Facing our demons

We all have our demons on the bike. For some it’s the wet. Others despise the wind. The cold cuts straight through some riders. Whilst high speed cornering gives many amongst us the absolute heebie jeebies.

For FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, however, the demon was descending. As we’ve seen time and again since the Frenchman burst onto the scene in Porrentruy to win Stage 8 of the 2012 Tour de France (a result that nearly gave his team manager Marc Madiot a heart attack and catapulted Pinot to 10th overall behind Brad Wiggins), climbing has always been one of Pinot’s greatest strengths. Only trouble was he had to come back down – and travelling quickly downhill appeared to so completely freak out the young man from Mélisey that just 12 months ago many were suggesting his professional career may well be over before it had really even began.

Pinot

After losing more than 30 minutes to the leaders in just two stages in the Pyrenees in the 2013 Tour and eventually abandoning on the stage to Mont Ventoux, Pinot was in tears. He told Cyclingnews at the time: “Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes. I’m afraid of speed. It’s a phobia.” He then went on to tell L’Equipe: “When I saw that I was not able to stay on the wheel of a rider like Mark Cavendish on the descent off a mountain pass, I asked myself: ‘What am I doing on the Tour?’ I received the clear response that I have nothing to do here. This is a very sad situation for me, I’m the person who is most disappointed about it… I don’t know if I will be able to get over this trauma.”

Voila! What a difference a year makes. If ever you need a source of inspiration for facing your fears, be it on the bike or anywhere else in life, look no further than this man. Pinot always had the physical gifts to compete and now after a considerable amount of hard work – including a highly specialised training program boasting, among other things, a rally driving course on ice – his head has finally caught up.

He may still not be the best (aka maddest) of descenders, but at least he can now hold his own with most in the peloton. He’s been reborn as a rider, and just look at him go – bearing down on a maiden podium finish in Paris. Sure, Nibali is in a class of his own this year. But given Pinot’s tender age, he’s still just 24, it may not be long before he joins the upper echelon of Grand Tour riders, along with the assembly line of other exciting French talent that’s beginning to make a real mark on the WorldTour. And as good as the French are going at his year’s Tour, let’s not forget potentially the best of them all isn’t even riding, 22-year old Warren Barguil.

face-your-demons-in-tight-pants-2

Painful to watch

Few sports in the world love an underdog more than cycling. From a local club race or handicap to Monuments and Grand Tours, the odds are so firmly stacked in favour of the raging peloton and its collective might, we find it captivating to see the heroic yet almost inevitably futile efforts of the daily breakaways.

Like a salivating lion playing with an orphaned fawn we know how the story will almost certainly end, for we’ve seen it thousands of times before, yet we ignore our head and listen to our heart, rooting with all our might for those poor souls engaged in the struggle for their sporting survival. Typically the kill is swift and painless, which makes it far easier to accept. But sometimes, as it was the case last night in Nimes, the final blow comes late and oh so cruelly. Perhaps on this rare occasion, we wonder, it won’t come at all? Maybe they will live on forever in glorious victory? Alas, it does. And tears flow for the fallen.

How most breakaways end.

How most breakaways end.

Here are some of the more heartbreaking and painful finishes we can recall in the last few years or so…

1) Jack Bauer (Garmin-Sharp)
Stage 15, 2014 Tour de France, 200km, Tallard To Nimes – caught by the desperate bunch in the final metres, the kiwi finished 10th and in tears prompting Paul Sherwen to utter this absolute gem:

“Sometimes the queen of cycling is very, very unfair on her subjects.”

2) Tony Martin (OPQS)
Stage 6, 2013 Vuelta, 175km, Guijuelo to Caceres – after a truly epic ride the human motorbike was cruelly caught by the surging peloton with just 20 metres to go on the stage. He finished 7th that day, but as we now know Grand Tour victory would ultimately be his, in the form of another heroic solo effort at this year’s Tour de France, where he stayed away in Stage 9.

Tony Martin Vuelta 2013

3) Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp)
2014 Liege-Bastogne-Liege – in something of a harbinger for the 2014 Giro d’Italia, the Irishman crashed while in 3rd place and closing rapidly on the race leaders into the final corner of La Doyene.

