The world of cycling, doping, and cheating exploded (in one report)

“The Commission did not hear from anyone credible in the sport who would give cycling a clean bill of health in the context of doping today.” (Cycling Independent Reform Commission: Report to the President of the Union Cycliste Internationale, March 2015)

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“he [Brian Cookson] needs to be talking about other things because this sport is not in a good place for a variety of reasons. A lot of it has to do – perhaps some would say – with me. But he doesn’t need to worry about this. […] You guys can decide if he has done a good job, if he’s been tough on Astana, whether he’s stuck with his mission statement.” (Lance Armstrong about the President of UCI, June 2015)

(Wikimedia Commons)
Brian Cookson, current President of UCI (Wikimedia Commons)

“I’m that character in Harry Potter they can’t talk about, Voldemort? It’s as if you can’t mention him. I’m the one everybody wants to pretend never lived. But that will not be the case for ever because it can’t be the case for ever. That won’t work, people aren’t stupid. We know what happened.” (Lance Armstrong and Lord Voldemort, June 2015)

Armstrong riding to victory at L'Alpe d'Huez, during stage 10 of the 2001 Tour de France (Wikimedia Commons)
Lance Armstrong riding to victory at L’Alpe d’Huez, during stage 10 of the 2001 Tour de France (Wikimedia Commons)

Here are my extracted highlights from the damning, Cycling Independent Reform Commission: Report to the President of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which was press released in March 2015. Much in this report chimes with the narrative I present in my post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified? The scapegoating of individual professional cyclists, and indeed, occasional planets like Lance Armstrong’s, is a means to distract us from the holistic picture, specifically, the historical and systemic nature of doping in cycling, which is essentially driven by the relentless and restless motion of capital. Media and celebrity tycoon, Piers Morgan, states (in June 2015): “Yes, Lance Armstrong, you ARE Lord Voldemort – a lying, ruthless, scheming, self-obsessed monster who deserves to be unmentionable for eternity”. Lance Armstrong is right about one thing, “people aren’t stupid”. Capital is cycling’s real dope – of course the rich and powerful seek to mask this reality. Read on, as the independent report to the President of UCI is explosive, in the most balanced and measured of ways.


1. UCI and its dubious relationship to doping

“For a long time, the main focus of UCI leadership was on the growth of the sport worldwide and its priority was to protect the sport’s reputation; doping was perceived as a threat to this. The allegations and review of UCI’s anti-doping programme reveal that decisions taken by UCI leadership in the past have undermined anti-doping efforts: examples range from adopting an attitude that prioritised a clean image and sought to contain the doping problem, to disregarding the rules and giving preferential status to high profile athletes, to publicly criticising whistleblowers and engaging in personal disputes with other stakeholders.”

World Cycling Centre, Switzerland (Wikimedia Commons)


“The doping problem was well known to the UCI leadership and it was clear to everyone that doping was endemic in cycling. […] Doping was portrayed by UCI leadership as the faulty (and surprising) behaviour of a few individuals, but not as endemic group behaviour or as a structural problem within its sport. […] The approach to doping was one of containment, with a focus on protecting health. […] The emphasis of UCI’s anti-doping policy was, therefore, to give the impression that UCI was tough on doping rather than actually being good at anti-doping.”

UCI (Wikimedia Commons)
UCI (Wikimedia Commons)


“The original policy of containment was abandoned in favour of a policy that sought to catch the cheaters. Anti-doping is not a static matter. Once a new level is attained, the battle is still far from won. Instead, the history of anti-doping is marked by constant adaptation by those who seek to cheat and those who seek to catch them. […] Even though UCI’s anti-doping programme today is one of the best among international federations, the CIRC sees room for further improvement.”


2. Ambiguity in riding ‘clean’

“There is no “one size fits all” definition from within the sport of what clean means. The generally accepted understanding of being clean is that an athlete does not take products that are on the WADA Prohibited List. Some riders will take substances on the List but, having not been caught, consider themselves clean. Some will take substances that are on the List but are not yet detectable, and therefore believe that they are clean. Some riders stop doping before a big event and therefore consider themselves to be riding clean. All definitions have been described by riders and other stakeholders. The Commission heard that some riders also experiment with performance-enhancing substances and practices that are not yet on a banned list. […] The Commission notes that despite the statements from riders and teams today that they are clean, the Commission was informed that hardly any riders in the peloton today are willing to allow their samples to be used anonymously for research purposes into developing new methods of drug detection. A box on doping control forms today can be ticked to enable such testing. The Commission was told that over 95% of the time, it is not ticked.”


