Paul Kimmage, have exposed the widespread practice of drug cheating. Riders have been suspended or banned, often for short periods by their national cycling federations, but little seemed to change.

The focus is appropriately on Armstrong, but it needs to be widened.

Every young rider should know that they will succeed because of their ability and dedication, and not feel forced to join the drug takers to remain competitive - or abandon the sport.

Thankfully, there are indications that the recent entrants to the sport, including the major sponsors, want to chart a new, clean path. Last year, for example, two former riders, Bobby Julich and Steven de Jongh, left their coaching positions at Team Sky under the outfit’s strict anti-doping protocols.

Comments on this post will close at 6pm AEDT.

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11 comments

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    • marley says:

      07:30am | 19/01/13

      I think there has to be some considerable focus now on the activities (or should I say inactivities) of the ICU.  This all happened on their watch, while rumours, indeed evidence, of massive drug use were swirling around the sport.  Yet somehow, they sailed above it all, claiming the sport was clean;  they allowed riders like Delgado to continue in the Tour after being caught using masking agents; they let Lance get away with a backdated prescription to justify a positive test; and they certainly showed no particular enthusiasm for the USADA investigation of Armstrong. 

      One could argue that the ICU has simply been staffed and led by incompetents for three decades.  Or one might justifiably think that the ICU deliberately turned a blind eye to what was going on because Lance and his ilk were valuable assets for the sport, bringing in sponsorships and massive TV rights, and the ICU didn’t want to risk cycling’s appeal or revenue by going after its most prominent cyclists and teams.

    • gobsmack says:

      09:18am | 19/01/13

      As long as there are big bucks in cycling, I can’t see the sport being cleaned up.

      They should simply allow drug taking and have the teams represent each of the big pharmaceutical companies.  There must be positive spin-offs from the development of things like EPO.

    • Just Do It says:

      10:36am | 19/01/13

      As the issue of drugs in sport appears to be endemic and years ahead of the testing, why not just simply do away with the testing altogether?
      If you want to use drugs to perform better and suffer the inevitable health problems that come with it for your moment of glory, just do it, as some company once said.
      Wouldn’t that be an ‘even’ playing field?
      Not only would there be no controversy but there would be awesome performances and the possiblity that an athlete might explode mid-event. Surely that would ensure better ratings than this tripe.

    • Andy says:

      12:00pm | 19/01/13

      I agree Kevin. There needs to be a proper investigation of how the drug culture was allowed to develop. Many people must have known what was going on, not just Lance, his team mates and people at other teams. How come Lance never failed a drug test?

      There are so many talented young riders in the sport. Just look a what is happening in Australis. The new wave of riders need to know that the drug culture must be a thing of the past.

    • Spanner says:

      12:02pm | 19/01/13

      You keep throwing Lance articles at us like we give a damn.

    • Just Do It says:

      12:17pm | 19/01/13

      On second thought, why not have the events run with druggies and straight edge together and sort the results accordingly ie: one set of results for druggies and another set for straight edge.

      But good point Spanner, when did Australians really care about a bunch of guys in fruit suits anyway?

    • Paul says:

      01:02pm | 19/01/13

      I agree Spanner. I wonder how the media would spin it if hypothetically, lets say, Cathy Freeman had’ve used performance enhancing drugs?

    • Bear says:

      01:19pm | 19/01/13

      If ’ only’ half the podium has been banned in the last 20 years that makes a lie of the claim ‘they’re all doing it’ as a justification. Even if they were it’s still not even because not all would be getting the same benefit or have the same resources. And I don’t believe They all are because not every cyclist wants to die young from later potential health problems for the sake of sporting glory and nor should they have to.

    • Leigh says:

      02:23pm | 19/01/13

      Armstrong is just another cheating sportsman. But when a polician takes up up the matter of cheating and lying, that is the pits.

    • Barren says:

      02:26pm | 19/01/13

      Abbott will be very upset with you Andrew.
      How you didn’t turn this into being all Labor’s fault is beyond comprehension and obviously deviates form the party script.

    • Cat says:

      02:48pm | 19/01/13

      It is good to see that some are using this latest media coverage to support the young people entering cycling, but international sport more generally, taking a new step in the direction of healthy, clean, positive sportsmanship. It would be a huge shame for the community to continue to look the other way or even condone the use of performance enhancing drugs (as some above posts have suggested) for future generations. What is the message we want to be giving the next generation of sports men and women? I think it’s important for many of the cyclists that we have grown up looking up to and aspiring to, to come forward and make a stance against doping. Even those who have made mistakes/cheated in the past; even better they own up and allow others to learn from their mistakes. Good work Kev.

 

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