Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Doping - Here and Now

Unfortunately, the 2007 Tour de France will be remembered for the relentless reports of positive doping tests. Despite internal team controls, more frequent out of competition testing, and an array of more sophisticated tests, racers still think they can get away with doping.

Confronted with facts, they admit, either in action or in words, that they've doped. The two positive testosterone racers both declined to have their B sample tested. In other words, they say that the second sample will simply confirm the first. They know they doped and they're admitting as much.

The analogous blood doping test (i.e. transfusing someone else's blood) racer denies transfusing blood even after the second test came out positive. Sounds familiar, right? It's not like home where the truth is whatever the people are told - like the president winning by garnering over 90% of the vote. This is the real world, with a certain amount of free press, public announcements not controlled by a sponsoring government, and denying things really doesn't work.

Imagine if someone challenged Kim Jong-II to golf? Meaning in a public arena with cameras and such?

I wonder if he'd shoot a 38.

Back to doping, as opposed to dopes.

The pro peloton consists of literally the best racers in the world. We know this because the racers performed well at an amateur level, usually did a stint as a stagiaire (sort of a pro cycling internship), and, after doing some good work there, finally landed a pro contract.

The key here is the "amateur" part.

Pro cyclists are recruited out of the amateur leagues.

Back in the normal doping days, amateurs had access to minor drugs which didn't significantly increase performance. I don't mean drugs don't work - they do, else there wouldn't be a doping problem. But 20 years ago the drugs used were either extremely obvious (steroids and their masking agents) or not too effective (pseudoephedrine, once banned, is now considered so tame it's totally legal). The "old" drugs would let you buy a short stint of energy but your overall performance, your overall composition as a rider, that didn't change.

In other words you couldn't turn a regular rider into a champion one.

No one appeared out of nowhere, won the Tour or some other insanely prestigious race, and disappeared forever. Well, maybe the odd racer here and there, but back then it was usually a bit of politics, not superb riding.

Then, as EPO and perhaps Human Growth Hormone (HGH) appeared, doping took on a different meaning.

Now, instead of simply extending a racer's ability plateau a little further to the side (i.e. buy another 20 minutes of effort), drugs could actually radically change the shape of the plateau. The new generation of drugs actually changed the shape of the plateau, raising it up as well as over.

Suddenly you had these racers emerge from deep within the rankings as one of those who could time trial and climb with the best of them.

Sprinters, I should note, never got anywhere with stage races except winning more sprints - Sean Kelly and Laurent Jalabert never got higher than fourth in the Tour - but other sprinters like Johan Museeuw, who won the Champs-Elysee stage of the Tour, went on to become great one day racers.

But when a Pantani time trials like an Ullrich... well, something is a bit fishy.

So this new generation of drugs is available to pros and has been for something like the last 15 years.

But with the Internet, economic globalization, and world wide next day shipping, these potent drugs are now available, and appearing at, the races you do.

There are two particularly depressing sites for those who compete for fun, who train to better themselves, and do it all without taking banned substances.

One I'll call the Knife Site. They sell the standard protein and amino acid pills and shakes - nothing more than focused pork chops along with a standard amino acid stack (a combination of different ones) which combines three amino acids not found in diets but which are crucial to building muscle.

Note that these are not illegal for any of us to use, whether from a legal point of view (i.e. using cocaine is illegal, amino acids are not) or from a racing point of view (EPO is illegal both from a legal and racing point of view, amino acids are not).

If you ingest too much amino acid your body flushes out any excess. Your body uses what you can use, you toss the rest. If you ate a lot of steak, well, you'll be flushing some expensive waste down the toilet. Ditto water soluble vitamins and amino acids.

So from that point of view, the Knife Site isn't doing much harm.

However, the Knife Site also sells, for "research purposes", some more interesting substances.

In particular they sell IGF-2, Insulin like Growth Factor. I don't know the exact mechanism but this is basically Human Growth Hormone. The most significant effect is that it can actually cause you to gain more muscle cells. Steroids and testosterone simply help you recover from damage done during exercise and get what muscle cells you have to grow.

IGF-2 gives you more cells.

That's the holy grail of most steroid users.

A hint that maybe this isn't the greatest stuff for you is that it is available only in injectionable form.

Conveniently, the Knife Site also has application kits - syringes and whatnot. That's a different part of the site from the research bit.

All this is yours, tomorrow, if you supply a credit card number and a mailing address.

Another site, I'll call it EPO For Dopes (EFD), publicized itself by posting a pdf scan of a manually translated LA Confidential, the book never released in English. You could read one of the four sections but you had to register to read the others.

I, of course, registered. Devoured the banned book. And started getting emails from the site.

EFD, it appears, sells EPO, HGH, and other banned substances.

