Thursday, June 13, 2013

How Blood Manipulation Really Ruined the Sport

Now that the dust has settled a bit on the doping scandals in cycling, it seems to me that while much blame has been cast, and there's been a lot of 'lets move forward' talk, there has been very little said about the actual effect blood manipulation or, "blood doping", has had on how bike racing works. Enough has been said about every angle of the morality side of the affair. I won't say anything concerning that except to say that indeed, I disapprove. I will also say that the change that blood manipulation has on bike racing is the answer to those who would say that doping should be legalized. To open the floodgates would ruin everything that I think makes bike racing a fantastic sport, because of the change it effects.

I think it bears saying that those of us who watched it happen (the effects of blood manipulation, not the actual administration of blood manipulation), should feel ashamed for not having recognized it happening. I will admit that I fooled. For example, lead-out trains starting from 50 kilometers out, going over 50 kph, and keeping it going, faster and faster, leading all the way to 200 meters delivering their sprinter to a certain win. I should have known that in reality when a team tries to take up a chase like that from so far out, and begins the actual lead-out from too far out, that other teams should have been easily able to overhaul them. Sprinting is as much positioning as it is actual sprinting ability, and what blood manipulation allowed for was the team to raise the speed so high that once they hit the front, no one could come around.
Similarly, it should have been obvious to us that Lance Armstrong should never have been able to win the Tour de France. Stupidly, I along with many others, went along with the many rationalizations of how he was able to do it. Only after many years I began realizing it was all a sham. To see the whole US Postal team drilling at the front, for days upon days, over hill and dale, strangling the whole race was too much to believe. Racing became incredibly formulaic; the normal unpredictability of racing had disappeared. Riders were coming back from injury and sickness with no penalty to form; or often just racing through injury or illness.

Even with all that evidence, I still had trouble believing that Lance could have a doping program that worked best for him that wasn't available to others. Much has been said about this as well, and I haven't found most explanations of this entirely satisfactory. Clues from what people have said concerning the effects of having taken EPO and/or blood transfusions along with other performance enhancing drugs tell us how it worked.

Again, bike racing in the blood manipulated years looked nothing like racing before. Certainly, there was drug abuse before blood doping and EPO, but the dopers were manageable. While the testosterone, steroids, amphetamines, and other mild stimulants in use at the time gave an advantage, it wasn't anything a clean rider could overcome with wise racing. Clean riders could win against 'conventional doping' and I know this because I and many other clean riders have beaten riders who have admitted to or were caught engaging in this form of doping.

Blood manipulation, however, changed all this, as I see it, by removing doubt. Tyler Hamilton described his first experiences using EPO as the feeling of suffering being the same, but that he could just "keep going". In short, I think what happens with blood manipulation, then, is that it allows the cardiovascular system to far outstrip the muscular system. In other words, the supply of oxygen carried by the blood is able to continue to feed the muscles long after these supplies would normally be exhausted. Obviously, then the next step is to try and bring the muscles up to closer match the capabilities of the cardiovascular. Add steroids and testosterone to the mix and you end up with a machine more than an athelete.

The real crime isn't so much that it makes someone faster simply by taking the drugs. The major advantage is to recognize that what this allows is for a rider to train far beyond any natural capability. This is why in the height of the EPO era riders began to race less and go off training more. This flew in the face of the long held (and still correct, I think) idea that in road racing, racing is the best training. Once a rider has trained well it is only through racing that he can push up to further levels in training and racing. Basically, you cannot possibly fully imitate the full benefits of hard racing in training. The higher the level of racing, the more you need racing to keep the fitness sharp. With blood manipulation this changed and suddenly training was more beneficial than racing.

Ironically it was not the lazy or the untalented that the stereotypes would have us believe take the shortcuts of performance enhancing drugs, but it was instead those who were the most talented in the raw physical sense, and those who had the work ethic to match, that got the biggest boost from blood manipulation.

