2020 was an exciting vintage of the Tour de France. Possibly the most exciting in years. The defending champion and his team didn’t have the goods. The Green Jersey race was a battle through the last road stage. The King of the Mountains competition saw the jersey switch shoulders twice in the final four days. The almost-certain overall victor was destroyed in the penultimate stage time trial by a 20 year-old, who ended up winning the Maillot Jaune, the Maillot Blanc, and the Maillot Pois a Rouges. And he did it with a weak team.
But now that it’s over, it’s worth interrogating that which dare not be asked.
I think those of us who lived through the EPO boom of the 1990’s and the Armstrong years have a pretty thorough mental catalogue of hints and signs of what doping looking like. It’s not merely extra-terrestrial performances, but the stories that go along with those performances.
I’ve been exploring the topic for some time.
Some forget; some choose not to remember. But for those of us who missed what was going on back then, or knew and neither said anything nor did anything about, will all be on the hook next time. People are going to ask why, with the experience of being in the midst of the doping booms, knowing about the busts and admissions, how you didn’t notice when these hints and tells popped up. Doping is a virus.
To be fair, this goes for everyone who is involved with sports at all levels. For example, in pro baseball in the 1990s, not only did you have the home run derby, but players were both bulking up and getting the kind of injuries that related to performance-enhancing drug use. Pro football had (and still has) clinically obese players who could (can) run insanely fast. It was going on in pro tennis, and when a top player spoke up, he got dumped on. Sport today is little different. Track and field and endurance running, to this outside observer, doesn’t seem to have meaningful drug testing. And the major ball-and-stick sports don’t seem to take it seriously.
So, with the past as our guide, here are some questions I think we should be asking.
Is there meaningful testing happening?
Drug testing began in the shadow of Tom Simpson’s death at the 1967 Tour. Testing seems to have been uneven until EPO abuse was too obvious to miss. That low point was the 1998 Tour. While testing started to become more consistent and meaningful after that, the Armstrong Era also began in 1999. A test for EPO was introduced at the 2000 Summer Olympics, but catching dopers was still hard. Out of competition testing became more frequent. The biological passport was introduced in 2008 and seems to be possibly largely working.
But the pandemic changed that calculation. For 2020, the CADF, which administers tests for cycling, they had completed about half the tests they typically do for the first eight months of the year. In-competition testing was rendered moot by the reality of no racing. And lockdowns almost certainly hampered, if not stopped, most out-of-competition tests. Testing officials say they picked up the pace of tests after May. French rider Thibaut Pinot said he hadn’t been tested outside of competition from October 2019 until mid-August, 2020. There seems to be scant news of where testing did and didn’t occur.
Is there a “fountain of watts” somewhere?
There are always bike racer hot spots. In the United States, Boulder, Colorado is one such place. In Europe, Nice in France, Monaco, and Girona, Spain count. Boulder seems like not a doping hot spot. However, Girona was initially set up by Lance Armstrong because his former base of Nice was about to be governed by the more stringent French rules. It could well be different today.
Looking back at past doping issues, there were definitely fountains of watts. The University of Ferrara in Italy, where Francesco Conconi worked, was possibly the first. Since then, there have been many others. Operacion Puerto in Spain. Switzerland became home to French cyclists who wanted to dope more easily. Mantova, also in Italy, was a more recent example. Most recent is Aderlass, which seems to have just revealed, as in last week, that a new doping product has been used. So new, it’s not even on the market.
Most notoriously, the Canary Island Tenerife was doper central in the aughts. Seems like the combination of high altitude, a temperate zone, and a remote island made it good training and an easy way to avoid getting tested. Back in 2014, Chris Froome, then a one-time Tour champ, called for more testing on Tenerife, even as he visited.
Is team domination a sign?
Alarm bells about EPO first rang when three riders of the Gewiss-Ballan team rode away from the field with 50km to go at the 1994 Fleche Wallone. The alarm wasn’t only because of their total domination, but because their team doctor, Michele Ferrari, claimed EPO was no more dangerous than orange juice. Team Telekom, first in the service of Bjarne Riis, and then Jan Ullrich, rode at the front of the peloton for nearly every stage of the 1996-7 Tours. They’d collectively crush the field to set up Erik Zabel in bunch sprints, then set tempo into the mountains for Riis and Ullrich. In the 2000s, The US Postal Service team did the same for Lance Armstrong. Both were revealed to have teamwide doping programs. Which is why observant people should have been skeptical of the domination of Team Sky (later Ineos) at the Tour from 2012-2019. There is much to be concerned about: Tramadol use, jiffy bags, a promise of transparency that they couldn’t back up with action, and much more.