From what I understand, there are two ways of taking EPO. One is to take relatively big doses a couple times a week and then monitor your blood thickness and dose accordingly. The problem is that the big doses show up in tests.

The other way is to micro-dose - take a little bit every day. This gets the blood thicker but allegedly avoids hitting the dinger when doing a pee test.

For $900 you can buy 40 microdoses, perhaps a month and a half of EPO. They come prepackaged with syringes and all that. Subcutaneous (under the skin). You barely feel it.

I had two subcutaneous injections at the dermatologist earlier this year. I hate needles, I mean I really, really hate needles. So I cringed and waited and waited and asked when they were going to use the needles.

They were actually done and already cut off the two suspicious moles (the injections were for anesthetics). The "wet wipes" were actually them wiping the blood off my skin, not the iodine preparing the skin for the injection.

Alright so you can buy dope. No biggie right? I mean all the doping articles talk about how easy it was to buy steroids online or whatever.

So who buys this stuff?

Well, that's where EFD and the Knife Site surprised me.

They have forums where customers and curious folk can post questions. They answer some of the questions themselves but they also get responses from other customers. And this is where it gets sort of disheartening.

There are guys you race against that dope. And you could be a Cat 4, a Cat 3, a Masters. Not even 2s or 1s. We're talking the bread and butter of the racing population.

One of the Knife Site posts happily states that Masters Nationals were not tested. They also refer to a track racer site where the Masters did better than the Pros - and then all hell broke loose because of the Masters defending themselves. One poster admitted he was "tackled up" but still didn't win.

Another post describes usage of HGH - debating between 2 and 8 iu HGH per day. Apparently HGH makes your body retain water, making your hands a bit bloated, and making it harder to feel things. One joke was that one racer, known for his "offs" on descents, was crashing because he couldn't feel his handlebars due to the HGH-induced swollen hands. But, as others posted, on a more serious note, they recommend 2-3 iu for road racers and up to 8 iu for track racers.

EFD apparently is the Amazon of EPO. Wide selection, good customer service (they even fought about it on the Knife Site with many long time posters coming out to defend EFD), and guaranteed shipping.

As a "registered user", I can access their full menu of goodies - injectable iron, EPO, HGH, and various other potions and solutions.

These sites, the traffic on them, and the posts themselves all indicate that doping is not a ProTour problem. It's not even a "Pro" problem. It's a problem that's permeated the whole system, from top to bottom.

Alright, I'll give the Cat 5s the benefit of doubt. And I think any Cat 4 that's doping is doping for other reasons - like to be big or whatever. But the 3s and up? Masters? I have to believe it's there.

To get rid of doping, we need to test everywhere. We can't allow a racer to come up the ranks thinking everyone dopes. The evidence shows that a significant minority dope using serious and powerful drugs.

What it comes down to is that these guys who dope should not be racing.

So what can be done to fix this?

Well, first off, make doping a harshly punished offense. A fine perhaps, but that may not be easy to collect. But time... I'd say a 10 or more years ban. If you ban a Masters racer for a couple years it's not a big deal - they'd probably race cross country skis or run or something. And come back a bit more cautious and do it again.

Second, start paying for random tests as outlined in one of my earlier posts. Of course they'd hit all the bigger races. An easy way to figure it out would be if the results are in cyclingnews.com's site without going to "regional results". However the test would also be conducted all various spring training races, some of each region's road races, and at sporadic cyclocross races.

Track racing, it seems, already have some testing in place, but a random test at T-Town's Friday night race might make things interesting.

The tests should make it harder to mask. Posters on the Knife Site openly worry about the 4:1 testosterone ratio test - and others post that now some tests skip that and go straight to the carbon isotope test, the one that detects exogenous testosterone (i.e. external origin testosterone). Run these carbon isotope tests as some of the better covered races, get a lot of racers tested (20 or 30) and I think there'd be some interesting news in a few weeks.

The one concession I'd make is the level of "cheating". Over the counter drugs would be categorized as one type of positive. There's virtually nothing available over the counter which would radically change a racer's ability. Therefore taking, say, cold medicine should be a lessor offense as compared to, say, using EPO or testosterone.

Prescription drugs would be a completely different story. For example clenbuterol, a substance used to treat asthma in Europe, is not sold as an ingredient in any drug in the US. If someone tests positive for it, they had to have made some effort to get it. Ditto EPO or testosterone.

Publicize the results. I've seen "ban" lists from USA Cycling - racers not allowed to race for various reasons. The lists only contain names, license numbers, and hometowns. No reason for the ban.

Reviewing one list, I noticed a racer that I knew had tested positive as a pro and was banned for a couple years. The list didn't say that though. And it's easy to be banned if, say, you lied about having a license or you didn't pay a no-helmet fee. But those, to me, are different offenses than a positive test for steroids. We should differentiate positives from other infractions.