This might seem to some that this would make the 'playing field level' if everyone is 'doing it', and in a sense it does. The most talented with the greatest capacity to work and suffer will rise to the top. In road racing the playing field should not be leveled and blood manipulation instead 'distorts the field'. Bike racing in a clean environment relies on doubt to make the tactics dynamic. The draft is what effectively levels the playing field in any bike race. If you are weaker than another, you can pull less, or not pull at all. If you can correctly judge the amount you should pull against the greater strength of your opponent, the weaker can defeat the stronger. Where there is little draft, as in climbing, a poor climber can elect to hide in the draft before the climb and save his strength for the climb. These possibilities create doubt in all racers. No one can know entirely the fitness or strength of all his opponents. There are of course, general assumptions one can make based on experience, but in the end you cannot know and the wise racer never underestimates his opponents. This creates the need for any racer to conserve his energy, to hold his cards close to his chest.

Blood manipulation eliminates this doubt. If you know you can put out a maximal effort one day and recover for the next, then you will do it. If you can't be sure how you will recover from a huge effort you will temper your effort. The blood doped stars can wait in the shelter of their blood doped teammates who will never tire, day after day, and dash off on the big climbs, in a contest that is purely about who is strongest. This is not what bike racing is about. Bike racing is a balance of physical capability, psychology, experience, luck, and risk taking. It is normally impossible to win simply by being strongest. The best riders always are the ones who 'get it'. The ones who learn to take advantage of the weaknesses of the their opponents, and strike when they see mistakes. It is never certain, and you have to stick out your neck to have a chance. As Stanley Chozda once told me, to win, you must risk losing.

Most people are aware of the 'matches' explanation of racing. Everyone starts a race with so many matches, but no knows exactly how many they have, and certainly no one knows how many their opponents have. Every effort you make, you light a match, it burns out, and it is gone. If you've burned all your matches and you are not alone in the lead, then you will not win. In a long stage race, the matches you have vary from day to day, depending on how well you recover. With blood manipulation, you instead start with more than enough matches to supply you for the day. The difference now is that some people's matches are bigger matches, and you know who they are. In a stage race, you begin each day with the same inexhaustible supply of matches.

Why is it then, that Armstrong and his team rose to the top in this environment? Much has been said about this as well.  I think in the case of Armstrong it was as I described above. He was simply the one who benefited the most from blood manipulation and had the best doctors in his employment. I know people who maintain that Armstrong was, without drugs, a completely ordinary rider. I'm certain this is not true. I saw the rise of Lance Armstrong myself, and even if he was on the 'ordinary' drugs on his rise through U.S. amateur racing in the early '90's, he was obviously extremely talented and possessed of a fantastic work ethic. He was too heavy in general to be a climber, not concentrated enough in his head to be a time trialist, but entirely cut out for one day road races. As soon as he learned to not lay all his cards on the table every race he became very difficult to beat. His will to win was formidable. It was his exceptional raw talent and undeniable work ethic that made him a Tour de France winner in the era of blood manipulated racing. Jan Ulrich was by all accounts equally talented, but not possessed of the work ethic Lance had. This limited Ulrich's chances. Everyone else, simply weren't as talented with a comparable work ethic.

It baffles me that anyone would think that Lance would have won the Tour de France in a clean racing environment. He quite simply wasn't that kind of rider. Without the EPO, without the steroids, testosterone, HGH, and who knows what else, he simply could never have climbed or time trialed well enough or consistently enough to win a grand tour. Surely he could have been a great classics rider in a clean environment and he would have been a stage winner in grand tours; of that I have no doubt. The thought of Lance winning a grand tour in his completely natural state is laughable.

Additionally, I think that blood manipulation also plays a role in an athlete's ability to keep extremely skinny. To play with your personal limits of low weight is to play with your very health. When you make yourself extremely skinny, it becomes difficult to recover, to maintain power, and to stay healthy. I know this from personal experience. Certainly everyone is different, but not so different that any one person can avoid this certainty.

One of the rationalizations used for Lance's remarkable transformation was that all the weight he lost during his cancer convalescence made him light enough to become a climber. The flaw in this rationalization is that if he lost all that weight, he could not have retained or regained the power he once had. Coming back from illness, let alone from a life threatening one, is extremely taxing to the body. I can accept that he 'beat' cancer. I can accept that he could get himself back to racing shape. I cannot accept that he could remain at a lesser weight while having all the power and even more than he had before cancer. The only answer is that he could keep his weight down and maintain the power through the drug regime.

