Doug Robinson: Lance Armstrong latest athlete to nose dive due to doping

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Drug testing is largely ineffective — in fact, it's a game for cyclists and not a very challenging one, either. Armstrong took hundreds of tests and passed them all (although Hamilton says Armstrong cut a financial deal with UCI after flunking one). Similarly, American sprinter Marion Jones never flunked any of the 160 tests she took. Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl says he took 200 drug tests in his career and had drugs in his system for half of them; he passed every test except one.

"Riders think they can get away with doping because most of the time they do," he said.

The common defense — by the accused and his entourage and fans — is that an athlete must be clean because he passed the drug tests. Hamilton noted that drug testers didn't have a chance — "They've got their doctors, and we've got ours, and ours are better — better paid, for sure," he said.

The details of cycling's drug system are presented in Hamilton's book. He describes a secret world of prepaid cellphones and bags of blood being raced around Europe and backwater hotel rooms and behind-the-scenes doctors and crawling around on the floor to evade a surprise visit from a drug tester and "glowtimes" (the time when a drug will still show up in a test), and syringes and needles and injections of EPO and starvation and severe weight loss and on and on it went. Hamilton described a substance that could be placed under the fingernails to escape detection — when providing a urine sample to a tester, the substance could be mixed with the urine and mask the drug.

When a test was finally created for EPO after years of research and a cost of millions, as usual the other side was one step ahead. Hamilton wrote, "It took (Doctor Michele Ferrari) about five minutes to figure out how to evade it. His solution was dazzlingly simple: Instead of injecting EPO subcutaneously (which caused it to be released over a long period of time), we should inject smaller doses directly into the vein, straight into the bloodstream, where it would still boost our red blood cell counts, but leave our body quickly enough to evade detection."

Drug use is a huge advantage. Don't believe the many athletes or their fans who defend drugs by saying they don't provide much of an advantage. For a cyclist, it was either do drugs or finish behind the peloton. It was that simple. Hamilton wrote about the first time he saw a cyclist he suspected of PED use — Bjarne Riis, a decent but not great competitor for most of his career until his late 20s (he eventually admitted using PEDs).

"I remember one of the first times I saw him up close, in the spring of 1997," wrote Hamilton. "We were going hard up some brutally steep climb and Riis was working his way through the group, except he was pushing a gigantic gear. The rest of us were spinning along at the usual rhythm of around 90 RPMs and here comes Bjarne, blank-faced, churning away at 40 RPMs, pushing a gear that I couldn't imagine pushing. Then I realized, he's training. The rest of us are going full bore, either trying to win or trying to hang on, and he's training."

The bottom line: Cyclists faced a choice — use drugs and blood dope or quit the sport, as some did.

As one cyclist told Sports Illustrated, "You'd have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants."

There is a poignant moment in the Hamilton book when, during a 2003 race, he is bleeding from a crash — blood dripping down onto the wheels and spattering everywhere — he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was teammate Nic Jalabert. "He didn't say anything," wrote Hamilton, "but I could feel what he meant: Tyler, it's just a bike race.)

Too bad Armstrong never figured that out.

email: drob@desnews.com

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