Inside Costa Rica’s doping nightmare

When Rolando Gonzalez raced the Vuelta Ciclista a Costa Rica this past December, he saw the telltale signs of doping at every turn. Strolling through the race hotel one night, Gonzalez smelled the familiar scent of rubbing alcohol swabs and saw empty packages of powerful anti-inflammatory pills sitting outside of hotel rooms. One of his fellow racers showed him a text message exchange between a rider on a low-budget team and a man who was claiming to sell a bargain brand of human growth hormone. After one stage, Gonzalez saw a number of riders from the race crammed into a nearby pharmacy. When he brought out his recovery products — drink mix and gels from Hammer Nutrition — his fellow riders bragged that they got their recovery via intravenous injection, a method that is explicitly banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“I had been hearing from friends back home warning me about how bad things were getting,” Gonzalez says. “I arrived at the Vuelta and I saw this kid pull out a bunch of needles and IV recovery bags without trying to hide it at all. I had not been in front of a needle in 16 years, so I started asking questions. When I got back to the States, I told myself I will never go back.”

The 2017 Vuelta a Costa Rica will forever be remembered for the stain it left on the country’s cycling scene. In January it was revealed that 12 cyclists tested positive for EPO and CERA during the race. The overall winner, Juan Carlos Rojas Villegas, recorded a positive test, as did six riders in the top-20 overall, the best young rider classification winner, the current Costa Rican national road champion, and four stage winners.

The positive tests sprung from an ambitious plan by Costa Rica’s national federation to combat doping in the domestic peloton. The federation’s newly elected officials spent months seeking out funding for the tests, in hopes that boosted anti-doping infrastructure could upend the country’s doping culture.

For Gonzalez, the race was bitter confirmation that Costa Rica’s doping culture has not changed during his lifetime. Gonzalez started racing bicycles in Costa Rica nearly 20 years ago, racing professionally as a mountain biker and road racer throughout the Americas. In order to escape his homeland’s doping culture, he moved to the United States permanently.

This fall he decided to venture back to Costa Rica after a 12-year absence to try making peace with the earlier chapter of his professional cycling career. What he saw convinced him that Costa Rica’s cycling culture has not changed.

“The mentality for them is this: If you want to finish the race, you have to recover with IV fluids,” he says. “If you want to do well or try and win, you have to use PEDs, and if you want to be a pro, you must do a combination of both.”

Gonzalez took this photograph of a fellow rider’s intravenous recovery products during the 2017 Vuelta a Costa Rica. Gonzalez says the racer decided not to use the products during the race. Photo: Rolando Gonzalez

A doping culture

Rumors about widespread doping have swirled in Costa Rica’s cycling community for years. In an exclusive interview for VeloNews, Javier Munich, vice president of Costa Rica’s cycling federation said the doping rumors extend from the junior division all the way up to masters cycling. Munich said part of this is because well-known performance-enhancing drugs such as EPO, CERA, and human growth hormone can be easily purchased in the country. Also, the country’s cycling federation, called Federacion Costarricense de Ciclismo, or FECOCI, has historically struggled to fund anti-doping tests at races.

“Doping is not a cultural problem in Costa Rica, it’s a world problem that found fertile land in our region because of the lack of laws to punish the substance dealers and users, and the lack of budget for the federation to fight against it,” Munich said.

A quick online search reveals multiple anti-aging clinics in Costa Rica that cater to customers from the United States and abroad. Clinics such as the Anti Aging and Wellness Clinic advertise human growth hormone injections on their website. Plus, there are many drugs that can be purchased over-the-counter at a Costa Rican farmacía that would require a doctor’s prescription in the United States. Various U.S. travel websites marvel at the ease by which one can purchase medication in a farmacía.

“The good thing about the pharmacies here is that you can buy almost anything like birth control, Viagra, and even injections of many drugs over the counter,” reads one travel site.

