Why doping control is crucial at all levels of competition

Steps taken by Haute Route may prevent Gran Fondo NY EPO debacle

I, like everyone else who read it, was flabbergasted at the news last month that two amateurs had tested positive for EPO during May's Gran Fondo New York.

Doping to win and cheat your fellow competitors is something that I could never condone, no matter what the level. It's against everything I understood sport to be about as a kid and and now understand it to be as an adult.

For me, the question always comes back to how someone could take satisfaction from a drug-tainted victory and look in the eye family and friends who celebrate what they've achieved - and feel at ease doing it.

I can sometimes understand why athletes end up doping. You only have to read David Millar's excellent confessional autobiography Racing Through the Dark to see how a sportsman who was once adamant they would never go anywhere near banned drugs could be swayed in their direction.

Cajoling from a powerful team boss desperate for results, the threat of losing a contract they and their family rely upon - these are pressures that shouldn't be but unfortunately are part of professional sport, and have tempted sportsmen and women down the years towards the dark arts. I'm not suggesting in any way it's right, just that on occasions it's not always black and white. 

Where there are no shades of grey, however, is with an amateur injecting themselves with EPO to put on a good show in a gran fondo. 

The story of David Anthony, a 45-year-old cat 3 racer from New York City and one of those who tested positive at GFNY, was published in grim detail on Velo News earlier this month. It revealed a man who got hooked on cycling later in life and descended into EPO and Human Growth Hormone abuse in a desperate attempt to move up the lower end of the road racing ranks.

"I think that cycling is different. Somehow, it’s different than everything else. It rewards the obsessive, compulsive nature," he said in his tell-all interview.

His obsession with the sport will be familiar to many, but the final steps he took over the precipice into drug use will appall the vast majority of honest, hard working amateurs.

Here's a man without pressures from on high, who had a career outside of cycling, spending thousands of dollars on performance-enhancing drugs for his own personal, very hollow, victory.

But it's not the first instance of a doped-up amateur that's been uncovered and unfortunately it won't be the last. The testing procedure at the New York Gran Fondo came about because the prize fund exceeded $100,000, a huge sum which prompted its organisers to bring USADA (US Anti-Doping Authority) on board.

Is it reassuring that event organisers and anti-doping authorities are trying to detect drug cheats in amateur races, gran fondos and sportives or is it frightening that such procedures are even needed in these events, that there are riders willing to plumb such depths to beat their fellow competitors?

I ask the question because last week I found out I would have to comply with anti-doping regulations for the Haute Route, a seven-day sportive through the French Alps. 

This meant getting a TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) form signed by my doctor - Bricanyl, an asthma inhaler I'm prescribed, is on WADA's banned list - and submit myself to ant-doping controls at any point during the event.

Initially I was a little taken aback that I might be asked to give blood or pee into a bottle moments after reaching the summit of Alpe d'Huez or Courchevel. Yes, this is an event that's about as big as it gets when it comes to cyclosportives, but it's not a race in the true sense and there isn't a significant prize or money to be chased, so for a while I wondered why they were going to such lengths.

But the more I thought about it, the more I believed it was necessary. Forgetting all the prize money and ranking points and adulation that comes with professional sport for a second - at the end of the day, what is sport - at any level - without integrity? 

If the New York Gran Fondo, and others before it, have shown anything, it's that there are people out there willing to do whatever it takes to improve their performance. I'd hate to be passed on a climb or beaten into second place only to find out later the rider was doped to the gills.

No matter what level of sport you're at, drugs cheats compromise integrity, so having controls in place, even at amateur events like the Haute Route, is a necessary deterrent in a fight that has unfortunately pervaded all levels of sport and competition.

After early cycling flirtations with the Tour de France on childhood holidays, John Whitney fell for it hook, line and sinker in his mid-20s as an escape from the more sedate sports of his youth. As a classically trained news reporter, he snagged his dream job as a cycling writer straight out of college and is now fully immersed in the industry and wouldn't have it any other way.
  • Discipline: Road

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