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Lifting the fog on Costa Rican doping controversies

A spate of incidents shook the country’s cycling scene last year. VeloNews went inside Costa Rica’s efforts to clean up its act.

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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of VeloNews magazine.

It’s a balmy December evening in Pérez Zeledón, a jungled region of southwest Costa Rica, and I am sitting inside a hotel conference room alongside members of Costa Rica’s Under-23 national cycling team. Outside the room, other riders fi le into the lobby, exhausted after completing the day’s eighth stage of the country’s national race, the Vuelta Ciclista Internacional a Costa Rica.

The young riders are here to meet with officials from Costa Rica’s anti-doping federation, the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, or CADF. CADF staffers pass around testing materials used to collect urine and blood, showing the young men the tools used to combat cheating. The riders slouch in their chairs, ballcaps pulled low, looking like kids awaiting punishment. Gabriela Fernández Calderon, an official with the CADF, greets the young men.

“Que es dopaje? Es algo que tener muy claro—el uso, posesión de las sustancias prohibidas, y distribución. Es todo lo que ves alrededor, eso es dopaje.”

“What is doping?” she asks. “It is something to be very clear about— the use, possession of prohibited substances, and distribution. It’s all you see around, that’s doping.”

Costa Rica’s U23 national team meets anti-doping officials during the 2018 race. Photo: Rebecca Reza

Organized by Costa Rica’s national cycling federation and its U23 team director, Mario Amien, this meeting represents one battle in the larger war against doping. Officials hope an open and honest discussion about doping teaches Costa Rica’s next generation of riders why they should say no to the temptation that, at some point, they will likely face.

“There is no one better to learn from, so that riders don’t make mistakes in the future,” Amien says, motioning to the CADF officials. “They are here because of all the doping problems last year.”

A year ago, Costa Rican cycling was catapulted onto the sport’s international stage for all the wrong reasons. In the months following the 2017 Vuelta, 12 riders, including the overall winner, four stage victors, and five other riders inside the top 20, tested positive for the banned substances EPO and CERA. The doping controversy ensnared Costa Rica’s national road champion, as well as the winner of the Best Young Rider jersey. The ordeal left a tremendous stain on Costa Rica’s cycling culture—one that will likely last for years to come. And in the wake of the catastrophe, Costa Rica’s cycling federation increased its efforts to combat doping at every turn.

Led by its new president Juan Manuel González, the federation pumped thousands of dollars and countless man-hours into combatting the problem, in hopes that someday Costa Rican cycling would be clean.

“For at least the last 10 years, we have won the Vuelta, but it was fake,” González says. “We couldn’t trust the performances. Everyone knew.”

The federation’s efforts, while noble, may take years to completely eradicate doping. During the 2018 Vuelta a Costa Rica in December, I interviewed dozens of riders, team directors, team helpers, and federation officials. In the eyes of these sources, the Central American peloton is still accustomed to performance-enhancing drug use, even if attitudes toward doping are beginning to shift. While I did not directly witness drugs being used, sources told me they saw riders either doping, or in possession of doping products, during the race. Cycling’s doping problem in Costa Rica has cultural and historical roots that may take years to truly overcome.

It’s the night after the Vuelta’s final stage, and riders and directors relax alongside a swimming pool to sooth their spirits after a long two weeks of racing. A director from a prominent Central American team approaches me to ask why I’ve come to the race. I tell him I’ve come to report on Costa Rica’s efforts to combat doping.

He laughs.

“You think this race is clean?” he says. “Yes, the federation is spending a lot of money and doing what they can, but the riders know how to get around the controls. Don’t get me wrong, I hate doping and all of this shit, but that’s cycling.”

The director opens his phone and shows me texts between riders he knows, detailing doses and time tables of when and how to take banned substances in order to test clean. I am unable to confirm the texts were sent by riders at the Vuelta. Still, the messages speak volumes about the motivations of these riders.

José Luis Sánchez won the inaugural Vuelta a Costa Rica in 1965. Today, he helps promote the race’s anti-doping mission. Photo: Rebecca Reza

Nobody knows for sure when doping began to creep into the Vuelta. The race is one of the biggest events in Central American cycling and traces its roots back to 1965. That year, the race had roughly 50 riders in the peloton contesting just five stages. Organizers chose the Christmas holiday for the Vuelta a Costa Rica to create a public festival around cycling, and the party atmosphere for Costa Rican fans continues today. José Luis Sánchez, better know as “El Negro” for his darker complexion, won three of the five stages in 1965 to become the Vuelta’s first champion.

“Truthfully, we can say that Costa Rican cycling was really born then,” Sánchez says. “We had Italian bikes, the gears were very hard. It wasn’t until the Colombians started to come with new bikes that were much lighter and modern.”

Sánchez now attends the race each year as an ambassador for the event. He strolls around the start and finish lines, unassuming in an old wool jersey that reads, “Campeón de la 1ra Vuelta 1965.” (Champion of the first Vuelta, 1965.) He carries a handful of cycling caps emblazoned with the race logo that he sells at each stage. On the side of each hat reads an anti-doping slogan: “My body is a temple, therefore I love it and respect it. I say No to drugs.”

Sánchez’s hats are just part of the Costa Rican cycling federation’s wider push to combat doping. Throughout the race, federation officials praised the investments in the expensive and time-consuming process required to perform anti-doping tests.