Gonzalez said he first saw a culture of doping seep into Costa Rican cycling in the early 2000s. Gonzalez grew up dreaming of the Tour de France, and at 15, he purchased a mountain bike with his own money and began racing. He showed immediate talent, and within a year had signed a contract to ride with the pro team Pizza Hut-Cafe de Costa Rica. He raced on the mountain bike in Costa Rica and the United States, competing in the Tour of the Rockies and Mercury Tour stage races.

Gonzalez also raced on the road and won the best young rider jersey at the 1999 Vuelta a Costa Rica. At the 2001 edition of the event, he saw his first glimpse of doping, when an American rider showed up with EPO in his bag. By then, Gonzalez said, the conversation within Costa Rican cycling teams had changed.

“Suddenly everything was becoming more specific. Riders were paying attention to their hematocrit numbers, and worrying about hemoglobin,” he says. “The conversation was so much more than simply going out on a bike and putting miles in before a big race.”

Gonzalez was 22 at the time and did not earn enough from racing to live alone. He faced pressure from his family, and he was upset with the pressure to dope. After the 2001 race decided to retire from cycling — the first time.

“I had never really enjoyed road racing, and even less after discovering this other world,” Gonzalez says. “I was beginning to speak out a little about doping, and the team did not support me, so I retired.”

Gonzalez took the above photograph of a text exchange between a rider and someone purporting to sell human growth hormone at a discount. It reads:
“OK, I have hormone of 36 UI Pfizer for $80 mil colones”
“Tell these guys, names redacted
“Okay, that’s fine bro”
“Or $70 for it”
Photo: Fernando Gonzalez

A plan to start testing

In March 2017, the FECOCI held its biennial elections to elect and replace its entire seven-member board, including the president and vice-president. The remaining members including a secretary, treasurer, and three other voting positions, are all elected by a group of 24 associations — each receives one vote.

Juan Manuel Gonzalez was elected president, and Javier Munich was elected as vice president.

Prior to the sweeping election, FECOCI associations were unhappy with the previous administration’s handling of finances and development of the sport, Munich said. The new board was greeted by a $55,000 deficit, and no money to organize the Vuelta Femenina UCI 2.2, a race that was to be held 30 just days after the election.

In the previous two years, the federation operated with an annual budget of just $150,000, funded in part by the Costa Rican national government. That cash did not go far — the budget for the Vuelta a Costa Rica alone is $200,000.

“The money we receive doesn’t come close to covering what we need,” Munich said. “This does not include all the national championships as well from the pre-juniors all the way up to masters in all the cycling disciplines. We are running at a negative budget, so we must turn to private sponsors to cover the difference in what we do.”

Financial matters were not the sole goal of the new administration. Munich said that anti-doping was a major focus, specifically at the Vuelta a Costa Rica. Three weeks following the race, the new board contacted Dr. Cristian Moraga, a Costa Rican physician and member of the UCI’s Anti-Doping Commission, for guidance. How could an under-funded federation battle doping at the country’s biggest race? Moraga recommended both in- and out-of-competition controls through the biological passport program while adding more controls at other races.

Charged with overseeing Costa Rica’s anti-doping efforts is the Comision Nacional Anti-Dopaje de Costa Rica (CONADCR). Munich said that most race organizers of Federation-accredited races only paid for four basic urine controls at for each stage. Cost is an issue, he said, as is the fear that a positive doping test could reflect negatively on the race.

But the new administration was intent on boosting the anti-doping controls. The Federation had just $10,000 to pay for drug tests at the Vuelta — barely enough to cover the basics of a major race of that size. So the federation reached out to Alba Quesada, who was president of the Costa Rica Institute of Sport. Munich explained that added tests for the Vuelta a Costa Rica would cost an additional $40,000.

“To be honest, it took a full five minutes to obtain her approval,” Munich said.

Initially, Quesada granted $12,000 to the federation but added another $18,000 just three days later, Munich said. With their budget secure, the federation reached out to Dr. Moraga with the good news, now officially assigned as the UCI Anti-Doping Commissaire for the race.

The infusion of cash boosted the testing pool significantly. For the 2017 event, the federation was able to conduct 40 mandatory urine tests, as well as 20 surprise urine tests and 25 surprise blood tests. All of the tests were conducted by the UCI, and the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF).