Another disconcerting thing - Joe Papp testing positive. I heard rumors of him having a locked box in the fridge but I figured it was just heresay. But apparently there was some truth to it. However, after his stint as a cyclingnews diarist, he simply dropped out of sight. No one publicized that he'd tested positive. Until he testified at Floyd's trial, I held him in somewhat high esteem. I watched him race, thought he raced hard, seemed like a smart enough guy, and I wished him luck.

Then I find out he was doping all along.

That just sucked.

So these are my proposals:
1. Test nationwide at Cat 1-3, Masters 1-4, Women 1-3. Use harder to beat tests like the carbon isotope test.
2. Ban guilty racers for a long time, perhaps a decade.
3. Publicize the ban to make sure the racer doesn't slip through the cracks.

And maybe, just maybe, we'll have a Tour where the racing makes the headlines, not the doping.


Colin R said...

Sounds great... but who's going to pay for it?

How hard it would be to drug test people correctly and fairly at race events? Seems like the French labs sure have trouble with it.

Aki said...

I think USA Cycling should pay for it, potentially bringing in sponsors to help do this - a portion of each sponsor's money would be required to go to testing - like T-Mobile does. Also, I'd like to think that some rich person that likes bike racing would help out. It could also be part of a race promoter's permit fee (I can say this because I promote races). The point is that at any race, in any category, a racer might be tested, with an extremely significant penalty for testing positive (say 10 year ban). I'd hope racers would educate themselves more about what is banned ("What? EPO is banned?") and not take stuff.

Here in the US, with various organizations testing (for work, military, and probably schools), there might be opportunity to use testing racers as training - sort of like the military divers removing the "failed fake coral reef" tires out of the ocean. The military welcomed the opportunity to be able to drill their divers while accomplishing something while doing so.

The military in particular seem to have a good system and replicating their testing procedures would help eliminate doubt in the testers. They apparently test in batches which contain at least one positive control, one negative, plus the actual test samples, and if the controls are not properly detected all results get thrown out. I don't think testing for pot will be necessary (which I'm sure the military does) but if there were such controls for testing for exogenous testosterone, well, it'll be hard to argue the findings.

gewilli said...

Heck - get AMGEN on board to pay for it... or Pfizer:

"we are paying for tests because we want our drugs to actually be used for the people that they are designed for, not some cheating sack of crap to overcome genetic deficiencies"


great - but freaky Aki... pretty disheartening...

Anonymous said...

Wow--I think I'm naive. It would never occur to me to try to find EPO or HGH or testosterone. Maybe that's why I'm strictly a middle-of-the-pack Cat 4? It seems so counterproductive for a 4--or even a 3--to dope. The cash payouts for races are so small that it doesn't seem worthwhile from an economic standpoint. Is it for ego? You can't stand to lose the Tuesday night worlds, so you dope? Pretty sad. I'm with you, though, Aki--I guess we need to start testing. I'll be looking for those dope testing tents in Bethel next spring ;).

josh said...

i think its a good idea. apparently i too am naive. but like colin said, if my uscf liscence all of a sudden costs 150 bucks, im not gonna be to happy. plus, testing for thc would kick out a bunch of ppls.

Aki said...

Payouts - I've been at Cat 3 races where I got 4th and got something like $100. 1st place paid $900. This was in the era where a full bike cost about $1500. I made about $250 a week working 50+ hours. $900 was a lot of money.

I agree on the license costs although I've been in the opposite situation - a license in Belgium (when I was there) cost $300 but it was essentially free to race (about 10 cents or so per race). I figured out that it would cost about the same to race 20 races in either country but after that Belgium was cheaper. The best was what I did - a cheap US license and race in cheap race Belgium.

I like the Amgen idea. The EPO that I've seen for sale is made in China and Amgen probably doesn't want that stuff permeating the US market so they'd have an interest in testing for it.

I agree, and I pointed out in my other comment, that testing for thc would not be necessary. I understand how things are and I have to imagine that thc doesn't really improve cycling performance. The testing is not there to arrest people for something akin to a parking violation, it's to catch cheaters.

CTodd said...

Cat THREES and FOURS doping!?

Hmm.. now I have another excuse to add to the "why I am so damn slow" list.

If folks in Cat 3s are doping that just makes me not even want to race anymore.

So f'n sad.

Colin R said...

For the record, if you were promoting and event and needed to come up with funding for drug testing, I think anyone who read this blog post might kick in some money. I know I would.

Sadly I'm sure the hoops you must jump through to drug test racers are many, but I think the cost one could be dealt with.

Of course this would just allow dopers to skip your event, but at least you'd know the people who showed up were clean, or willing to stake their reputation on their masking agent/technique.

Surprised there was no testing at Masters Nationals. I know they did tests at Mt Snow for Pro, Semi pro and Junior Experts.