On a recent morning in Toronto, it was so muggy that riding my bicycle to meet Andrew Randall felt like pedalling through industrial-grade sludge. Mr. Randall, who retired from pro cycling to become a coach only last year, has let the hair on his legs grow out and no longer spends 25 hours a week on the saddle. His clients, however, are nowhere near as lucky.“Some of [them] are riding full-time now, pretty much,” he says. “They’ve taken their A-type personalities and applied it to something else.”
By something else, he means racing. Most of these men (and they are mainly men) are already success stories at the office – Bay Street suits and the like – but now their attention is on the road. Their bikes, premium carbon-fibre machines, range in price from $3,000 to $13,000. Anything less than 10 hours of training a week means being lapped by their jeering peers. And they ride in the Masters categories, which is where older amateurs go head to head like old bulls in a ring.
These are “amateurs” – who dress like pros, talk like pros and think like pros. Sometimes, they are also caught doping like pros.
“In a way, doping has become normalized,” Mr. Randall says. “There are definitely a few guys doping.”
Because of the spotty nature of drug testing at amateur events, even Paul Melia, chief executive officer of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) and the man primarily responsible for tackling Canada’s doping habit, can’t pinpoint how “few” or “many” guys are out there. But given what he calls the “well-entrenched culture of doping in cycling,” he believes that medicinal cheating has certainly “filtered down.”
Some recent flare-ups prove the point. At last year’s Gran Fondo New York, a heralded 170-kilometre race, two amateurs tested positive. They joined eight others busted in an 18-month span in the U.S. amateur ranks (where many Canadians spend a portion of their racing season).
Closer to home, cyclist Greg Cavanagh – a member of the SUL (Shut Up Legs) team in Toronto – tested positive last summer during an in-competition test. He waived his right to a hearing and is still sanctioned by the sport for another year.
The question is why these cyclists do it. We certainly understand why professionals dope. Their livelihood and legacy are inevitably connected to performance. As the Tour de France winds up this weekend, the odds-on favourite to win, Christopher Froome, is swamped by suspicion because of his unparalleled dominance.
But what drives someone to cheat when all that’s at stake is a made-in-Vietnam plaque, some free handlebar tape and a branded cap? And even if drugged-up amateurs turn out to be exceptions rather than the rule, do they taint the sport for the rest of us?
As with any subculture observed from a distance, serious amateur cycling can appear insane. There’s the obscene spending on gear, the impenetrable terminology, the obsessiveness about weight – both bike and body – and the sheer physical cruelty of it all.
However, among hard-core “hobby” cyclists – for example, the 10,000 members of the Ontario Cycling Association who sign up for fun rides and races – all this is natural. Even necessary.
I know, because I am part of the shaved-leg demimonde. I have been riding road bikes for 10 years, racing on and off for almost as long. My shoes look like they’ve been designed for a Star Trek prequel. I have a perma tan on my quads and biceps. And I have seen up close how guys – usually a bit older than me, in their mid-40s and up – have turned their entire focus to winning.
Something rational is lost when one joins the religious order of serious amateur cyclists: Self-worth is measured against how thoroughly one thrashes others in the same cloistered sect. The outside world shrinks, dims and disappears. In this context, regardless of how meagre the stakes seem to those on the outside, cheating becomes about the survival of the self.
Andrew Tilin, whose book The Doper Next Door details his year as a middle-aged amateur on performance-enhancing drugs, has said in an interview that, “even in a stupid bike race, metrics pull on our self-worth and sensibilities as if they were gravity.”
Drugged or not, serious amateurs tend to behave like junkies, always on the lookout for the next hit.
Take the outrageously popular app Strava (Swedish for “strive”). Synced to any GPS device, it allows users to designate patches of road as “segments,” ride them as fast as possible and upload their results – which can include power, heart rate and, most important, speed. Part of the appeal is the capacity to luxuriate in a bubble bath of numbers. But so is showing off. Those with the fastest times are given King of the Mountain status (a brrowed term from the Tour de France) on the app’s leaderboard.
