"Psst, Do you think they'll catch us Jacper?"
This week the cyclocross community is disappointed to find out that the "too good to be true" performance of the Szczepaniak brothers at the Worlds Championships, was too good to be true. The only thing harder in Tabor than the pronunciation of their names, was understanding how these not usually great racers, rode Meeusen and Jouffroy into the ground. It turns out the answer is simple, they took EPO. They joined the long ugly history of drug cheats in bike races.
Doping in cycling is far from a new story. Some cyclists have been using every conceivable substance to gain an edge since bike races were first organized. As far back as 1896, racers would use cocaine, strychnine, and even ether to keep turning the cranks. The opinion that bike racers are no more than junkies on two wheels nearly killed fan interest as long ago as the 1920s. As the years have gone by, the substances have changed, from cocaine to amphetamines and cortisone, to the current stuff. The attitude amongst managers, sponsors, and racers has remained the same: as long as every one is doing the same stuff, and no one talks, it is a fair race. Most other sports still operate under this very assumption.
But something significant changed in cycling during the 1990's. The old atitude held that the drugs could only help so much. The saying was "you can't turn a donkey into a thoroughbred". Certainly amphetamines and cortisone would not improve a cyclists base level of power, and therefore only marginally improve performance. But when blood boosters started to be used in 1989-1990, the game changed. Suddenly guys who were also-rans, became contenders. The effects of increasing blood levels were so significant, that clean cyclists could barely keep up with their prior year's results. This forced every professional cyclist to either take EPO, accept a diminished role (and paycheck), or quit.
The abuse of blood boosters also had a huge cost to the peloton. Unlike coritsone or amphetimines, EPO abuse for long periods of time will kill, either from heart attack or stroke. I believe the real turning point for cycling, was the sponsors realization that there would be a Tom Simpson every week if pro racers kept abusing blood bosters. So the UCI and ASO got very serious in a relatively short period of time about catching the dopers. They really had no choice; if your racers keep dropping dead, eventually you have no sponsors, no fans, and no races.
Still, a decade after the Festina affair, the doping continues. Besides the Polish wonders, in the past year alone we have had Thomas Dekker, Davide Rebellin, Stephan Schumacher, Antonio Colom, Mikel Astaraloza, and Danilo Di Luca all busted after signifacant race results. Earlier this year we were treated to act 2 of the Ricardo Ricco show. In this episode he throws the mother of his child under the bus after she is popped for the same dope he took. He makes Raimondas Rumšas look like the husband of the decade.il sposo malissimo, in happier times
To some degree, I believe that the temptation to dope is a basic flaw in human character. I do not believe that cheating in more prevelant in cycling than other sports, perhaps less in this era of strict testing. I also believe that cheating in sport is less consequential than in business, politics, education or any other human endeavor. The sad truth is that where ever money or glory is on the line, some people will cheat to win.
This is not to say that we should do nothing, or give up the sport in disgust. I do believe that cycling is heading in the right direction. I am encouraged by every young pro, like Jeremy Powers or Peter Stetina or Coryn Rivera as examples, or old pro like Steve Tilford or Adam Myerson or Todd Wells, who has the courage to race clean. All of these racers have expressed the same idea; they know that they race against others who are doping, and that may cost them results, and therefore money. But their only real choices are to quit, or keep racing the best way that they know how. So they continue to race, clean and proud of it.
Ultimatley, the dopers are cheating themselves. Once caught, they lose their results and at least some of their opportunities. Cyclcross and mountain bike racing have been less forgiving of dopers than road racing, just ask Ben Berden or Roland Green. Even if dopers are never caught, they have lost something irretrievable, their honor & pride. Much as that sounds trite, it is true. Cycling, just like life as a whole, is about how you play the game as much as whether you win. After each racer hangs up the wheels, they alone can answer the question "did I race the best way?" I imagine that for the doping cheats, there is less joy in any of their accomplishments. Those nagging doubts would, for me atleast, wipe away any victory.