David Millar tries to clean up cycling from inside the peloton
The Scottish rider, once banned from the sport for two years for doping, now competes with a team pioneering a new drug-testing model.
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“I got into professional cycling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, totally naive to the fact that doping existed,” says Millar. Within a few months, he realized that guys around him were taking illegal drugs. “It was a total culture shock – I was entering this dark, secretive world.”Skip to next paragraph
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He was a good rider without drugs, but not good enough to guarantee results that would maintain his six-figure salary and comfortable lifestyle. In 2001, he went into the Tour de France having raced nearly 1 in 3 days for the past six months.
Exhausted, he withdrew. It was then that a team manager urged him to go stay with an older rider in Italy. Shortly thereafter, Millar started taking drugs.
“It was attractive to the team, and became attractive to me as well,” he says. “My values and ethics got chipped away over time.”
Doping did make his life easier. In cycling, a 2 percent boost in performance can mean the difference between winning and losing. Plus, he says, the drugs enhanced his endurance and reduced his body’s recovery time. “I was doing it purely for the results – I was not doing it for the voyage,” he says. “When you win, it’s pure relief, because it justifies the risk you took.”
Other athletes echo how intense the pressures of operating at the top can be. US decathlete Bryan Clay calls it a “scary and lonely place.” “If all I wanted in the world was to win the gold medal and set a world record and make lots of money, I can almost guarantee you that I would be on steroids,” says Mr. Clay, a 2008 Olympian who is participating in a pilot US antidoping program based on similar principles as Garmin-Chipotle’s. “You’d never want that to end. You’d just want to be on top forever. [But] I want to be the best without sacrificing who I am.”
That may be the larger point in the end: Do drugs at some point change who we are? As pill use of all kinds becomes more pervasive, artificial enhancements, both legal and illegal, are increasingly seen as a legitimate way to boost one’s inherent abilities. We take everything from Botox for a wrinkle-free face to Viagra for better romance. What’s wrong with a little oxygen-enhancement if you’re a cyclist?
“People want an easier way to deal with their lives,” says Oliver Catlin, vice president of an antidoping research firm in Los Angeles. “That’s why athletes turn to steroids. It’s looking for external ways to improve their identity.”
Once a cyclist turns to doping, stopping isn’t as simple as “just saying no.” Millar says many riders “are married, have kids, are heroes in their villages. The people around them believe in them. They don’t see that if you tell the truth and explain how it happened, people do understand.”