Now that Lance Armstrong has been exposed as perhaps the most doped athlete in history, the mainstream media and the public at large can’t stop talking about how “dirty” the sport of cycling is. Lance Armstrong proves it: “They’re all on drugs.” The Onion nicely summed up the global disdain last week by publishing “The Last Article Ever Written About Cycling.”
Already two major sponsors have given up on the sport, including the Dutch financial giant Rabobank, which has funded teams for decades. It seems unlikely that other major companies would want to risk the embarrassment suffered by longtime Armstrong sponsor Nike, which produced ads in which Armstrong self-righteously insisted he was clean, and even had a building on its corporate campus named after the disgraced cyclist. “There is no sport with a bigger credibility fight on its hands than cycling,” wrote Bonnie Ford of ESPN.com, one of the sport’s most astute commentators.
But the head-shakers and finger-waggers have it exactly wrong. Yes, the Armstrong scandal revealed systemic cheating in a sport that was corrupt to its core—a decade ago. In the landscape of professional sport right now, cycling may actually be one of the cleaner sports around.
No, really; stop laughing. And notice that I didn’t say “clean,” just cleaner. Because while cycling has a long, colorful history of cheating, it also pioneered the modern practice of drug-testing athletes. After the British cyclist Tom Simpson died of amphetamine-fueled heatstroke on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967, riders have been subject to organized testing that been getting better and better, even during Armstrong’s reign of fraud between 1999 and 2005.
The advent in 2000 of a direct test for EPO, the notorious and ubiquitous blood-boosting drug, sparked a massive purge, as dozens of old-school dopers got caught and were suspended. Many retired outright, including several world champions. Armstrong himself is alleged to have returned a positive test for EPO in 2001, but according to his former teammate Tyler Hamilton, he laughed it off and said it would be “taken care of” by his powerful allies in the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI. (Stay tuned for their ouster/resignations.)
After that scare, Armstrong and his team switched tactics, choosing blood transfusions—which are undetectable—and doing other things to evade the tests, like using smaller, more frequent doses. And it worked, for a while. But after a major Spanish blood-doping scandal erupted in 2006, the tests began to change: Rather than test directly for drugs, the testers now looked for signs that key blood values (like hemoglobin) were being manipulated. They monitor each athlete’s values over time, and any radical changes—such as hemoglobin rising during the Tour de France, when it should be falling—trigger red flags. Moreover, cyclists are subject to testing anytime, anywhere, by multiple different bodies. Under a system called ADAMS, they are required to register their “whereabouts” for every single day of the year.
If other sports were subject to this kind of invasive, rigorous drug-testing—say, NFL football—mayhem would ensue. Players’ unions would flip out, leagues would likely shut down. As it is, the testing programs in professional sports are porous, the penalties laughable. A baseball player who tests positive for steroids or testosterone, like Melky Cabrera, faces a suspension of just a few dozen games, not a two-year ban like cyclists and other athletes whose sports subscribe to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code.
WADA covers Olympic sports like track and swimming, but not American professional sports. Cycling occupies a curious crossroads, as both a professional team sport and a major Olympic sport. So riders have financial incentives to dope, but face substantial penalties if caught. Professional tennis players, who are also governed by WADA, are in the same boat. But while tennis players are tested relatively infrequently, only a handful of times per year, a high-profile cyclist can count on dozens of tests each year, both in competition and out. More testing means more scandals, especially if other sports are still choosing the see-no-evil approach.
Obviously, drug testing is not perfect; Armstrong himself is Exhibit A. But here’s the thing: You don’t have to test positive anymore to get busted for drugs. Armstrong was prosecuted for what’s called a “non-analytical positive,” based on evidence like witness testimony and financial records rather than a direct positive test. Which is why the Armstrong case represents such a huge leap forward in the war on drugs in sports. By eliciting the testimony of ten former Armstrong teammates, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency blew a major hole in the omerta, the mafia-like code of silence that used to govern cycling. Riders can no longer count on their teammates to keep silent forever.
Not that athletes aren’t doping anymore—they always have, always will—but the odds of getting caught are higher than ever, and the penalties more severe. A new test for human growth hormone could spell the end of HGH doping, and scientists are working on a way to detect blood transfusions. Would-be dopers have to be much more careful, and much more subtle, to get away with it. So even if people are doping, they’re doing it less. The data back this up: Climbing speeds in the Tour de France are slower, and power outputs are lower. The race is slower, yet more dynamic, less of a bludgeon-fest between doped-up cyborgs than it was in the Lance days.
Which sounds lame, but it’s a start. The point is, the climate in cycling has changed radically from the doping arms race that Armstrong led, and won. The last five years have seen the arrival of “clean” teams that test their own riders and advocate for drug-free racing. Young riders now have the option to not dope and still win races. Some ex-dopers, like the Scotsman David Millar (banned for using EPO) have come back to evangelize for clean sport. (He recounts his tale, rivetingly, in his memoir Racing Through the Dark.) One of his teammates, the Canadian Ryder Hesjedahl, won the Giro d’Italia this year—a race that, historically, has been even dirtier than the Tour de France. In fact, Armstrong’s annoyance at the “clean” movement was one factor that provoked his 2009 comeback; he called the 2008 version of the race, which he sat, out, “a bit of a joke.”
Perhaps he should have stayed retired. If he hadn’t come back, in 2009 and 2010, his legacy would likely have remained intact. His chutzpah brought about his downfall. And now that cycling has purged itself of his toxic influence, it can finally move toward a cleaner future.
Bill Gifford, a correspondent for Outside magazine, has written about cycling (and other things) for more than 15 years.