3. A history of doping and cheating in cycling

Transparant bei der Tour de France 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)


“The earliest accounts of doping practices from the 1890s and early 1900s indicate that athletes would rely on various stimulants, or combinations thereof, such as alcohol, caffeine, strychnine, heroin, cocaine and amphetamine to alleviate fatigue and enhance their performance. […] By 1955, there was an account of the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (“PED” or “PEDs”) in cycling, and of 25 urine samples taken from riders in a 1955 race, five were positive for stimulants. Ten years later, tests conducted on Belgian cyclists showed that 37% of professionals and 23% of amateurs were using amphetamines, while reports from Italy showed that 46% of professional cyclists tested positive for doping. Based on these statistics, widespread use of stimulants was evident during this era. […] The death of Danish cyclist Knud Jensen at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games brought national government and sporting bodies’ attention to the potential risks associated with stimulant use. […] In 1965, Belgium and France legislated against doping, and in 1966, the first drug tests were carried out at the Tour. They were opposed by riders, and five-time Tour winner, Jacques Anquetil, who admitted to taking amphetamines, stated, “We find these tests degrading.” Jacques Anquetil led a revolt by cyclists and stopped the race the next day.”

Late 1980s—2001

(Wikimedia Commons)
Humorous writing on the street during Tour de France 2008 at Alpe d’Huez saying that EPO is available in 500 meters distance (Wikimedia Commons)

“The real revolution that emerged in the late 1980s and became prevalent in the 1990s was the introduction of EPO to the peloton. While some of the literature concludes that the 1980s, and not the 1990s, appear to be key in the rapid evolution of pro cyclists’ performances, former riders and other actors in the sport identify the late 1980s or early 1990s as the period when EPO was introduced, and when the peloton started “flying”. At this time, riders were also using anabolic steroids, primarily for faster recuperation, and human growth hormone (“HGH”) had also become very popular for the same purpose. […] Almost all whom the Commission interviewed, who were direct members of the cycling community, stated that the introduction of EPO into the peloton was a “game changer”. […] according to a 1994 report on EPO use in Italian professional cycling, between 60 to 80% of all riders were using EPO. From riders’ testimony to the CIRC, it is possible that this estimate may be modest for the peloton in that era, given that some put the percentage at 90+% across the peloton.”

“In 1997, seven years after speculation that riders were dying from EPO overdoses, UCI introduced the “No Start Rule” […]. Its stated purpose was to protect riders’ health and safety and to prevent further deaths from EPO. It was not an anti-doping rule, but a health and safety measure. […] One unintended consequence of the 50% haematocrit threshold on all riders, regardless of their natural levels, was that riders with haematocrit levels naturally in the low-mid 40s could gain an advantage by using EPO up to 50%. According to one former rider, the introduction of the 50% haematocrit value rule was perceived by riders as legalising EPO up to a certain limit. He stated that if a rider had not used EPO beforehand, he had certainly started using it after the rule was introduced in 1997.”

Francesco Conconi

“The Italian doctor Francesco Conconi was considered by some to be the father of Italian “doping physicians.” In the early 1990s, Conconi received over EUR 2million in funding from the Comitato Olimpico Nazionale Italiano (“CONI”, the Italian National Olympic Committee) to carry out doping “research”, and further funding from the IOC to develop a test for EPO. […] Francesco Conconi was a member of the IOC’s Medical Committee and President of UCI’s Medical Commission. Whilst he was receiving funding from CONI and the IOC to carry out doping research and to develop a test for EPO, Francesco Conconi was simultaneously providing EPO to athletes and a number of cycling stars, including Marco Pantani, Claudio Chiappucci and Gianni Bugno.”

Key public profile doping incidents / cases

  • PDM Intralipid Affair and alleged EPO use
  • Bologna Investigation
  • The Festina Affair
  • Doping on Team Telekom/T-Mobile
  • Doping on the USPS/Discovery Channel teams

“The above-mentioned investigations demonstrated systematic doping by multiple riders in the teams throughout the period, with the participation of team and external doctors, support staff and team managers. […] The introduction of EPO into the peloton and the absence of an EPO test were real games changers to the sport of road cycling. Doping became the norm in the peloton, not only to increase performance but also just to keep up with the rest of the peloton. Doping became organised, sophisticated, widespread and systematic. Evading anti-doping measures remained easy and gave the riders/teams a total sense of impunity. Many interviewees commented that without EPO, it would have been difficult for even the best riders to win the Grand Tours.”


