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Cycling's Latest Scandal

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Amidst the wave of near-daily doping confessions from the world of professional cycling, this one was less teary and far more poignant: Bjarne Riis, the 1996 winner of the Tour, became the first champion to confess to using banned drugs -- EPO, corticosteroids, HGH -- on a daily basis when he won the Tour. Was he a worthy winner, a journalist asked, perhaps expecting to hear "everyone did it back then"? "I was not." "My winner's jersey is at home in a cardboard box. They are welcome to come and get it."

This confession was more moving than the others in part because it was so real, no punches pulled, hardly any rationalizations offered. But it was also hard to watch because it destroyed the lovely fable that was the story of Riis' career: truly immense determination overcoming mediocre talent; of Salieri transforming himself into Mozart by sheer force of will.

Riis was a journeyman, a guy who couldn't keep a job in his mid twenties. His nickname was the Eagle of Herning (his hometown in Denmark). Like so many cycling nicknames, it was ironic: he was bald and he couldn't climb the big mountains that separate tour contenders from the support riders. Then in the early 90s there was an astonishing turn of form: he finished fifth in the Tour in 1993. What explained it? There were obvious physical changes: he dropped a huge amount of weight for an already-wiry racer, going from about 163 pounds to 151 pounds (at 6'1") -- an astonishing feat of discipline for anyone already that skinny. (A similar loss of lean body mass, from cancer and chemo, put Lance Armstrong in a position to be a Tour contender; he maintained it by weighing each gram of food he ate.) Riis was so gaunt Danish fans followed him carrying banners of the grim reaper on a bike.

But something else also arrived in cycling in the early 90s -- EPO, or erythropoietin, an anemia drug mimicking a natural hormone produced during endurance training that boosts the oxygen-carrying capacity of an athlete's blood n two ways: it causes the marrow to churn out new red blood cells and ensure each one contains more hemoglobin. One consequence of the extra cells is that the percentage of the blood volume taken up by the cells (the "hematocrit") goes up. EPO was expensive but hard to detect due to its similarity to the natural hormone. Moreover, it was relatively safe -- unless used in excess. Overuse was thought to limit performance gains due to poor hemodynamics -- thicker blood flows more poorly. And thicker blood (or, more precisely, the resulting clotting) was blamed for killing riders by grinding their heartbeat to zero at times when a normal person's heart merely slows down, for instance at night during sleep. Indeed the EPO era was first harkened by a large number of young riders from the low countries quietly dying in their sleep in the late 80s and early 90s.

Eventually, without no test for EPO available, the governing body of cycling set a hematocrit limit to weed out cheats -- if the percentage of your blood volume taken up by red blood cells was 50% or higher -- well above the 43% male norm -- then you got a temporary suspension from racing for your own safety. (Of course, everyone should have known at once that you'd have to dope right up to the 50% level to be competitive.) But until 1997, there wasn't even this limit. Thus Riis' nickname among some of his rivals: Mr. 60%. (At the time, some medical records had leaked out of a criminal investigation of his physiologist showing he'd reached a level of 57%. But apparently the name came from rivals on a truly doped up squad, Festina, who thought if their star Richard Virenque, juiced up to 50%, couldn't beat Riis, then surely Riis must be at 60%. This week his team caretaker Jef D'Hont claimed Riis was at times as high as 64% during the '96 Tour -- absolutely inhuman numbers.)

A huge criminal investigation in Spain, Operation Puerto, has prompted the recent wave of confessions. The investigation centered on one Madrid doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes, who not only sold huge amounts of the drugs to soccer, tennis and cycling pros, but also removed their blood and banked it in freezer bags for reinjection before big races. Of course, this was easily traced back to the guilty riders -- a process made simpler by the fact that the bags were coded to the names of their dogs. (Since the list of code names was made public, the papers have been full of daily revelations about the names of various rider's dogs.) DNA tests then confirmed the bad news.

