Hello? Is Anybody Home?

by Rant on June 19, 2014 · 28 comments

in Cycling, Tour de France

Yep, it’s been a while. A long while. Even longer than the last interval between posts — I think. Sorry folks. Haven’t really known what to say. There’s a whole lot going on. But at the same time, it’s a whole lot of the same old, same old. Lance Armstrong keeps trying to outmaneuver his legal foes, and they keep coming back for more. So far, Armstrong has been on the losing end of his various attempts to forestall the inevitable.

I can see where he’s coming from, at least a little bit. Trying to preserve his fortune, at least enough so he won’t have to work a real job like the rest of us plebes. But how much can a person write about Armstrong and his machinations, anyway? (I suppose if I were a sports writer, the answer to that question would be “a lot.” But this is just a hobby for me.)

So something struck me the other day that is somewhat of a comment on the state of affairs within the world of cycling, and perhaps sports in general.  A few days ago, a French newspaper published a story that suggested the International Cycling Union (UCI) gave Chris Froome (last year’s Tour de France champion) an unfair advantage recently by allowing him to use the corticosteroid prednisolone during the Tour of Romandie.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

…according to Dr Gerard Guillaume, cited by the Journal du Dimanche as an expert: “The rules state that taking steroids by mouth is prohibited during competition and that if a cyclist displays a condition requiring such a treatment, he is clearly not fit to take part and that any request for a TUE [therapeutic use exemption] must be considered by a group of experts.”

When I saw the story, I thought, “Hmm. What’s the deal here? Is this guy suggesting that Froome shouldn’t have been given a TUE for the drug?” And then it occurred to me that if a rider or other athlete suddenly needs treatment during a race (think Jonathan Vaughters years ago with an eye swollen shut by a wasp or bee sting), can’t a TUE be granted pretty quickly? (The answer is “yes, it can.”)

Of course, you would expect the UCI to challenge the paper’s assertions. And they did, as the Telegraph reports:

“Christopher Froome’s TUE (therapeutic use exemption) for oral use of glucocorticosteroids was granted on April 29, 2014, based on duly documented medical history and in compliance with the applicable UCI Regulations and the relevant Wada guidelines,” read a UCI statement.

Froome, of course, has something to say on the subject, too. Also from the Telegraph:

Froome, meanwhile, was forced to defend his use of an inhaler on his way to winning the second stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné last week.

“I have had an inhaler since childhood, I have exercise induced asthma,” said the Tour de France winner. “It is ok. I didn’t need a TUE.”

And sure enough, after the World Anti-Doping Agency looked into the matter, they said everything was above board. Not necessarily something you’d expect given the animosity over the years between the two organizations. From the BBC, we learn:

…a Wada statement said it was “satisfied that the UCI’s decision to grant a Therapeutic Use Exemption to Chris Froome was conducted according to the rules of the International Standard for Therapeutic Use Exemptions, and therefore will not be reviewing this case any further”.

Much ado about nothing, right? Well, given the history of cycling — and especially given the history of corruption within the halls and walls of the UCI (see Armstrong, Lance and McQuaid, Pat and Verbruggen, Hein) — it would be easy to believe that something underhanded occurred. Such is the sad state of affairs within the sport.

So even if Chris Froome is totally clean (and I’m not claiming anything one way or the other), he’s going to have the albatross of a previous generation’s sins hanging from his neck for pretty much the whole of his career. Lots of fans have become jaded and cynical about sports achievements, especially when it comes to cycling. For that, we can thank a long list of people, including Lance Armstrong. But if we’re being honest, it goes back a long, long, long way. (Think Choppy Warburton and Jimmy Michael circa 1896 and go forward from there.)

Can there ever be such a thing as “clean” competition? I don’t know. When fame and fortune await the winners of big events like the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, there will always be a temptation to cheat. Even if most of the competitors are clean, there will always be a few who would risk it all to grab all the glory.

With what appears to be a move towards a cleaner and more transparent sport, those who participate and those who run the events and those who administer the rules will be subject to a certain amount of scrutiny from the outside. And that scrutiny will be tinged, at least a little bit, with cynicism.