Can a northern classics rider drop climbers on hors category climbs?
George Hincapie was an impressive classics rider in the early 00’s. He could ride cobblestones well and could sprint well. Climbing wasn’t his bag. But somehow, he managed to develop into a climber in support of Lance Armstrong. The apogee of his development was winning stage 15 of the 2005 Tour. Of course, we know now, he was doping all the way.
Is proper fit magic?
Bike fit is an evergreen topic. Pro teams often make a show of fitting their riders at team training camps. A good fit can make a difference. That written, even before riders are ready for the Tour, they have typically been fit multiple times and have refined their position over the years. And the number of watts it can add to someone who has already refined his position is likely fairly low.
Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss has had a great 2020 season thusfar. After he proved himself to be among the best at the Criterium du Dauphine Libere, there was a story about how he paid for a bike fit. Thankfully, the piece doesn’t tell us that he got faster as a result and it does contain worthwhile general advice, but the article has precious little information of value in it. It’s hard to believe despite four years of riding as a pro, and being a national champion before, that he never had a professional bike fit. That a pro team didn’t test him out at the start of each season and try to help him to a better position is malpractice, particularly at the WorldTour level. And we didn’t learn much about how his position changed, either.
Can a supplement be an elixir of power?
There is considerable evidence that the vast majority of nutritional supplements don’t make a positive difference in performance outside of the placebo effect. That doesn’t mean a new supplement won’t come along that will actually make a measurable impact. Supplements were sometimes attributed to explain improved performance in the 1990s, arguably before there was extensive research into them.
On the Tour’s second rest day, race leader Primosz Roglic of Jumbo-Visma was asked about his team’s use of ketones. He did try to minimize their importance, saying he didn’t know if they made a difference. “Yeah, we are still using it,” he told VeloNews, “For the real effects, it’s really hard to say. It’s hard to feel it.”
He’s correct to doubt. There’s no evidence thusfar that they make a difference. And a number of anti-doping officials—Travis Tygart in the US, Herman Ram in The Netherlands are calling its use into question. As is the Movement for Credible Cycling, a group of racing teams agreeing to protocols more strict than the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA).
Roglic’s teammate Tom Dumoulin allegedly resigned from the MPCC over ketones.
FWIW, Decunick-Quick Step also admitted to using it in 2019, while a number of top teams denied using it.
Can diet make a winning difference?
Plenty of amateur athletes know that their diet leaves something to be desired. If they’d only drink less beer, not indulge in so many cookies, add more vegetables to their diet, they might be able to perform better. Don’t forget the importance of carbo-loading. Or not.
But when you’re a pro athlete near the top of the game, it’s hard to imagine that they need diet help. Sure, it’s possible they made it really far on a diet of McDonald’s hamburgers and French fries. But in some cases, it’s more of a show.
So, when a long-time pro says, “”With the help of the team’s nutritionists, I’ve made a big improvement. In my eyes it has made a big difference, especially in the long hard races. In training as well, because I can train harder. It’s been a major change.” after being a professional for twelve years, maybe he did finally figure out how much food to eat. All the same, it is surprising that either he or his teams hadn’t noticed until recently.
Is the new generation different?
1991 was a dividing line in bike racing. The stars of the 1980s were largely unable to keep up once the season got in full swing. While it seemed like a youth movement, it now looks like the older riders either didn’t know about EPO or didn’t want to use it.
There’s a youth movement going on in pro racing today. with 19-, 20- and 21-year olds winning, sometimes in dominating fashion.
Here’s an explanation from VeloNews
“Better science, nutrition, and technology, which helps any bike racer, only acts as an accelerant when applied to today’s über-talented youngsters. Lighter frames, aero helmets and skin-suits, calibrated diets and recovery, coupled with the granular attention to detail in training programs means young riders can advance their racing development at a staggering rate. If they have the motor, and the skills to back it up, they can expect to perform almost immediately.”
Arguably, the piece doesn’t unpack these claims because that’s not what the article is about. However, it doesn’t make any sense. “Better science, nutrition, and technology,” are available to all, not just young riders. So the “advantage” is shared by all. And as teams dictate what racers use, it’s hard to see those things resulting in an edge for anyone. The riders aren’t suddenly being given these advances, they have been available for some time. It’s not like young riders were racing on steel frames with 36-spoke box-section clinchers before they raced the WorldTour circuit. And five years ago, as well as long before, the science, nutrition, and technology of the day were similarly available to all.
Maybe the new generation is different and is somehow beating the older riders because even though everyone has them, the benefits only accrue to people under 22. This kind difference has been claimed for many generations. Maybe this time it’s true.
Have the limits of human performance changed?
