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Contador’s Ban: The Death of Cycling?

Over 18 months after the race, Contador has been stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title, and banned for 2 years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, making Andy Schleck the winner of the 2010 race.

The ban is punishment for the traces of clenbuterol, an anabolic steroid were found in his blood. Initially  cleared by the Royal Spanish Cycling Federation back in February 2011, Contador blamed the traces on contaminated meat brought in by a friend- indeed the traces were small- 40 times lower than the minimum rate WADA insists labs must be able to register to gain accredited status. However, it is possible that Contador was blood doping using blood taken during a training phase that had been insufficiently washed, leaving traces of steroids behind. Plasticizers were also found in his blood and can be a sign of IV usage, though the doctor who invented the test believes these tests may not yet be legally binding. Floyd Landis was also excluded with a similar pattern of steroid detected during the final stages of the race, probably as a result of contaminated blood doping.

Eddy Merckx said to Eurosport: “Sad for him and cycling. I think someone wants the death of cycling. We’re going too far”

Contador is not the first rider to be accused of doping. Looking at the ranking of the 10th Stage of Tour de France 2005 (Grenoble- Courchevel), Verner Moller in his excellent book, ‘The Scapegoat’ notes that of the first 25 riders placed on that team, only seven are still uncompromised by doping allegations or convictions. And only one in the top 17 (Cadel Evans) is untainted.

Indeed with the ever increasing speed of the Tour de France, some riders have claimed it is now impossible without doping.  In 1989, when advances were made in bike technology,  average speed was 37.5kph. In 2005, it was 40.9kph, an increase of over 8%. Moller explains these apparently small increases in speed mask a large increase in effort-  8% increase in speed means 16% more air must be moved, means 16% more energy is required to go 8% faster. In the context of a race won by seconds, by athletes at the top of their abilities, this is a huge increase.

Jacksche, an ex-cyclist who has confessed doping, but after 1998 scandals rode 1999 clean,  described his experience riding without enhancement:

“You hope from day-to-day that the speed goes down. You have to push yourself harder and your recuperation is slower, there was no way I could hang on, and I felt completely superfluous. In the end I was afraid of being left behind on a railway bridge.”

He explains the catch – 22: “Only the one who dopes wins. Only the one who wins appears in the media. Only the one in the media makes the sponsor happy. Only happy sponsors invest new money in the team the following year.”

Contador’s ban may be a turning point for cycling. No winner of the Tour has not been implicated in doping since Miguel Indurain, except Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck. The stark stories of Landis Riis and Hamilton give a glimpse of how pervasive doping is and how there is systematic toleration by riders, sponsors and officials, with occasional athletes singled out and destroyed. Verner Moller’s “The Scapegoat” tells this tale well.

If cycling is not to completely lose it’s spectacle and credibility, it is time to be realistic and relax the ban on doping. Safe doping – like blood doping up to a level where 50% of the blood is red blood cells – could be permitted.

The substances that modern cyclists take are safe enough compared to the risks of professional sport. We should focus on monitoring athletes’ health rather than losing a war on doping

Performance enhancement is not against the spirit of cycling; it is the spirit of cycling.

It is time to give up the puritanical crusade on drugs in cycling and focus on banning those that are very unsafe, not those which are performance enhancing.

More on the ethics of performance enhancing drugs in sport


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5 Comment on this post

  1. You may be right, Julian, that the authorities of cycling should be more realistic. You recommend moving the border-lines : « (allow) doping up to a level where 50% of the blood is red blood cells», or «give up the puritanical crusade on drugs in cycling and focus on banning those that are very unsafe». 
    What will the authorities do in the case of 55% red blood cells? Or in the case of a cyclist taking a drug that is on your «very unsafe» list?
    The difficulty as I see it, is that moving the goalposts will change, but not solve , the situation. Wherever you place them there will be those who choose, or are persuaded, to cheat.

  2. Marco Antonio Oliveira de Azevedo

    Hi Julian,

    Your conclusion summarily is: “[I]t is time to be realistic and relax the ban on doping. Safe doping – like blood doping up to a level where 50% of the blood is red blood cells – could be permitted.” (…) “Performance enhancement is not against the spirit of cycling; it is the spirit of cycling. (…)”. We should ban only “those [drugs] that are very unsafe”. OK. But let me present two doubts:

    1. First, safe doping or not-very-unsafe doping? Could (and should) the threshold of safeness be scientifically established? It would plausibly imply the constitution of committees to decide, something that sportive institutions (leagues and societies) probably could create without major difficulties (but it would involve more coasts). It would imply also the acceptance of new negligence rules – with its legal implications.

