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Op-Ed Series #2: Dopers Suck? You Suck. So do I.

Editor's note: This is the second of several essays VeloNews will publish regarding doping in cycling (the first was published last week). We invite readers to offer opinions in the comments below the essay or send in longer pieces that we will consider for publication separately. Send them to sfrothingham@competitorgroup.com.

Editor’s note: This is the second of several essays VeloNews will publish regarding doping in cycling (the first was published last week). We invite readers to offer opinions in the comments below the essay or send in longer pieces that we will consider for publication separately. Send them to sfrothingham@competitorgroup.com.

Jason Krantz is a 37-year-old engineer from Tempe, Arizona, who has been racing bicycles for 25 years. As a junior, Jason reached his brief peak: national-level packfill. He’s been slowing down ever since. His motto: the older I get, the faster I was.

I understand the bitterness. I taste it whenever I hear Lance Armstrong’s lawyerly response to doping allegations: “I’ve never tested positive.” To my ears, it sounds evasive and calculated, a little bit like “I’m sorry if you were offended.”

So many riders have been revealed to be cheats, liars or both that it’s tempting to dismiss the lot of them as unforgivable dopers. It makes you want to put on a “Dopers Suck!” jersey, and why not? Dopers are ruining the sport we love.

But who’s this “we?” The clean riders? Maybe “we” are the masses of Cat 3, 4 and 5 amateurs — packfill, mostly — who will never have a pro contract. We race for fun. We don’t dope—we don’t even have an incentive to dope. Right?

Wrong. “We” are not clean. Many amateur riders are technically dopers, even if they’re not aware of it. If dopers suck, then lots of amateur bike racers suck. The odds are pretty good that you suck. If dopers suck, I definitely suck — I’ve done races on speed.

It’s easy to dope without realizing it. The FDA banned energy drinks containing ma huang (AKA ephedra) in 2004, but prior to that it was a common ingredient. If you downed such a drink, for example, on your drive to an early-morning 2002 race, you’re a doper. If you’ve ever taken a Sudafed so you could race despite a mild cold, you’re a doper. Does that mean you suck?

It’s only human to think of cycling’s substance problem in black-and-white terms: doped-vs-clean, good-vs-evil, etc. But this is a false dichotomy, and we can’t fix our sport until we abandon it. But that’s not as easy as it might sound. Hypocrisy about amateur doping goes way beyond a few poorly-timed Sudafed doses.

Many current junior riders routinely race on speed, just as I did. To be more specific, I took methylphenidate, the generic name for Ritalin. I was diagnosed with ADD in 1987, when I was in high school and an active junior racer. I had a prescription for Ritalin, and it helped my ADD symptoms tremendously. It also helped me ride my bike fast — really fast. I took Ritalin before a 10-mile club time trial and beat my previous record by more than a minute. But it felt like cheating, so I never raced on Ritalin again.

Prescriptions for Ritalin and Adderall (generic name: mixed amphetamine salts) have become downright commonplace in the decades since I doped. So it’s likely that a substantial minority of juniors takes amphetamines daily, doping very much like Tom Simpson did. But it’s not really a problem.

It’s not even a doping violation, as long as you’re slow. Level 2 athletes (technocrat slang for “packfill”) can get a free pass on substances that are banned only for in-competition use. The first time your Adderall prescription produces a positive test for amphetamines, you have an opportunity to submit medical records to USADA.

If USADA finds these records convincing, then they will rule that you did not dope. You can also ask USADA for Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), as elite athletes must do pre-emptively. But a TUE is not just a doctor’s note; the process for getting one is onerous.

I think this arrangement is a reasonable and fair response to a very thorny problem. It doesn’t just apply to stimulants. For example, the same set of rules grant exceptions for insulin when injected by diabetics. This compromise allows a broad range of athletes to compete in the sports they love, taking drugs they really need despite the potential for performance enhancement.

For all its merits, the policy has some interesting implications. For example, I can race on a drug very much like amphetamine, and it’s not a doping violation. But if my teammate takes a Sudafed to race with a cold, he is doping.

I have the medical records to support my Ritalin prescription, so I’d likely be in the clear. If my teammate can demonstrate a medical need to USADA, he gets the same pass I do. But he never saw a doctor and bought his dope over the counter. A drugstore receipt and some snotty Kleenex probably wouldn’t sway USADA.

I can guarantee you that Ritalin enhanced my performance much more than Sudafed enhanced that of my sniffly teammate. But he’s the one with the two-year ban and a scarlet D on his jersey.

I imagine that USADA probably wouldn’t throw the book at my teammate if this actually happened. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the doper/clean distinction depends very much on context and parsing of rules; one rider’s dope is another’s medical necessity. It’s not nearly as simple or as fair as one might think. With all these shades of gray and their moral ambiguity, absolutes like “clean” and “dirty” become meaningless.

There is no bright line dividing the doped and the clean at the professional level, and saying so isn’t shocking. But we should be careful not to pretend that such a line exists at the local Wednesday night training crit. Sanctimony and talk of lifetime bans are satisfying when another hero falls, but they don’t address the real issue. Rejecting dopers as moral failures makes doping not just illegal, but taboo. That prevents open discussion about the problem and how to solve it.

Doping is not a moral problem; it’s a structural problem. The cycling community cannot address doping in a substantial way until all the players — from UCI president Pat McQuaid to the Cat 5 racer who’s sure he’s clean — acknowledge this.

Cycling is not a clean sport at any level, and it never will be. If we accept that, we can start asking useful questions, like:
− How clean can we realistically expect our sport to be?
− Should we give retroactive doping amnesty to all current professional riders? What about retired pros?
− Can we change the structure of professional cycling to reduce the incentive to dope?
− Should we abandon drug testing altogether and instead monitor only health indicators (e.g., hematocrit levels)?

This last question is the most troubling, of course. But it sounds a little less crazy when you consider that years of sophisticated dope controls haven’t really reduced doping — they’ve just produced more sophisticated dopers.

Armstrong still makes me grate my teeth, but not because I think he’s a cheat or a hypocrite. I’m frustrated because he ignored an extraordinary opportunity to change cycling for the better.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Armstrong doped hard and long. When he first retired, Armstrong’s stature in the cycling world was unequaled; he was a patron on many levels. If Armstrong had publicly acknowledged doping — his and that of most of the peloton — he had the political capital to both call for change and make it happen. Armstrong could have radically altered how cycling — maybe even athletics in general — deals with performance-enhancing drugs.

Such a move would cost Armstrong a lot of money and most or all of his Tour victories. But he would have earned a kind of credibility and admiration unavailable even to superstar athletes. Also, it would have been the right thing to do. Now, of course, it’s too late. Heartfelt confessions are less impressive when a federal prosecutor is breathing down your neck.

I would be astounded if Armstrong won his Tours clean, though I obviously can’t be certain. If Armstrong was doping, he shouldn’t feel alone. He’s got plenty of company with me and the rest of the packfill.