Key public profile doping incidents / cases

  • The Hamilton and Pérez cases
  • “Oil for Drugs” Investigation
  • Leinders scandal
  • The Cofidis Scandal
  • Operation Puerto
  • Floyd Landis and Alexander Vinokourov Cases

“The involvement of law enforcement agencies in different scandals made teams very nervous. Riders no longer spoke openly about doping but referred to it in the third person or used code-names for various substances. One former rider commented that before Festina, people carried doping products around, and handed them to riders after races, but after Festina such practices vanished. Talking about doping no longer happened between the teams, only between riders of the same team and not as openly as before.”

“The 2001—2007 era has shown how quickly the peloton managed to adapt to new anti-doping measures by swiftly moving from an EPO-focused doping regime to a cocktail of EPO micro-dosing, testosterone and blood transfusions. Doping was still prevalent, very much the norm and organised around the central figure of the doping doctor. Following the Festina scandal, several team managers shifted the burden of responsibility of doping to the athletes, still expecting them to dope but outside the team and leaving them in the hands of external team doctors. Anti-doping measures and tests were still insufficient to tackle the doping problem: there was no test for autologous blood transfusion and out of competition tests were still embryonic.”

Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes

“Dr Michele Ferrari was reported to be conservative in terms of how he recommended and administered doping programmes. In comparison, a number of riders characterised Dr Eufemiano Fuentes as the “go-to” doctor if you wanted to try new, sometimes “experimental”, ideas in doping.”


“The Athlete Biological Passport (“ABP”) brought about another major change in doping practices. Since its introduction by the UCI in 2008, being the first IF to do so, the ABP has been the mainstay of the anti-doping framework in cycling. Many riders advised that its introduction changed the doping landscape, and riders and doctors had to adapt their practices, processes and procedures to avoid detection.”

Key public profile doping incidents / cases

  • Tour 2008
  • The Mantova Investigation
  • The Contador case
  • The Padova Investigation
  • USADA Reasoned Decision

“Today the situation in cycling is likely still changing, and, certainly, it has become more opaque as riders have now been forced to dope “underground”. A common response to the Commission, when asked about teams, was that probably 3 or 4 were clean, 3 or 4 were doping, and the rest were a “don’t know”. A number of top riders, and others in the sport, discussed other rider’s top performances, or changes in appearance due to dramatic weight loss, and were unable to explain how they were achieved. […] One respected cycling professional felt that even today, 90% of the peloton was doping, although he thought that there was little orchestrated team doping in the manner that teams had previously employed. Another put it at around 20%. Many people simply stated they “didn’t know” who was clean and who was not. A lot of these discrepancies may be caused by the definition of doping being used by individuals […].”

“Gradually, 10-15% gains have become a thing of the past. It has been reported that increases in performance by micro-dosing EPO (as one form of continued doping) are now perhaps between 3-5%. This has had a significant impact on the doping landscape today because by reducing the performance gains, riders will start to believe that they can have a career riding clean. This is a key development in the fight against doping. However, the Astana case in 2014 is an example that shows the problem has not been eradicated at the higher levels. The Astana world tour and pro-continental teams collectively incurred five doping violations in 2014, two by the world tour team (EPO) and three by the pro-continental team (steroids).”

“[…] despite improvements to the science underlying the ABP, it is still possible for riders to micro-dose using EPO without getting caught. The Commission also heard that riders are confident that they can take a micro-dose of EPO in the evening because it will not show up by the time the doping control officers (“DCO” or “DCOs”) could arrive to test at 6am. […] The Commission also heard that riders are using ozone therapy, which involves extracting blood, treating it with ozone and injecting it back into the blood. One rider informed the Commission that by way of using ozone therapy he felt stronger, and that the muscles recovered, but that it had however not been as efficient as EPO. Several interviewees mentioned that AICAR, which supposedly has similar effects to EPO, has become popular in the peloton. […] In order to avoid detection, riders have for some time been using testosterone patches and gels because they release smaller quantities and the detection time is therefore shorter. These are sometimes used in combination with the HGH products mentioned above to increase their effectiveness. However, HGH is generally expensive and, certainly at lower levels of competition, it appears that riders therefore continue to use steroids. The Commission also heard that the same muscle enhancing effect can be gained by taking a combination of very small quantities of a variety of steroids. Again, by taking such products in such small quantities, it makes detection significantly more difficult. […] Corticoids are widely used today both to reduce pain and therefore improve endurance capability and to achieve weight loss to improve power/weight ratio. On the WADA Prohibited List all corticoids are prohibited when administered by oral, intravenous, intramuscular or rectal routes, but Therapeutic Use Exemptions (“TUEs”) can be requested for such administration. […] TUEs is a complicated and delicate area. Interviewees reported that TUEs are systematically exploited by some teams and even used as part of performance enhancement programmes.”


