The political economy of cycling and doping as licensed fraud

“Political economy came into being as a natural result of the expansion of trade, and with its appearance elementary, unscientific huckstering was replaced by a developed system of licensed fraud, an entire science of enrichment.” (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Friedrich Engels, 1844)

I. Brewer’s thesis

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Benjamin Brewer‘s paper, Commercialization in Professional Cycling 1950-2001: Institutional Transformations and the Rationalization of “Doping”, is superb and well worth a full read. Here I want to offer a presentation of his narrative followed by a Marxist understanding of the political economy of cycling and doping as ‘licensed fraud’.

Brewer historically (and geographically) contextualises the prevalent and sophisticated social organisation of doping in contemporary professional cycling, which includes new relations between medicine and sport, within the institutional changes made by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which brought about a deeper commercialisation of the sport, that in turn led to new competitive pressures and changes for teams and riders, and “fertile ground” (pg 277) for innovations in training and doping. Brewer sees the relationship between commercialisation and doping as “one of unintended consequences” (pg 296) – a point on which we differ (see my post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?, and part II here).

For professional cycling, Brewer makes plain, there was no “idyllic, pre-commercial past later sullied by the cynical demands of business and money making” (pg 277); instead, there is the question of degree and impact of commercialisation during its lifespan. Cycling has long relied on commercial sponsors, who expect returns from the money invested in advertising.

Writing on the classical period (1950-1984), Brewer notes:

“Major teams were almost always structured around a single dominant leader – occasionally two – expected to garner nearly all of the team’s results. […] Team leaders made enough money to support themselves training and racing year round, but very few cyclists attained any lasting wealth from racing. Most returned to low-prestige occupations upon retirement having saved very little money during their racing years. Pro cycling in this classical period was mainly a ‘blue-collar’ sport practiced by the sons of the lower classes for fans from the same milieu […]. Because only a small number of team leaders were expected to deliver the major results during this era, the bulk of racers cared very little about their own results. The resulting atmosphere was one of marked fraternity […].” (pg. 282-283)

On the history of cycling and doping, Brewer recognises that the two “were partners from the start” (pg 284), but, in the classical period, doping was “a loose system reliant on informed speculation combined with traditional knowledge” (pg 285). This would change.

Brewer moves on to what he defines as the transition and reform period (1984-1989). Greg LeMond’s arrival on the European scene signified a “profound shift in traditional team arrangements, principally in the area of salary negotiations and pay scales” (pg 286). Sponsorship changed in nature too, from “small-scale, ‘shoestring’ endeavours” to “more sophisticated marketing tactics of large corporations” (pg 286). Amidst this came the institutional reforms of UCI, notably, its Mondialisation campaign. In the classical period a majority of riders came from a small number of western European countries: France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. UCI’s Mondialisation drive – for the “global expansion of cycling” (pg 288) – introduced the World Cup and a computerised rankings system for riders; moreover, Mondialisation meant deeper commercialisation of the sport. Brewer states:

“The advent of the rankings system for both teams and racers, in tandem with the new rules for admission to the major races signaled a profound change in the political economy of professional cycling. The major races are precisely the reason major sponsors enter the sport since these events attract the bulk of media attention, particularly the highly coveted television coverage. Thus, entry into the major races directly determines which sponsors will realize the return on their initial sponsorship investment.” (pg 289)

The contemporary period of professional cycling, from 1990 onwards, institutionalised these changes. Brewer cites Australian cyclist Allan Peiper from 1992:

“The points system was fun to begin with, but then came the rule of taking the five best-placed cyclists from each team, and adding their points together for a team total score. The top 20 teams could ride the World Cup classics and the Tour – the rest would miss out. So points became really important. Points really became money. The old system of team leaders and domestiques was to be undermined.” (pg 290)

Brewer underlines the effect: “From the outset of the rankings system the most frequently heard complaint from the racers and team directors was the increasingly cutthroat nature of competition and the increased speeds in races” (bold: my emphasis, pg 293).