The cascade of confessions has reinforced the impression everyone was indeed doing it. As Bill Stapelton, a team boss, put it, "first some feared getting caught, now others fear being exposed" -- and are confessing to beat the papers to the punch. Was, in fact, everyone doing it?

To me, this is the most interesting question raised by these ongoing doping scandals. I've always assumed that in a competitive field like pro sports, the code of silence that protects wrongdoers in other professions -- in police departments, for instance -- would be overcome by the fact that the cheats were not just corrupting the profession but also stealing your glory. Ordinarily this would make whistleblowers come out of the woodwork -- unless absolutely everyone at the top of the profession was doing it too. Then no potential whistleblower would themselves be immune from exposure -- no one in a position to cast the first stone, as it were.

What's interesting about the Riis scandal is that it contains some hints that not everyone may be doing it. Riis used EPO from 1993 thru the end of his career, a period when he went from a cagey but giftless no-name support rider to a superstar. If he could transform himself from journeyman struggling to keep a job into a totally dominant rider by cheating, then why didn't everyone? Was he just better at it? It's possible: he seemed to be running his own program, without the help of doping-expert doctors (who could learn from their experiences drugging up and monitoring a large sample size of many other athletes). But it seems unlikely that he would discover something by trial and error that others couldn't come up with too. So the mystery remains: his dramatic improvement, from the bottom to the top of the pro ranks, implies he was one of only a minority of riders using illegal drugs. But if so, why did none of the riders he left behind blow the whistle on him?

The fact that he ran his own doping program points out another interesting thing about the doping scandals in various sports. The smartest guys seem to be the ones that are most deeply involved. Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi are, intellectually, standouts among baseball players; Riis as well. Perhaps most athletes run their own programs, and it takes a certain amount of smarts to do it well. Ironically the lack of outside expert involvement may also have helped many guys stay uncaught for so long. (Compare cyclist Johan Museeuw--who was nailed by his constant text messages to his doctor for minute-to-minute advice.)

Another unanswered question: How much does it help? Up till now, what's striking is how hard the penitent riders are willing to work to convince themselves it wasn't that helpful. Alex Zulle said it added "only 10%". Anyone who's tried to cut seconds off a personal best time for their daily ride knows how hard it is to improve by 1% at the margins. But Riis' story (like that of flash-in-the-pan doper Raimondas Rumsas seven years later) implies it makes a world of difference -- again begging the question: why didn't everyone do it?

As baseball, obsessed with its own history, debates whether Barry Bonds' records deserve an asterisk in the statistical encyclopedias, few cycling fans have asked who the real winner of the 1996 Tour should have been. In second place behind Riis in 1996 was Jan Ullrich, whose DNA test matched one of Dr. Fuentes' blood bags; he stands under criminal investigation in Germany as a result. Third place: Mr. 50%, Richard Virenque, who tearfully confessed to doping two years after his team doctor got caught with several hundred vials of EPO and other drugs in his car during the 1998 Tour. You have to go way down the results list to find people not under suspicion. (Indeed, Riis' whole 9-man Telekom team has confessed, except Ullrich, who can't confess because of the criminal charges, and two lesser riders the media hasn't tracked down yet.)

Armstrong's former director, Jim Ochowitz, once said the Tour was hard to win even if you are on drugs. Likewise, Riis today says "I'm proud of my results even though they were not completely honest." But the story of journeyman to star -- so well-matched to the temperament of this rural, "effort-over-skill" sport's traditional fanbase -- is dead. "For those for whom I was a hero," Riis said on Friday, "I'm sorry. They'll have to find new heroes now." And what of that other cycling hero, the one with the miraculous story of finding inspiration for life in death? Was he also self-made, in two senses? Did he (like that slugger who "confessed" to wrongdoing but refused to specify what he did) give himself, through doping, the near-fatal illness that now defines him? And then sell his soul to the Devil again to come back stronger than ever?

--May 26, 2007

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