4. What creates a culture of doping? The rules and nature of competition, and big money sponsorship

“The Commission was told on a number of occasions that the points system caused riders to be more likely to risk doping towards the end of the season. This was done to achieve better placing in order to acquire extra points to help with contract negotiations, particularly if they were out of contract or in cases where the team might not obtain a licence the following year. […] The Commission was told by some interviewees that the race calendar is too busy. Some raised the fact that the three Grand Tours, the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta were too close together in the calendar, and recovery time was not sufficient to enable a top rider to attempt seriously all three. One doctor explained that by the end of a 3-week tour, some riders would find it difficult to sleep due to the toxins in their body and the extreme effects on the body. The fact that riders have used products to get through races since the early 1900s, at a time when financial gain would not have been a determining factor, demonstrates that the degree of suffering is part of what pushes people to dope, which is still the case today according to a number of interviewees; […]”

“The Commission was frequently told that cycling has always been too dependent on income from sponsorship. This has had an effect at two levels: firstly, it put pressure on teams to encourage doping to ensure that the team obtained results to keep the sponsor happy, and, secondly, in some cases the short-term nature of a sponsorship deal might result in short-term contracts for riders (even some elite road riders only had short-term contracts) which put them under a separate pressure to dope. […] in 2012, one sports brand invested approximately USD1.5m in a successful World Team and the assessed return for the brand was USD 100m. Another major sponsor explained that its brand recognition over time grew from 2% in 1996, to 25% in 1999 to 45% today.”

“Prior to the high profile scandals and investigations in the 2000s, it appears that some sponsors either had knowledge of the doping practices or took a “turn a blind eye” approach. However, by the mid/late 2000s sponsors viewed the risk differently and started to look at alternative sports as a safer and more reliable investment, despite the significant potential returns on investment in cycling.”

“It is interesting that riders are also aware of the general pressure to keep sponsors in the sport, not just their own team’s sponsor, but more widely. The Commission was told that sometimes riders would agree to lose stages to another rider whose sponsor might have been considering withdrawing from cycling. In this way, the sponsor would have a stage win and podium exposure, perhaps putting off the withdrawal decision.”

“Today, sponsors protect themselves through contractual provisions that enable them to terminate the contract for damage to reputation. […] Ultimately, it is clear that sponsors take a more discerning approach to sponsoring cycling today. In large part this is because doping has become culturally unacceptable and therefore association with a “tainted” sport is now considered damaging to a brand. However, the rewards for sponsors in cycling are still significant, because it is a sport with broad appeal across society and geographically. A change in attitude from sponsors is necessary, but whilst teams are entirely reliant on a single sponsor to survive, the lack of financial stability will continue to foster an environment that pushes teams and riders to do all they can to achieve results.”

“The Commission was told of varying efforts to cheat the technical rules, including using motors in frames. This particular issue was taken seriously, especially by top riders, and was not dismissed as being isolated. Other forms of cheating were explained, relating to frames construction, saddle specifications, and the wearing of illegal clothing and apparel. One interviewee alleged that another had heated a cycling track to elicit an advantage to the home team, by enabling them to use more advantageous tyres.”

“Since cycling’s earliest days, riders have agreed race or stage outcomes with other riders. It is often seen as part of team and individual tactics in the peloton. A good number of today’s top riders and former riders openly discussed these practices with the Commission. They were described as part of the cut and thrust of professional competitive cycling and were not seen by riders as in any way wrong. […] The motives for agreeing outcomes are many and varied. For example: for assistance in accumulating points in a season, to maintain a time lead, to enable a sponsor to be a stage winner, to prevent a rival from succeeding or simply because they were paid to lose. In some cases, it might be linked to doping, for example riders have deliberately lost stages to avoid doping scrutiny or to appear less dominant when doping. Bartering can take place not only between riders, but also at team level with team managers negotiating deals.”

“Factors that originally encouraged riders to start doping, as far back as the late 1800s, still exist today. Cycling is a tough sport and the suffering that riders experience, together with a lack of financial stability create an environment that today still could encourage riders to turn to doping. The ease of access to doctors who can facilitate doping programmes, potentially under the influence of, or through, people who were involved in doping when they were riding, is another contributing factor.”

3 thoughts on “The world of cycling, doping, and cheating exploded (in one report)

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