On: The Boy Who Cried “Doper”

Lance Armstrong

By Simon Jolly

As summer inevitably turns to autumn, the cycling Grand Tour season is finally consigned to history for another year.  The last Grand Tour of the year, the Vuelta a España, slowly fades in the memory, the warm glow of the Spanish sun now replaced by the foreshortened evenings that herald the approach of winter.  The Vuelta was enlivened by the performances of a number of young riders and in particular the contest between three who clearly have great things ahead of them: the Colombian Esteban Chavez, of Orica-GreenEDGE; Giant-Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin from the Netherlands; and the eventual winner, the Italian Fabio Aru, riding for Astana.

Other than two days on the shoulders of Peter Velits (after the neutralised Team Time Trial on Stage 1 and Joaquim Rodríguez (who took it after Stage 16), the red jersey was only worn by those three young riders.  After a number of stages, the gap between the top two was but a matter of seconds.  Chavez took the red jersey after Stage 2 and held it for virtually the entire first week, before slowly fading after the first rest day.

Despite taking the lead from stages 11 to 15, Aru generally kept his powder dry, before going for broke on the last few mountain stages just before Madrid.  In Aru, it appears Astana have a natural successor to Vincenzo Nibali, whose Grand Tour season went from bad to worse after he was thrown off the Vuelta for taking a tow from his team car.

It was Dumoulin, however, who set the race alight, almost managing to carry the Red Jersey all the way to Madrid, only succumbing to Aru on the final mountain stage to Cercedilla. Before the race began, Dumoulin’s talent was not in doubt, despite his tender years, with a win in the 2014 Dutch Individual Time Trial championship amongst his palmares.  What so illuminated the race, however, was how well Dumoulin performed outside his recognised specialism — the time trial — and displayed a hitherto unexpected climbing prowess.

On all but the penultimate stage, he largely managed to keep pace with smaller, lighter men more renowned for their ability — and more obviously physically adapted — to take on the challenges of the high mountains. First Chavez and then Aru struggled to repel the challenge of the young Dutchman.  Dumoulin even managed to get one over on Britain’s Chris Froome in the closing kilometres of Stage 9, dragging himself back onto Froome’s wheel after the Sky man had got the jump on Jaoquim Rodríguez before overhauling him less than 100 m from the line.  And it is the comparison with Froome that is particularly interesting, although not for the reasons mentioned so far.

Froome arrived at the Vuelta only 4 weeks after being crowned the first two-time British winner of the Tour de France (“first two-time British winner” is actually something of a misnomer, since the only other British champion, Bradley Wiggins, won his only Tour in 2012, after which he turned his sights on less ascetic pursuits, like the consumption of a few decent meals).  Froome had built his entire preparation around peaking at the Tour, with victory secured thanks in part to an explosive performance on the climb up to La Pierre-Saint-Martin on Stage 10.

Froome had admitted afterwards that he had targeted this stage as one to put time into his rivals and so it proved, with a series of his trademark seated accelerations — rapidly upping his cadence without getting out of the saddle to stamp on his pedals — proving too much even for the Colombian climber Nairo Quintana, who was expected to be Froome’s main rival.

The stage also had the fingerprints of Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford’s “marginal gains” approach all over it.  How a cyclist spends the rest day in the middle of such a long tour has always had an element of uncertainty about it.  Spend the entire day resting to ensure as much recovery as possible, with the danger that the body will be too sluggish the day after?

Or spend a few hours on a training ride to keep the engine going, risking the possibility that the body will not recover sufficiently?  You can bet that Sky looked at such a problem and spent significant resources in training working out precisely how each of their riders responded to different approaches to tackling their days off.

Thus Sky would arrive at the stage following the rest day armed with a potential significant advantage over their rivals.  Froome also identified the last climb of the stage as being particularly suited to his skills: reasonably long with the ideal gradient — not too flat, not too steep — to enable him to maintain his accelerations without his rivals being able to sustain their shorter but more explosive bursts of effort.

It was, however, these sustained efforts — that left Quintana trailing — that caused many in the press to start uttering words of warning regarding the legitimacy of Froome’s achievements.  Most notably the French TV analyst Laurent Jalabert asserted that Froome’s performance on that day was on another planet.  The use of the phrase “une autre planète” has particular resonance, since it was how the French newspaper L’Equipe originally drew attention to the doping accusations surrounding Lance Armstrong.  Armstrong, of course, denied any doping practice with even more vehemence than Sky have defended Froome, taking any accuser to court in an effort to protect his name.

That story, of course, is still unfolding.  In a former life, Jalabert was a contemporary of Armstrong in more ways than one.  He last rode the Tour de France in 2002, by which time the American had collected 4 of the 7 titles of which he was later stripped.  But Jalabert was also named by a 2013 French Senate report as being amongst the list of French riders who had tested positive for the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO) when blood samples from the 1998 Tour were retested in 2004.  Jalabert’s response to this evidence of his doping past was conspicuous by its absence, making his accusations about Froome ring hollow, as the British media were quick to highlight.

