I’m officially bored of this topic. Well, I’m not really. It’s fascinating. But I’m ready for the cycling news to be about racing and training. It’s getting better, for sure. A couple of years ago I stopped counting how many days in a row featured at least one doping headline on cyclingnews. This year we’ve had stretches of weeks at a time. The best thing, I suppose, is that the public is getting a bit more informed about it.
There is no better spectacle for viewing dopers than a grand cycling tour. Bodybuilding and track and field run a close second. One day cycling races a distant third. Next come sports more based on skill, where absolute strength is less a part of the equation.
The reason for this is EPO. Over the course of intense daily training it’s natural for the body’s red blood cell count to drop as the body breaks down and doesn’t have time to fully recover. This lowers your blood’s oxygen carrying capacity and, essentially, your performance ability. For a one day race you can taper and peak. This isn’t possible over time, especially when stage races are fast every day (none are as fast as le Tour). By injecting EPO you can offset the nature drop in haematocrit so that, essentially, you’re fresher each day as other riders tail off. This is the reason that only 3 of the last 33 grand tour winners have not had some type of doping suspension.
Doping has been around forever, but nothing has changed grand tour racing like EPO. As Greg LeMond said, “You can deal with that other stuff.” EPO provides a massive advantage during stage racing.
It doesn’t, however, create supermen. They are born. It won’t make a club rider competitive with a professional. It won’t increase your lung capacity or your VO2/max beyond its natural predisposition. It simply allows you to maintain your peak performance for longer (after reading Elijah’s research I should clarify this because EPO usage can ensure you’re tapping whatever potential you have aerobically, which is extremely hard to do training naturally, so hard that some say it’s impossible to do–David Walsh’s Lance to Landis covers this in depth. The point I was attempting to make was that it can’t elevate someone with a VO2/max of 60 (good weekend warrior athlete) to 80 (Tour de France rider). Changing your haematocrit changes your VO2/max slightly, but this can also be done naturally by training/supplementing. Among like athletes its advantage is huge. The research provided would suggest that it’s also significant in one day races and, certainly, would take a lot of guesswork out of training to peak.)
Here’s a good study (thanks Elijah):
Peak performance is possible by natural means. By eating right, training right, and recovering well you can maximize your body’s potential (at least to what sports science currently understands). This, however, is very hard to do. Doping makes it easier. If you dope than you don’t need to get your diet and training and recovery perfect. Steroids (colloquial name for a lot of performance enhancing drugs) enable you to recover better from hard training, which is most cases is only an advantage over an even playing field.
This is why dopers don’t always win. You see dopers lose, especially in one day events, all the time. The advantage isn’t all that great. It just stacks the odds in your favor. But in a grand tour, EPO stacks those odds even further; to the point where it becomes almost impossible to keep up naturally.
Supplements are basically legal natural doping substances. “Dope” isn’t always bad–at least as in bad for you. It’s just using medicine to aid recovery. Almost all “dope” has a life enhancing characteristic. It’s cheating as defined by a sport. Supplements fall into the “everything that isn’t defined as cheating” category, basically. By definition they are natural but many are synthetic “natural” supplements. Most of the reactions that supplements can be duplicated by eating perfectly. Supplements allow you to eat less well by, basically, condensing nutrition into a supplemental form for easier ingestion, which can also be administered via injection.
Because smart supplementation—and smart doping as well—can enhance your lifestyle, it’s a recommended thing for most people to do. Cheating in sports is defined by sport only. It’s not considered cheating to use EPO to recover from cancer or use a testosterone cream to offset the effects of aging. It’s only cheating when it comes to sport. For most of us, I recommend that we supplement whenever we can, provided that we know what we are doing. Eating well and exercising are the most effective ways to age gracefully but supplements and, sometimes, medicine, will give us more margin for error.