4) Christophe Mengin (FDJ)
Stage 6, 2005 Tour de France, 199km, Troyes to Nancy – crashed while leading on the final corner into the finish which, devastatingly, happened to be in his home town.

5) Ted King (Cannondale)
Stage 4, 2013 Tour de France, 25km TTT, Nice – following a Stage 1 crash on Corsica, King suffered badly in the TTT and was dropped within the first 1km. Battling on bravely he finished an agonising seven seconds outside of the time cut but was showed no mercy by organisers. His Tour dream was over.

Ted King TDF 2013

6) Noah Granigan
2014 Tour of Somerville, New Jersey – whilst perhaps not as emotionally damaging as the others (hid did still win, after all) this finish from earlier in the year was certainly a very painful one.

 

Classic Cycling Quotes #107 & #108

“With each crash we slowly lose the fearlessness of a child. Caution, which blossoms with maturity, has lengthened my career but also may have cost me victories.”

“Whatever our daily suffering, every rider in the race holds on to a shred of hope and belief. Maybe tomorrow will be our lucky day, where everything will go right…”

Retired Canadian professional cyclist, Michael Barry, in his biography, Shadows on the Road. Between 1999 and 2012 he rode for teams including US Postal, T-Mobile/HTC Highroad and Team Sky. In October 2012 he was suspended for six months after admitting to doping during his time with US Postal.

MichaelBarry_medium

Roadside Assistance

http://bicyclingaustralia.com.au/2014/07/roadside-assistance

Please excuse the self promotion here. But this is a link to an important article that appears in the current issue of Bicycling Australia magazine. It explores some of the key issues that are currently shaping the very future of road racing in Australia, and many other countries for that matter. It features exclusive interviews with numerous key road racing figures, including Santos Tour Down Under Race Director Mike Turtur, Drapac Sporting Director Agostino Giramondo and President of the Macarthur Cycling Club Peter McLean, who until it was cancelled last year were the custodians of the annual NRS Goulburn to Sydney Cycling Classic, first held in 1902 and quite possibly now lost forever.

SU097BA-01

 

Why cyclists love sign language

There’s no need for a group diagnosis. We already know we’re addicted to cycling. Yet as I type this, having woken this morning to yet another social media avalanche from friends currently pedalling their way across the most famous towns, bergs and cols in European cycling, it occurred to me there’s something we’re perhaps becoming even more collectively obsessed with: posing alongside road signs.

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In fact, based on recent experiences I’d go so far as to suggest it’s bordering on some kind of weird 21st Century cyclist fetish that’s fast reaching epidemic proportions. For it seems the only thing we love more than travelling the globe with our passports and carbon steeds is to record our glorious journeys by having our photos taken standing next to signs, typically on top of famous mountains or alongside shitty cobbled goat tracks.

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Sometimes they’re little more than humble selfies. On others they’re far more choreographed affairs involving accomplices. But however they’ve been captured, captured they most certainly are. Then shared relentlessly.

Like Lance Armstrong titles in second hand book stores, these lycra-infused incarnations of Hansel and Gretel are everywhere nowadays – Google, Facebook and Twitter are truly awash with them – spectacular pictorial trails documenting our two-wheeled triumphs for the entire world to see and, in my case this Australian winter, drool over from afar.

Following a recent coffee ride in (boring old) Sydney one rider suggested with a wry smile the European summit photograph has become more important than the ascent itself. He was only partially joking. But as I said to him at the time, like a tree falling in the forest that no-one sees, surely if you don’t take a photo of your vertical conquest the question can be forever asked ‘did it ever really happen?’ He wasn’t convinced.

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Now granted some signs are considerably more interesting and impressive than others. And if I was standing atop Alpe d’Huez right now I’m sure I’d be smiling for the paparazzi too. But I do have one little request: how about we get a bit more creative about it? After all, if we really want to see road signs, well, we merely need to step out the front door. My suburb alone has thousands of the things; no doubt yours does too.

