A French sports scientist has claimed the Tour de France could be won without doping, adding that cynics shouldn not discount top individual performances as evidence of cheating.
Spaniard Alberto Contador's victory in the drug-tainted race on the Champs-Elysees in Paris just over a week ago is shrouded with suspicion even though he was cleared after being named in the Operation Puerto blood-doping scandal in Spain. Race leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark was withdrawn by his team for lying about his whereabouts for off-season testing and Kazakh rider Alexander Vinokourov tested positive for blood-doping to understandably bring about suspicions of mass doping in the peloton.
Veronique Billat, who established a laboratory near Paris which studies sports physiology, said that notion was unfair to a great many riders who trained intelligently.
She said even though Rasmussen went faster than seven-times winner Lance Armstrong on one of the climbs during the race (Plateau de Beille), it did not necessarily mean he had resorted to doping.
"When a professional cyclist arrives at the bottom of a hill, he has often not put in a lot of effort beforehand," she said. "It's a little bit like a hiker who walks for several hours and then, at the end, sprints to catch a bus. During an effort of five hours, the riders are prepared to ride at heart rates of 110/120 beats per minute (low effort) with their teammates but at the end of a race they put in a maximum effort.
"The hours on the flat are just a warm-up. Then there is one hour of intense effort, rather like the work put in by someone trying to break the hour record. But it would certainly be possible for a rider (like Rasmussen) to do that with good training, especially with a good team which could bring him to the foot of the climbs in a fresh condition.
"Sports is about going beyond one's limits and doing that does not necssarily mean doping," Billat added. "If you say Rasmussen is doped because he is faster (...), that means you might as well stop all competitive sport.
"Just because a rider has accelerated at such and such a point does not mean his performance should be seen as evidence of doping. If you analyse riders' performances at that moment, you would see that they could be below their VO2 max (Maximum Oxygen Uptake Capacity) and are at 85 or 90 percent."
Since Billat's laboratory in Evry, or LEPHE, was opened in the autumn of last year, the former cross country skier and runner has continually tried to illustrate that high level sports performers are often poorly-trained and that scientific methods would prepare athletes for top performances without doping.
She claims experiments with mice have shown those who train intelligently have nothing to envy in terms of performance compared to those mice who train with the help of doping products.
Former biathletes Raphael Poiree and his wife, Liv Grete, cyclists, French international rugby players and Paris Saint Germain footballers have all been customers of the LEPHE. Kenya's Olympic 5,000m silver medallist from Athens, Isabellah Ochichi, said her medal was the product of the Billat method which consists of training using personal physiological training zones in terms of heart rate or pace.
Billar said it was important to get a personal training schedule for each athlete on an individual basis. "Sports coaches often increase training volume without taking into account the particular strengths and weaknesses of the athlete," she said. "This approach is not effective and sometimes harmful."
Billat has even helped those who have already used doping products, bringing controversy. "I am not in the business of judging but I will always ask these athletes to give up (doping) before working with them," she said. "My scientific ethic is to help people progress without drugs and I will always try and help an athlete to stop doping."
She added if a person who had been suspended came to her laboratory, she would make them sign an ethics charter before offering them a personalised programme, adding there was no point demonising drug cheats.
"Either we put them all in prison or we try to gain their confidence but I believe in people. I have a good rapport with the World Anti-Doping Agency and the French anti-doping authorities but they are in the business of cracking down on athletes and expect me to denounce them too."
© AFP 2007