9 Mar 2015

Doping in cycling: the key questions

The independent commission – set up by the International Cycling Union (UCI) to investigate doping – finds Lance Armstrong was given preferential treatment by the sport’s governing body.

It also concluded that although doping has not been eradicated in elite cycling, it is less prevalent with fewer teams and riders gaining from cheating.

The Independent Reform Commission (CIRC), set up last year to look into the sport’s ugly past, including the Festina affair and Lance Armstrong doping scandal, said an environment existed “where riders can now at least be competitive when riding clean”.

“The general view was that doping is either less prevalent today or that the nature of doping practices has changed such that the performance gains are smaller,” the CIRC report, published in full by the UCI, said.

Read the full report: Cycling Independent Reform Commission report

Was the UCI corrupt?

The stench of corruption has followed cycling for as long as there have been concerns about doping. The commission considered two specific allegations involving payments made by disgraced drugs cheat Lance Armstrong to the governing body. But they found no evidence these payments were part of efforts to try and cover up his doping.

Did the UCI play by its own rules?

No. On more than one occasion they allowed riders to submit back-dated Therapeutic Use Exemptions or TUEs (doctor’s notes) to explain away failed drugs tests. The UCI also allowed Lance Armstrong to compete when he hadn’t been tested properly.

Was Lance Armstrong given preferential treatment?

Absolutely. Lance Armstrong was to be cycling’s saviour from its dark heyday of doping. And as an American he gave the UCI access to a lucrative new market. He was also a cancer survivor. He was a media star in the making. However he was also a doper, and whether they knew he was doping or not, the UCI leadership defended and protected him at every opportunity.

What was the impact on anti-doping?

The UCI was interested mainly in growing the sport and protecting its reputation. While its leadership may not have knowingly or deliberately allowed doping, the lack of transparency, and institutional checks and balances undermined anti-doping efforts.

Is doping still a problem today?

Yes. The introduction of a key new weapon in the anti-doping toolkit called the ‘athlete biological passport’ in 2008 establishes a cyclist’s normal biological profile. But some cyclists are getting round this by ‘micro-dosing’ with the help of private doctors outside their official team setups. Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs), say the commission, are still far too easy too easy to get.

How big is the doping problem?

One interviewee claimed that up to 90 per cent of today’s peloton are doping. But we should we take this single sourced figure with caution. Another unnamed former professional put the proportion of drugs cheats today as nearer 20 per cent. Either way, or indeed anywhere in between, the performance gains from ‘micro-dosing’ are likely to be much lower than back in the day – 3 or 4 per cent as compared to as much as 10 or 15 per cent. And widespread team sanctioned doping has largely gone away – although recently one of the big teams, Astana, has been threatened with demotion from the top tier because of concerns about its internal doping procedures. Several Astana development riders tested positive last year. It’s all the more embarrassing as the current Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali rides for Astana.

Who is doping?

Cycling is not the only sport where there are concerns doping has now infected the amateur ranks. Amateur cycling isn’t tested nearly as rigourously. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t competitive. Which creates a big incentive for some to try and improve, or win, at all costs – and perhaps make the jump to the professional ranks.

Is cycling trying to clean up its act?

Yes. The UCI has done more than most sports to introduce new tests and procedures. It also has new leadership. The commission makes many policy recommendations – but key to success will be governance. It concludes: “It is essential that institutions put in place clear rules that provide for fair processes, and which will be properly implemented by management.”