Can cycling ever get clean?

Can cycling ever get clean?

By in BikeShed

As Yorkshire recently welcomed the 2014 Tour de France, the 198 athletes competing in the three week race all showed great determination and dedication to their sport. Their physical and psychological preparation for the task ahead of them would have required careful planning in order to ensure they excelled during the race. Whilst the race serves as a promotion for cycling tourism, the sport in itself has been plagued in the past by doping devastation, leading to many observers of the sport questioning its legitimacy.

Competitive cycling saw major controversy  in 1998 with doping scandals tarnishing many key riders especially in the world’s leading cycling team, Festina from Spain, who were disqualified from the Tour de France when the team masseuse was found to be in possession of the blood-boosting drug EPO[1].

If competitive cyclists administer themselves with a prohibited substance or method to enhance performance or recovery then this will be seen as doping. All members of British Cycling who participate competitively are subject to anti-doping testing both in and out of competition[2]. A strong stand against doping must be adopted by the cycling community as a whole to enable the integrity of the sport to continue and for healthy competition to flourish, without any scientific interference.

Banned substances

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) are responsible for creating a Prohibited List of performance enhancing substances and methods that are banned in sport both in and out of competition. WADA is authorised to serve this function by the World Anti-Doping Code (Code) and the List serves as the cornerstone for the Code. Substances and methods can be added and removed from the List by WADA as assessed on an annual basis. The 2014 List came into effect on 1 January 2014 and will expire on 31 December 2014 when the 2015 List will come into force.

The List provides an International Standard and is classified by categories such as steroids, stimulants and gene doping. The List is available here.

The use of a prohibited substance for medical reasons is permitted through the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) however this will only  be granted after thorough assessment and athletes should note that a TUE granted by the UK Committee may not be recognised by the International Federation. Furthermore, there is no right of challenge against WADA’s determination of what will be included on the List and its classification of substances into categories.

The harsh reality of the strict doping laws was demonstrated in July 2001 when treatment given to American rider, Jonathan Vaughters, for a wasp sting of which he already had a pre-existing allergy to, would result in him testing positive[3].

Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong is not the only cyclist to have been found guilty of doping but he is the most famous.

The winner of the 1998 Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, Marco Pantani, the 2001 Giro champion, Gilberto Simoni, the 2002 Giro favourite, Stefano Garzelli, the 2005 winner of the Tour of Spain, Roberto Heras are just a selection of title winners and runner-ups of the most prestigious races who have all been implicated in doping scandals.

In 2010, Floyd Landis’ confession of doping throughout his career was seen as the beginning of the collapse of the wall of silence surrounding Armstrong that had been preserved by loyal teammates.

Speculation and evidence throughout 2012 mounted slowly but was accompanied by numerous calls for Armstrong to be stripped of his titles given that he was not seen to be actively fighting the allegations of doping nor providing any explanation.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation throughout 2011 and 2012 finally concluded that seven Tour de France title winner, Armstrong,  was to be stripped of his titles finding he had used banned substances including the blood-booster EPO and steroids as well as blood transfusions throughout his career. There was  very little left for Armstrong to do but finally come clean. Despite publically maintaining his innocence in the aftermath of the USADA’s decision, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey on 13 January 2013, Armstrong finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs throughout his career and the following weeks saw him step down as the chairman of his cancer foundation and lose his professional endorsements.

Tackling doping – Is it enough?

Independent Australian non-profit organisation Bike Pure[4] have founded their international campaign on promoting an honest cycling culture aiming to discourage the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in the sport. As the world’s largest independent anti-doping organisation, Bike Pure strives to restore integrity back to the sport through educating young, amateur and professional riders, coaches and groups which is a major breakthrough in ensuring the next generation of riders and athletes are clean, using only their natural talent and hard effort to gain success.

The current proposals put forward by Bike Pure to begin the long journey to legitimacy are founded on the premise that the cycling community accepts the magnitude of the problem of doping in cycling to bring about structured repair for the next generation. Amongst other things, their proposals include[5]:

  • Longer bans from competition and coaching for users, administers and encouragers of illegal performance enhancing methods;
  • Providing information and assistance to those who are guilty of doping and who accept they need help;
  • Doping to be tested and carried out by an independent global testing agency which is honest and independent, with no affiliation, nor any links to any governing body, team or sponsor;
  • Suspensions to be fully implemented globally;
  • Full public disclosure of riders’ medication notes with full medicals being assessed by an independent body;
  • Pressuring pharmaceutical companies to report anomalies and suspicions regarding performance enhancers; and
  • Immediate suspension of a riders license within 24 hours of a return of a positive A sample and for the teams, riders and national federations to be informed of this.

All professional riders and teams who support Bike Pure must adhere to the Honour Code which pledges that they will never use performance enhancing drugs or knowingly bring the sport into disrepute. Furthermore, cycling fans, professional teams and the cycling trade industry are all encouraged to help add support for anti-doping by proposing ideas to repair the sport and becoming certified through the Bike Pure Certification Mark. These efforts by Bike Pure demonstrate that everyone in the cycling industry has a part to play in cleaning up cycling[6].

Many commentators observing the sport have reacted to the doping scandals by questioning whether the people running the sport really want to ‘fix it’[7].The damming culmination of negative opinion from spectators and even participants appears to have been eased given the success of the Bike Pure campaign with more than 170 professional cyclists showing their support for the organisation and it is hoped that Bike Pure goes from strength to strength.


[1] BBC: ‘Festina Affair’: A Timeline

[2] British Cycling: Anti-Doping Update

[3] Guardian: Do the people running cycling really want to clean it up?

[4] Bike Pure: What is Bike Pure?

[5] Bike Pure: Proposals for change in cycling

[6] Bike Pure: How could you help your sport?

[7] Guardian: Do the people running cycling really want to clean it up?