The tests ensnared some of Central America’s most accomplished racers and Costa Rica’s up-and-coming talents. Overall winner Juan Carlos Rojas has won 17 stages of the Vuelta a Costa Rica, as well as the overall at the Vuelta a Guatemala, and the Costa Rican road and time trial championships. His brother, Cesar, won the Vuelta a Costa Rica overall in 2016 and amassed seven stage victories at the race. Both riders race for the Frijoles Los Tierniticos team.

Gabriel Marin Sanchez won Costa Rica’s 2017 national road title. Jose Alexis Rodriguez Villalobos is the current U23 national road and time trial champion. Jason Huertas Araya is just 19 years old. Other riders ensnared in the tests included Melvin Mora Garita, Jewinson Leandro Varela Zuniga, Vladimir Fernandez Torres, Jose Irias, Kevin Murillo Solano, and Jordy Sandoval.

VeloNews reached out to several riders for comment and did not hear back prior to the publishing of this story. Sandoval declined to comment.

After the tests were revealed, news quickly spread across the cycling media. Did the news forever tarnish Costa Rica’s reputation within pro cycling? Whether it did or not, Munich believes the news will convince Costa Rica’s sport authorities to better fund FECOCI anti-doping efforts going forward.

Munich also believes that Costa Rica’s doping news convinces other Central American countries to boost their anti-doping efforts.

“I hope these results, open the eyes of other countries in our region to perform blood controls. Otherwise, they will be like we were before all of this — living full of doubts,” Munich said. “We need the governments to act fast, to create the laws to help fight and punish all the pieces of the puzzle because for now, the only ones that are being punished are the athletes.”

Rolando Gonzalez said he first saw doping seep into Costa Rica’s cycling scene in the early 2000s. Photo credit: Courtesy of Rolando Gonzalez

Moving toward a cleaner sport

Like Munich, Gonzalez saw the news of rider suspensions at the Vuelta a Costa Rica as a positive step. Could such a move lead to a cleaner peloton in Costa Rica?

Gonzalez says he hopes he can one day race again in Costa Rica. Following a decade of financial and immigration struggles in the U.S., Gonzalez plans to race as a pro once again in 2018. After guest riding with the 303 Project team at the 2017 Green Mountain Stage Race in Vermont, he inked a pro contract this past fall to race with the team in 2018. Gonzalez’s palmares includes a win at Durango, Colorado’s Iron Horse Classic in 2006.

“I’m 38, I know what my place is in cycling, especially after having zero results over the past several years,” Gonzalez says. “I couldn’t even tell a director I had been consistently training. My focus last year was simply to have fun racing since I had not been able to race consistently for so long. Suddenly, in less than a year, all of this is happening.”

Whether Gonzalez ever returns to race in Costa Rica is yet to be seen. For years he dreamt of returning to his home country to race. Lack of opportunity and the specter of doping kept him away. And when he returned in 2017, he saw that doping was still there. His frustration around doping is what persuaded him to speak publicly about what he saw during the race.

“It’s not a small problem, it’s a big problem,” Gonzalez says. “Regardless, I feel it’s my responsibility to speak out. It took me a little longer to make it but this is a sport that takes a lot of hard work and discipline. I care about the riders at home who see hope in the sport, that you can have a future. Four of those 12 riders that tested positive were national team members, one with an opportunity to race in Europe and now he’s going back home because he took the shortcut. I don’t feel sorry for them, they still had the choice to say no.”

Arriving at his first professional training camp this week, he is excited about the season ahead with 303 Project and perhaps serving as a leader for the squad in the races this year. And he hopes that Costa Rica can clean itself up — if not for him, then for the next generation of cyclists.

“I owe it to the younger generation, to the kid that had showed me the IV fluids that first day at the Vuelta — which he ended up not using,” Gonzalez says. “To my kids. I have no idea if they will ever get into the sport, but if they do, I don’t want to have to tell them the sport that I was so passionate about is full of corruption and drugs.”