The new competitive pressure of the contemporary period has changed the team, from its classical time, into a less hierarchical structure to reduce the risk for sponsor investment (since risk is spread out across a number of key riders), and has laid fecund ground for innovations in training and preparation: if, Brewer states, “traditional doping provided an immediate performance ‘spike’, the new epoch of performance-enhancing pharmacology would be best represented by an upward curve punctuated by periodic (and regular) plateaus” (pgs 294-295). What Brewer offers is a highly persuasive, and well researched, argument; indeed, the independent report to UCI published in March 2015 provides further evidence to back up his thesis.

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II. Licensed fraud: Engels’ thesis

What has become of the professional cyclist, the worker, under such evolving conditions of existence? The Mondialisation campaign of UCI was a success in radically transitioning the sport hand-in-hand with global capital accumulation. While the professional cyclist and team have long been branded commodities to aid in the delivery of greater profits on related branded commodities, the commercialisation of professional cycling is much deeper and more expansive in its contemporary era. Brewer notes:

“The ‘value-added’ by sponsoring a team […] was confirmed by a vice-president for sales at the US Postal Service, sponsor of the team with which Lance Armstrong has won multiple editions of the Tour de France. Gail Sonnenberg stated: ‘Like any other sponsorship, it’s about building our brand,’ continuing, ‘This is not something we do because it feels good’ […]. Ms Sonnenberg claimed that in 1999 the team ‘brought the post office $10 million…more than offsetting the cost of being the team’s title sponsor.’ The Managing Director of Danish corporation CSC echoes this sentiment regarding his firm’s $2.5 million investment in a team: ‘We could have spent up to $50 million to have obtained the attention we’ve had so far. Cycling is perfect for branding a name’ […].” For a current example, it would be worth considering INRING//’s analysis of “The Finances of Team Sky”.

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

The entertainment factor of professional cycling, and all of its apparent glamour (see my post, All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls), diverts us from something. To be sure, doping in cycling is illegal, but if we define ‘doping’ as the consumption of a drug to enhance the performance of an athlete, and we define ‘drug’ as a medicine or substance consumed with a physiological effect, and we know both of the close relationship between medicine and sport, and of the imperative of capital personified for endless self-expansion, then perhaps we can sense a truer reality. As Engels (1844) remarks:

“the first maxim in trade is secretiveness – the concealment of everything which might reduce the value of the article in question. The result is that in trade it is permitted to take the utmost advantage of the ignorance, the trust, of the opposing party, and likewise to impute qualities to one’s commodity which it does not possess. In a word, trade is legalised fraud.”

The Mondialisation pioneers may retort, “‘Have we not carried civilisation to distant parts of the world? Have we not brought about the fraternisation of the peoples […]?'”; and one might reply:

“Yes, all this you have done – but how! You have destroyed the small monopolies so that the one great basic monopoly […] may function the more freely and unrestrictedly. You have civilised the ends of the earth to win new terrain for the deployment of your vile avarice. You have brought about the fraternisation of the peoples – but the fraternity is the fraternity of thieves.” (Engels, 1844)

Guest post by Erik Nordlie: Cycling – rotten to its core?

Click here for the full, original piece, “Sykkelsporten – pill råtten?”, at the website SykkelErik (posted on 13th June 2014). The below is an updated, edited and abridged version courtesy of its author, followed by my afterword.

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When I saw Nairo Quintana win the Giro d’Italia in 2014, especially during his effortless climb up Monte Zoncolan, I thought that this must be too good to be true. Quintana had problems in the first week and struggled with a cold in the second week, but still he went on to win the whole race ahead of Roberto Uran by three minutes… On the face of it, this is as suspicious as the cock-and-bull story about Alberto Contador, who was chilling on the beach the week before he was asked to start the Giro d’Italia in 2008, which he subsequently won.

However, when I saw Chris Froome and Contador duel their way up to the finish at the Col du Béal during the second stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2014, in breathtaking speeds with countless attacks, the “this IS too good to be true” feeling was solidly affirmed.

Sir David Brailsford, the Team Sky boss, said during the Tour de France in 2013: “If people want the entertainment value of riders attacking each other, stopping, attacking each other again and again, then go back to ‘old cycling’, which will give you the capability to do that”. He did not say it in plain language, but between the lines you get the feeling that he was referring to doping. What we saw in the second stage of the Dauphiné was suspiciously similar to racing in the dark doping days.

