crankpunk heard someone the other day talking about a ‘golden era’ in cycling. the speaker went on to say that in the age before the 90s, ‘riders weren’t taking so much crap.’ the implication was clear- that before the arrival of EPO in ’91-’92, cycling was much cleaner.
generally speaking however the term ‘golden era’ refers to the period directly after the 2nd World War up until the late 60s and has nothing to do with the notion of it being a ‘cleaner’ generation. it was the era of Bartali, Coppi, Anquetil and Poulidor, when cycling – especially in Italy, France, Belgium and Holland, vied with football as the most popular sport of the age. to think, though, that the riders of that period, and indeed up til ’91, doped any less than the riders since ’91, is inherently incorrect…
Anquetil is famous not only for 5 Tour wins, sustaining a menage-a-trois for 12 years with his step-daughter and wife, then having a child with his ex-step son’s wife out of spite, he was also known for being open about his drug use. on a national TV show in the 60s he was asked about the issue and said:
“Leave me in peace; everybody takes dope,” then returned to making the ‘dove’ with his hands whilst blowing on a neon green whistle.
He also once recounted an incident at a hotel in La Rochelle that shows just how cavalier was the attitude of Anquetil and his fellow riders to the drugs they relied on:
“I think it was [Roger] Hassenforder’s idea.. We started looking at the fish in a lovely little tank at the entrance to the restaurant. Hassen suddenly said: ‘Let’s give them something to liven them up a bit!’ He got out of his pocket a few Maxitons and gave them to me… I threw them to the fish. And oh yes, amphetamines work just as well on fish, I can tell you. After 10 minutes they were thrashing from one end of the tank to the other.”
gives a whole new meaning to the concept of ‘fried fish’…
in the early years of the Tour doping was not illegal but perfectly acceptable. indeed, so prevalent was doping in the great race that the organizers issued a statement to the national teams in 1930 telling them that drugs would not be provided free and that they would have to sort themselves out, thank you very much.
In 1924 journalist Albert Londres spoke to riders Henri Pelissier, his brrother Francis and Maurice Ville, asking them how they managed to survive the tortuous race.
- “You have no idea what the Tour de France is,” Henri said. “It’s a Calvary. Worse than that, because the road to the Cross has only 14 stations and ours has 15 [stages]. We suffer from the start to the end. You want to know how we keep going? Here…” He pulled a phial from his bag. “That’s cocaine, for our eyes. This is chloroform, for our gums.”
- “This,” Ville said, emptying his shoulder bag “is liniment to put warmth back into our knees.”
- “And pills. Do you want to see pills? Have a look, here are the pills.” Each pulled out three boxes.
- “The truth is,” Francis said, “that we keep going on dynamite.”
- “At night, in our rooms, we can’t sleep. We twitch and dance and jig about as though we were doing St Vitus’ Dance…” said Henri.
as far back as 1886 a Welsh cyclist died in a race in France, having ingested a mixture of cocaine, strychnine and caffeine. at that time another popular drug was nitroglycerine, used medically to stimulate the heart after heart attacks but by cyclists to improve breathing. one of the side effects though was hallucinations, famously suffered by the black American track rider Marshall Taylor (whose life story by the way is fascinating), who pulled out of an event in New York saying “I cannot go on with safety, for there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand.” needless to say, there was no man on the track with a weapon of any kind.
there were more than enough incidents and even deaths to inform people that doping in the sport was rife, and yet it wasn’t until 1964 that France passed its first anti-doping laws and not until 1965 that performance enhancing drugs became illegal altogether. – and still after that ruling the authorities, managers as well as race organizers often tacitly endorsed the continued use of such substances).
the very first first Olympians themselves were doping. those chiseled Greeks with their curls and odd, child-like genitalia were wolfing down bull and sheep balls with their morning milk to reap the benefits of what they didn’t even know was testosterone back then. maybe some just liked the taste, or the way the hairs tickled their throats, but others surely felt the boost and kept coming back for more. the original Cap’n Crunch…
go further back and you have Vikings tripping to the point of insanity, Incas raving off their faces, native Americans running their arses off on peyote and just about every single civilization taking something to get them through arduous tasks and events at some point in their history. it’s not as if the early humans came upon a coca leaf, ate it for the first time and said ‘ooh that’s a bad one’ – no, they loved the stuff. they created entire belief systems out of (or at least heavily informed by) mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca and on and on. we are genetically predisposed to take stuff and, the evidence through history proves, to use lotions, leaves and tinctures to dull pain and make us more efficient.
the fact is not that cycling was cleaner before the early 90s, it’s just that the drugs were less efficient and less of an immediate direct health risk, and, in a way, less noticeable. EPO can make a thoroughbred out of a field horse, whereas amphetamine and coke merely made everyone a little faster and feel the pain a little less. but my main point is this – that the vast majority of these guys pre-’90 doped too, and they took the best stuff they could get their hands on, often in copious amounts. the tale of riders developing some form of amphetamine addiction and psychosis once they left the sport (indeed some riders were said to be dope fiends first, riders second) is not at all uncommon. they would have been on EPO and HGH had it been available. indeed, the move from amphetamines to steroids and blood doping in the 80s is indicative of that. when something better came along, they jumped on it.
where the sport’s authorities failed the riders though was when EPO started to take lives. in the early 90s, no less than 18 young Euro pros – mostly Dutch – died from heart attacks, mostly in their sleep, as their blood thickened as a result of EPO use. how? EPO raises the hematocrit level- a low hematocrit means thin blood, a high hematocrit means concentrated blood. above a certain hematocrit level blood can turn to sludge and clog capillaries. then it stops the heart. this is what happened to those terribly fit and fatally misguided young men.
and what did the UCI do? nothing. nada. zilch. they didn’t just turn a blind eye, they got a rusty spoon and gouged their own retinas out. Verbruggen needed stars for his new system, and EPO powered the grisly, deadly cabaret along at hitherto unheard of speeds. roll up! roll up punters! have we got a show for you?! that one with his tongue lolling out of his mouth and his face blue? don’t worry, it’s just ‘flu…
so, what’s the point of all this? the point is that, unless we find a way to ‘unlearn’ thousands upon thousands of years of human behaviour, or to eliminate the ‘rogue’ genes that allow for cheating and doping from our sportsmen, we will always have people ready to do it. this doesn’t mean the riders have no responsibility – they bear a great deal. but essentially what we need is a system that curtails ingrained behaviour and encourages athletes to perform clean. we need penalties that are sufficient to discourage cheating, and, most critically, an apparatus, an institutional framework of credible managers and coaches and dedicated officials who are free of corruption, to govern the sport.
then perhaps we can consider talk of a ‘Golden Era’ – and instead of it being dead and in the past, it could, if we do it right, be ahead of us. let’s honor those young men who so tragically passed away by not f***ing this up anymore. they, you, we, deserve that.