We will probably see stories such as this for some time to come. It took on the order of 15 years to get Lance Armstrong to come clean. But how much longer will it take for people to believe that someone like Chris Froome might actually be following the rules and not bending them to his wishes? A good, long time, I suspect. As a certain disgraced cyclist from Austin, Texas once said, you can’t prove a negative.

Only after doping stories and allegations have faded well into the background will things on that front change. It’s gonna be a long wait.

Meanwhile, the Tour de France starts in my dad’s hometown, Leeds, in just a couple of weeks. Really wish I could be there to see the race go by, especially if it goes by my grandparent’s old house. That would be cool to see. Something that’s not to be, I’m afraid. But maybe one of my cousins will stand by the side of the road and cheer the riders on for me.

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racejunkie June 20, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Delighted you’re posting again, Rant. If it helps, the way I’m enjoying what seem to be even freak performances is to just expect a Festina-Operacion Puerto-CERA cycle every 5-odd years and block out my inevitable crushing disappointment in the interim. Works for me!

Rant June 20, 2014 at 6:26 pm

That’s a good approach, racejunkie! I’ll give it a try. 🙂

MattC June 20, 2014 at 10:13 pm

Holy Hand Grenades, Rant’s back!

Welcome, welcome! I saw the Velo News article on this and first thing I thought was I wonder just how many of the TOP Pro’s claim to have asthma. I mean…Froome’s TUE was JUST granted on April 29th? He’s been using them all his life? (and JUST got the TUE?) I’m no expert here by ANY means, but there’s a reason they are banned…and just refresh my memory, what does the inhaler do? Something about opening up your lungs/airways so you can breath better (among other things)? I wonder what it would do for you if you DIDN’T have asthma? Maybe give some level of help during high intensity exercise? I sure don’t know, but what can I say…I’m totally jaded by the past and distrust pretty much all of them at this point. Micro dosing seems to be the way to avoid being caught with whatever your drug of choice is. Maybe using an inhaler is akin to that? (especially if you don’t REALLY have asthma). Oh sure, he’s been coughing after the races…that’s proof. Heck, I cough up LUNGS sometimes in the morning, and during rides occasionally, and even after rides (and I don’t smoke or anything, never have)…must mean I have asthma too.

Sorry Rant to be SO negative. I have to somehow rotate my attitude back to “I don’t care anymore”..I seem to have flipped around again somehow. Thought I was past this.

Anyway, WELCOME BACK!!!!

MattC June 20, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Oh, and your Dad’s from Leeds? I’ve been there…(flown in/out a few times, working over at Harrogate a few times). LOVE it up in Yorkshire! 2 years ago I was there for 3 months, and shipped over my road bike (well, UK customs held it hostage for a month trying to get over $800 out of me to get it out of prison). Been to the National Armory Museum in Leeds..what an awesome place! And York many times (fascinated by York). And the Yorkshire Dales are my FAVORITE riding destination! Sure wish I could wrangle another ‘work trip’ this July, but no dice…not that I didn’t give it a try.

Sorry to hijack your comments…back to the original story!

Rant June 23, 2014 at 2:42 pm

Yep, my dad grew up in Leeds. His family moved there during the war, after the Nazis blew up their rowhouse in London during the Blitz. I haven’t checked the route for Stage 1, but there’s at least a chance the race could go by my grandparents’ old house.

As far as those inhalers go, they’re good for opening up airways that are constricted, but once the airway is open, they don’t have much additional effect. So someone who doesn’t have asthma or a similar condition won’t benefit too much by using one. His/her airways are already open.

Now, the placebo effect is an entirely different matter. If they believe it might help, they might feel an effect. But that would be purely psychological. Like my preference for swimming with music, rather than swimming without. I think it helps, but the analytical part of me realizes that it probably makes no real difference. (That said, I’ve been swimming faster while waiting for a replacement housing for my new iPod, which got replaced after the last housing leaked and destroyed my previous iPod.)

It’s sort of like testosterone. No real evidence that it affects recovery or endurance, but the pros swear by it (or they did, anyway). And if they think it helps, that might be enough to get them to ramp up the intensity for their training and racing.

