My Doping Story

Winning Magazine December 1984 Greg Lemond

1984, the year I started on the bike, was the year of Greg Lemond and Alexi Grewal. They were my heroes and I kept a poster of each of them in my basement, in front of my rollers. It was also the year I first learned about doping in cycling, mainly through the pages of Winning Magazine. Grewal, who would go on to win the Olympic Road Race that year, almost never made it to the start line because of a positive drug test at the Coors Classic. Grewal had his excuses: an herbal supplement mistakenly given to him by his soigneur (it was, in fact, ephedrine). I believed him [In 2008, Grewal admitted to doping throughout his career.] but, moreover, I swore I would never take anything, that I would be strong enough not to need it.

The stories about doping were all around in the 80’s. In 1985, evidence came out of “blood boosting” by US Olympic athletes at the L.A. Games on their way to unprecedented victories. My first cycling coach, an Australian who had raced in the 60’s alongside Tommy Simpson, spoke of the damage doping had done. Cycling was for fun. Results were secondary. But as my career progressed, I would come face-to-face with doping.

For years, it was only bananas and water for me. But that started to change as I got older. The racing got tougher. The training sessions got longer. I showed some promise as a rider and Europe was calling to me. That was the big time, the chance to gain valuable experience and get results that would make me more marketable as a rider.

“Why would you want to do that?” my teammate Brian asked when he heard I wanted to go race in France. He told me about the time his Belgian team’s soigneur prepared a pot belge injection for him. Brian refused, according to the story, and the soigneur used it on himself so not to waste it. Brian came back after a year in Belgium.

I got a similar story from another training partner, an ex-Irish pro who had followed in the footsteps of Stephen Roche and went to France to race for ACBB. Fran told me a story about a late-season professional contract negotiation and a suitcase full of drugs tendered in a seedy hotel room. “You gotta problem with this?” the team director asked. Fran did. The suitcase was slammed shut and that’s how he ended up in the US.

But those were just stories. Those guys couldn’t handle racing in Europe, I thought. That’s why they bailed. Not because of the drugs. That wouldn’t happen to me. I could do it clean.

In 1991, I went to France to race, bouncing among a few teams. In one of the first team meetings I attended, a representative from the French Cycling Federation showed up. He was looking for volunteers to take testosterone. They wanted to understand the potential positive and negative effects. They would provide the drugs, the protocol and regular medical checkups. If, however, you tested positive, you were on your own. I wasn’t even sure I had understood him correctly. I was just a few weeks in country and still finding my ear for the French vernacular, but I confirmed the accuracy of what I’d heard. I declined, as did most of the riders in the group, but a while later, I found out that a few had indeed volunteered.

I finally ended up racing with U.S. Créteil where I raced clean — too clean. I had a hard time recovering from the long training sessions and finishing races on my water, bananas and the pastries I would sometimes buy while on the road. Helpful teammates offered me pâte de fruits and tubes of sweetened, condensed milk. I had few notable results racing in France, but what I did learn was that I couldn’t leave the preparation to chance. It was not just okay to supplement, it was necessary. Otherwise, you were doing harm to your body as well as your chances of success.

When I returned to the States, I studied nutrition, recovery and exercise science. I was looking for an edge, looking to minimize risk, to maximize return. I was burning 3,000 to 5,000 calories just training. It was becoming more and more difficult to eat enough to replace it all, much less to get stronger. I started using sports drinks and supplements according to the medical guidelines. Carbohydrate replacement. Protein powders. Vitamins and amino acids. I started to work with coaches and train with other elite riders. Everybody had a little system. Espresso before a criterium. A bottle of Mountain Dew for the end-run of a race. Drinks for hydration and recovery. Eucalyptus oil on cotton balls stuffed up your nose to open your breathing passages. Sometimes popping a Vivarin. Or Sudafed, especially if your allergies were bad at the time. Or over-the-counter and prescription inhalers. The stuff we took wasn’t banned, or wasn’t banned in the quantities we were using. This wasn’t doping.

We discussed these practices openly, joked about them, even with the coaches at the Olympic Training Center. With caffeine, for example, you supposedly couldn’t drink enough coffee or espresso to test positive. You had to inject it or stick a suppository up your ass (still, it didn’t stop those who tested positive from using the “too much coffee” excuse). When guys got caught for steroids or ephedrine, we considered them fools because they had gotten into hard stuff or had taken too much. Without defining the limits, we knew where they were.

In 1995, I raced the Tour of Guatemla, a two-week middling UCI 2.5 level stage race, with the U.S. National Team. Five days into the race, at our hotel in Guatemala City, our coach suggested that we might want to do an intravenous glucose drip. Initially, I refused. But he explained: you have been through some difficult racing with some really hard days to come. You were dehydrated. You couldn’t trust the water not to make you sick. It was insurance, for your health, for your recovery. Plus, the Columbians were there and they were doing stuff. And the Cubans, too. We were asked again. And we all agreed. The coach sent the soigneur out to the pharmacia. Anything else? Vitamin B injections? Something more?

Before we got started, I examined the I.V. bag. It was labeled as a simple glucose solution. I looked for signs of tampering — as if I knew what to look for — before they hung the bag from the curtain rod with a wire coat hanger. The team mechanic stood guard outside the door. It all made sense in some strange way. This was how you had to race a race like this. But when the soigneur pushed that needle into the vein in my left arm, I knew I had crossed a line. Instead of resisting, we laid back in our hotel beds and watched The Simpsons in Spanish and let the I.V. drip into our bodies.

