Dying to ride

As the pro cycling season begins, drug-use scandals continue to explode.

Topics: Drugs,

In May of last year, Mauro Gianetti showed up at the Tour of Romandie
bicycle race revving for a win. The Swiss cyclist never got the chance. He
collapsed during the race and was rushed to the hospital in a near-comatose
state. For two weeks Gianetti festered in intensive care, his body
fluttering on the verge of multiple-organ shutdown.

Gianetti allegedly injected himself with an experimental drug called PFC
(perfluorocarbon metabolites), a blood substitute reserved for trauma
victims who have lost massive quantities of blood. He wanted it because PFC
absorbs 20 percent more oxygen than organic blood, supercharging an athlete with an aerobic engine that can stave off fatigue — and win races.

This is how sick the sport of cycling has become. Gianetti survived, and he
is racing professionally in 1999. His sport, however, may be on its deathbed. It is wracked with allegations of systematic drug use, and disenchanted
fans are now acutely aware that the superhuman efforts of the athletes are
often exactly that.

Despite Gianetti’s extreme antics, his story is inconsequential when viewed
against the backdrop of cycling’s drug past. Ever since 1967, when an
amphetamine-pumped Tom Simpson collapsed and died at the Tour de France, the sport has been doping itself to the gills. Two-time tour winner Bernard Thevenet went to the hospital with a steroid-rotted liver in 1977, and in 1991 the entire Dutch PDM team withdrew from the Tour de France, ostensibly suffering the effects of over-doped blood.

More recently, the scope of cycling’s drug habit has ballooned to
cataclysmic levels. According to Jean-Francois Quinet, whose book on drugs
and cycling, “Les Secrets du Dossier Festina” (“The Secrets of the Festina
Affair”), debuted in France last week, close to 100 percent of the riders in
recent Tours de France were using illegal substances. Their drug of choice
was EPO (erythropoietin, which acts like the synthetically produced PFC but
is a naturally occurring substance). Quinet estimates that because of EPO,
as many as 80 riders died in the 1980s and ’90s, their doped-up blood
coagulated to stone.



In 1998, the sport finally imploded. During the opening week of last year’s
Tour de France, a routine police traffic stop exposed 250 vials of EPO
and other performance-enhancing substances in a car belonging to the French Festina squad. The aftermath of the drug scandal — the biggest in terms of penetration in one sport — has outraged fans and spurred a worldwide demand for detox.

But while the public is just now realizing that many of its cycling idols are
chemically charged, none of this was news to those inside the cycling
community. For decades, a code of silence kept the drug issue under wraps.

According to Paul Kimmage, a former professional racer who is now a
journalist at Ireland’s Sunday Independent, drug use in cycling has always
been condoned. Race organizers and national cycling federations didn’t want to see their sport tarnished and they turned a blind eye. As new ways of riding faster and farther were developed, more and more riders injected their way to the top. The remaining clean teams had little choice; they had to follow suit to remain competitive.

The code of silence was impenetrable, even from the inside. In 1990,
Kimmage published “Rough Ride,” a tell-all book that exposed cycling’s
secrets. By coming clean, Kimmage had grand visions of being a catalyst for
sweeping change. Instead, he was blacklisted by his former teammates and
coaches, his book was lambasted as the “rantings of a failed cyclist” and
he was accused of searching for notoriety through scandal. “I was very
naive,” he says.

Kimmage’s book barely rippled the cycling community. The UCI, the governing body of professional cycling, did nothing, and the cancer — as Kimmage calls it — grew until the 1998 Tour de France debacle.

The price of silence, especially in the last decade, has been dear. Since EPO
was first biologically manufactured for distribution in 1989 by Amgen, a
California biotechnology firm, the drug has been a godsend for people
suffering from kidney disease (healthy kidneys produce the hormone
naturally). The drug takes over for diseased kidneys, stimulating the body’s
production of oxygen-rich red blood cells.

Injected into an endurance athlete, though, the substance allows superhuman aerobic thresholds, turning mediocre finishers into world-record contenders. A 1990 Swedish study on EPO estimated the performance-enhancing quotient of the drug to be around 10 percent — the equivalent of starting a 100-meter race 10 meters in.