    2. The big problem seems to be, nevertheless, that doping is considered a practice against the “spirit of sport”. Well, actually doping is not necessarily against the spirit of games. Could we take doping as against the lusory attitude (Suits) that characterizes the “spirit” of playing a game? Not necessarily. It would be true only if the ban of doping is included in the rules of the game. But we can obviously devise games where doping is permitted. I think a follower of Suits conception couldn’t say that doping is in itself – or “constitutively” – a practice against the lusory spirit of playing games. But doping could be seen as against the rules that make some game not only merely a game but also a SPORT. It could be seen, hence, as against the spirit of sportsmanship. Respect for equality in competitions and professionalism are tenets of sportsmanship (or so I think). Professionalism in sports implies the attitude of loving the sportive practice, and the correlated attitude of protecting and preserving it as a form of life, tha is, as a life stile and a way of human realization. People usually believe (perhaps erroneously?) that doping practices could disrupt the integrity of the sportive practice, stimulating attitudes contrary to the spirit of sportsmanship (perhaps because it seems like cheating, and to cheat is a form of disrespecting the adversary). The (apparent?) conflict between sportsmanship and doping is, to my view, the bit issue.

    1. Doping law is basically a line in the sand. And people cross it. If you "legalise" doping, people will cross that boundary too. Just becomes a bit of an arms race. The most logical thing in my view (and perhaps the "purest") is to limit it to what normal human endeavour can acheive.

      I think I read that Michael Ferrari, the banned Doctor I think was associated with the Puerto affair (*Dodgy name and fact alert! Might have this wrong but I'm too lazy to google it!) felt that there was doping, and resupplying the body with things that it naturally develops but are depleted. There is of course a scale, and at some point, you have to draw a line.

      You do sport, you get hungry so you eat, which gives you energy and vitamins. You do sport, you get a vitamin injection. You do sport you get a blood transfusion. You do sport you get a drug that makes you produce high levels of blood to improve performance.

      Doping agencies etc are there to draw that line.

      Personally, I believe that sport is an expression of what is achievable by human endeavour. I watch because of the "wow, I wish I could do that" factor (which is one reason I did the etape last year, 2.5 times slower than the pros I hasten to add!). We could watch cows bred to cycle super fast, but it wouldnt be the same.

      I'm rambling now and have lost my point. I shall stop!

      1. BTW. I posted this comment after the one below, hence you may be suprised that I appear not to have stopped. Oh. I'm still talking?

  3. Hi,
    Interesting, thought provoking article, but I am not sure I can fully agree with you. I'm basing my response on stuff I have read, mostly through cycling autobiographies, bike magazines and slavish addiction to my Eurosport cycling app on my iPhone! For give me if I am wildly, wrong, but here's my take!

    Doping has been with cycling virtually since its inception. It wasn't called it then. Tommy Simpson Died in 1967 with a stack of amphetamines in his pocket ( )…. riders used to drink brandy to help them go faster! The thing that's changing is our ability to track and test doping. Cycling is getting cleaner and cleaner, and the case that Contador has been banned highlights that. He will indeed be stripped of his title (and cash) for the last two years, but as its a back dated ban, he will be riding again in september!

    The case for speeds going up is, I believe (though cant substantiate it) not quite true… I understand that they peaked in the 90s (?), which coincided with both improvements in bikes (today's carbon tubed bikes with electronic shifters are a far cry from the aluminium down tube shifter bikes Pantani rode!), but more significantly with the introduction of EPO (see Laurent Fingons autobiography). EPO, for the uninitiated is a drug that increases red blood cell density, and thus allowing more oxygen to flow around the body (therefore increasing athletic performance), but is often overused to the point that your blood becomes like jam, massively increasing the chance of heart attacks. Since detection methods for EPO, and its more recent variant Cera have improved, doping "catches" have been reducing. I understand that average speeds have started going down again, despite technology increases (power meters, electronic shifters etc etc) indicating the campaign against doping was working. Would be interesting for someone to do a multiparamteric analysis of things like meters climbed, distances ridden, technology improvements etc to compare true average speeds like for like.

    To say we should be focusing on health; well that's the very reason why the stance of setting suitable limits is in place. You have to say at which point a drug is not acceptable; and in the majority of cases, if there is no reason for you to be taking something that may increase your performance, don't take it…. In Laurent Fingnons day, having amphetamines in the blood would only get you a slap on the wrist. Now a trace amount of a performance enhancing drug gives you a 2 year ban. The focus is definitely on health!

    That aside, the most interesting thing about the contador case was the "reading between the lines" aspect, and the political aspect.

    Plasticisers are not a banned substance(to the best of my knowledge), but indicate blood transfusions…. trace clenbuterol indicates that contador might have been using illegal drugs in the off season, and transfused some of his own blood for use on the tour. Virtually undetectable, as its "his own" blood. The blood was then sent to a new super sensitive lab that no one would have suspected. I beleive its not the clenbuterol that he was being punished for, but the likelihood of blood transfusions. Done wrongly, these can be almost fatal… See Ricardo Ricco's 2011 blood transfusion incident . Drugs are rife in other sports like football, but not checked on with so much rigour.

    So the case for allowing people to dope is silly. Yes, the incentive to cheat will always be strong with endurance sports, but the doping policy seems to be right. What needs to change is the course, the requirements and structure of the professional teams…. There were a few interesting short stages on this years tour that makes it look like the organisers are thinking of ways they can maintain the excitement but reduce the workload of this great event. It'll get there….. eventually.

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