Tyler Hamilton was incredibly skinny when he won Liege Bastogne Liege, Romandy, and was fighting for the win the Giro d'Italia. He looked like a skeleton.  It was really frightening to envision. Someone with the willpower to eat the bare minimum  and given the effect of EPO and blood transfusions, would have the confidence that they could starve themselves, lose weight, and still maintain, or even continue to increase their power levels. If any clean rider starved himself in order to lose considerable weight during the racing season, it would come at a considerable cost. Your power would go down, your energy would be diminished. You would be very susceptible to sickness. For Lance to make a complete, natural recovery from cancer, his body would have to have returned to the way it was before. Without the doping regime he could never have won a grand tour.

What of today then? Have the sins of the past been washed away? Is everyone scared straight? It seems to me that racing has gotten much more realistic looking. People you've never heard of are winning races. Almost all the pros are returning to racing more to hone their form instead of training. Even Contador is putting more races on his calendar and discovering that he can't go for the win every time (as he could when doped). Leadout trains are less able to maintain total control of field sprints. No single team chases the break and still gives its sprinter the leadout. Races are making more sense. Still, the amount of control that Sky has in stage races is suspicious. Every mountainous day the script is the same. The whole team should be able to do what they do for one day, possibly two; but three and four days or more in a row is too much to swallow. Additionally, the Sky stars are still using the 'race less and train/reconnoiter more' model, which is suspicious.

Further, they use unsatisfactory rationalizations to explain their dominance. Their argument is that if they are setting the pace at a certain level of wattage, no one can possibly produce more than that to escape (for long anyway). The question could well be put back to them. How is it possible that they can produce a level of wattage every day that no one else can surpass on at least one day? They could do it one, maybe two days in a row, but after that, cracks would necessarily appear. Gradually, members of their team have to have bad days. What we've seen in stage race after stage race is the Sky squad never cracks. They always come through. I find that much too hard to believe. Have they come up with a new way to train to always be at their best? I don't believe that for a second. In training, there's not much new under the sun; not that dramatically different or better anyway. Statistically alone, it is impossible.

Nonetheless, recent doping positives and a few other examples aside, there are signs that the level of doping is coming down. Injured and sick riders drop out of races and don't come back immediately to winning form. 'Star' riders crack and have bad days now; race-losing bad days. Teams have holes in them now because not everyone can be 'on song' everyday. Breakaways aren't being chased down every single time. Time trialists aren't winning on climbs; climbers aren't winning time trials (mostly). Racing becomes more unpredictable, like it really is. I think pro racing has a ways to go yet to be entirely believable, but it is getting pretty close.

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I started racing in 1981 as a junior. I got my first taste of national level competition in 1983 at the Pepsi/Lowenbrau series (previously know as the Wisconsin Milk Race). That year, Gordy Holterman (sp?) won every single race of the series. I put that down to him being far more physically mature than the rest of us. Indeed, his 5 o'clock shadow was impressive at age 16. Nonetheless, whether there was anything fishy there or not I heard for the first time accusations of doping. Thereafter I heard stories about of petty dabbling in mild stimulants, overdosing on caffeine, using albuterol, cocaine, and amphetamines. Talk of steroids was rare and mostly rumored on the track side, particularly in Southern California, because, as the rumors went, it was close to easily obtained supplies in Mexico. Dopers never struck me as a problem in U.S. racing  until 1991 and then really only in retrospect. It became a more obvious problem some time in the mid 2000's when modern blood manipulation came to North America.

In 1991 a lot of American riders who had raced pro in Europe came back to race in the U.S. I could speculate as to the level of doping in the American circuit in the '90's, but I will limit myself here to what I can be reasonably certain. In '91 I was invited to a national team training camp in Texas Hill Country, southwest of Austin at a place called the Heart of the Hills Inn. I had been at training camps before, but here they did something I had never seen done before.

There was a definite separation of groups. The 'A' group went on separate rides from the 'B' group, and stayed in a different part of the complex. The 'A' group was very small and included only those that were in consideration for the '92 Olympics. The only time we in the 'B' group saw the 'A' was during 'free time' and at meals. What we know as fact now is that Greg Strock and Erich Kaiter sued USA Cycling on grounds that the coaching staff had given them performance enhancing drugs starting in 1990 "in the United States and in Europe", which in turn gave them chronic health problems. Attorneys for the defense chose to argue in terms of causality and the statute of limitations, not arguing at all that drugs had not been administered. This, along with the eventual settlement out of court by every one of the accused, leaves little doubt that the administration of performance enhancing drugs did indeed happen. It is not a stretch to conclude that if they were doping the juniors, they were certainly doping the Olympic prospects at this training camp.

