Slow race: solving cycling's drug dilemma

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

While Lance Armstrong pedals furiously through the last stages of the Tour de France, hoping to secure a record-setting sixth consecutive Tour victory on Sunday, 2003 World Champion time-trial cyclist David Millar is facing a grueling test of a different sort.

Tour officials banned the Scottish cyclist, a high-profile member of the Cofidis team, from competing after French police found syringes in his Biarritz home last month. After months of denying that he used erythropoietin (EPO) - a banned drug popular among cyclists for boosting endurance - Mr. Millar admitted to taking the drug.

"You take drugs because you are trapped by yourself, by glory, by money," Millar told police, according to British newspaper Independent. "I wasn't proud of doing it, I wasn't happy. I was the prisoner of the person I had become."

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Millar's case, together with numerous other indictments and rumors of doping have heightened scrutiny of the problem in cycling.

While the sport's officials claim cycling is virtually free from performance-enhancing drugs and have the negative test results to prove it, antidoping officials have strong suspicions that doping is quite prevalent.

"It's a sport that has an entrenched problem of doping, particularly in professional road-racing," says Richard Pound, chairman of the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA).

So far, 16 cyclists have been pulled out of this year's Tour de France because of drug use, but critics are skeptical that the International Cycling Union is really addressing the problem.

Dozens of cyclists have died from complications widely attributed to EPO since the drug was introduced 15 years ago. High-profile athletes including Millar and his former Cofidis teammate Philippe Gaumont used EPO and never tested positive for it.

But Christian Varin, Antidoping Manager for ICU, writes in a e-mail that criticisms of ICU testing procedures are often unfounded. "There are a lot of differences between what is written and the reality," he comments.

During this year's Tour, the ICU is conducting 180 drug tests, targeting race leaders as well as athletes whose blood profiles are suspicious. Mr. Varin says athletes are chaperoned so that they cannot try to mask drug use. The ICU conducted 5,206 drug tests on the international circuit last year. Of those riders tested, 55 were suspended.

The reason so few cyclists are caught, says Martial Saugy, head of the Lausanne Anti-Doping Laboratory in Switzerland, has to do with timing. EPO, which increases endurance by 10 percent, can be detected reliably within 72 hours after being injected, while its performance benefits last for more than a week. "What the lab is saying is that it's very important to go at the right time to the right person to take the right sample in order to be at the best detection window," Mr. Saugy notes.

A urine sample taken in that detection window gives labs the best opportunity to identify recombinant EPO, the most common form of the drug. While other forms of EPO are harder to detect, Saugy believes - based on the drugs collected in athletes' hotel rooms during recent European police raids - that most athletes still use the detectable strains of EPO.

Without the full cooperation of the ICU, however, samples will never be collected in a timely fashion, Saugy says. "This information can be defined only by people in the sport.... It's why I'm thinking that sports should be a partner for antidoping," he concludes.

Friday, the ICU will sign WADA's antidoping code, which will give WADA full access to all testing procedures and results, bringing greater transparency to the process. But despite increased regulation, pressures exist that may continue to perpetuate a doping culture. Cycling has become an increasingly lucrative enterprise in the past decade for athletes and sponsors alike. Lance Armstrong, for example, reportedly makes $16 million a year between team salary, endorsements, and prize money.

Ellis Bacon, deputy editor of Procycling magazine, estimates that the French credit-by-phone firm Cofidis has seen its business increase nearly tenfold since it started sponsoring a team. The formerly little-known company is now a household name in France.

Mr. Bacon says that although business executives want excellent results for the money they put into their cycling teams, they have little influence on what cyclists do.

"Cyclists are directed by the sports director of the team - that's where the pressure is really coming from," says Bacon. Whether the sports directors (who are hired by business sponsors and are often ex-racers themselves) are openly advocating performance-enhancing drugs or are just pressuring athletes to perform at a level where the athletes feel they must use drugs is hard to tell. "That's a big question," says Bacon, "How much of it is organized? How much of it is individual?"

Millar told police he felt pressure from Cofidis, but emphasized his decision was personal. "I drugged myself up because my job was to be well-ranked. There were the magazines in England, the sports papers, the television, who were expecting my good results, and I did not want to be criticized," he said.

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