The federation’s drive to fight doping started in the leadup to the 2017 race. Newly elected president González and his vice president, Javier Munich, went to the Costa Rica Institute of Sport seeking funds to pay for $40,000 worth of drug testing. The money was used to pay the CADF to conduct 40 mandatory and 20 surprise urine tests, along with 25 surprise blood tests.

The two men wanted to combat Costa Rica’s growing reputation as a haven for performance-enhancing drugs. The proliferation of anti-aging clinics in the country means that well-known doping products, such as EPO, CERA, and humangrowth hormone, can be easily purchased.

“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.

The investment into those tests led to the bombshell that tainted the 2017 race. Yet Munich and other federation representatives say the positive tests and the ensuing controversy were needed to reverse the doping culture. Every year the federation plans to invest further into anti-doping measures aimed at both testing and educating riders.

José Luis Sánchez tells me he is hopeful that the federation’s efforts clean up the race that made him famous more than half a century ago.

“We can say now that Costa Rican cycling is being cleaned, but we need to give it more effort,” Sánchez says. “We’re at a stage where cycling here is recuperating. Hopefully, this Vuelta a Costa Rica will be one of the cleaner editions that may have the same esteem from when I won it the first year.”

The federation’s anti-doping efforts appear during every stage of the race. Just two days into the event, Federation chief González tells me that 20 tests have already been administered. Mexican Román Villalobos, of the Canel’s-Specialized team, tells me he is tested twice for blood and five times for urine during the race. Villalobos finished second during the 2017 race, just weeks before he won a stage of Argentina’s Vuelta a San Juan. (After this story was published in VeloNews magazine, it was announced by the UCI that Villalobos tested positive for blood transfusions and methandienone, a banned substance, at the Vuelta.)

“I haven’t seen another organization that does so many controls like they do now at the Vuelta,” Villalobos says. “I think that gives the race a lot of credibility.”

Riders knew months in advance that a crackdown was imminent. In October the federation sent letters to the teams and riders participating in the 2018 edition, letting them know that the CADF planned to perform surprise at-home doping tests in the weeks prior to the race. One missed test, and a rider would be barred from the race. Two missed tests meant the entire team would be banned. Unfortunately, due to a compressed timetable, only a few of these surprise tests were actually performed, an official tells me.

Throughout the race week, riders tell me that racing speeds do feel somewhat slower than in 2017. Last year, overall winner Juan Carlos Rojas won by a whopping 8:35 over Villalobos. The Costa Rican rider took 8:20 of that advantage on the final stage, a climbing stage to Desamparados.

Throughout the 2018 race, the top GC riders are separated by a few minutes. Costa Rican Brian Salas wins the overall by just 1:23 over countryman Daniel Bonilla.

“At least the GC is pretty close, nothing like it used to be years ago,” says Guatemalan rider Julio Padilla.

Yuri Leandro, director of Salas’s team, Nestlé 7C CBZ Giant, tells me the biggest shift he sees is during the climb of Costa Rica’s highest road, Cerro de la Muerte, on the eighth stage. This year the finishing times up the brutal climb are anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes slower than in years past, Leandro says.

“It is something that is more human,” Leandro says. “What we have here, we saw times in the general classification that is more logical.”

The change in speeds is part of a broader shift in attitude toward the race, says Luis Cely, director of the Colombian TCBY Bicicletas Strongman program. A veteran director at the race, Cely says the race’s reputation for doping meant he rarely came with a realistic goal to win.

“In years prior, we would come to the Vuelta with nothing to do but train,” Cely says. “I knew the ones that were winning were always going to win.”

Cely is hopeful that the federation’s efforts can help create a cleaner cycling culture, but admits that testing and education cannot guarantee a clean peloton. When personal glory and money are on the line, there will always be riders who choose to dope. And team directors cannot monitor their riders at all times.

“I cannot guarantee 100 percent that they are clean. I don’t sleep with them, nor do I go in the bathroom with them,” Cely says. “A rider can do a lot in 10 minutes, so in the end, it’s up to the riders.”

For at least a decade, Ticos had won the Costa Rica’s national race, but it was fake. You couldn’t trust the results. Photo: Rebecca Reza

After a long day of racing, one team director stops me on my way to dinner. He pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of blood bags, and an empty bag labeled “Erythropoietin.” The director tells me that the items were found at a race hotel prior to the fifth stage in Esparza.

“The front desk told us a maid found some vitamins and medicines in a refrigerator that one of the teams left and asked us if we could take it with us,” he says. “I know the federation is doing the controls, but it’s not enough.”

The images are hardly a smoking gun, yet they back up much of the perspective that riders and directors share with me throughout the week. Cleaning up a doping problem does not happen overnight. Despite the tests, some riders will still choose to cheat. A similar years-long process played out on cycling’s WorldTour after Lance Armstrong’s era—riders still occasionally test positive today, even with advanced testing and the biological passport. So why should the process be any different in Central America?

What impact will the federation’s anti-doping efforts at the 2018 Vuelta a Costa Rica have on Central American cycling? It’s too early to tell. The results of the anti-doping tests for the 2018 race were not available before this story went to press. Throughout the 10-day race, riders and race officials tell me they simply hope for a different outcome than what happened in 2017.

“I won’t celebrate the success of the Vuelta until February,” Juan Manuel González tells me, referencing the date when the testing results would be available.

Testing, memorable anti-doping slogans, and even scared-straight meetings with the future generation of racers show that Costa Rica’s federation has its heart in the right place. But only the riders—those in the race, and those who someday plan to race—can decide whether or not to race clean.