MattC June 25, 2014 at 7:46 am

I think swimming with music makes the time go by faster as my mind is distracted from the suffering and boredom (much like listening to music on the bike when climbing)…can’t say if I’m any faster but it’s MUCH more enjoyable than without.

Interesting observation on the placebo effect…hadn’t even thought that part thur…if you think it helps then it does…the mind is the most poweful weapon we have (well, for most people…my mine is more like a rubber knife in a gunfight).

But no matter, it’s still shaping up to be a banner Tour, and I’ll be watching and cheering as usual (thus far, my man of choice is Contador…which is something I thought I’d never say!)

Rant June 25, 2014 at 12:14 pm

It will definitely be an exciting Tour. I’ll be interested to see how well Contador does. And Froome, too. Not sure the Brit/Kenyan can win a second Tour in a row. If he doesn’t do well, Sky will not be happy, especially if Wiggins truly doesn’t go to the Tour (not that I would root for him, but if he were in good form, he could have an influence on the outcome).

MattC June 26, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Great article today on Velo News…an interview w/ Inga Thompson…(after reading the headline I was afraid she was going to come out and admit that she doped throughout her career and for all her wins…whew…heavy sigh of relief!)


I defy you to read that and then say that Lance is the devil…this goes all the way back into the 80’s, right HERE in the good ol’ USA! (well, Lance IS the devil in some ways..bullying, lawsuits, etc…the doping was obviously well entrenched and widespread throughout cycling).

William Schart June 28, 2014 at 9:15 pm

I remember reading about Eddie B and the blood doping program in an issue of Bicycling, probably during the winter of 1984-5. One thing to remember: blood doping was not banned at that time. The article raised the issue of whether the doping program was ethical or not, but did not provide any answer. Nor do I really have my own answer, given the context of that time. Today, given what we know and suspect about doping in sports, I think that taking some PED, even though not actually banned, is unethical. But it still is a tricky issue. The lack of scientific evidence that testosterone is truly performance enhancing has been allude to above. I’d truly the only effect it had is the placebo effect, should it be banned? If someone takes some snake oil, thinking that it will improve his performance despite the factor is just snake oil, should he be sanctioned for attempting to get an unnatural benefit?

To kind of change things up a bit, here’s an article on the history of le Tour and history in general:


MattC July 3, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Impy tests positive for a masking agent…(see velo news article: http://velonews.competitor.com/2014/07/news/impey-returns-positive-tests_334087.

Yep…one of the new, clean generation….(or so everybody says, and we all want to believe). Anybody believe it? Or is it still pretty much business as usual (don’t get caught)? I find it hard to believe that it’s nearly as clean as is touted. I think they’re just smarter than ever (and they’ve been pretty smart in the last decade or so).

William Schart July 5, 2014 at 6:54 am

A while back some “authorities” were claiming that slower times indicated cleaner peletons. Maybe, but then there are at least two other explanations:

1. The riders, even when doped, just aren’t as fast as our old “heros”.

2. They are doping, but taking an Anquetilian approach to things. He famously asked his DS how much he had beaten Polidor, and when told it was by 17 seconds, said that was 16 too much.

You don’t have to necessarily tear up the peleton and set all kinds of records to win, just be that little bit better than the rest. And if you just barely squeek by, you’re less likely to be thought a doper.

Rant July 5, 2014 at 7:44 am

Good points, William. I wonder if that’s what we’re seeing — a more “sophisticated” approach. Like you said, maybe they’re doing only just enough to win.

MattC July 9, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Rant, that would be my ‘guess’ (they are doing only enough to win)…however, IF that is the case, then it’s only a matter of time before it escalates back to full blown madness….as that’s just human nature. If I can’t beat this guy and I suspect he’s doping, then I will have to dope just a bit more…when I finally beat him, he will have to dope just a bit more to beat me back…and the party continues ad-nauseum.

William Schart July 10, 2014 at 6:34 am

I think that might happen, no matter what is going on right now. Assume for the sake of argument that, by and large, the peleton is clean now for whatever reason. At some point in time, someone is likely to figure that he can improve his placing by using some chemical augmentation. And he will probably figure he can avoid detection. Then the escalation starts over again.

