The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling's governing body, had long been accused of not just ignoring, but aiding cycling's doping problem. The charges were long-rebuffed, but investigations into Lance Armstrong's cheating unearthed details that sparked a widespread change in UCI leadership. The new president, Brian Cookson, promised change, and upon taking office in 2014, one of his first actions was to form an independent panel to find out just how bad cycling's doping culture has been over the last 20 years.
Now the results are in with the 228-page Independent Report for Reform in Cycling. More than 170 former racers, coaches, and team staff were interviewed and the report shines a harsh spotlight on a rudderless sport where pro riders are constantly a step ahead of anti-doping authorities. Here are the key findings:
Pros Are Still Doping
This won't come as a shock to anyone following the controversy surrounding the Tour de France-winning Astana team, which had two athletes from its WorldTour team and three from its development unit test positive for banned substances within the last year. But no one can agree how widespread the problem is. One anonymous rider suggested as many as 90 percent of the peloton still dopes, while another rider suggested the number was closer to 20 percent. Recently retired rider David Millar, who became one of cycling's most vocal anti-doping advocates upon his return from a ban in 2006, suggests in The Guardian that both figures may be inflated by riders hoping to have their own bans shortened.
And Amateurs Are Doping More Than Ever
One of the more disturbing findings suggests that doping is occurring on a massive scale in the amateur and lower-tier professional ranks. Italian authorities believe about half of the EPO used in the country is for sporting purposes. Detailed doping protocols are available on the Internet. And combined with the almost complete lack of drug testing at the amateur level, many riders are succumbing to temptation. The problem is so bad, the report claims, that top pros fear competing in informal gran fondos because EPO-enhanced, middle-aged businessmen were making the rides too hard.
More Doping Controls Are Needed
The low rungs of pro cycling and amateur racing have minimal budgets to test riders, so there's little fear of getting caught. The top-tier cheaters that race the biggest events have had to adjust their doping practices. Because of the success of the biological passport, which can catch a spike in blood values, some WorldTour riders are now micro-dosing drugs — smaller amounts more frequently — as well as abusing the Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) for drugs such as Tramadol (a narcotic-like pain reliever used to treat moderate to severe pain) and cortisone (an anti-inflammatory that reduces pain, improves performance and helps with weight loss). Riders also claim that the widespread use of tranquilizers and anti-depressants may be a contributing cause to many of the crashes in the peloton.
Armstrong-Era Riders Were Warned of Tests
The UCI wanted to perpetuate Armstrong's cancer-comeback story and the first line it crossed was its decision to accept a backdated cortisone prescription (TUE) after a positive test during the 1999 Tour de France. But the Texan wasn't the only one a step ahead of drug controls. For years, the sport's anti-drug efforts were run by Lon Schattenberg. He advised teams about the detection methods he oversaw, and, allegedly, how to beat them. Riders with suspicious test results were warned about the findings instead of being investigated further. When athletes were caught, UCI officials did what they could to prevent future riders from testing positive. Cycling officials "gave riders the opportunity to adapt and to evade testing positive… whilst at the same time giving the impression to the public that cycling was trying to address the doping problem," the report reads. "Once doping became visible in form of a rider testing positive the case was…managed away."
But Things Are Getting Better
Cycling began to turn the corner in 2006 with the introduction of the biological passport and out-of-competition testing, as well as more targeted testing. Today, the report estimates, the physical advantage gained by doping is about a third of what it was during EPO's uncontrolled heyday in the 90s — from a 10-15 percent edge to 3-5 percent now. But the commission admitted there was still much that could be done, including investigating more instead of relying on blood testing, working with new labs to detect smaller doses of banned drugs and surprise late-night blood testing for riders strongly suspected of doping.
"The commission did not hear from anyone credible in the sport who would give cycling a clean bill of health in the context of doping today," the report says. "However, the general view was that doping is either less prevalent today or that the nature of doping practices has changed such that the performance gains are smaller. There was a general feeling that this has created an environment where riders can now at least be competitive when riding clean."