athletes · competition

Would you like some EPO with those Cliff shots?: Doping and everyday athletes


It’s happened again. Another year, another Gran Fondo, another doping scandal. Really, cyclists, really?

Oscar Tovar from Colombia, the winner of the 2015 Campagnolo Gran Fondo New York and first annual GFNY Championship, tested positive for synthetic testosterone use during the in-competition doping controls administered by US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) at the race. Tovar has been banned from any competition under World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) rules for two years and by GFNY for lifetime at any GFNY World event.

Tovar wasn’t alone. One of the women, Yamile Lugo of Colombia, who finished in 3rd place overall in the women’s field also tested positive for banned substances. Tovar and Lugo are serious cyclists but the doping in cycling isn’t restricted to competitive athletes.

A few years ago I was shocked to read about the rise of doping among amateur cyclists.

See Wider Testing Reveals Doping Among Amateur Cyclists, Too.

Two amateur bicycle racers tested positive for the blood-booster EPO at the Gran Fondo New York bicycle race on May 20, organizers said earlier this week. Since the beginning of 2011, eight other amateur cyclists have committed doping infractions in the United States. Five tested positive for banned substances, two were sanctioned for refusing drug tests, and one, the author Andrew Tilin, admitted to using banned drugs as research for a book.

These aren’t professional cyclists. They aren’t elite athletes. In the case of cycling they’re mid-life men, bankers, lawyers, and accountants racing to win a pair of socks. There’s no big prize money nor an athletic future at stake.

See a more recent piece from the BBC, Doping in cycling: Why are the amateurs ’emulating the pros’? It looks at a report published by the International Cycling Union (UCI).Written by independent experts and based on a year’s worth of interviews with senior figures from the sport, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission tackles the issue of doping in the amateur ranks. 

“The commission believes doping in amateur cycling is becoming endemic,” the report said.

“This was confirmed by amateur riders, as well as professionals, managers and anti-doping personnel who had exposure to it.

“It has been caused by a combination of ease of access to drugs via gyms and the internet, the reduction in costs, a spread of knowledge in means and methods of administration, and a lack of funding for regular testing at the amateur level.”

Circ’s authors continued by outlining a depressing scene where amateurs sell doping products to pros, and vice-versa, “middle-aged businessmen” charge up on cocktails of prescription drugs to win age-group races, and cheating is now rife in youth cycling as nobody has the resources to police the sport that far down the ladder.

“Some professional riders explained they no longer ride in the gran fondos [timed, long-distance amateur races on closed roads] because they were so competitive due to the number of riders doping,” the report stated.

But according to Susan Backhouse, a world expert on sports psychology and doping, there’s an increasing culture of dangerous performance enhancing drug use among regular everyday athletes of all stripes. I heard Backhouse speak at a sports ethics conference I recently attended, sponsored by the World Anti Doping Agency.

According to Backhouse there are two distinct groups of amateur athletes into doping:

  1. Endurance athletes such as runners and cyclists
  2. Body builders who want to build muscle and lose fat, particularly men.

Why do we care what amateur athletes do? There’s a few reasons, it turns out. Backhouse argued in favour of clean competition at all levels, citing health and fairness reasons, but she’s also worried about amateur doping spilling over into elite sports.

Right now we have a culture where elite athletes are policed regarding drugs but everyday, amateur athletes get a much freer environment.

Imagine a world in which the amateurs start beating the pros due to their doping advantage.

Imagine a world in which you train and train to compete in amateur events and yet you don’t have a chance of winning unless you dope.

Is that the world we’re soon to be in? What measures should we take to avoid it?

Education, sure, but I confess I’m enough of a fan of civil liberties to be dismayed about the infringement of freedom that would come about if we brought the big guns of national and regional anti-doping agencies to bear on amateur sports.

I’m not sure what to think. How about you?

9 thoughts on “Would you like some EPO with those Cliff shots?: Doping and everyday athletes

  1. The quipe/saying among Masters men is that M3 is the toughest category because that is the age where you divorce, see your kids only every other weekend, and have the money to upgrade your equipment and to juice. In other words, you have the time, money, and freedom to “do” what pro cyclists do. The biggest motivator behind Masters doping is ego. Many of these people would do almost anything to win a town sign sprint or the Strava KOM. Why not juice? It is just another training tool to pay for, like a power meter. I’m pretty confident that is the mentality.

  2. I wonder if cycling ought to do what powerlifting & bodybuilding do: have separate organizations/leagues/competitions that are clean and ones that don’t test for performance boosters…

  3. I don’t do athletic competitions myself, but it seems to me that this problem is going to be inevitable in any culture that values besting other people and winning as much as ours does. If we were really serious about combatting doping and cheating in sports, we’d give publicity, interviews, admiration, and endorsements to silver medalists and runners up, not just the first-place winners. I agree with the commenter above who writes that it’s about ego. On the other hand, to me it seems pretty easy for any individual athlete to sidestep the whole issue by staying away from competitions in the first place–or by just competing with oneself and being truly satisfied with achieving personal goals and ignoring whether you beat other people or not.

  4. Amateur cycling is weird. There are some people who take it SO seriously–not like going out and working hard seriously but spending hundreds of dollars to get rid of a few ounces of weight seriously. I actually have a friend who moved to my area recently. He’s a very strong cyclist, and he accidentally got a Strava KOM. A few days later, the previous owner of that KOM messaged him and told him to remove his time.

    My boyfriend says there are two kinds of serious amateur cyclists: professional amateurs and amateur professionals. The first group rides all the time and takes fitness seriously. The second group is made up of guys like the former owner of that KOM. My guess is that they’re the ones doping too.

  5. About 15 years ago, I met a Dutch cycling tourer who was cycling around the world solo. She arrived in Vancouver and we met up with her. I found out she was taking EPO. I questioned her politely but dropped matter since she was a guest of ours.

    At the time, I had very little idea about EPO so I could not pursue it further with her. But I thought it was abit odd since she wasn’t measuring herself against anyone.

    She is no longer cycling..a problem with her back.

    Maybe focus on health problems with EPO…I believe there are some problems.

  6. I’m a total podium chaser but I am also adamantly anti-doping. The fact remains that doping can have all kinds of deleterious effects on one’s health, and looking the other way when it comes to doping basically penalizes those of us who don’t wish to put themselves at risk for serious health complications for the sake of a podium spot (or qualifying for Boston, Kona, Worlds, etc.) If I find out someone has doped, I lose a lot of respect for them.

      1. At bigger events where high-profile prizes (like slots to Kona) are at stake? Yes. People put a lot of hard work and money and energy into achieving those goals. Plus there have been a lot of instances of cheating that have come to light lately. I would not have a problem with automatic testing for anyone who accepts a Kona slot at a qualifying Ironman.

Comments are closed.