The more KOMs, the more fame. And the further cyclists go to hit those numbers. The company is being sued by one user’s family after he died in pursuit of a KOM. “Strava doping” is also an established concept. In most cases, it refers to drafting behind a car – or driving in a car. But a system that functions entirely on trust presumably provides a haven for real dopers too.
Even Lance Armstrong has joined Strava (with typical grace and humility, his profile reads, “According to my rivals, peers and teammates I won the Tour de France seven times”). Many users were outraged when doping’s capo di tutti capi signed up. Michael Horvath, the app’s CEO, was less concerned. “We want to be careful not to become a police state,” he told Bloomberg.
Therein lies the problem. Sure, this app, and all those Fondos and local two-bit races, are meant to be about the sheer joy of riding as fast as you can. It’s a cliché we learn in kindergarten – if you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself. But cycling is not quite a solo sport: The sheer joy of riding comes in part from riding together – time and effort and sweat are in the service of achieving excellence above others. Without testing, without “policing,” can we really know what excellence means?
“The reality is, I became obsessed with racing, and maybe even more, with being a part of something,” wrote David Anthony, a 45-year-old Internet entrepreneur who was among those caught in the dragnet at the Gran Fondo New York. “It took these external forces to literally knock me off the bike and out of the ridiculous place I allowed myself to get into.”
I’m too nervous to hoover unpronounceable drugs into my body, but I don’t pretend never to have considered it.
“Performance enhancers” – whether Viagra, sleeping pills, superfoods or Red Bull – have become commonplace. We dope to live, and this increasingly bleeds into our sporting ethos. I can’t count how many times I’ve thought, “Man I wish there was a pill for this” while riding up a hill that ends somewhere beyond the clouds.
And as apologetic as Mr. Tilin may be in his book, he has admitted that racing on dope was “super-duper fun.”
The pharmacological fecundity with which amateurs may directly tweak their performance on a bike includes pills, creams, serums, powders and unguents. Some drugs, such as cocaine and speed, are blunt tools. Others, such as the blood-boosting drug erythropoietin (EPO), originally cooked up in expensive labs to help chemotherapy patients endure the ravages of treatment, are precision-tuned instruments.
When EPO arrived in the early 1990s, it forever changed pro cycling, in which winning came down to a fraction of a per cent – you either juiced, or you were blown off the road. But even juicing doesn’t guarantee a win: Individual athletes don’t react in a uniform way to EPO, so the stuff never offers an even playing field. A racer is only as good as his personalized doping program, which is directly related to the size of his bank account. Hence the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s dogged pursuit of Mr. Armstrong and other industrial-scale cheats.
But if some amateurs are inspired by pro performance on EPO, they are rarely busted for it: It’s expensive (three month’s worth can cost several thousands of dollars), is difficult to come by, has to be injected at set times, and can lower the heart rate to such an extent that it can cause cardiac arrest.
Instead, testosterone, or T, seems to be the dope of choice. It’s what Greg Cavanagh was using when his urine sample tested positive.
T is also one of the primary weapons in the never-ending war against aging. In most men, levels of testosterone start dropping off at the age of 25 at a rate of about 1.25 per cent a year. Patches and creams, readily available at anti-aging clinics or online, are designed to “correct” that deficit – and by happy coincidence, there is no quicker shortcut to feeling more youthful and aggressive in the saddle.
They are not without their side effects, and not just for athletes. In cream form, testosterone traces can be left on towels and bathroom taps, leading to “second-hand doping,” a problem if a cyclist has children or a pregnant woman in his household.
Other drugs also carry verboten substances – but may or may not be tied to cheating. Among the problem meds, for example, are allergy pills, ADHD treatments and antidepressants. It’s up to cyclists to check their prescriptions to make sure that they are not ethically compromised, says Mr. Melia of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.
