I took up bicycling in my early 50s, and in my early 60s began to compete in seniors races. I’m not competitive nationally but I’ve had some local success. That’s enough for my non-cycling friends to anoint me an expert on performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
One might have considered doping (including reinfusing one’s own blood and other interventions that don’t technically involve “drugs”) to be just another training method, like weight- or high-altitude-training or special diets. But that’s not the way many people see it.
Much of the anger about PEDs is fueled by our general societal demonization of recreational drugs (other than alcohol). I’m on the other side: I favor legalizing marijuana and any other drug that is no more harmful than alcohol—a low threshold given alcohol’s well-documented dangers.. So I tend to be more tolerant about PEDs.
Once one puts aside the anti-drug hysteria, there seem to be two main arguments for banning PEDs. First, they are a form of cheating, in that athletes not using PEDs can’t effectively compete against dopers. This seems to be true for professional cycling. (The effects of PEDs on other sports are not as clear. Ollie, who has forgotten more about baseball than I’ll ever know, has at times seemed dubious about their effect on baseball performance.)
It’s likely that in the 1990s, almost all the cyclists competing in the Tour de France were taking some form of illegal PEDs because without the PEDs they would have been left behind. But if everyone is taking PEDs it hardly seems like cheating. Taking PEDs doesn’t give you an unfair advantage; it’s a level playing field.
When Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, the Tour’s promoters did not elevate any of the other riders, probably because it would have been too embarrassing. Many of the riders who placed second or third behind Lance (and the two preceding winners) have also been suspended for PED use.
The other argument is that riders were pressured into taking PEDs that may ultimately prove dangerous to their health. There certainly was pressure, but it came mainly from the demands of the sport: If you didn’t take PEDs you weren’t going to have a career in professional cycling. But you could say as much about many other aspects of cycling, such as attacking a dangerous downhill: If you don’t take the risks, you’re left behind.
There are lots of different PEDs, and it seems likely that they present different risks; steroids may be more dangerous, EPO less. But because PEDs are illegal, there isn’t much reliable research on their long-term health effects. I’m willing to believe that at least some of them are dangerous—lots of things are—but are they more dangerous than cigarettes or alcohol? We’ve had a lot of experience with public panic over the dangers of new drugs (Ecstasy, for example) that are less dangerous than alcohol. It’s hard to separate the bits of honest evidence from the hysteria. (On drugs and drug hysteria generally, take a look at David Nutt, Drugs Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and IllegalDrugs.)
In any case, to worry about the safety of PEDs is to strain at a gnat. Even without PEDs, cycling is extremely dangerous when compared to baseball, basketball, or football. It may even be more dangerous than Formula 1 auto racing, where the last fatality was Ayrton Senna in 1994. Since then there have been at least two deaths in the three annual Grand Tour cycling races, plus deaths in other races and in training, where cyclists have to mix it up with automobiles. Safety improvements have been slow in coming. Helmets only became mandatory in European racing in 2003 (over the objections of the riders themselves). Race promoters design courses with fast curvy downhills, final mass sprints around sharp corners and down narrow streets, and other challenges to life and limb. And races don’t stop for rain, which makes the roads slick and vision sketchy. A typical day will see multiple crashes, with riders—who wear no protective clothing other than a helmet—being dumped on hard pavement and unyielding curb stones at up to 45 miles an hour. Most professional racers have broken their collar bone at least once.
What’s more, the ban on PEDs has made things more, not less, dangerous. Because they are banned, PEDs are administered by people who are not highly qualified. Blood transfusions are given in hotel rooms, and when things go wrong riders cannot go to a hospital or consult a non-team doctor. (There are vivid descriptions of these problems, and cycling’s drug culture, in Tyler Hamilton’s TheSecret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France.)
People rightly recoil at the hypocrisy of it all. Until a few years ago nearly every professional cyclist used PEDs, and just about everyone involved in cycling knew it. Armstrong was particularly vociferous in his denials and nasty to his accusers, but everyone lied. For in the unlikely event that a rider was caught by the hit-or-miss doping tests, fessing up would have seen him barred from a job he loved, typically for two years. A cyclist’s professional life is short, and most cyclists, especially in Europe, are blue-collar types without a lot of attractive career opportunities. In that milieu, lying becomes just another professional skill, appreciated by your co-workers whatever the general public might think.
All this may be changing as drug testing improves. If PEDs can be reliably detected, then use will decline because riders will learn that you can have a career even if you don’t take drugs (and probably not have a career if you do). In this changed environment, being drug-free becomes the new job requirement, like wearing a helmet. Anyone who then uses PEDs and somehow gets through the net would be both very lucky and clearly cheating.
If that’s the current situation, it’s only happened quite recently. Before the last few years there was little reprehensible about PED use—certainly, users were not taking advantage of non-users, of whom there were precious few. But during the brief following interregnum when drug tests gradually improved, the rules and the biking culture were in flux, with no clear moral rights and wrongs and little to guide individual riders. It seems mean-spirited for us to now go all sanctimonious and condemn a cyclist for mistiming his adjustment to an evolving situation.
Armstrong, like Barry Bonds or Tiger Woods, was an extraordinarily gifted athlete and, by all reports, a somewhat flawed human being. There are a lot more of the latter than the former.