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Froome with Quintana and Rodriguez. Are these pure winners?

Historical credibility problems

If it looks like it’s too good to be true, it has often been proved that it is actually true good to be true: Pantani’s climbing abilities, Armstrong’s famous ascents on Alpe d’Huez (and countless other Tour de France achievements), Landis’ frenzied 16th stage to Morzine in 2006, Rasmussen’s and Contador’s ravages in 2007, Kohl’s impressive polka dot jersey in 2008, Armstrong’s comeback in 2009… How many times have we seen performances that seem incredible, and that have subsequently been proven to be based on illegal aids?

These days everything is supposed to be cleaner and better than before – but we have heard this countless times. Consider the top 10 standings of the Tour de France from 1999 until 2013: Armstrong, Zülle, Olano, Moreau, Heras, Escartin, Gonzales, Leipheimer, Vinokourov, Mayo, Basso, Mancebo, Rasmussen, Landis, Klöden, Menchov, Rogers, Contador, Valverde, Astarloza, Kohl, Vande Velde, Fränk Schleck, Valjavec and Danielson – and, of course, Riis and Pantani, champions from 1996 and 1998. In addition, add a whole bunch of domestiques, sprinters and others who contested in the upper echelons of the GC with various medical aids. Some did it to win, others to survive (see: Paul Kimmage’s “Rough Ride”). And many of them are still involved in the sport. The history of cycling has little credibility to show for.

In 2004, Lance Armstrong said: “I’ve said it before and I will repeat it: I believe that I am the most tested athlete on this planet, I have never had a single positive doping test, and I do not take performance enhancing drugs.” In 2013, he laid his cards on the table, and we now know that he took performance enhancing drugs. A clean cyclist will not be able to say anything other than what Armstrong said, but precisely because of the Armstrong-era lies, statements such as “I do not use drugs, I do not cheat, I’m clean, I deplore the…” ring a very hollow sound.

Cycling can blame itself for its lack of credibility.

The new generation

The big names from the doping era of the 1990s and 2000s have gradually been replaced by a new generation of cyclists, and one hopes that the sport would be decreasingly plagued by doping scandals.

The new generation is apparently tired of talking about doping, and of being tainted by former cyclists’ history with doping, according to David Millar in 2013. Similar statements from other young riders are not hard to find, and more established riders are quick to say things like – “it was the past, we must look to the future” and the like. We often hear that cycling does more than any other sport to clean up doping (although one would wonder if that is anything to brag about). If a race is held and many participants are caught testing positive, we are told that doping tests work. And if no cyclists are caught, we are sold that the sport is becoming cleaner.

Considering that Froome has positioned himself as the moral guardian – “Armstrong cheated. I do not cheat. Period.” – his infamous inhaler stunt at the Dauphiné in 2014 is interesting, and so is his explanation (which bears some similarity to Armstrong’s explanation of the positive test from 1999): When Froome was confronted with the inhaler issue, the answer was that Froome, ever since his youth, has struggled with asthma, and so he uses the inhaler prior to the great efforts; and that he has often been seen coughing after races because of narrow airways (in general, and perhaps completely random and conspiratory on my part, coughing is said to be a side effect of xenon gas), and that he does not use anything illegal. Armstrong dismissed the positive steroid test in 1999 with the explanation that he used a cream for a saddle sore. Froome has been keen to point out the health challenges he has overcome, so it is curious that he, in his over 400-page biography “The Climb”, does not mention asthma once, and neither had he, up until the Dauphiné, mentioned asthma in any other context.

And now, in 2014, when the new, allegedly clean generation are starting to realise their potential, one might wonder how clean things really are among the young and hopeful: Quintana (at 24 years) wins the Giro d’Italia 2014 with an average speed the fourth fastest of all time (39,045 km/h), Froome (at 29 years) and Contador (at 31 years) fight each other at Dauphiné in a manner similar to when we saw Pantani, Ullrich and Armstrong battle in the Tour de France 10-15 years ago, and various cycling forums and related Twitter accounts are frequently on fire regarding doping.

