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NIDA. (2015, July 9). Dopers' Downfall May Be Cycling's Salvation—Tour de France 2015: End of an Era. Retrieved from

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The NIDA Blog Team
July 9 2015
Illustration of bike riders in the Tour de France

Remember Lance Armstrong? For seven years in a row (1999-2005), he finished first in the Tour de France, the annual bicycle race held every July in France since 1903. People thought Armstrong was a hero, until it turned out he had been “blood doping”—using chemical substances to artificially improve his performance—in all seven races he won. He swore he never blood doped—until he confessed. His victories were erased. For everyone who had trusted and idolized him all those years, it felt like a betrayal. But Armstrong wasn’t the first rider in the Tour de France to blood dope, and he wasn’t the last one, either.

For competitive athletes, doping is a form of cheating. Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body for sports cycling, bans doping to “preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport”—“the pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each person’s natural talents.”

For the same reasons, an independent, international agency—the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)—established and monitors the World Anti-Doping Code in a range of sports around the world, and for the Olympics. (A NIDA scientist, Dr. Marilyn Huestis, is a member of WADA.) 

In short, athletic competition is about using your own strength and skill, period. But when nearly everyone is cheating…what’s an athlete to do?

Tour de substances

Just 4 of the 10 Tour winners between 1998 and 2013 did not engage in blood doping.

Over the years, many riders in the Tour have used substances—from amphetamines to testosterone to “horse ointment” (whatever that is)—to enhance their performance. Doping has made several riders sick during the race, and it has contributed to at least one death. Several riders have confessed to doping; drug testing (which the Tour started in 1966) has caught others.

But a new doping test, to be introduced later this year, could finally put an end to doping (and getting away with it) for good.

There will be blood

As early as 1960, a Tour winner was suspected of using a blood transfusion to increase his performance. Like most other forms of blood doping, transfusions—using either the rider’s own blood or somebody else’s—raise a person’s red blood-cell count. These cells carry oxygen through the body to the muscles; more red blood cells means the muscles get more oxygen, and the rider’s stamina and endurance improve.

Blood transfusions became more common for Tour dopers in the 1970s and 1980s (along with other performance enhancers like steroids and cortisone). One rider described transfusions—which the Tour officially banned in 1986—as “a fountain of youth.”

Transfusions bring risks, too: blot clots, heart attack, stroke, internal bleeding, and—if the rider is using someone else’s blood—HIV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.

The case of the disappearing hormone

Beginning in the late 1980s, many dopers switched to injecting a man-made version of a hormone called EPO, which causes the body to produce (you guessed it) more red blood cells.

Dopers liked EPO because, though its effects are long-lasting, the hormone itself remains in the body for only a very short time. So while blood and urine tests can detect EPO, the window for testing is brief. (As with transfusions, injecting EPO can increase risk of heart disease and stroke, among other health problems.)

At the 1998 Tour de France, several team doctors and staff were caught red-handed with thousands of doses of EPO and other banned substances. But drug testing was slowly gaining on the dopers.

By 2004, testing for blood transfusions had improved; by 2006, testing for EPO was more sensitive than ever. Cycling was also one of the first sports to use the “biological passport,” starting in 2008. The passport compares an athlete's blood and urine samples at testing time to samples collected earlier. If there are big differences between the two, that may be a sign of blood doping (including transfusions).

Genes don’t lie

Doping still goes on, but its days may be numbered: Researchers have almost finished creating a test they say nobody can fool. Instead of looking for drugs in blood or urine, the test looks at a person’s genes for the fingerprints a drug has left behind.

One scientist compares the effect of EPO to a dimmer switch, causing the body to turn up or down the expression of certain genes. The new test examines the sequence (or pattern) of those genes—and the telltale sequence remains for weeks after a drug is used.

Is there a way around the test? Well, according to one researcher, “There are just far too many genes to try and manipulate, and if you ended up trying to do that, you'll probably end up killing yourself.”

This anti-doping genetic test should be ready for use in late 2015. Next year’s Tour de France could be the first completely fair and honest Tour in decades. This is great news for fans, but it’s even better news for the athletes: Finally the playing field will be level without them having to dope. It’s possible some will still try. But it looks like the competition will truly be a test of what cyclists can do when they put everything they’ve got on the line—except their integrity.