“We impose what we call ‘strict liability.’ ‘I didn’t know’ is not acceptable.”
Still, how likely is getting caught? “There’s about a one-in-a-zillion chance that an amateur at a local race will get busted,” Mr. Tilin has said.
Effective policing is a Catch-22 – because testing isn’t prevalent, there’s no way of knowing how common amateur doping is, which makes policing less of a priority.
Last year, the CCES did conduct more than 3,700 tests across sports disciplines. But each one costs between $500 and $700, and the centre, an independent not-for-profit organization funded by the government, wants the emphasis placed on Olympic-level athletes.
To support amateur testing, the CCES has helped to institute a “fees-for-service” testing regime in Quebec that allows the provincial cycling federation to pay for spot tests through higher membership and race entry fees.
That seems to follow a trend in the United States. The Wall Street Journal has reported on a number of state cycling associations raising funds for testing at races, Florida among them. “You’d see some guy in his late 40s or 50s just drilling it,” Jared Zimlin, president of that state’s bicycle association, told the press. “We figured nobody would ever want to race here if they think they’re going to get their butt kicked by some 50-year-old ’roid monster.”
But other cycling bodies in Canada have been slow to sign on. “We have to better understand our cost structures before it’s an option,” Jim Crosscombe, head of the Ontario Cycling Association, told me.
One possible hesitation might be higher fees, which could chase racers away from what is already an expensive endeavour. Given the sponsorship dollars pumped into the sport, however, there may be other factors at play: Testing can help to clean up amateur cycling, but will also point to a problem that for now is unquantified and rarely publicly discussed.
Taint is hardly a selling point, especially for big-name events – for instance, the Tour de Victoria, “powered by” Goodlife Fitness, coming up in September, at which Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal will lead Lycra-clad legions across his home island.
Sponsors were certainly affected by hard evidence of doping at the pro level. The Dutch bank Rabobank ended 17 years of sponsoring pro cycling after the USADA published its report on Mr. Armstrong’s drug use. The bank argued that its “trust in the cycling world” was gone. It said it would continue to sponsor amateur events. But what if increased testing turned up cheaters at that level too?
As for the power of larger cycling bodies, Cycling Canada, which ignored repeated requests for comment on this article, adheres to World Anti-Doping Agency regulations. And it has launched a Race Clean initiative. The tag line (modelled on a Quebec program) is “Own Your Victory.” Besides bumper-sticker inspiration, though, it’s unclear how this will challenge amateur athletes who ride dirty.
In the end, riders themselves have to weigh how much the presence of dopers – however rare it may be – affects their passion for racing. On cycling forums, news of amateurs caught doping elicits everything from indifference to deep frustration.
“My perspective is that I race completely clean, and when I race, I’m racing against other competitors,” one amateur writes. “Yes, it bothers me that some might have taken advantage of questionable opportunities which I reject out of hand.”
“What is comes down to, in all cases, is why are you riding?” pro-turned-coach Andrew Randell says.
“It’s about what we value. Currently, people are maximizing their self-worth at the expense of cycling. It’s not just a sport thing, it’s a societal thing, all this rampant cheating.”
For me, there is only one way forward: I want to race, live and not just against competitors on a shared app. As Mr. Randell says, “There’s something about sensing those bodies next to you that can’t be replaced.”
But for the sport to grow and thrive, testing needs to become de rigueur – a Sword of Damocles must hang over every racer’s head, ready to cleave our helmets in twain if we cheat. It’s a dangerous sport, and always will be. But the biggest danger of all should be the humiliation of getting busted racing for that cheap plaque.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article published online and in Saturday's newspaper incorrectly said cyclist Greg Cavanagh, an amateur cyclist who tested positive for testosterone last summer, was a member of the Wheels of Bloor team in Toronto. In fact, Mr. Cavanagh was a member of the SUL (Shut Up Legs) team. In addition, the article quoted a cycling coach. His name is Andrew Randell, not Andrew Randall as published.