steering for steroids


Drenched in drugs
Beyond biking
Blood doping
Steroids 'n kids
'roid rage


Gasping for air, Marco Pantani shows winning form in the Giro d'Italia. Unfortunately, his blood showed signs of doping, and he was heaved from the 1999 race.

Photo by Kai Uwe Bohn and courtesy of Bill Mitchell.

Another Tour de Pharmaceuticals?
1 JULY 1999. One year after a doping scandal struck the Tour de France bike race like a mass crash on a mountain descent, it's déjà vu all over again. In early June, elite cyclist Marco Pantani was ejected -- poised for victory -- from a prestigious Italian race. Instead of glowing on the winner's stand, he spent four hours chatting with cops.

cyclist Marco Pantani
Pantani, the best hill-climber in the business showed signs -- but no proof -- of a banned drug that stimulates the growth of red blood cells. These cells ferry oxygen to the muscles. To an endurance bike racer, red cells are more critical than a hot bike or a rich sponsor. The problem with the drug in question is this: too many blood cells make the blood too thick, leading to deadly clots.

Pantani, humiliated, says he won't start the Tour de France on July 3. The Tour is cycling's toughest -- and most prestigious -- race, a grueling 21-day marathon across more than 2,200 miles of French countryside and Alpine peaks that would make the average cyclist puke -- or hitchhike.

Last year, Pantani won a Tour that most fans want to forget. In 1998, the widespread eagerness to swallow or inject performance-enhancing chemicals caused the removal of seven teams. Rather than traditional sprints across finish lines, television news featured arrests and cars crammed with banned drugs.
a shot in the pants
Things may not be a whole lot more promising this year. In late May, the French Cycling Federation said half of the 134 pro riders active in France showed in their urine signs of one kind of doping or another. As of this writing, two teams have already been ejected from the 1999 Tour.

However, Johan Bruyneel, coach of United States Postal Service pro cycling team, says this year will be different. "Last year was a really bad year for cycling, bad publicity for the sport and the sponsors. Everybody is aware and everybody wants to play a part to improve the image of cycling and the sponsors," says the former racer, a Belgian.

"I don't think there's a rider in the peloton [pack] that prefers to take drugs," former Tour de France winner Greg Lemond told Bicyclist Online. "It's simply what [they're] doing to keep up with competition, and if they think everyone's getting away with it, they feel like they need to use it, too. Half of these guys haven't finished high school, have a wife and three kids at home, and if they don't perform, they won't get paid."

In this modern era, sports dopers can pick from the collected wisdom of pharmaceutical science. Among their options are

  • EPO, which supposedly increases performance.

  • Testosterone, which increases muscle mass or burns fat.

  • Beta blockers, which slow the heart and help steady the hands of archers and shooters.
In fact, the options are much wider than that. The lists of drugs banned in various sports run into thousands of compounds -- including food supplements as well as prescription drugs commonly used for asthma and other diseases. The banned drugs also include diuretics, used to purge the body of water and dilute telltale signs of drugs in the urine.

Although doping seems common in pro cycling, the top U.S. team is "adamantly against any kind of performance-enhancing drug," says Margot Myers, spokesperson for the Postal Service team, which will compete again in the Tour. "Every rider's contract says, if they test positive for drugs, there will be immediate dismissal from the team."

Indeed, Bruyneel says that despite the publicity, cycling is a cleaner sport than many. "For the moment, it's one of the cleanest sports in the world... We do urine tests, and we do blood control [testing]. That doesn't happen in any other sport."

Is it just pro cyclists who rely on doping?

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©1999, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.

The Why Files Staff includes: Terry Devitt, editor; Darrell Schulte, webmaster; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Eric G.E. Zuelow, low man on the totem pole