This year’s Tour de France opens Saturday morning, the first day of a grueling 2,172-mile, three-week event that for decades has been dogged by doping scandals -- most recently against seven-time Tour champ Lance Armstrong.
Despite the continuing controversies, blood tests collected over the past decade shows that the peloton is actually getting cleaner. It's the first scientific evidence that anti-doping efforts may be paying off. The sport of cycling, though, has had a long history of doping. It's a practice that has been a part of cycling since early 20th-century riders downed cocktails of strychnine, cocaine and caffeine to power their pedals.
But riders are pedaling slower despite lighter bikes, more aerodynamic wheels and other technological improvements. Uphill climb times have been impacted by the use of drugs in the sport. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a time when the use of EPO was likely at its peak, the winning time up Alpe d'Huez was usually less than 40 minutes. Italian Marco Pantani's record of 37:35 still stands, even though it was set in 1997. Second is Armstrong's 37:36 in 2004. But the winning times have slowed. In 2011, for example, the winning time of Frenchman Pierre Rolland was 41:57, a mark that would have been good for 8th place in 2004 or 40th in 2001.
“I think there is less use of drugs, drugs are used less often and the dose that is used is smaller,” said Mario Zorzoli, chief medical adviser to the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport’s governing body based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Drugs now “have a lower impact on the riders’ performance” than they did ten or even five years ago, he added.
Zorzoli based his conclusion on an analysis of 11 years of readings of cyclists’ reticulocytes, or newly-formed red blood cells. High levels of reticulocytes indicate that a rider could be using an artificial blood-boosting compound such as erythropoietin (EPO), which kick-starts the body’s blood factory. Extremely low levels could mean that the rider is re-injecting his own blood back into his body, and therefore the body is compensating by making less new blood cells.
Zorzoli’s yearly annual data chart, which he shared with Discovery News, reveals that abnormal levels of reticulocytes (high or low) were present in 13.6 percent of the riders tested in 2001. Since then, the figure has dropped steadily to 2.0 percent in 2011. The biggest drop was from 10 percent of the riders in 2007 to 3.6 percent in 2008.
“It’s an important measure because reticulocytes cannot be manipulated,” Zarzoli said. “They don’t change if you are dehydrated or taking on water.”
The reticulocyte data is not proof that the sport is entirely clean. It also doesn’t account for other drugs, such as human growth hormone or steroids, which both help riders recover from hard efforts. But combined with slower uphill riding times in the past few years, the data does give some people hope that the cycling is headed in the right direction.
One is Jonathan Vaughters, owner and director of the U.S.-based Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda cycling team which is competing in this year’s Tour.
“We are to a point where climbing rates by the winners and the top 50 riders are similar to what they were in the mid-1980s, which was a time before EPO had been invented,” Vaughters told Discovery News. “The winning time of Alpe d’Huez (a steep, nine-mile climb in the French Alps) last year would have gotten 40th place in 2001,” Vaughters said.
Vaughters has been one of the early proponents of the so-called “biological passport” program, in which riders are required to submit blood tests throughout the year to establish a baseline of their own “normal.” Any fluctuation in the passport could indicate doping, even if the rider doesn’t violate legal limits of a certain substance. The UCI made the program mandatory in 2010 and now has 950 riders taking part.
An Italian rider was busted this week by UCI authorities who found abnormalities in his passport. He promptly announced his retirement from cycling.
“As a whole the race is clean,” said Vaughters, who rode with Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Team in 1998 and 1999 before retiring in 2003. “I can’t speak to every single athlete, but the probability of the Tour being won by a clean rider is much higher than it being won by a doped rider.”
Some observers also point to the fact that the peloton crashed more last year.
“Guys were cross-eyed and exhausted,” said Neal Rogers, editor-in-chief of Boulder-based Velo Magazine and velonews.com who has covered seven Tours. “It wasn’t the weather. It’s a cleaner peloton and (riders) are stretched to their limit.”
There were no positive tests for drugs during the 2011 race, which was won by Australian Cadel Evans, a rider who has maintained a clean profile during the past 16 years as a professional racer. Rogers noted that another favorite for this year’s race, Englishman Bradley Wiggins, has long spoken out publicly against doping.
Today, drug testing is more consistent. Still, some riders and their doctors continue to find new substances and methods to beat the authorities. One such method is “micro-dosing” in which riders ingest very small amounts of performance-enhancing drugs to fly beneath the regulatory radar. That’s one of the allegations that U.S. cycling authorities have made against Armstrong.
“We just don’t know,” said John Gleaves, assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton who is writing a global history of doping in sports. “There's not enough evidence. On the whole (cycling) is probably is getting cleaner. But I could be made to look like a fool in a week’s time.”
The Tour starts Saturday in Liege, Belgium and finishes Sunday, July 22 in Paris.