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What we’re not talking about when we talk about doping

A look at what drives athletes to dope and what could be done to circumvent riders from considering the action.

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Between the Russian Olympic figure skater Kamila Valiyeva getting busted for three different heart medications at the Winter Games and Belgian cyclocross racer Toon Aerts testing positive for letrozole, doping, suffice it to say, is in the news.

But within that news, one subject is treated very differently than the other.

The coverage of Valiyeva, a 15-year-old girl, has taken quite a different tone than that found historically in cycling journalism, namely, she is viewed with a degree of sympathy, if not outright neutrality in the face of bigger issues. It is generally acknowledged that Valiyeva, being a child, was subject to the pressures and actions of outside actors, namely adults. Rather than demands for more testing or even more severe punishment (or Twitter jokes about tainted steak) instead there have been calls for non-disciplinary actions such as increasing the minimum age for competitors to 18 as a way of curbing such incidents.

Considering the history of cycling, a sport infamous for its spectacular doping scandals, many fans and practitioners would turn their nose up at the Valiyeva approach, which is to say looking at dopers in any way other than punitively and understanding the role of emotional and financial exploitation as well as the pressures of systems greater than mere individuals in doping cases.

I want to use this opportunity to make a simple, if heavily controversial point: when we reduce the discussion of doping to a moralistic binary of cheaters and non-cheaters we also reduce the number of possible solutions to the problem that has nothing to do with testing or punishment, solutions that would arguably benefit cycling as a whole.

The problem

Bahrain-Victorious at the Tour de France
The hotel of Bahrain-Victorious was raided at the Tour de France last summer. (Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images)

Let’s be honest, it hasn’t been a great time for cycling in terms of anti-doping, between the ongoing debates about therapeutic use exemptions and recovery supplements like ketones, Toon Aerts getting popped (he asserts his innocence as he waits for the B-sample to be tested) and the raid at the Tour de France last year (which resulted in the discovery of the muscle relaxer tizanidine in hair samples).

Also read: Bahrain-Victorious hotel searched by police at Tour de France

As disheartening as these topics are, they are not necessarily proof of any return to the perennial bogeyman of Armstrong-era grand collusion, however, whenever doping re-enters the news cycle for the umpteenth time, it gives us a clear opportunity to ask once more: Yeah, athletes are still taking drugs – now what?

The argument I’m about to make isn’t new, in fact, this piece is based heavily on a 2018 paper by sociologist Fabien Ohl titled “Cycling teams preventing doping: can the fox guard the hen house?” from the book Doping in Cycling: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.

In his paper, Ohl analyzed the cultural history of doping in cycling from a sociological perspective viewing cyclists not through a moralistic lens but rather as workers facing constraints in their jobs. Through his cultural-historical analysis, Ohl and his colleagues found that from 2006 to 2018, “the cycling culture [had] changed, moving from team-organized doping to a more individualized doping” and that “This change means that doping is no longer a shared culture among and between the teams as was primarily the case.”

Gone are the days of extreme complicity and nearly universal moral hazard. (Ohl admitted, however, that “The grey zone in legal pharmacology appears to have remained a problem.”) Ohl and several other scholars of doping put together a report for WADA in 2009 which focused on prevention at the team level, about which he writes:

“Thus the idea was to improve riders’ working conditions to be sure that their workload is acceptable and that they have enough time to recover without doping. However, it is difficult to change a culture without trying to reduce precariousness which is a structural aspect of the cycling culture.”

Hence we reach the crux of Ohl’s argument: to reduce doping (now that it has been brought down to a non-systemic level within teams through mid-2000s reforms like the biological passport and out of competition testing) means improving the material lives of cyclists, which is to say making cycling less brutal.

This is culturally difficult to do in a sport that fetishizes its brutality, whether in the number of switchbacks on climbs or the depth of the cobbles in Paris Roubaix. It is telling perhaps that so many of the drugs now in the center of public discourse are seen as “recovery” drugs. If EPO and steroids were drugs that pushed an athlete to levels where they simply didn’t need to recover, drugs such as the now-banned painkiller tramadol and tizanidine (a muscle relaxer) can be seen as those that make an athlete’s necessary recovery shorter and more bearable.

Furthermore, the need for cyclists to be dependent solely on cycling as a means of making a living coupled with the desire of aspiring athletes to achieve that dream leaves riders vulnerable to desperation and exploitation. This perhaps explains why so many of the riders who end up in the news for old-school doping violations like EPO ride for Continental level or below teams (such as the now-defunct Vini Zabù).

Also read: Vini Zabù suspended for 30 days after Adverse Analytical Findings

These teams offer far lower salaries than the WorldTour for equally challenging working conditions such as riding a stage race or even a grand tour. Some Continental level salaries are as low as £4,000 ($5,370) plus expenses per year and there are rumors of riders paying to be a part of teams.