And let’s face it, just because you have a photo at the top of some 27km 18.4% average gradient dormant super volcano doesn’t necessarily mean you rode up there anyway, does it?

glandonx

How do we know you didn’t hitch a ride up in the tour bus? Or jump in front a studio backdrop next to the local village pub before necking a few Kronenbergs or Duvels? Heck, you may have simply retouched the whole thing in your pyjamas and ugg-boots from the lounge room for all we know.

Which come to think of it isn’t a bad idea. Particularly given I’m anchored here at home for the foreseeable future, turning a greener shade of envy with every passing day.

Anyone fancy teaching me how to use Photoshop?

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Taken for a ride…almost

Dodgy bros

Carbon Addiction received a pretty disturbing email yesterday from regular follower Luigi about an Australian bike shop (name supplied) which apparently tried to pass off a resprayed demo frame to him as a new – and at $8,000+ very expensive – road bike recently. Rather ironically the cyclist they tried to take for a ride works in the auto industry himself, which of course isn’t always renowned for having the highest of ethics. Just goes to show there are shonky folks in every walk of life and we always need to be very aware, even when we’re paying top dollar for a top quality brand name and expect far better. You can also be pretty sure at a time when Australia’s local bike shops – the vast majority of whom provide fantastic service and commitment to their customers – need all the help and support they can get, there will be plenty of LBS owners furious about scammers like these charlatans sullying their reputations.

It almost defies belief, but here’s what happened, as told by Luigi himself:

“Hi guys, I wanted to share an experience I had purchasing a supposedly new bike from a bike shop earlier this year and hopefully protect others from being ripped off in the same way. We rarely hear the bad stories about bike shops, but sadly it does happen and it’s time someone wrote about the dangers of dealing with people you don’t know.

Back in February I was super excited about getting a new bike and after plenty of looking around I placed an order for a new 2014 (bike name withheld other than to say it’s an expensive and reasonably rare Italian brand with top notch everything). But what was supplied to me, after waiting over eight weeks from the day I put down a significant deposit for it, was nothing but an old used demo frame re-sprayed to look like a new 2014 one.

Luckily for me, working in the auto game I caught on to the scam pretty much straight away. When I took the bike home I immediately attempted to register the frame on the manufacturer’s website to initiate the warranty that comes standard with their products.The website kept crashing so I couldn’t finalise the frame registration. I rang the distributor’s contact number and they were very helpful. When asked to supply the frame ID, we found that the black and yellow frame I’d been given was actually purchased by the bike shop as a “demo” frame and was originally painted black, white and red. The frame had been re-sprayed to look like the 2014 model I wanted.

Upon closer inspection of the frame, you could spot a lot of differences. The frame should have been a black matt finish, not gloss black. The 2014 frame comes standard with BB386 bottom bracket but mine had the BB30 which was standard on 2011-13 models. The logo graphics were slightly different on either side of the top tube, while the logo on the seat tube and front forks was the wrong colour. The “Made in Italy” and Italian flag stickers were also missing on one side of the lower chain stay.

After discovering what had happened, I chose to correspond with the bike store concerned via emails only and copied all correspondence to the Australian distributor. At first the store tried to deny any wrongdoing and claimed that I knew I was getting a “custom” painted frame. Once they realised they weren’t dealing with a fool, they reluctantly agreed to order and pay for another frame to replace the re-sprayed one. All of the components, except the cranks, were then transferred from one bike to the other. In total I had to wait another ten weeks to finally get what I originally ordered in good faith.”

We suggested to Luigi that he should notify the police or at the very least his local Fair Trading body. It is fraud after all and, in all seriousness, if he tried to pull a stunt like that in his automotive business surely he’d be in serious trouble?

“That’s exactly what I told them at the time,” he said. “If I did this to a customer, it would be all over the news and I could potentially lose my franchise/dealer licence. That said I didn’t contact the Department of Fair Trading, opting to allow them to come good with the proper frame – even if it took almost five months waiting from initial placement of deposit to ownership of the proper frame.”