Jalabert, however, was not alone in questioning Froome’s performance, with the Team Sky man having to endure daily interrogations about how he could have managed to deliver such an astonishing performance without the use of performance enhancing drugs.

Team Sky, normally the model of secrecy regarding their marginal gains-inspired methods, were moved to release some of Froome’s power data, with Sky’s Head of Athlete Performance Tim Kerrison giving a lengthy analysis of Froome’s power output on that final climb up to La Pierre-Saint-Martin.  A number of articles posted across the web had suggested Froome’s power output were above the estimated “legitimate” threshold for a clean cyclist of 6.2 Watts per kilogram of body weight.  Not so, countered Kerrison: adjusting for the asymmetric chainrings used in Sky’s cranks, Froome’s maximum power output was a more reasonable 5.8 W/kg.  And Kerrison had the published performance data to back up his claims.  Needless to say, this didn’t do much to quieten the conspiracy theorists already convinced of Sky’s hidden doping practices, despite their reputation as one of the teams with the most forthright of anti-doping policies.

During the Tour, the growing vitriol directed at Froome in the light of his “other worldly” performance was eye-opening, and not just from sections of the media.  During Stage 14, Froome had a cup of urine thrown over him; on a number of other occasions he was spat at, all the while enduring the screams of “doper” from disgruntled spectators.  There was a firm belief amongst some quarters — voiced by Jalabert and others — that doping was the only possible explanation for Team Sky’s success.  Professional cycling — and professional cycling journalism — still has some way to go to escape the dark recesses of its not-so-distant pass.

Maybe the unfortunate similarities between Team Sky and US Postal (and latterly Discovery) played a part.  Sky have the capacity to outspend virtually all of their rivals; they are also fiercely protective of the marginal gains that have seen such success, first in British track cycling and subsequently at the Tour de France.  In some ways, Armstrong’s US Postal team took a similar marginal gains approach to Sky, but with a focus on doping rather than legitimate performance improvements: no radioactive Coke can left unturned, as it were.

There is, however, also a suspicion that the strength of the accusations was in part a backlash against the Armstrong years: there is indeed a price to be paid for investing all that emotional capital in one man’s heroic story, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. Once bitten, twice shy, so to speak.

Of course this glosses over the fact that both the fans and the media were entirely complicit in the writing of that story: even if they had nothing to do with the choice to deceive, there was nonetheless a willingness to be deceived in order for the idol to remain unblemished.  There is nothing as angry as the jilted lover, with Froome in the unfortunate position of being better than his peers just as the mob were looking to vent their fury.

Similar questions were raised at the Vuelta a España, although without the aggression present at the Tour.  In performing so well, Dumoulin had to counter the inevitable accusations of doping.  The gentler tone of his post-stage interrogations was perhaps a recognition that the intensity of the focus on Froome earlier in the year had been excessive, mixed with the joy at seeing a genuine talent emerge.  However, the pattern that had been established at the Tour was carried through into the Vuelta: if you wore the leader’s jersey, you had to defend the legitimacy of your performance.  In other words, the main evidence that a rider might be doping was simply to be better than his peers.

The justification was repeatedly used by the media during the Tour – ‘you understand that we have to ask these questions because you wear the yellow jersey?’ This, clearly, is a less than scientific method of uncovering the use of prohibited substances.

The sophistication of the anti-doping effort has grown considerably since EPO first started illicitly enhancing cyclists’ ability to consume oxygen sometime in the 1990’s — sadly, one suspects, in parallel with the doper’s efforts to evade detection (for an introduction to blood boosting agents in cycling one could do worse than look up Matt Rendell’s excellent biography, ‘The Death of Marco Pantani’.  Of greatest significance in recent times was not the development of a specific test but the advent of the athlete biological passport.

Rather than looking at specific times for anomalous blood readings — such as the excessive haematocrit levels that led to Pantani’s expulsion whilst leading the 1999 Giro d’Italia — the biological passport tracks the evolution of blood values over time, allowing testers to build up a picture of an athlete’s “steady state” and monitor any significant deviation from these averages.  Such deviations can be a result of natural causes, such as illness, but may also be indicative of doping.  Discerning the difference takes skill and expertise.

Part of Sky’s reluctance to release Chris Froome’s data from the Tour de France and elsewhere is not just in the interests of maintaining a competitive advantage, but also because complex data is easy to misinterpret, particularly when one is looking for evidence to fit a conclusion, not the other way round. This is something the British runner Paula Radcliffe discovered to her cost.

Radcliffe was forced to make a public statement categorically denying engaging in after she was implicated by the joint Sunday Times–ARD/WDR leak of athlete blood test data earlier this year.

Both athletes are notable not only for their exemplary testing histories but also their vocal advocacy for a clean sport and support for whatever testing procedures are necessary to prove that they are competing clean.

