July 18, 2008 posted by

Supplements, Dope, and The Tour, Part I

My friend Heather asked why I wasn’t blogging on the Tour this year. I’m not because I’m all about 90X at the moment, but I’ve also been a bit bored about commenting so much on doping. Yesterday’s madness, however, has given me a chance to write about both.

What was looking like a pretty clean Tour got skewered yesterday with a positive drug test for rising superstar Ricardo Ricco, who had won two stages. As the investigation unfolds it seems like it may be a bigger, and more systematic, issue that will lead to more busts. Ricco’s team pulled themselves from the race and one of his teammates, who also won a stage, has been implicated. So let’s look at three issues: is cycling cleaning up, how much does doping matter, and how is it different than supplementing.

Is cycling cleaner than it was?

The evidence all points to an affirmative. Many teams now have strict doping controls within the team. At CSC, anyone can download physical data of each rider. If blood levels start to get squirrely, it will be noticed.

The biggest evidence, however, is on the road. Racing has slowed down. A lot. Piano (stretches of grand tours where the riders cruise at a pedestrian pace) is back in vogue. Over the 90s and early 2000s the average speed of the peloton was increasing every year. Over the last couple, this has reversed.

Another, more subtle, clue would be riders acting more human. In the old days, grand tour leaders would gain and lose 20-30 minutes in a single stage regularly. No lead was safe because the guy in front could crack at any time. Now, with better training, diet, teamwork, and strategy, this is far less likely. But looking at this years Giro d’Italia we were seeing things that all seemed very, well, natural.

The best example of this was at the final day’s time trial, where the leaders of the overall race where no where in sight of the podium (a far cry from the days when Armstrong and Ullirch would crush everyone through the mountains and then take minutes in the final TT as well). Mario Bruseghin, who won the first TT and came in 3rd overall came in 28th and lost 1:33. Race winner Alberto Contador, second in the first TT, came in 11th. Simoni and DiLuca, who had both made huge solo efforts trying to win the race in the mountains, came in 135th and 112th.

Then there was Ricco. A bad time trialist, he was the only one of the overall race leaders who improved on his effort. He lost more time to the stage winner, but far less to every GC contender.

In the Tour Ricco was riding incredibly well. His attack on the Aspin was like nothing we’ve seen since the days of the Texan. He dropped everyone like they were club riders. He said Piepoli would win on Hautacam and Sanuier Duval then dominated all of the important points of the race. Ricco seemed to be barely breathing while shadowing the GC contenders. Up front, his teammates dropped Frank Schleck the second they decided it was time to go. It was all, as David Millar said, “a bit too good to be true.”
Apparently, they were using a new form of EPO. One of the doctors on the anti-doping committee was surprised they were caught because he didn’t believe there was a test for it yet. He stated that they knew riders were using it, and even which ones, but had no way to prove it. Apparently there was a specific team working on this test and trying to get it ready for the Tour. We may still have more busts. I’d bet against many more. There was one team riding oddly better than everyone else and now they’re gone. We’ll see, but I’m optimistic that the playing field is getting a bit more level.

I’ve got to get to more-pressing work, so I’m breaking this into parts. More later…

pic: Ricco looking astonished at how easy it is to beat guy who aren’t juiced.


  • Just a quick note, not related to bikes. I’m a P90x user, just wanted to mention I enjoy your blog and your insights on fitness.Thanks,Court

  • it’s nice to see though, that the coverage is focused less on doping and more on riding this year (at least from the vs. team). the media tend to dictate what people focus on and this year it’s riding! cavendish: holy shit! that guy can sprint. regardless, skinny, shaved cyclists in jail; shouldn’t that be deterent enough? in any event, i take back everything i said about not being excited about the tour this year; i’m addicted to it (again)!marc

  • Thanks, Court,Hopefully I’ll answer most of the FAQs we get about 90X on the Message Boards. Then I’ll have to find something new to blog about. Yeah, Marc, I won’t not be a cycling fan no matter how many drug busts there are. I’ve been following the Tour since I was a kid. I’m sure I’ll never stop. Suffering is the name of the game for those guys and you aren’t going to win without it, drugs or not. Long live cycling!Getting more psyched on climbing again as well. You should come out. Trying to do every route in Big Cottonwood, which means I’ll be doing a lot of hiking, gardening, and exploring on scruff that’s so easy it’ll never hurt your elbow.