The good news for Luigi is that despite all the drama, he loves his new bike. But while he managed to dodge a bullet, he’s concerned about what will become of the fake. “I feel sorry for the poor person who will end up buying that frame,” he says. “It will most probably be marketed as a ‘custom paint job’…but it was never supposed to be, and it sure isn’t new.”

NOTE: Full details of the store, bike and importer were provided as part of this article, but have been withheld.

The truth is out there, isn’t it?

The post, below, is not about Alberto’s bike…merely inspired by the extraordinary sequence of events it triggered.

X_Files_Wallpaper_by_inane_art

In the past 36 hours, many have been openly wondering why the whole Contador ‘broken bike’ saga took off so explosively during Monday’s Stage 10 and, stoked by evermore articles and photos on social media, still won’t go away.

Aside from the fact it was a rest day (so the world had nothing better to talk about) my theory is as follows:

Tainted by the pharmaceutical misdeeds of the last two decades the cycling community is considerably more cynical in 2014. Rightly or wrongly, we’ve lost our innocence; the gradual exposing of the omertà within the pro peloton and the shady goings on that involved many of the sport’s biggest and most powerful figures has left us wary and scarred. And whilst the initial pain of such trauma subsides with time, the scars nevertheless remain.

Is it sad that it’s come to this? Of course. But just as our wandering and mistrusting minds constantly search for a politician’s hidden motives, or the real reason behind a major business announcement, we no longer accept what we’re told by cyclists, teams, sponsors or even the media at face value.

Combine this increasingly ubiquitous suspicion with the exponential power of social media to spread news (true or otherwise) like wildfire and it’s a public relations minefield. As one of the world’s most influential admen – and my ex-boss – Englishman David Jones says in his 21st Century brand bible Who Cares Wins, “Social media is forcing businesses, politicians and leaders to be more socially responsible. It will reward those who are. And remove those who aren’t.” You can add cycling teams, event organisers and sporting bodies into his list without much trouble. Ignore it at your peril.

Social media or otherwise, however, cycling has always loved a good conspiracy and ‘Framegate’ is merely the latest incarnation. You can be certain there will be more, possibly as early as tonight.

You sure don’t have to dig too deeply to realise there have been some absolute doozies over the years; some quite humorous, others far more sinister. Looking beyond the more obvious doping controversies surrounding Festina, ‘Motoman’ and even Tom Simpson in the 60s, here are just a few of the others that whipped the cycling community into a frenzy of claims and counterclaims at the time…

1. Bike Face
As reported here just last month, one of the earliest and most shameful cycling conspiracies involved members of the medical community who concocted something called “Bicycle Face” in an attempt to stop women from riding bikes.
https://carbonaddiction.net/2014/06/25/in-yer-bicycle-face/

Lady Cyclist

2. Fabian’s Electric Bike
In the Spring of 2010 Fabian Cancellara was flying. After scorching wins at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix rumours began to emerge of mechanical doping. Widely reported at the time in many of the world’s most respected publications such as the NY Times, there were far-fetched suggestions his team had somehow incorporated an electric motor into his  frame. Chris Boardman even suggested he’d raised concerns about the risk of precisely such underhanded behaviour a year earlier to the UCI.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/sports/cycling/05cycle.html?_r=0

3. Stelvio 2014
A very recent example, but no less controversial. On Stage 16 at this year’s Giro d’Italia treacherous conditions saw the decent from the Stelvio Pass neutralised by the race commissaires. Or so it seemed. Talk (and footage) of red flags and conflicting announcements over race radio did nothing to ease concerns and confusion. Ultimately Nairo Quintana secured the maglia rosa by nearly three minutes, clearly the strongest rider in the race, but eyebrows were still raised.
http://cyclingtips.com.au/2014/05/controversy-as-giro-ditalia-organisers-deny-race-was-officially-neutralised/

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Diminishing returns?

Phew. A rest day. Time to catch our collective breath after what has surely been one of the most remarkable opening stanzas of the world’s most remarkable sporting event, certainly in living memory anyway. With the stakes so high the first week is always a nervy affair – but this nervy? Ten stages down, not even half way yet, and we’ve seen more crashes than the Nasdaq during the GFC, and more bloodshed than an end of season cleanout by the footy wooden spooners.

