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A Brief History of Drugs: A PED Retrospective

I can’t speak to the why exactly, but for some reason, I’ve been growing increasingly agitated with the debate surrounding doping. This unease is compounded by a myriad of issues, and the more that I delve into the lineage of the subject, the murkier every side’s logic becomes. It goes without saying that the history of drug use in cycling is staggeringly extensive, but I have a weary suspicion that most don’t realize just how far down the rabbit hole it goes. Do you have a cycling hero from before 1998? Well, if his name isn’t Greg LeMond or Bernard Hinault, they were probably on drugs — a whole lot of drugs, actually. Which begs the question, were these men monsters, or were they just idiots? In what way are we, the fans, complicit? In what way are the race organizers complicit? And most importantly, is there a clean future for the sport? History weighs heavily against it, but to prepare for a better future, we need to first understand a horrible past.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve had a junkie banging on your door, trying to sell you car parts at 3AM like I have, but you don’t need firsthand experience to know that tweakers are just the absolute worst. And until the early ’80s, tweakers are exactly what most pro cyclists were, at least the ones who were winning. I’m not kidding, throughout most of the 20th century, amphetamines were the drugs of choice in the peloton. And before this, cocaine was the narcotic du jour. Hard to believe? Here’s a short history of cycling drug use that would make Hunter Thompson blush.

Let me take you back to 1896. Choppy Warburton was the in-demand coach of the day. A record-breaking runner and tireless drug user, he was notorious for doping up his athletes, namely with a cocktail of cocaine, caffeine, and strychnine. And after Bordeaux-Paris, his top bike racer, Arthur Linton, died rather abruptly. The official cause of death was a mix of Typhoid fever and exhaustion, but many on the scene remained suspicious of Warburton. Okay, but that was over a hundred years ago, right? Well, let’s fast forward to 1924. The Pélissier brothers abandon the Tour and undergo an interview with the journalist Albert Londres. During the interview, which they later claimed was a bit of tongue-in-cheek, they describe in detail their drug collection and how/when they use them — cocaine, strychnine, and chloroform, the article was published under the title, “The Convicts of the Road.” They were quoted as saying, “we run on dynamite.”

By 1930, drug use was so prevalent that the Tour organizers added to the racers’ playbook that they would not be providing the riders with any drugs. In the 1940s, the cyst had yet to subside. Fausto Coppi readily admitted to drug use throughout his career, citing the regular use of a concoction dubbed “la Bomba,” which was comprised of Coca Cola, caffeine, and amphetamines. In fact, until 1964, the use of amphetamines in the peloton was so prevalent that up to 12 professional riders were claimed to have died from it, including, but not limited to, Knude Enemark Jensen and Tom Simpson. Both of whom collapsed during races and died — the 1960 Olympics and the 1967 Tour, respectively.

1960 — the Tour. Gastone Nencini was found by then inspector, Pierre Dumas, administering himself with hormones via a hack-job IV — he later went onto win that Tour. 1969, Merckx is expelled from the Giro for doping, and not learning his lesson, he was also booted from the 1973 Giro di Lombardia and the 1977 edition of Flèche Wallone for drug use.

Riders, coaches, and doctors were always trying to stay ahead of the tests, and by the ’80s, their methods became even more complex. This is when blood doping became wildly popular. Pioneered by Francesco Conconi, it wasn’t banned by the IOC until 1986. Beforehand, even Francesco Moser had no problem admitting to utilizing the doping method between 1983 and 1985, during which time he broke the Hour Record. This period is also of significance, because under Moser’s employ, we see the entrance of, now notorious, Michele Ferrari. His doping tactics were so promising that he gained the position of Team Doctor for Gewiss Ballan.

Meanwhile, between 1988 and 1989, Conconi was busy experimenting with EPO as a PED. It’s also worthy to note that there have been claims that many national teams from various sports were also playing doctor with the drug with the support of their home countries’ governments. During this time, several riders died of various forms of heart failure, reportedly including names like Bert Oosterbosch, Patrice Bar, and Johannes Draaijer. This led to the IOC banning EPO in 1990. Bans be damned, though, Conconi mastered the implementation of the drug, during which time he was also serving as the personal doctor for both Laurent Fignon and Miguel Indurain. Fignon later admitted to drug use in his autobiography, while Indurain has never admitted to or tested positive for banned substances.

Throughout this time, from 1986 to 1992, it was later discovered that Team PDM was complicit in widespread drug use, ranging from the fanatical use of steroids to EPO. Two riders from the team retired due to heart conditions. The blatant drug use was so volatile that LeMond actually quit the team in disgust, moving to the Belgian squad ADR.

And once Dr. Ferrari went solo in 1994, the maelstrom of drugs that we all know by heart went down. There’s the Festina affair, the Telekom affair, Pantani, Ullrich, Riis, Landis, the US Postal Service, Armstrong, Di Luca, Santambrogia, and many, many more.

Outlined above are just a few of the cases that we actually know about. Undoubtedly, though, the depth of the truth is far more encompassing then we can even imagine. It’s truly absurd enough to actually draw a comparison to Raul Duke and Dr. Gonzo gallivanting off into the desert, “we had…a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…” And after reading Voet’s account of how teams’ PEDs were transported and administered, the suitcase full of drugs parallel is almost comically spot on.

But in all seriousness, what does all of this mean? We hear the title “The Lost Generation” thrown around time and time again, but by all accounts, the whole damn entirety of cycling has been lost for over a hundred years. Even last year, WADA had to send out a mass notice to athletes and teams stating to resist the urge to take GW1516 and AICAR because, in all likelihood, you’re going to die if you do. And even with the warning, numerous South American riders have tested positive for these substances. Along this sentiment, it’s hard to say that we’re staring reform straight in the face. It’s difficult to say that we’re witnessing a new age. Hell, even Masters racers are getting into the mix these days.

As fans of the sport, we relish in witnessing the inhuman being accomplished by the human. Henri Desgrange probably knew this, and whoever invented the Six-Day races sure as hell knew this, but I ask, what does this say about us? Has our diet for suffering and grandeur left no alternative for the riders outside of PEDs? Would we still watch a clean 10-day Tour, and if we would, how many riders would actually race it without drugs? In 1966, riders at the Tour dismounted in protest to the introduction of doping controls at the race. Which makes me wonder, if they can protest for their right to drugs, why can’t the fans protest in opposition to drugs? If we’re really in such a state of outrage over situations like the Lance saga, why haven’t we just turned off the TV and voted with our wallets? And what really makes no sense is how we’re struck with indignation and betrayal for contemporary cheats, while we concurrently gaze upon historic cheats as veritable gods? I simply don’t see the logic in this.

I believe that the survival of the sport is hinged on it getting cleaned up, and I firmly believe that characters like Wiggins, Millar, Kimmage, and Cookson are hell bent on doing so. But at the end of the day, my mind leaves the debate right where it started — with uncertainty. I hope for a future without disappointment, but when hope is your last resort, your surroundings must be pretty desperate.