However, it should be noted that the accusations against Froome, Dumoulin and others — from within the fourth estate and elsewhere — are **not** based on abnormalities in any rider’s biological passport.  There are a number of reasons why the lead riders in each of the Grand Tours have been targeted with accusations — and why Froome was pursued with more venom than Dumoulin — but one can’t avoid the conclusion that they were singled out for simply being better than their peers.  In other words, you are more likely to be cheating because you are good.

Not only does this leave no scope for one athlete to be naturally better than another (which is surely the foundation of all sporting competition) but also leads to an unfortunate conclusion: that if you make such strenuous accusations against a rider based only on the fact that they are wearing the leader’s jersey, you actively enable those engaged in doping to avoid the finger of suspicion.  If the spotlight of suspicion falls only on the leader, all other riders can pass under the radar.  If doubt is continuously cast on a rider’s story, no matter the weight of evidence in their favour (or lack of evidence to the contrary), then clean riders never have a fair opportunity to be recognised as such.  And that means that real doping is **more**, not less, likely to go undetected.

There is a parallel here with a theory in particle physics called Supersymmetry, or ‘SUSY’ for short. Supersymmetry predicts that every particle that we know of has a supersymmetric “twin” particle, some of whose properties are identical but others of which differ in fundamental ways.  The problem, of course, is that not a shred of evidence for SUSY has yet been found, not even at the Large Hadron Collider, which recently discovered evidence of the Higgs Boson.

Yet each time a new experiment draws a blank, subtle adjustments are made to the theory to explain why it’s still just out of reach.  “Ah”, say the theorists, “it’s just around the corner”.  This, as Richard Feynman pointed it out, is not the basis of a scientific experiment.  Any theory must make a clear prediction that can be tested by experiment: if we see a certain result, this confirms the theory; but if we **don’t** see this result, we know that the theory is false.  This is the basis of making any scientific hypothesis.

And so it should be with doping accusations.  “If we observe these set of circumstances, we have incontrovertible evidence of doping; if we do not, we know that the athlete is clean”.  This of course is extremely challenging. With all the effort going in to *avoiding* detection, discovering evidence of doping is a painstaking and nuanced process.

In some cases, the evidence is reasonably clear cut, such as the cyclists who tested positive for the EPO-derivative CERA at the 2008 Tour de France.  In others, such as with US Postal, the case is more nuanced, without the a clear positive test but backed up by the weight of testimony of ex-riders and others connected with the team that had knowledge of the extensive doping practices.

But whatever the reality, a suggestion of doping must be backed up not only with sound reasons for pointing the finger, but also terms by which guilt or innocence can be established.  Simply writing a good anti-doping story is not enough, particularly if it allows the dopers to evade detection.

If someone is making an accusation of doping, they must always bear the burden of stating how an athlete can be shown to be doping and how they can prove that they are not.  This is rarely the case in modern journalism.  The questioner always requires the athlete to prove that they are clean without providing the clear boundaries to enable that proof to be provided.  Doubt can always be cast when the boundaries are constantly moving.

If anyone is truly committed to eradicating doping in sport, they must shoulder some of the responsibility for separating the doped athlete from the clean with both the weight of evidence and the remit by which a clean athlete can prove themselves.  This was not the case for Froome at the Tour de France, where he was tasked with defending himself and his sport from the whiff of suspicion that grew as the race went on.  And with each piece of evidence presented in his defence, the prosecution would subtly shift their arguments to allow the underlying presumption of guilt to remain.

Much like the non-discovery of SUSY, the terms by which a positive could be established were not the same as those in which a negative could be proven. And that is neither scientific nor fair.  And like the boy who cried “Wolf”, every shout of “doper!” that isn’t backed up by clear evidence weakens the position of those who make that accusation.  Then, over time, the public simply become inured to the repeated claims of doping till apathy sets in.  It’s all been heard before, over and over again, till it’s simply registered as background noise.  And in such circumstances those who claim to be against doping actually work to the advantage of the dopers.

One final thought that also has a connection to particle physics.  In quantum mechanics there is the well-known phenomenon that the act of making an observation affects the experimental system being observed.  For example, one can know the position and momentum of a particle only with a limited accuracy that is set by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Try and measure the position any more accurately and the *very act of making that measurement* causes a change in the momentum such that the measurement of the momentum becomes more uncertain; the reverse is also true.  This means that the very act of making an observation changes something about the system: the key in science is to ensure that the changes are not significant enough to void any hypothesis under test.

What does this have to do with cycling, doping and journalism?  Journalists like to think of themselves as somehow outside the story they are observing.  Yet the media are more a part of the story than they would like to admit, with an ability to steer and curate the “truth” that gives more power over and less independence from the story they are attempting to report.  Some stories can be inflated not in an effort to reveal the truth but merely as a hard-headed business decision to sell more newspapers or airtime.

This can lead to the kind of abuse that Chris Froome was forced to endure from spectators during the Tour.  And when that clouds the pursuit of the truth to such an extent that such pursuit becomes noticeably more difficult — such as in the case of doping accusations — then it does everyone a disservice.

Except, perhaps, those wishing to carry on using banned substances with impunity.

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