Gone are two of the three outright GC favourites in Froome and Contador; both lost to the race, after considerably bravery, as a result of broken bones. Also absent due to an ill-tasting bitumen sandwich way back on stage one (Harrogate seems years ago now, doesn’t it?) is Mark Cavendish, of course. Andy Schleck is gone, possibly forever. Plus many other fine riders on a list, currently 18, that continues to grow day by day. Given the epic amount of road rash on show each day in the peloton the local pharmacies must now be rationing bandages.

contador gawn

Clearly, the weather hasn’t helped things. But we’ve seen far, far worse. Besides dealing with the elements is what pro cycling is all about. The cobbles too weren’t much fun for many riders. But again, last week’s epic stage from Ypres to Arenberg was far from a first for most of the field, and certainly not the Tour itself.

Regardless, watching a forlorn Contador grasp the hand of team-mate Michael Rogers and gingerly dismount last night, signalling his premature exit from the 101st Tour, I couldn’t help but think of the ramifications. Not so much for who will win the race, but for how history will judge their triumph come July 27 in Paris.

“Ah, but he wasn’t the true champion. Froome and Contador weren’t there,” they will say. “Yes, he rode well, but don’t forget he only won because of their bad luck.”

Which is frankly bullshit.

Froome gawn

This is hard race for hard men. Which is why most of us will never get close to doing it. Shit happens out on the road over the course of a race, a season and a career. Sometimes it happens to others. Sometimes it happens to you. That’s the cycle of life, and life as a cyclist. Given the incredibly testing goings on of the last week alone (and remember we still haven’t hit the Alps or Pyrenees) whoever stands highest in Paris will surely deserve nothing but our most heart-felt admiration and applause. Be it Nibali, Porte, Valverde or someone completely left of field I’ll be saluting through bleary eyes from my lounge room. Who’s with me?

Not all race trophies are created equal

We all know stage winners at the Tour de France receive a cuddly lion. But ASO certainly don’t have a mortgage on unique prizes. Here’s just a small selection, inspired by Team Sky’s Peter Kennaugh who won the Tour of Austria overnight – and received a giant salami for his troubles. Know of any others? Be sure to let us know…

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Froome and Lion 1399741077-uk-giro-ditalia-stage-2-winners-prize-ceremony-in-belfast_4704219

Amstel- mmm beer Valverde-camembert-2008 Contador shares the podium with a Saint Bernard dog after winning the 15th stage of the 96th Tour de France cycling race between Pontarlier and Verbier

nibali CORVOS_00017454-012 RADSPORT - Oesterreich Radrundfahrt 2010

Salbutamol: more than just puff?

Forget the inhaler. Taken in high enough non-therapeutic doses, orally or by injection, there remain fears Salbutamol may aid far more than just aerobic capacity.

Forget the inhaler. Taken in high enough non-therapeutic doses, orally or by injection, there remain fears Salbutamol could aid far more than just aerobic capacity. The body building community sure thinks so and anti-doping agencies continue to play it very safe indeed.

Late last year I was chatting to a scientist friend in Sydney who also happens to be a keen road cyclist. We were discussing the Michael Rogers situation at the 2013 Japan Cup involving his adverse analytical finding for clenbuterol. While my friend was sympathetic to Rogers’ plight he suggested there was another substance with similar properties which could pose even greater headaches for the UCI, WADA and professional sports in general.

“I was speaking with a colleague at a conference recently, a doctor in pharmacology,” he told me in that excitedly analytical way scientists like to talk. “There’s a freely available drug called salbutamol, it’s been around for a while and is similar to clenbuterol in many ways, it could be on the way to becoming the new substance of choice for dopers.” My friend, a research chemist for more than twenty years, explained the beta2-agonist salbutamol (it’s known as albuterol in the USA but is the same stuff) was already widely used in body building circles and pointed me towards a myriad of websites and forums that certainly backed up his claims.

Until then I’d never really heard of it, save for a vague recollection of Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi possibly having something to do with it several years ago. (In 2007 Petacchi served a nine month ban after recording a salbutamol level 320 micrograms above the 1000 microgram limit allowed under his Therapeutic Use Exemption, or TUE. He blamed the result on over-use of his asthma inhaler.)