If things are pretty clean right now, I think that one of the main reasons is all the negative publicity surrounding the period of 1998 through 2010 or so. The Festina affair, FL and LA, even Contador have tarnished the sport as a whole, and perhaps the current crop of coureurs is trying to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Liggett junkie July 11, 2014 at 1:35 pm

I have two qu– actually I have a lot of questions about the current edition of The World’s Greatest Sporting Event (oh, hah), but I’ll keep it to two:

1. Someone explain to me the commercial for this Tour de France – branded exercise trainer. The one that “inclines and declines 20%”. If it simulates going down a 20% grade, why is the guy demonstrating it in the commercial pedaling?

2. I feel sorry for everyone who’s crashed in the race, but I feel even sorrier for those poor podium girls. France, the center of fashion, my ass. None of those outfits are well designed, and it’s clear nobody bothered to make alterations before sending the ladies out to face the world press. Today the green-jersey and most-aggressive-rider presenters went out in lycra dresses that managed to be both puckered and baggy at the same time. Can nothing be done?

William Schart July 14, 2014 at 5:45 am

You never pedal downhill?

MattC July 14, 2014 at 11:10 am

@ William….pedal down a 20% grade? I’d need a parachute off my back while coasting, slowing me down so I don’t DIE! (but then again, I’m a pathetic descender). 6% to 8% I can go pretty speedy (for me)…but when I hit low to mid 40’s (mph) I’m pretty much DONE accelerating (been to 50 once…that was spooky enough…and if there’s ANY crosswind, forget about it!)

@Liggett junkie… your comment had me chuckling…if ‘I’ was on that trainer and it said I’m on a 20% down-grade, I’d level my pedals and ‘go aero’ until the grade dropped below 3 or 4% (which would obviously be ridicilous on a trainer). Good catch on a stupid feature of an extremely expensive trainer.

And I agree…some pretty horrific fashion for those poor girls!

William Schart July 15, 2014 at 1:00 pm

To be sure, pedaling down a 20% grade would be rather ridiculous, although if there was a suitable runout at the bottom, I just might do it in real life. But I suspect the thing with that trainer is a result of trying to cram as much info as possible into the limited time available I a commercial, plus the fact that the software which the trainer uses probably has the same limits going up and going down. Say there was some 20% hill you wanted to do repeats on, you’d want the downhill part as a recovery. Or, more likely, you were doing a time trial on some course that involved some climbing, you’d want the downhill to even things out, and you’d probably pedal downhill to make as good a time as possible.

Liggett junkie July 15, 2014 at 5:37 pm

I don’t pedal at all. I haven’t even been on a bike since 2003, but I started watching the Tour on tv in 2004 and by now, I’m good at watching cycling, I’ll put it that way. Why do you think I picked the sobriquet (if that is the mot juste) ‘Liggett junkie’? It’s a perjorative, coined by Bob Roll, for persons such as myself. The article is reprinted in Bobke II, “Lance and the Dipped in Ding-dong Doodle Down in Dixie,” and it’s a good read. Check it out sometime. Bob can write.

William Schart July 28, 2014 at 6:15 am

Well, now that the Tour is over, I wonder how long it will be until we have: 1. Either a revelation that one of the main riders has tested positive, or 2. speculation that one the the leading riders was doping. For the later, I don’t consider speculation by the likes of us to count, but rather by UCI/WADA officials, perhaps journalists or other people of note.

Or will we get pronouncements that this year’s race was clean?

MattC July 28, 2014 at 7:41 am

I won’t toss out my thoughts on who specificly I believe was (is) doping, but I find it hard to believe that they are all riding clean. I kind of thought we learned over the last 15-20 years or so that if it looks too good to be true, then it likely is. But I’ve had this same thought at the end of le Tour for at least the last two…and it’s nothing but speculation on my part. And we all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that ‘not getting caught’ doesn’t equate to a clean peleton. Sad that I can’t shake this feeling and believe. But at least we had a GREAT fight for 2nd thru 5th. And the KOM too.

