Being the technology slaves we most certainly are, cyclists are always on the lookout for the next big thing. Integrated brakes and seat posts? Awesome. Power metres in your pedals? Cool. Electronic shifting? Yes please. Disc brakes? That’s so pro. Elliptical chainrings like Wiggo? Hell yeah. Touch-screen GPS? Chapeau.
We love knowing about this stuff, even if we can’t afford it ourselves. Which got me wondering, what lies around the next corner for the shady underbelly of sports doping? Because whilst one high-profile Texan may have recently come a cropper, as sure as the sun will rise for tomorrow morning’s ride, there will be more dopers out there trying to dud the system…and I’m not just talking about beetroot juice and AFL-style ‘supplements’.
EPO is so last decade.
These days the sporting pharmaceutical buzz words are things like Ozone Therapy, AICAR and GW-501516. They’re very different, of course. But for the cheats out there, they might just lead to the same palmares-enhancing benefits of EPO, blood doping, cortisone and HGH. Until a week or so ago, I must confess I knew very little about any of these. But after reading about them in an interview with ex-pro and Festina rider, Christophe Bassons, and being more than little intrigued, I thought I’d do a little digging. Here’s what I’ve manage to find out so far.
To me, ozone used to be nothing more than the atmospheric layer of Earth that has a big hole in it thanks to power stations, refrigerators and hairsprays. Well, some people also think it can help us ride faster, for longer.
So far it seems the exact performance-enhancing qualities of Ozone Therapy, also known as ozonated autohemotherapy, aren’t universally agreed. But whilst not specifically mentioned in the WADA anti-doping code (ozone isn’t a banned substance) it is widely considered to be a form doping as it may unnaturally increase the body’s ability to transport more oxygen.
The practice first really came to public attention in 2009, when the Gazzetta dello Sport reported that a police investigation in Padua, Italy had inadvertently uncovered a new form of blood doping that didn’t raise blood values.
The investigation began when the father of rider Andrea Moletta was caught with a syringe of hormones hidden in a tube of toothpaste during the 2008 Giro.
The Padua investigation led to the arrest of an Italian doctor, Enrico Lazzeri, and the discovery of the use of ozone therapy. According to reports at the time, the technique consisted of removing 200 cubic centimetres of blood, mixing it with ozone and then re-injecting the blood into the rider. The whole process took around 30 minutes and boosted performance by increasing the oxygen carried to the rider’s muscles. Critically, unlike EPO it did not appear to alter the rider’s blood values as monitored by the UCI’s biological passport – making it effectively undetectable. Considering the seeming difficulty in identifying drugs for which tests actually did exist, this was clearly not good news for those in favour of clean cycling.
Ozone Therapy was back in the news at the TDF last July, when Cofidis cyclist Remy di Gregorio was arrested for being in possession of unauthorised medical paraphernalia. A Marseille-based doctor who was also arrested subsequently admitted mixing blood from Di Gregorio with ozone and re-injecting it in a bid to improve the rider’s performance.
Di Gregorio was immediately suspended by Cofidis and dropped out of the 2012 Tour. He has since admitted to receiving injections, but denies any charges of doping.
Whilst ozone’s exact performance-enhancing impact remains a subject of considerable debate, the French magistrate who heard Di Gregorio’s case was in little doubt.“We’re talking about medical or paramedical practices which are prohibited,” Dallest said to reporters at the time. “We might not be dealing with a doping substance, but the method is prohibited.” So there, Remy.
AICAR, or to use its full name 5-Aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide ribotide, is supposedly referred to as “the new EPO”. Experts say AICAR acts on muscular tissue to burn body fat and boost circulation of the blood and, among other things, can lead to riders appearing unnaturally gaunt as a result. Oh, yes, and improve their endurance which is rather useful for a pro cyclist.
In claims backed up by many ‘in the know’, the French Anti-Doping Agency suspected that AICAR had been used in the 2009 Tour de France and as of January 2011 it officially became a banned substance in the World Anti Doping Code. While no cyclist has tested positive for the substance, an article in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf last year suggests that’s largely because under the current testing regimes it is nearly impossible to trace. Yes, that would be a problem.
AICAR may be the new EPO. But it seems AICAR plus something rather cryptically called GW-501516 could be even better if you’re a drug cheat. Investigated by pharma companies as a potential treatment for conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease it reputedly delivers similar benefits to strenuous exercise.
Trials in mice have also indicated that GW-501516 can produce exponential results when combined with AICAR. Or put more simply, using both increases the body’s endurance compared to using either substance alone.
None of this is particularly secret, mind you. WADA and the UCI are very much aware of it. Body building and fitness forums are also filled with information and chatter. But to date the effects haven’t been clinically proven in humans, something acknowledged by Herman Ram of the Dutch Anti-Doping Authority. “People have been talking about AICAR for 15 years but effects have only been measured in animal studies. That means that there are unknown side effects possible when used in healthy human subjects.”
Risky or not, AICAR and GW-501516 are out there and as we see time and again, this won’t deter some from trying it.
Besides, EPO was used by sports cheats long before it had been officially tested on humans.
If all this isn’t depressing enough for you, there is another potential headache looming for the good guys. It’s a widely-available prescription drug for high blood pressure called Telmisartan. My fingers are starting to hurt from all this typing, though, so if you want to study up on this one, click here.
Drugs are nothing new. Nor are drug cheats. But given the never-ending assembly line of new performance-enhancing pills, treatment regimes and unscrupulous doctors and riders prepared to use them, I have to agree with an increasing number of voices from within the cycling and scientific communities. Just like the use of recreational drugs, a strong-arm approach can only do so much.
As long as there’s money to be made, it’s fanciful to think you’ll ever to get rid of doping entirely. Humans are far too flawed for that.
No, to tackle drugs in sport, you need to tackle the culture of drugs in sport. If done effectively – and yes, it’s a massive if – this will erode the demand from vulnerable riders, teams and sponsors who might otherwise get swept up in the dark arts of chemically-augmented gains. Then, just like pretty much every other commodity in this world, supply will slowly but surely dry up. In theory anyway.
Here’s hoping it happens in our lifetime.
FOOTNOTE: If you follow American Football you may already be aware of the story that broke in the lead-up to last Monday’s Superbowl. It concerned retiring Baltimore linebacker, Ray Lewis, and his remarkable recovery from a devastating triceps injury. Some reports from the USA attributed his rapid comeback to, of all things, deer antler spray. Lewis has denied using the product, which is squirted into the mouth and has similar muscle and tissue-building effects to the hormone insulin. Who knows if he used it or not. But it’s further proof of just how far some lab rats are prepared to go to try and gain an unfair advantage for athletes. And riches for themselves.