  • There’s plenty of hard routes in Big Cottonwood, so I’d watch those elbows.I’m hoping that the Ricco thing is mostly a Saunier-Duval thing. I am hoping that all the others are clean and that the race is as fair as possible. I can’t wait for the Alps.~R

  • it’s officially been a long time now since i’ve touched rock or plastic; that said, i promised suzanne i would try to climb in august sometime. i’m going without “hardwear” on my elbows, so i’ll have to be gentle. perhaps we’ll see you out there sometime? regardless, you should get in touch with suzanne if you do go out, she’s always looking for partners.marcp.s. amen on the tour thing. i’ve been keeping up with it since breaking away (the best movie, cycling or other) came out and i didn’t even ride (except for my sears 10 speed with flipped up handlebars) back then.

  • there are some hard routes in big. i think that just trying all of them will be enough. i’ve been on the 2nd hardest route in the canyon, and it felt about as hard as anything i’ve ever done. as for the hardest, rumor is that sharma failed on it. so maybe just french freeing everything will be enough. I’d be plenty happy with that. hell, i’d be happy with walking to the base of every route and actually finding them. i’m sure there will be plenty of bushwhacking ahead.can’t wait for tomorrow. the next three stages are going to be epic. viva le tour!

  • It’s about time, Mr Tour Slacker! Lol. The Tour has been quite exciting this year, Cavendish has been particularly stellar in his 4 stage wins. It’s disappointing that doping is again at the forefront of the Tour news, yet we can expect it for some time until tests and testing methodology catch up to the latest EPOs out there, ie CERA, and all teams are commited to putting internal anti doping measures in place. Teams like CSC, Columbia and Garmin Chipotle are making efforts to clean up the sport by having their own internal testing and anti doping programs in place which is extremely encouraging. Michel Audran, the anti-doping scientist, stated this past week that authorities were confident that they’d seen CERA used in the Giro. The Giro this year had zero anti-doping positives which many believe “points to the relative conviction of anti-doping authorities in various countries to actually do their job, and to the extreme variability in lab expertise”. The positive is that several of these individuals (ie Ricco, Piepolo) believed they could also make it through the Tour by beating the system and were caught. It pisses me off that they are robbing cyclists who are riding clean from winning what is rightfully their’s, such as Frank Schleck.I recently read something I found interesting which I am paraphrasing here:The entire Saunier Duval team has been a bit suspicious. Ricco’s final accent was too good to be true especially after a long stage. Piepoli climbed the Hautacam with a VAM (velocite ascensione mediale, or median speed of ascent) close to 1800, while still pausing to wait now and then for Cobo, who couldn’t hold the pace. When a team finishes 1-2 like that on a queen mountain stage, after not showing that kind of climbing power in any race all year, yes, it is suspicious. Contador in the Giro this year never went past 1750 on any climb, and even Lance Armstrong, in the 2004 Alpe d’Huez time trial, did 1,790m/h. BEvans/Vande Velde group did a VAM of 1,580 on Hautacam. 1600s is a superlative effort. Anything over 1,750 usually comes in special circumstances, like an Alpe d’Huez or Plan de Corones time trial.

  • Very impressive paraphrase! Yesterday was a great stage. Tue and Wed will be epic. The Cyclingnews live report said something like–paraphrasing– Riders are struggling, gritting their teeth, and looking, well, a lot more human than in recent years.

  • By the way, I agree there probably wont be too many more positives this race. We are already seeing several riders bowing out before testing positive and their reputation officially tarnished. Im glad to see this. The real bummer is that for the clean cyclists who are making incredible performances, ie Cavendish/Schleck/Evans/etc, the entire Tour is under a shadow of doubt as to whether or not those performance could be attributed to drugs or not.

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