Doping and Suspicious Performances

Fairly early in the USADA report into US Postal, they made the point that according to WADA rules, performance alone is never sufficient to launch an anti doping investigation.

In other words, ‘eyebrow raising performances’ are not sufficient for an anti-doping unit to begin an investigation of an athlete. There needs to be other evidence. This evidence does not necessarily have to be failed drug tests, it could be testimonies, interviews e.t.c.


In 1999, US postal and Lance Armstrong dominated throughout the tour and in particular on the first mountain stage, with many in the press room raising eyebrows at the unbelievable performance of Armstrong – only a short time after his recovery from cancer. 13 years later, and many who watch the sport of pro-cycling are (due to repeated doping scandals) much more suspicious / cynical about any dominating performance. The problem is that suspicion is becoming a deeply embedded part of the sport.

When Team Sky dominated the first Pyrenean stage (Froome, Porte and Kennaugh), it seemed impossible for anyone to report the stage without making the comparison with US Postal of 1999 and referring to it as an ‘eyebrow’ raising performance.

But, I see a whole world of difference between the 1999 US Postal experience and the era of 2013.

After Lance Armstrong’s eyebrow raising performances, it seemed that anecdotal evidence of his doping kept falling from the sky.

  • The non-existence of EPO tests at the time.
    His failed test of Cortiscone
    Armstrong’s bullying of anti-doping rider Christophe Bassons
    The later testimonies of masseurs, riders on the team.
    The lying about use of actovigen e.t.c.
    The persistent use and payment to notorious doping doctor Michael Ferrari

I could go on, but no-one really wants to drag up the whole Armstrong case file. The point is that to the ‘suspicious performances’ evidence kept coming to support suspicions over performance. The case against Armstrong was not based on the evidence that he was 4 minutes better than everyone else. It was based on the fact that even his teammates were saying he doped.

If we look at Team Sky, the only major blot on the copybook is the temporary hiring of Doctor Leinders in 2011 and 2012, who has increasingly being implicated in blood doping at Rabobank. But, Leinders was only at Sky a relatively short time.

If you believe and value in the truth, you develop an intuition for when people are clearly lying or not. Modern day riders may come across as overly defensive, but it must be irritating for any athlete who rides clean only for Tom, Dick and Harry who spend most of their time on internet chat forums to assume they know everything. Off guard, dopers often gave clues away in interviews. Do you take drugs – “I have never failed a dope test”


The problem with basing doping suspicion on performance, is that anyone who does well in the Tour de France, will be labelled suspicion. And this will change from day to day. If you are suitably cynical, the only people not to be suspicious about are those who fail to make the cut off time. One day, Team Sky have 3 riders doing well, the next day Sky fall off the mountain, and we see the bizarre site of six Movistar riders surrounding the last Sky man standing Froome.

It is unfortunate, that relatively bad performance these days are seen by some as a good thing. The fact that Sky riders aren’t super-human and ride with robotic strength every day, is seen to be a good thing. Apart from Froome, Peter Kennaugh, (and Porte in one stage), Sky must be a bit disappointed with some of their domestiques; they probably had a stronger team in the Giro.

In the current climate, it is unbelievable how US postal got away with so much. Can you imagine Froome bullying an anti-doping rider? Can you imagine Froome getting a back dated certificate for a failed dope test? Can you imagine TV crews finding bags of actovigen in Sky hotels?


It is good to have reservations and ask intelligent questions. But, there is a danger of overdoing the cynicism and coming to false conclusions on the basis of good performances.

Do I trust cyclists who paid a lot of money to go and see Dr Fuentes? no. I don’t. But, I’m going to enjoy the Tour for what it is. I believe there are many riders who are now riding clean, but ironically face much greater inquisition than the doped generation ever did. To ride the tour clean, despite having to deal with the extra suspicion is a great achievement, and I value their efforts.

Maybe in five years time, we will again be disappointed as doping use is proved. If it is, so be it. I won’t have lost anything. But, I’ll wait for that evidence to be proved before I become the cynical cycling watcher. The Tour after all is a chance to admire the efforts and courage of the riders. And what will happen in the next few weeks? Who knows, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Froome neatly packaged in a few Spanish sandwiches. Just remember talent and performance is not proof of doping. Sit back and enjoy the race.


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