A few days later, we ran a similar I.V. course after a particularly difficult day into Salama. At dinner that night, we tore into the roasted chicken, gnawing it down to the bone, with wild looks in our eyes, wondering what was in the chicken that made it so good. The coach started talking about all stuff we could use, their trade-offs, which ones were safe for competitions and which ones would get you caught. “You’d love to ride on this stuff,” he promised, “You’ll feel so strong you’ll want to eat the other riders.”

The next day, I started the race feeling more than recovered. But I would crash before the end of the stage into Zacapa and cross the line long after the stage winner. When I got back to the team van, I found that I had been randomly selected for doping control. “I’ll take care of it,” the coach said.

“I’ll take the test. I’m clean,” I told him. “I haven’t taken anything.”

“Any drug test you can avoid taking is a good test,” he explained. The race official was given a case of beer and the drug test went away. In all the years I raced, among all the competitions in the U.S., Canada and Europe, all the National Championships, Olympic Trials, and UCI races, that was the only doping control I was selected for and I managed to avoid it. You can beat the drug tests. Hell, you can’t test positive if you aren’t being tested. That the testing was poor and inconsistent is not the point. When I had the chance to decline something that, at a minimum, had the appearance of doping, I failed to stand on principle. I caved to rationalization. As did the rest of my teammates.

To this day, I don’t know exactly what was in those I.V.’s. I hope it was just glucose. My results don’t suggest that there was anything in the way of performance enhancement. But if a rider can be convinced to stick a needle in his arm because he believes it is being done on his behalf and in his best interests, there’s no limit to what can follow. In the early 1990’s, the US Cycling team had a new training program. They had supposedly paid an absurd sum to buy it from the East Germans — but they were trying it without the accompanying drug program and they were burning out and injuring riders. Years later, riders on US Junior National team, filed suit that they were being systematically administered performance enhancing drugs, without their knowledge, by their coaches and staff. As a rider, you’re only as honest or clean as the people you trust. And you need those people in order to succeed. And you need to trust them.

Cycling is a sport about winning and losing — but mostly about losing. Only one rider can win a given race, so you do whatever is necessary for success. The sport demands total commitment. You give your body over to it. You allow it to victimize you physically and psychologically. You trust the people around you. You rationalize it. Because you want the results. You need the results. You’re part of a culture that expects you to make choices like this, in every facet of racing and preparation. You don’t hear about the losers, the guys who give up. You don’t want to be one of them.

So I did whatever was necessary.

The same way I cranked out another 50 miles on top of the exhausting 100 I had just ridden.

The same way I went deeper than I thought I could to bridge up to the break.

The same way I ate another meal when I wasn’t hungry because I knew I’d need the fuel or didn’t eat when I was starving but needed to keep my weight on target.

The same way I struggled up Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh on my last lap at Thrift Drug Classic while the other guys still looked fresh because they were on something and I wasn’t.

The same way I convinced myself to get out of bed, get on the bike and ride for hours a day, day after day, through rain, snow and heat, through obscurity, mediocrity and results that didn’t come as quickly as I’d hoped or needed.

Cycling was never a sport to attract the weak-willed or the ambivalent. The total sacrifice that it demanded was for me, sickly, the most attractive part. I gave up girlfriends, alienated family, became a social recluse, went into debt, because the sport demanded it. I donated my youth, my energy, perhaps even my integrity, to the sport that was and still is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.

So, am I a doper? No, I don’t think so, not in the technical sense. But I did seek performance enhancement on all fronts, as did many others. In a way, I benefited from riding for a small-budget team and never breaking into the top-end of the sport. We didn’t have the money to spend on real drugs. I never had a pro contract offer contingent on accepting a doping program. The decision to dope is never a go/no-go. It’s a series of small choices, negotiations and rationalizations. Chances are, I would have wanted it badly enough to continue along this path because that is what was necessary.

I was close enough to see how insidious and prevalent doping was. If I experienced this as a slightly-better-than-mediocre rider, if category 3 riders and masters are doing EPO and testosterone, imagine what the ProTour riders were exposed to? Imagine what it looked like for the Postal Service or for Lance Armstrong. I’ve always said that if the typical person knew what went on in cycling, they would be disgusted by it. I’ve been ashamed enough of my Guatemala experience not to discuss it openly until now. I only just told my wife about it last week, 17 years after it happened.

Either we’re all clean or none of us are. Redemption is possible if we are willing to divulge the truth. I’ve shared my story. Who’s next?

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5 thoughts on “My Doping Story

  1. I sometimes wonder if getting rid of doping would really save the sport. Even if there were no doping, cycling will never be a level playing field. Athletes from rich countries, or countries that put a lot of money into the sport will always have better training, better coaches, better equipment, nutrition, medical care, supplements, etc, etc. And as an athlete wins competitions and prize money, he becomes richer, which allows him to invest more into making himself the best. It seems that as soon as there is a lot of money and pride involved in something, it always becomes corrupt one way or the other.

    • I wonder, too, if it’s possible to clean up a sport that has never really been clean. If not now, then when? There are a lot of guys out there with stories like mine, and worse. We can’t pretend it’s not there or it’s limited to a few bad apples.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, John. Indeed, temptations and pressure must be everywhere for the elite. I think we all like to think that we would never succumb…but we are all human. Our main hope of eliminating doping etc. is to first be open about it all, then work together to address it so the temptations aren’t there.

    Thanks for contributing to a more open, honest, transparent world. I commend your bravery.

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