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How Clean is Cycling?

By , 5 August 2022, 5 min read

It’s regrettable that some of the most enduring memories I have of cycling are the bombshell revelations of cycling super-hero’s (the list is way to long to mention here) admitting to habitual doping in the peloton. At one stage cycling’s dirty little secret was so institutionalized that there were precious few athletes on the professional circuit that weren’t doping. The irony of this is that, dare I say, perhaps Lance Armstrong was the greatest cyclist in his era since most if not all his competition were also juicing it up, thus evening the playing fields. Please don’t get me wrong here, I am not by any means placing him on a pedestal; his plausible deniability and ruthless treatment of his accusers was nothing short of reprehensible and cheapened his brave cancer fightback.

The Performance Anomaly

Every year, the dark spectre of professional doping rears its ugly head, especially at cycling’s showcase event, the Tour de France and it’s not hard to see why; in this year’s iteration of the race Jonas Vinegaard’s average speed over the 3343.8 km course was 42.03 km/h (and in extreme heat to boot) whilst Lance Armstrong’s average speed in 2005 was 42.41 km/h. Now I concede that the route plays a seminal role in average times and to a lesser degree more sophisticated equipment, nutrition and training, average times have dropped steadily year by year since the drug fuelled 2000’s. Two police raids on Bahrain Victorious’ hotel rooms prior to and during the tour cast further suspicions on the possibility of cheating, though nothing sinister seemed to have been uncovered from these raids. There are some that advocate ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ and who knows what lead the police to suspect foul play but in the absence of any incriminating evidence we have to assume that it was only smoke.

So What's Being Done?

So how can the UCI ensure that the sport is clean and are their half-hearted attempts at testing in the 2000’s more robust today? Athlete surveys and the UCI’s CIRC report suggest that the number of sportsmen and women doping is likely between 14% and 39% and despite the introduction of the biological passport, athletes failing drug tests remains between 1% and 2% which appears to suggest that the biological passport is flawed insomuch as it cannot detect micro-dosing. Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor at University of Brighton and a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Medical & Scientific Commission claims to have overcome this issue through the study of 'omics’ which examines gene activity and can even detect blood transfusions and unlike blood & urine tests which measures short term markers of drugs, Pitsiladis’s method isolates the genetic fingerprint of injecting the likes of EPO into an athlete’s bloodstream. Regrettably though, the use of his method has been widely rejected due to the exorbitant cost of implementation. In the meantime, alternative doping methods are gaining traction with synthetic steroids taken orally and plant-based testosterone that ghosts the liver and makes current testing methods somewhat redundant.

If you are left feeling that the foregoing has raised more questions than answers, then you are not alone. It is incumbent on the UCI to ally public concerns over a sport with a tarnished reputation and right now is just looks like more of the same to me. So, has cycling come clean? Your guess is as good as mine.

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