It remains the favourite defence of Lance Armstrong’s dwindling band of defenders – he never failed a drug test.
Setting aside allegations that questionable results were brushed aside on several occasions, the question is still valid: How could someone cheat on the scale described by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and not set off constant alarm bells in the testing program?
Although cycling maintains a far more strict testing protocol than many other sports, it is far from foolproof.
Bernard Kohl, the Austrian who placed third in the 2008 Tour de France before being stripped of the result for doping, admitted to having drugs in his system half the 200 times he was tested.
“I was caught, but 99 other times, I wasn’t,” he told The New York Times two years ago. “Riders think they can get away with doping because most of the time they do.”
USADA admitted as much in the report outlining its evidence, saying that “the contention that an absence of positive drug tests is proof that a cyclist is clean does not bear serious scrutiny.”
Here are seven ways an athlete can use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and stay ahead of the testers:
DON’T TAKE THE TEST
The easiest way to prevent a positive result is to avoid being tested in the first place. In its report on Armstrong, USADA noted that his decision to focus his 1999 efforts entirely on the Tour de France gave him certain advantages in that respect.
“Intended or not, the plan had several aspects that would decrease the risk ... of doping,” the report notes. “... By avoiding most of the early season races Armstrong would be avoiding most of the drug testing to which he could be subjected in the lead up to the Tour.”
Out-of-competition testing eventually appeared but was easily ducked. In his memoir Racing Through the Dark , cyclist David Millar says racers were known to go to Italy or Spain to pick up PEDs and then “turn off [their] phone” so testers couldn’t find them until the drugs cleared their system. In his own book, The Secret Race, former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton said the “nightmare scenario” was to be surprised by a tester. Once in his apartment, he simply wouldn’t answer the door if he had taken drugs recently.
“The testing agencies use what is known as a whereabouts program: You were supposed to inform them of your location at all times, and if you failed to do so, you could be penalized – given a strike,” Hamilton writes. “Three strikes in an 18-month period was supposed to lead to a sanction, in theory – but that rule had never been tested in court.”
USE A DRUG NO ONE CAN DETECT
Not all tests can be avoided – the winner and several other people are checked after each day of racing – but it took years before the most popular drug could be detected.
Erythropoietin, commonly known as EPO, is an anti-anemia drug that has been used widely in endurance sports. It boosts stamina by provoking the creation of red cells, raising their proportion within the blood. There was not a reliable test for EPO until 2001.
In the absence of an EPO test, it is now generally acknowledged that a free-for-all broke out in the top ranks of cycling. Danish racer Bjarne Riis, winner of the 1996 Tour de France, was nicknamed Mr. 60 Per Cent for the allegedly high red cell levels in his blood and years later admitted doping to win. Some people were taking so much EPO they thickened their blood to dangerous levels. A number of cyclists died in mysterious circumstances after the drug first appeared and there are stories of racers setting an alarm for the middle of the night, forcing them out of bed to do calisthenics that would raise their heart rate.