PORTO VECCHIO, Corsica (AP) — For almost as long as they have cycled the length and breadth of the country, Tour de France riders have doped — with everything from brandy to ghoulish blood transfusions. Back in 1924, the Pelissier brothers, Henri and Francis, were already telling journalist Albert Londres they rode "on dynamite" — using cocaine, chloroform and assorted pills. By the 1990s, riders had become pedaling pharmacies. And now? Here are some thoughts on that question before the 198 competitors set off on Saturday for the 100th Tour.
HOW RAMPANT WAS DOPING? In Lance Armstrong's era, from the late 1990s to mid-2000s, clean riders were the minority. Armstrong, when he finally confessed this January, told Oprah Winfrey doping was "part of the job." Anti-doping scientists estimated as many as 4 out of 5 riders in cycling's grand tours of France, Italy and Spain were cheating. This month, an investigation led by Dutch former justice minister Winnie Sorgdrager concluded that "the vast majority of the peloton, including Dutch riders, embraced doping" in the Armstrong era, "80, 90, maybe even 95 percent is in our view close to the reality."
WHY? Because the drug of choice, erythropoietin or EPO, was undetectable and greatly boosted performance. Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton says they nicknamed the injectable blood-boosting hormone "Edgar" or "Poe," after novelist Edgar Allan Poe, and that Armstrong kept vials of the stuff in his fridge.
"You could take tons of EPO but you knew that you will be negative," Mario Zorzoli, scientific adviser to the UCI, cycling's governing body, said in an interview before this Tour. The chances of getting caught for any drug were, at the end of the 1990s, "very, very, very, very scarce," he added.
The UCI introduced a urine test for EPO in April 2001 — and caught nine riders with 271 EPO tests that year alone. But it never caught Armstrong.