But without medical controls, the strain EPO abuse puts on an athlete’s heart
is horrific. Oversaturated with oxygen-carrying red blood cells, blood can become like
molasses, clogging the heart until the blood stops flowing. Most EPO-related
deaths occurred in Holland and Belgium in the early 1990s, when athletes
experimented recklessly with the substance on their own. With EPO sludging
through their veins, riders were able to pull off epic feats on their bikes.
At night, however, when their pulse rates slowed, their hearts labored to
keep the circulation going, leaving them vulnerable to heart attacks and
strokes.

When cycling doctors jumped into the fray and covertly started
to tinker with EPO dosing, the risk of cardiac arrest was
greatly reduced. Dr. Michele Ferrari, an Italian who was the chemical
architect behind some of cycling’s most notorious teams, once told the
French sports daily L’Equipe that with proper supervision
EPO is “no more dangerous than orange juice.” The long-term effects of
EPO, however, have yet to be determined, and Ferrari’s statement is an
insult to the 80-odd riders who may have died as guinea pigs so that the sport could
learn how to cheat better.

Cycling’s drug infestation was long assumed to have stopped with the
non-champions, the riders who needed extra oomph to match the leaders of
the pack. Police interrogations after the Tour de France scandal, however,
prove that drugs have saturated every tier of the sport. “I have used EPO
for about four years,” Alex Zulle, a Swiss rider who is currently ranked
sixth in the world, told police after being embroiled in the Festina
affair. Zulle’s admission also included the abuse of human growth hormone
(HGH), a widespread substance that builds Herculean muscular strength and
endurance. “I wanted so badly to win the Tour de France,” he said by way of
explanation.

As the scandal continues to mushroom, severe sanctions are being
levied. French magistrate Patrick Keil is heading a massive judicial inquiry
into the Tour de France affair. Police are relentlessly hounding suspect
teams and riders at races. And in February, Olympic delegates convened at
the World Conference on Doping in Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. There
they pledged $25 million toward eliminating drugs from all sports in time
for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.

The anti-drug alarms that are sounding now are the same ones that rang in
1990, when Kimmage wrote “Rough Ride.” In the first four months of 1999
alone, two books have been published on the subject: Quinet’s
study of the Festina affair and a confessional written by Erwann Mentheour,
a disillusioned 25-year-old ex-pro who took every drug in the book before
quitting the sport in September 1997. The cycling press, too, has been
uncharacteristically rabid in recent months, pumping out scathing articles
that herald the sport’s demise.

Kimmage is relieved that reparations are finally being made, but he labels
the current barrage of drug stories in the press as hypocritical. The code of
silence may have been adopted by riders and coaches, he says, but it was
perpetuated by the media. “The journalists were actually part of it,” he
says. “They were complicit in the cover-up.”

The rebuttal from cycling’s news corps is that it was powerless to
act. “Journalism having its limits,” wrote Alain Giraudo in France’s Le
Monde, “it had to come down to police intervention.”

Kimmage, however, suggests that journalists were lackadaisical when faced
with reporting drug issues. A cycling journalist’s bread and butter is access
to racers, he says. Ask too many loaded questions and you’re out. “In order
to write good pieces, you’ve got to get close [to the riders],” he explains.
“And in order to get close, you’ve got to generate trust. By writing the
reality of the sport, [journalists] lose their contacts; and that is
something the press has been slow to come to terms with.”

Since the 1998 Tour de France fiasco, the spread of blame has been
malignant. Riders have turned on each other; coaches claim that team
doctors worked behind their backs; and they all berate the national cycling
federations. Kimmage, however, resists singling out any one group; in the
end, they all played a role in maintaining the sport’s silence. The
important thing now, he says, is to fix it.

Whether the sport can be fixed, however, is debatable. It has festered in a
drug stew for decades, and the 1999 cycling season (which starts in
earnest this month with the spring classics and culminates in July with
the Tour de France) will be do-or-die. For now, sponsors have not pulled
their dollars, but it remains to be seen if the sport’s fan base can stay
intact. An undercurrent of skepticism has seeped into the sport, and the consensus is that professional cyclists are guilty until
proved innocent.

Says Samuel Abt, the longtime cycling correspondent for the New York Times: “I’ve always said that if I ever thought that what I was watching was
primarily influenced by drugs, then why in God’s name am I covering it? I
kind of feel that way now.”

Andrew Taber is a producer at New York Today, the arts and entertainment Web site of the New York Times.

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