15-year-old Kamila Valieva tested positive for three different heart medications at the Winter Olympics. (Photo: Liu Lu/VCG via Getty Images)

The drive to recruit younger and younger cyclists from the junior levels puts the weight of going pro onto the shoulders of minors, often with less oversight than that found in the under-23 and older ranks. While there are reasons for sports like figure skating to skew young (women older than their late teens no longer have the body composition necessary to do stunts like quadruple jumps), cycling does not depend on these age and body disparities for athlete success, a fact continually proven by riders like Primož Roglič (who started late) and Alejandro Valverde (who is in his 40s and still winning races).

Cycling should ask itself what happens when a young person is trained in a sport their entire life, receives minimal schooling in order to pursue it, is isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of days a year, reaches the highest level as an athlete only to peak early or fail to adapt? Where can they go afterward? What resources are available for them?

Too often the answer is not much. One could argue that the very dichotomy of a “real world” and a “cycling world” is antithetical to reconciling either, a harsh wake-up call many athletes – not just cyclists — have to answer after retirement.

The solutions

Moolman Pasio balances life as a pro with managing her Rocarcorba camp. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Like Ohl said before, the biggest answers to the problem lie in reducing precarity.

Although cycling is a deeply time-intensive sport, a culture shift where cycling is no longer seen as the sole financial and employment option available takes the pressure off of athletes to succeed at all costs. That also means strategies for leaving the sport should be on the table from day one rather than remaining a stigmatized topic. In short, it should be OK to fail and acceptable to quit.

Independence from cycling can come from two suggestions Ohl himself made, though he admitted that they were theoretically difficult to institute at the team level: distance learning and job training. Also included should be opportunities to pursue higher education and outside employment, improvement in rider pensions, and broader financial literacy.

An example for the men comes from the women’s peloton where, perhaps owing to women’s cycling’s unfortunate precarity, riders typically enter the sport later in life. This gives them opportunities to develop healthy relationships and careers outside of cycling.

For example, Urška Žigart (BikeExchange-Jayco) studies law on-and-off in addition to being a professional cyclist while Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (SD-Worx) has a degree in chemical engineering and manages a cyclo-touring company, Rocacorba Cycling. Both are full-time athletes.

Another part of this equation comes in the form of paid leave, where a rider can take a pause from racing for family or personal reasons without jeopardizing their spot on their team. Jumbo-Visma allowing Tom Dumoulin time off (albeit unpaid) to reconsider his career is one instance of this, while Trek-Segafredo giving Lizzy Deignan a significant period of maternity leave is another. Male cyclists who have children should also receive the option of extended paternity leave.

Dumoulin pressed pause, but pedaled back into pro life. (: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Improvements in riders’ working conditions are key to cyclists avoiding not only doping but also other harms such as accidents, drug abuse, and disordered eating.

These improvements are best achieved when they apply equally to all members of the peloton rather than varying from team to team. The increased activism by CPA members seen in the 2020 and 2021 grand tour seasons and campaigns waged by organizations like The Riders Union has increased discussion of safety issues like inclement weather and parcours selection.

Increased union democracy under a one-rider one-vote system would help the cycling body politic adapt to changing issues within an increasingly diverse and global sport. In an ideal world, the CPA should function like a real, democratic union – it should be a forum for riders to voice their grievances freely and take action collectively without the involvement or oversight by team management or the UCI. Workplace issues historically dealt with by union activism include overwork, underpay, and safety.

While much progress has already been made, it should be reiterated that cyclists must have better access to mental health resources, including those unrelated to sport as not all riders deal with issues related to sport. Destigmatizing mental health concerns within the machismo culture of cycling is imperative.

Riders in crisis should have the access to the mental and supportive health care they deserve, especially for conditions cyclists are prone to such as eating disorders, chronic pain, and sleeping pill dependency. In the NBA, for example, after basketball stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love opened up about their mental health struggles in 2019, the NBA adopted rules stipulating that teams hire at least one full-time professional mental health specialist.

Finally, protection from harm.

Cyclists at all levels should have increased recourse for extricating themselves from not only nakedly exploitative situations, such as being pushed drugs, extortion during transfer season, or being forced to pay to participate in teams, but also as a form of protection from all forms of discrimination, harassment, and abuse. They should have the ability to blow the whistle anonymously and without fear of retribution, something that is being initiated in anti-doping with the International Testing Agency’s REVEAL program. The only way to deal with the remaining power of omerta is to undermine it to the point where the sport functions more democratically and transparently. Whether this happens at the team, union, organizational or legal level remains a topic to be debated.

If these ideas sound obtusely obvious, it’s because they are. Cycling, like all industries, benefits from keeping its workers in line whether through discipline or the threat of precarity. But when doping scandal after doping scandal passes without us talking about the other factors at play, we miss opportunities to advocate for a cycling that’s healthier, more supportive, and less prone to harmful behaviors, of which doping is just one example. Framing all dopers as cynical deviants and woe-is-me tainted meat consumers is a convenient way to separate the criminal from the systems that produce them.

Of course, there will always be cheaters in sport, people who cheat to win because winning is desirable in its own right. But no athlete should be made to feel that they have to be one of them. That means the consequences of staying clean should never be worse than the specter of punishment for racing dirty.