In Froome’s biography it is noted that he rode up to Armstrong’s test ground of Col de la Madone in a record time of 30:09, just before the Tour de France in 2013. Froome’s ride on the Col de la Madone was 36 seconds faster than Armstrong’s best. Hamilton rode up in “only” 32:32 (see: “The Secret Race”, page 106). Can Froome really be a freak of nature who can excel and surpass what the doping-fuelled guys did before? It seems too good to be true.

The Danish writer Kim Plesner has written an excellent article about a number of potential cracks in Team Sky’s image that is well worth reading. There are simply too many things amiss with Sky. With their zero tolerance for doping, it is striking that Sky has hired people with past associations with doping: Bobby Julich, Michael Barry, Steven de Jongh, Geert Lein Childers, Michael Rogers and Jonathan Tiernan-Locke have all created headaches and have subsequently been released.

All in all it seems that the new generation is very similar to previous generations. The same guys are still largely involved in the sport today (in different roles), and cyclists and the field seem to move just as fast as before…

Froome = Armstrong 2.0?

One of this generation’s great cyclists is certainly Froome. There are some similarities between Armstrong and Froome, although Froome tries to distance himself from Armstrong: both emphasise that they come from humble upbringings, both grew up without a real father figure, both have defied diseases and other challenges on their way to the top, both had/have at their disposal dominant teams, and both had/have proved to be superior in the Tour de France.

It may be that I have not followed cycling as diligently as I ought to, but for me Froome was completely unknown until 2011 when he took second place in the Vuelta a España (at age 26). Before that, his palmarès was nowhere similar to cyclists he now rides alongside: Nairo Quintana won the Tour l’Avenir at age 20, Lance Armstrong was World Cup champion at 21 years old, Jan Ullrich won the junior championship at age 20 and the Tour de France at age 24, Andy Schleck took 2nd place in the Giro d’Italia at age 22, Alberto Contador won the Tour de France at age 25, and Edvald Boasson Hagen won stages in the Tour l’Avenir at 19 years old and has been highly regarded for a long time. Out of seemingly nothing, Froome has emerged as one of this generation’s great cyclists (apparently, his various diseases have hindered him, of course).

It may even look like Froome has learned from Lance Armstrong’s mistakes – he is on good terms with the French newspaper L’Équipe, unlike Armstrong (L’Équipe revealed his positive test in 1999), and he appears to be polite and articulate unlike Armstrong’s confrontational style. Robert Millar goes so far as to describe Froome as a “politician” (in contrast to Bradley Wiggins, who is a “rock star”). And then Froome has ensured that David Walsh, Armstrong’s “troll”, also plays along with him. The Godfather lesson – “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” – is clearly not lost on Froome.

Walsh’s credibility is seemingly high on the basis that he was involved in exposing Armstrong (one of his books, “Seven Deadly Sins”, is being made into a film). In 2013, he wrote “Inside Team Sky”, where he claimed that he could not see anything to indicate that the team cheats. In 2014 he was the ghost writer for Chris Froome’s biography “The Climb”.

What’s more, Walsh said in an interview in Canadian Maclean’s in 2007 that because Rasmussen climbed the Col d’Aubisque in 2007 faster than Armstrong ever did, and because Contador managed to follow Rasmussen the entire way, Contador must be a cheater (this article is no longer available on Maclean’s website, but is referred to in a number of discussion forums – for example). Froome rode up Mont Ventoux with an average speed of 21,86 km/h during stage 15 of the 2013 Tour de France, which is slower than Iban Mayo’s record of 23,10 km/h in the Dauphiné Libéré in 2004. Walsh implies that because Froome rides 1,14 km/h slower than Mayo, then Froome must be clean (see “Inside Team Sky”). A crucial detail Walsh does not mention is that Mayo’s time was achieved in an individual time trial up Ventoux while Froome rode up after a 243 km long stage. And that Froome was flying up Madone faster than Armstrong ever did is ignored by Walsh.