Diego Ulissi. Photo: Lampre-Merida.

Diego Ulissi. Photo: Lampre-Merida.

What a difference six months can make. Today pretty much the entire cycling universe is acquainted with salbutamol thanks to last month’s announcement by Lampre-Merida of an adverse test result from their dual stage winner at the 2014 Giro d’Italia and third place getter at the 2014 Santos Tour Down Under, Diego Ulissi. Given the requisite media frenzy that ensued most of us now know salbutamol is used in asthma inhalers, such as those marketed as Ventolin® in Australia and sold for less than $10 at your local pharmacy, without prescription. But the salbutamol story goes deeper than this, and it currently has anti-doping agencies concerned enough that I’ve been told they’re quite urgently seeking to develop ways to better differentiate between its legitimate therapeutic use and performance-enhancing misuse – something considerably easier said than done.

Salbutamol itself is no longer a banned substance. When taken in therapeutic doses it was removed from the Prohibited List back in January 2010.

However when salbutamol appears in the urine and exceeds 1000ng/mL it is presumed not to be of a therapeutic quantity and is subsequently considered an adverse analytical finding. To give this some context Diego Ulissi recorded 1,900ng/mL and now faces the possibility of a two-year ban from the sport.

Whilst on the surface results like the Italian’s certainly look suspicious, proving an athlete is attempting to use salbutamol to unfairly enhance their performance is far from straightforward under current testing and TUE protocols. In his defence Ulissi immediately stated his elevated salbutamol levels were a consequence of normal therapeutic use together with the effects of paracetamol – a stance he hopes to demonstrate by undergoing a formal ‘controlled excretion study’ in accordance with WADA and UCI regulations.

Another complication is that not dissimilar to the presence of clenbuterol typically being blamed on contaminated meat (which in many cases and countries is known to be entirely plausible), there is a compelling salbutamol defence: it saves lives.

Given asthma is a potentially fatal condition affecting millions – WADA itself acknowledges the high prevalence of asthma in active competitive athletes “often in the form of exercise-induced asthma or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction” – it’s a can of worms for authorities, particularly when you consider at high doses salbutamol is also believed by some to deliver even greater benefits to clenbuterol when misused. In fact my friend’s colleague went so far as to suggest:

“When you analyse how both drugs function you’d have to question why any athlete would choose to use clenbuterol – salbutamol offers comparable benefits with fewer potential side-effects.”

It’s also worth noting that compared to clenbuterol, which saw Alberto Contador banned following the 2010 Tour de France when minute traces of the substance were found in his bloodstream – just 50 picograms per millilitre, or a “fairy fart” as my friend describes it – salbutamol is tolerated at significantly higher levels before a rider runs any risk of being reprimanded let alone rubbed out.

So, what exactly can salbutamol do? Firstly, just as it does for asthmatics the drug can help to improve lung capacity by acting as a bronchial dilator. This in itself is no great surprise. What is less commonly known is in very high doses salbutamol may also increase the proportion of lean muscle by promoting the metabolism of fat. This is one of the reasons the drug is prescribed by some doctors as a treatment for certain types of muscular dystrophy.

It must be stressed the performance enhancing qualities of salbutamol are far from universally agreed; certainly, you don’t have to dig very deeply to uncover opinions and studies that both support and contradict its value to athletes. However as my friend, well versed in scientific testing methodologies, was quick to point out, “From my reading on the subject, most of the studies that suggest salbutamol has no performance-enhancing qualities were largely exploring its use from only an aerobic capacity perspective – there don’t appear to be comprehensive studies involving athletes who have taken salbutamol in massive, non-therapeutic doses with an eye to boosting fat metabolism. That may reveal a very different story.”

Whilst acknowledging the difficulties in conducting such studies (for starters, any athletes who participate would almost certainly fail WADA tests as a result and therefore be unable to compete) he continues:

“Given clenbuterol is already considered to be performance enhancing by WADA, using the same logic salbutamol really must be also, the drugs are that pharmacologically similar. Remember in some countries they give clenbuterol to livestock for exactly this reason, to promote lean muscle growth.”