Of those I can positively identify or make a guess, from top down, left to right: The late John Stenner, Bobby Julich, Linda Brenneman?, Dave Nicholson?, Maureen Manley?, next two: don't know. 2nd row: Don't know, Jim Pollack?, next three, don't know. 3rd row: (starting with the purple shoulders w/glasses) don't know the first two, Erich Kaiter?, me, John Frey. Next, it gets a bit confused. Don't know the 3 staggered on the left, but that's Greg Strock partially obscuring someone., Kendra Wenzel (nee Kneeland), Jame Carney, Sally Zack, Nate Sheafor. Fifth row: Darren Baker (in yellow w/headband), Carl Sundquist?, Dede Barry (nee Demet), Jan Tanner-Bolland, Obscured may be Tammy Jacques. Sixth row: Lance Armstrong, don't know, Pete Stuebenrach (sp?) don't know the next 3. 7th Row: Don't know, Bob Mionski, dont' know obscured, Chann McRae, Ruthie Matthes. At left down the stairs: Can't recall the two women, but in front: the late Steve Larsen.

The above picture is most of the crew at the '91 camp, scanned from a cover of the USA Cycling print publication at the time. I would guess that only the top Juniors and 3 or 4 of the Olympic hopefuls were given/offered drugs, most certainly the younger ones. I don't think the women were offered anything, probably, ironically and sadly, because they weren't considered important enough. In this group though, are the beginnings of the Armstrong era of American cycling domination. The win at all costs mentality may not have begun here, but was in motion. In races on the national team in '89 through '90, I can think of several moments when things said to me seemed, again in retrospect, to suggest something fishy was going on, but I also can't say at any moment I was directly offered drugs. Whether it was that I simply wasn't important enough, too old (at 25) when it began, or I was too clueless to see the signs; I don't know. One story that at the time I found odd, but only in retrospect made me certain of a doping program. Admittedly, I have to make some assumptions here, but it seems to me not much of a stretch.

After the camp was over, there were a few races to attend. One of these was the Stockyards Criterium in Fort Worth. The course had two bricked (bricked is not the same as cobbled, but was bumpy nonetheless) long straights with short ends all framed by four 90 degree corners. There was a head wind up the start/finish stretch. About halfway through I got a gap with Bobby Julich. We forged out a comfortable lead, mainly thanks to Bobby as he always pulled the headwind stretch, and both short sides. I merely took the tailwind pull. I was amazed that he was letting me get away with this. As we got to the last few laps, I was completely fresh. On the final lap, Bobby continued pulling hard up the headwind stretch, and even took the tailwind pull. It wasn't until just before corner three that he slowed up a bit, and looked back at me to assess tactics. That was when he saw my teammate John Frey coming fast up on us, having just attacked and dropped Bobby's teammate Chann McRea. Bobby reacted by reaccelerating with me attached right to his wheel. He then took the final corner too fast, braked, and I swept past him to win.

I was going for the 'disbelief' victory salute. Maybe I really should have been in disbelief.
A few weeks later I saw Bobby at the Natural State Stage Race in Little Rock Arkansas. He asked me, in all earnestness, "How did you beat me?" meaning in Fort Worth. I was amazed. It seemed glaringly obvious how I beat him. Further, it should not (even to him) have been a forgone conclusion at the time that he should win in a situation of him vs. me. He knew who I was and the quality of rider that I was. I had beaten him before. Like I said, he seemed to be in earnest. I explained to him that he not only did a majority of the pulling, but also the toughest stretches. I was fresher, and furthermore, he had to lead out the sprint because I had a teammate coming up on us. "How could I have lost?" was my conclusion.

He didn't seem satisfied with my explanation even though it seemed exceptionally obvious to me, and he just walked away. I found this conversation very odd, but brushed it off. In retrospect it led me to believe that he was on a doping program, and that the answer he was looking for from me was that I was doping as well. While I never took Bobby to be the most tactically astute rider out there, I knew he was smart enough not to give me a free ride to a win. He had to have been so supremely confident he would beat me, I presume, because he was doped, and assumed (correctly) that I was not, and that he could then throw around his strength and still win. Alas for him, it was not so. It would have taken blood manipulation to make it so.