So one may wonder if Walsh is critical enough of Froome, or if he takes whatever Froome says at face value. There are two flaws in “The Climb” which I also find curious:

  • Froome claims that he saw the Tour de France in 2002 for the first time, and was impressed to see how Armstrong and Basso fought each other, and that Basso was his first and last hero. The fact is that in 2002 it was Joseba Beloki who was Armstrong’s big challenger, while Basso took the white jersey, won no stages, took 11th place in the GC and was over 19 minutes behind Armstrong by Paris (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002_Tour_de_France).
  • And an acclaimed journalist like Walsh ought to have found out that Froome has asthma…?

Either Walsh has bet his credibility on Froome being a clean cyclist, or he has decided to cash in on Froome’s marketability while he still can. Regardless, Froome has a public relations advantage with Walsh on his side, unlike Armstrong, who degraded Walsh with the infamous “troll” status.

Neither I nor others can prove that Froome is a cheater, and I am not saying he is, but I find it very striking how he came from out of nothing to become so superb. Really, what makes it hard for me to really believe in Froome is not one single thing, but the sum of all the little things that don’t add up:

  • Froome’s magnificent time up the Madone does not make sense.
  • Asthma has troubled Froome since he was a child, but it’s not been known or mentioned anywhere until June 2014. The bilharzia parasite and knee pain, however, has plagued Froome till 2011, and once these two things were taken care of, his career took off.
  • From 2011, when he was 26, he went from having won hardly anything of significance to suddenly taking 2nd place in the Vuelta a España. Other major overall riders distinguished themselves at a much younger age.
  • Froome complains that he and others are not tested enough, but Team Sky has been very resistant to making available Froome’s training data, and when they have done so the distribution was limited to selected media.
  • Team Sky, who are obsessed with “marginal gains”, have no desire to publicise Froome’s training data, they have not tested his V02max, his functional threshold power is a secret, and they have not tested or tuned Froome’s position on the bike in a wind tunnel despite his painful riding style (just look at how he rides). Why the lack of transparency?

Conclusion

To trust that cycling has become cleaner seems as safe as to believe in the notoriously unfaithful wife or husband who promises to behave, but who still hangs around with the same people in the same places.

Cycling deserves its bad reputation. The risk-adjusted return for cheating is appealing, there are plenty of PEDs on the market, anti-doping agencies don’t seem to have a clue, and one wonders if the new generation of cyclists is morally any better than the last. One of this generation’s dominating teams, Team Sky, has a few question marks hanging over its head, and there are certain similarities between Armstrong and Froome. And lest we forget, Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo Bank have had their share of negative stories in 2014-2015 too.

I will obviously follow the Tour de France this year, as I do every year, but I have gradually come to enjoy cycling more as entertainment than as a pure and clean sport. And regardless of how many cheats time will reveal, I will always find the same joy and pleasure from riding and competing on my bike. I hope that applies to you as well.

Afterword by Anaemic On A Bike

On 23rd June 2015, a report by Anti-Doping Denmark (ADD) was released which concluded that former professional cyclist-come-cycling team owner, Bjarne Riis, had knowledge of doping on his team (Team CSC, now Team Tinkoff-Saxo) and failed to act. This follows the damning findings in a report by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission to the UCI, published in March 2015. In my blog post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?, my argument is that the capitalist political economy of cycling creates the conditions of existence in which doping and cheating proliferate. The problem is a systemic one. For professional cycling to stand a chance of being free from doping and cheating, a critical mass of cyclists and fans need their own democratic organisations to exert a pressure to reform and/or revolutionise this political economy.

Erik Nordlie is right when he suggests that professional cycling is ‘entertainment’ rather than a pure and clean sport. I’ll add (see my post, All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls), the political economy of cycling fuels a dehumanisation of its participants that takes many forms: with capital as cycling’s real dope, the very bodies of talented athletes and others, such as podium girls, are merely branded commodities to entertain and yield profit.