He’s not alone in these views, and if proven to be correct you don’t need a science degree to appreciate the ramifications for many sports including cycling. Regardless, for now anti-doping agencies are certainly concerned enough for salbutamol to remain banned when used at non-therapeutic levels. A similar line of thinking also explains why the drug continues to be hugely popular with body builders, many of whom candidly confess to taking massive doses by tablet or liquid of anything up to 8mg at a time (almost 100 times the dose delivered in a standard puff of an asthma inhaler) – as frequently as four times a day.

Of course, bodybuilders aren’t overly interested in aerobic gains. But if you want a lean and muscular physique plenty will tell you taking extreme doses of salbutamol is an effective way to do it; albeit not one without risks. Amongst other reported side effects when taken in high doses it can cause anxiety, muscle tremors, heartbeat irregularities and even stroke.

Urine sample

Whether its presence is legitimate or otherwise, one thing clear from the recent Ulissi case is it’s not particularly difficult to identify salbutamol in an athlete’s system. A simple urine test is usually more than adequate if conducted within a reasonably short time of the drug entering the body. “Salbutamol has a relatively short half-life of just a few hours, particularly in comparison to some substances, like methyltestosterone for example, which has a half-life of four days,” explained my friend. “It tends to leave the body quite quickly. In theory that could make it ideal for out of competition use in large doses, or even during short mid-season breaks.”

Even when testing does uncover salbutamol use there’s yet another challenge for anti-doping agencies. The molecule itself exists in two forms: R-salbutamol and S-salbutamol. Each is the mirror image of the other but only one, R-salbutamol, contains theactive bronchodilating enantiomer which is considered the source of potential gains for athletes. The trouble with this is the testing methods currently in place don’t distinguish between the two. It’s not that it isn’t possible – as was revealed to me when researching this article, a test has existed since 1999 – but there’s no need for it at present because as things stand WADA guidelines are only concerned with the sum of both the inactive and active isomers.

Given this, why does separating the two even matter? Simply that different ratios of R- and S-salbutamol are available in different countries. In many parts of the world including Australia, asthma treatments typically have a 50:50 mix of active and inactive isomers. But in the USA, for example, some asthma treatments are readily available with 100% of the active isomer, R-salbutamol.

“With the current WADA limit based only on the sum of the two isomers,” explained my friend, “it opens up the possibility that an athlete could essentially double the dose of the effective enantiomer by consuming purely R-salbutamol.” He also went on to explain some experts suspect the two isomers may behave differently when absorbed and excreted by the human body – which, if proven, could place a further cloud over current salbutamol testing procedures.

“It would be very interesting indeed to see Ulissi’s R:S test ratio,” my friend concluded with more than a hint of raised eyebrows. “If it showed that 100% of his sample contained the active isomer, well, you could be reasonably certain he was trying to seek an advantage by exploiting the rules.”

For now we can only speculate because under current WADA testing guidelines there’s simply no way of knowing.

Like most things to do with the human body, it’s complicated stuff. My head hurts just thinking about it. But in trying to make some sense of the current situation, it did seem more than a little reminiscent of arbitrary hematocrit percentages. Good in theory but filled with the kind of ambiguity that’s ultimately good for very few people, except perhaps lawyers.

Whilst still in its relative infancy in pro cycling, the salbutamol story is gaining speed. Chances are there are athletes and coaches seeking to misuse it right now, perhaps even household names. But who? Where? And, frankly, is it doing anything more than perhaps acting as a placebo anyway? Like the early days of EPO there are no doubt more twists, turns and revelations to come. In such an environment all you can really say is the sooner authorities come up with a comprehensive and legally robust testing regime for all types of salbutamol use the better. Watch this space.

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is not intended to be a scientific research paper, but rather an overview (for everyday cyclists) of the issues surrounding salbutamol. I am not a scientist and do not profess to be so. However I would like to stress the individuals who have provided the bulk of the information and context for this article most certainly are and have many decades of experience in related fields.

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