Catch me if you can: The problem of doping in cycling

By Joe Dalton

It is March 1989, the scorching Spanish sun is searing down upon riders in the opening stage of the Tour of Murcia.

Sweat glistens on the face of race leader Johannes Draaijer who looks every bit the sporting Adonis as he powers his two wheels toward the finish line.

After a gruelling 172km Draaijer’s delight is unhinged as the waiting crowd applaud the finest victory of his fledgling career.

He seems ready to cement his place among the sport’s elite by challenging for cycling’s ultimate accolade – the Tour de France trophy.

Less than a year later, aged just 26, Draaijer died of cardiac arrest.

Draaijer’s wife told German news magazine Der Spiegel that her husband had become ill after using the illicit performance-enhancing substance Erythropoietin (EPO).

But Draaijer was by no means alone in his fate. A spate of young riders mysteriously died in the early 1990s as EPO abuse infected the sport.

Professional cycling has a chequered past, with some riders seemingly ever-ready to gamble on the latest offerings of illegal laboratories, regardless of health risks.

As we move into an age where gene therapy becomes a reality, we cannot ignore the inevitable emergence of a gene doping culture in cycling.

EPO is a hormone produced by the kidneys in response to low oxygen levels in the blood.

When released, EPO stimulates bone marrow to produce more red blood cells meaning more oxygen can be carried in the blood and delivered to working muscles.

Cyclists would inject a synthetic form of EPO to artificially raise their red blood cell counts.

This allowed their muscles to be replenished with oxygen for far longer than normal.

So riders could go longer, push harder and most importantly, win more races.

But synthetic EPO leaves traces and the International Cycling Union (UCI) grew wise to it.

A succession of cycling’s big names – Frankie Andreu, Marco Pantani, Bo Hamburger (to name but a few) – were unceremoniously dumped out of the Tour de France for EPO abuse.

So will these reckless riders turn to gene doping in future to avoid getting caught? Will they put their lives on the line for the sake of sporting glory?

Brian Askvig, a journalist who ghost-wrote former Danish rider Jesper Skibby’s autobiography (in which he admitted to EPO abuse) says many cyclists who dope hold no fear for the consequences.

“After the deaths in the 90s Jesper actually used the media reports as a manual to find out what those guys had been using rather than a warning that he should stop or he might die!” said Mr Askvig.

“The pros get used to being around doctors and needles from a young age when receiving after-race care and I think that breeds a culture where it seems like just a small progression to start injecting illegal substances.”

Professor Dominic Wells, a microbiologist formerly of Imperial College London, says significant investment into gene therapy research could make gene doping a genuine possibility within 20 years.

Medical trials have already been undertaken to introduce the human EPO gene into patients with the hope of treating severe cases of anaemia.

If cyclists gain access to this technology, they could inject EPO genes into tissues, thus giving a major boost to their endurance.

Also, because it is human EPO (as opposed to the synthetic version used in the last 20 years) it will be extremely difficult for anti-doping authorities to detect let alone prove its presence.

“It is essentially impossible to prevent rogue scientists diverting gene therapy products developed for medicine into doping,” said Professor Wells.

“Gene doping with EPO could still cause deaths due to potential thickening of the blood leading to cardiac arrest.

“But the main effects will be long-term. For instance, overexpression of genes could cause increased risk of cancers.”

It seems unbelievable that some riders would go to such extreme lengths to gain an edge.

But it appears to be an almost inherent attitude of some top-level competitors who are bred to win.

In 1967, prior to a road race in Washington, D.C., Dr Gabe Mirkin asked 100 athletes if they would take a pill that would make them Olympic champion, but would also kill them in a year.

Over 50% replied ‘yes’.

So how does such a mindset evolve? Is there too much pressure applied from external sources like coaches, team members and sponsors or is it purely down to the individual.

Daryl Impey, a South African pro-cyclist who won the Tour of Turkey in 2009, said: “I think the riders who dope make the choice themselves – not the teams or sponsors.

“The way I see it, if you’re not good enough you should just accept it and move onto another sport.”

Impey wants to see life bans imposed on anyone caught cheating and when asked about the future of doping in the sport he said: “There will always be someone looking for a shortcut sure, but I hope young riders have already seen some guys lose everything and will be clever enough not to make the same mistake.”

Of course, it is in everyone’s best interests to expunge this plague of doping and take steps to prevent the dangerous practice of gene doping from infiltrating the sport.

But history has shown there will always be those riders for whom ‘winning at all costs’ is a mantra upheld in its most literal terms.

For those unscrupulous characters I can only suggest that they enjoy their moment in the sun while it lasts – but don’t be surprised when the wheels fall off.


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