William Schart July 30, 2014 at 6:38 am

Indeed, it is hard to believe that after the level of doping which we suspect went on during the Armstrong era (or even the level which we have some level of evidence for), the peleton has gone totally cold turkey. Who might be doping now is hard to say.

One question I have regarding the strategy of “microdosing” with PEDs in order to avoid detection. Does microdosing produce microbenefits? In other words, could it be that the benefits of taking small doses widely spaced in time be so low as to not be worth it?

MattC July 30, 2014 at 12:57 pm

I admit that I don’t know enough here to be spouting anything as ‘fact’, but as to the biological passport, isn’t that pretty much where they run a bunch of tests and establish a ‘baseline’ for what an athlete’s ‘normal’ is? WHAT IF an athlete has been microdosing all along, so that his ‘normal’ for the BP is NOT his true normal…then all he has to do is (being VERY CAREFUL, which we now know is totally possible) keep everything very close where it was at for the baseline. Seems like this is totally possible…gee Matt…your baseline Hematacrit is 53%…as long as you stay right around there you’re fine. And then just make sure you don’t get ‘tested’ anytime you are actively dosing to keep up the values (which we also know is totally possible…for 7 straight years even!)

Rant July 30, 2014 at 8:33 pm

Sad to say, I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually someone comes up positive for something at this year’s Tour. I hope not, but it’s happened before. Still, it was kind of fun to watch. Nibali’s dominance and the early departures of Froome and Contador made it a little less exciting than it could have been. Still, it’s a great spectacle.

As far as the microdosing goes, I think the idea is to use so little that it keeps the tank topped up, but passes out of the system quickly. Unlike the “old school” dosing of EPO or other drugs, where a bigger benefit might occur, but that benefit came with the risk that you would be “glowing” for a longer period of time and could be tripped up by a test before the glow wore off.

So what I would expect in the “microdosing era” is that we would see athletes whose biopassports look relatively consistent, might even show some of the effects from participating in a Grand Tour (such as hematocrit dropping over the course of the race), and who would gain a marginal advantage over those who don’t dope. But things like blazing speed up L’Alpe d’Huez wouldn’t be observed.

Sort of like what we’re seeing today, without anyone testing positive (or at least, none of the big names — yet).

But if a rider puts in a performance that appears to be “not normal”, or at least not within his/her known capabilities, I wouldn’t fault anyone for suspecting that rider is doping.

William Schart July 31, 2014 at 7:42 am

To continue on, it seems to me that if whatever the extent of doping currently, if it is largely based on the idea of “microdosing”, this constitutes at least a partially victory in the fight against doping. Whatever the level of benefit conferred by microdosing, it certainly must be less than the wild and wooly days of Armstrong et. al. If you dope and as a result are say 25% better than me, you will be able to beat me on a pretty consistant basis. But if you are only a few percentage points better than me, it is likely to be more of a tossup. I might beat you on occasion, or perhaps even regularly, simply because I force myself to ride at a higher level. Or perhaps my tactics are better than yours, or my bike handling skills etc. So if we are knocking doping down to this sort of level, it just well may be that, even though doping is still going on, it is not having much impact on the outcomes.

This is not to excuse any doping that might be going on now, or to suggest that we should not attempt root out those that still are doping. But if we realize that, even if we can’t eliminate doping totally, perhaps we can suppress it enough to recognize some level of success. And perhaps, over time, riders may realize that they microdosing efforts have so little benefit that it isn’t worth the trouble and risk.

Rosemary August 29, 2014 at 1:26 am
buzzybee September 10, 2014 at 11:26 am

Anybody got the dope on this? Bizarre?


William Schart September 12, 2014 at 5:01 am

Looks a bit suspicious to me. Anybody can file things with the court system. The the PG and others in USPS might have or at least should have known about what was going on is possible. On the other hand, I doubt that LA, JB, et al were filling those people in on all the sordid details of their doping program.

That a fix is in seems a bit far-fetched. What possible interest would a judge have to protect figures from an administration that’s been out of office since 2009? And just how credible is this guy anyway?

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