Erik’s comparison of Armstrong and Froome fascinates me, because of the commercial dominance of their respective teams. Individual personalities aside, in a US news interview with Tyler Hamilton, he inadvertently touches on where cycling’s ‘competitive edge’ actually comes from: “Although the majority of us were doping at that time, it certainly wasn’t an even playing field, due to your financial situation, due to having connections, it took a lot of finances, it took a lot of connections…”

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.”

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World Cycling Centre, Switzerland (Wikimedia Commons)

1992-2006

“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)

2006/2007-today

“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

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Transparant bei der Tour de France 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)

1890s—1980s

“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.”

2001—2007

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.”

2008-today

“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.”

Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?

“As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value [i.e. profit]…” (Karl Marx, “The Working Day”, Capital: Volume One)

“Marx does not advance a moral ‘right’ to an unscathed existence or something similar against the impositions of capitalism. Instead, he hopes that with the growing insight into the destructive nature of the capitalist system (which can be established without recourse to morality), the working class will take up the struggle against this system – not on the basis of morality, but rather on the basis of its own interest.” (Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital)

Reacting to news that Lance Armstrong will be participating in Geoff Thomas’s Le Tour: One Day Ahead 2015  – a fundraising event for Cure Leukaemia – the president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) stated: “I’m sure that Geoff Thomas means well, but frankly I think that’s completely inappropriate and disrespectful to the Tour, disrespectful to the current riders, and disrespectful to the UCI and the anti-doping community”. It’s incredible that the UCI, the organisation that “colluded” with Lance Armstrong “to bypass doping accusations” from 1999 to 2009, is actually able to distance itself from the doping culture of professional cycling; or is it incredible? Actually, it’s hardly surprising at all.

The endless pursuit of profit-making, at the expense of workers and nature, is not the result, as Marx depicts in Capital, of greedy, individual Moneybags; although, greedy, individual Moneybags does exist. A capitalist, regardless of their intent, good or bad, in order to survive as a capitalist, must boundlessly chase profit, or perish. The political economy of capitalism is the relentless motion of M-C-M’ (the general formula for capital): money (M) to buy commodities (C) to make more money (M’), for money to buy commodities to make more money, and on and on; the use-value of the commodity of labour-power is the most fortuitous commodity of all for any Moneybags, because its use-value is, distinctively, a source of value and surplus-value.

“…it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. … The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.”  (Karl Marx, “The General Formula for Capital”, Capital: Volume One)

The world of professional cycling is inseparable from this wheel-turning motion of capital accumulation. Does the capital that drives professional cycling care for the long-term lives of its wage-labourers, or is its focus to extract the utmost from the labour-power it employs to make a profit? The history of doping in professional cycling isn’t a history of good capitalists and bad capitalists, good teams and bad teams, good riders and bad riders, it is a history of a world in which competition compels capital personified to continuously seek advantage in gaining more and more surplus-value from its wage-labourers, thus generating and fuelling a systemic culture of doping. Opt out and one expires.

I am not interested in a dissection of Lance Armstrong’s personality from a moral standpoint. I’ve read my share of books about doping in the cycling profession, including about ‘the Lance factor’. The problem with such books is their focus on bad riders and good riders, bad teams and good teams. Doping existed in professional cycling before, during, and (in probability) post the Lance Armstrong era.

The boss of Team Sky, Dave Brailsford, has said, on Lance Armstrong riding One Day Ahead 2015: “Lance has done enough damage to the Tour already. He’s done enough damage to the sport.” One might say that the rampant commercialisation of cycling has damaged the sport. One might say that the commercial dominance of Team Sky – rich in monies from the Murdoch empire – strangled the Tour de France in 2012 and 2013 of any meaningful sporting drama. It’s odd how the history of doping in professional cycling can be laid solely, individually, and moralistically at the door of Lance Armstrong. His crime was to be exceptionally good at playing the system, and embedding himself within the system – call it ‘Planet Lance’, a story of how one professional cyclist turned from a wage-labourer to an especially shrewd capitalist and philanthropist. But Lance Armstrong was not the system itself, he was one planet in its universe. Who is the real enemy of professional cycling? And, what’s its real dope? Capital, silly.

Lance Armstrong, with my socialist feminist friend and comrade Helen Russell, in training for Le Tour: One Day Ahead 2015.