Doping can be present, even if the athlete doesn’t go beyond what has been seen has humanly possible. That written, there does seem to be a consensus. When it comes to riding a bike uphill, the limit for a 10-20 minute effort is under 6.5 watts per kilogram. An analysis of the L’alpe d’Huez climb at the Tour shows some pretty stark numbers. This climb typically occurs at the end of a long road stage. It can take upwards of 37 minutes to ascend. LeMond climbed it at 5.7 w/kg in 1989 and 1990. Pantani climbed it at 6.6 w/kg in 1998. Armstrong managed 6.98 w/kg in a time trial up the Alpe in 2004. In 2008, when Riccardo Ricco was blowing everyone away in the Pyrenees at the Tour and then got busted for doping, coach Allen Lim said the following:
Allen Lim Man Greyhound Hybrid 2008
“That was black and white. That was 6.7-watts-per-kg for 12 minutes. No one else has done anything else that in the Tour. Not even close. Everything has been tactical. Getting time before the climb. Riding at 5-watts-per-kg moving in the peloton to 5.5 to 5.7-watts-per-kg in the final 10km, maybe just under 6 watts in the final 5km. That’s normal physiology. Talk about a guy doing that for 10 minutes, 6.5, 6.7, you’re smoking crack or you’re some sort of man-greyhound hybrid.”
Looks like we might have a man-greyhound hybrid in Tadej Pogacar. Thanks to his and his team’s association with Stages Cycling and TrainingPeaks, we learned that the young Slovenian rode at 6.75 w/kg for the final 10 minutes of the Peyresourde. And it was sandwiched between a 10 minutes 6.42 w/kg effort on the lower part of the climb and nearly five minutes at 6.45 w/kg for the stage finale.
Of course, there are caveats. The power meter might not have been calibrated properly, or the offset drifted over the course of the day or climb, of he’s heavier than the advertised 66kg. But with the widespread use of powermeters, much of the guesswork separating what is equipment and what is human has largely evaporated.
Further, it’s within the realm farthest edge of possible that human performance has advanced some over the past 12 years. But that kind of advance, in the 5%-10% range, is far.
Strikingly, it has been reported that Pogacar didn’t use a powermeter or bike computer for his stage 20 time trial effort, at least for the climbing portion. Most of his competition did.
Can time trials reveal inadvertent truths?
Racing against the clock is known as “the race of truth” because each rider is alone. But they can also be revealing in other ways.
Because there aren’t the tactical skirmishes in time trials, the efforts are simple. There’s the rider. He’s going all out for a fixed distance. His competitors are also going all out for the same distance. Thanks to repeated efforts, we know how riders have compared to one another in other races. Thanks to competitive refinement, we can probably evaluate equipment choices as well—for the most part, elite time trialists are probably close to a draw when it comes to their equipment. Everyone uses a disc rear, a deep-dish front wheel, and their frames have to conform to UCI standards; the bikes are almost all so close as to be a wash. So their position is the variable. And when it comes to climbing, they probably all have bikes pretty close to the 6.8kg UCI minimum weight, and position probably doesn’t count for much when climbing at 20kph.
In 2008, German rider Stefan Schumacher suddenly became a time trial threat. He went from finishing behind the usual top time trial suspects to beating them handily in two Tour de France time trials. He didn’t have a markedly different start position than some of the competition, so it’s hard to claim he had better road conditions. He wasn’t riding a new bike or in a new time trial position. Turned, out, it was a new form of EPO.
Provided all the competitors we’re evaluating are trying to put in their maximum efforts and they’ve raced against one another in the recent past, we should have a decent idea of what they’re capable of.
At the 2020 Slovenian Time Trial Championships, held on June 28, Pogacar beat Roglic by nine seconds after 15.7km of racing. So in a 36km time trial, that would be 22 seconds or so. Interestingly, it seems they did the first half on road bikes, the second half on TT bikes. In 2019, both rode the 36.2km Jurancon-Pau individual time trial stage of the Vuelta a España, both putting out their maximum efforts, as both were going for the overall. Roglic beat Pogacar by 1:29. Pogacar finished third overall; Roglic won. Of course, there are the caveats about great days and terrible days, and Pogacar geting stronger as he gets older.
It’s hard to think equipment was the difference at the Tour. Both rode time trial bikes for the flatter section of the course and both switched to their road bikes at virtually the same spot on the climb. Pogacar might have had a slightly faster switch, but by then, 30km in, Pogacar was already 36 seconds ahead. And made up another 80 seconds in the final 6km.
Almost more striking is that Tom Dumoulin, who also was at the front the entire Tour and was riding both to win the stage and improve is overall standing, was beaten into second place on the day by 81 seconds after Pogacar’s ride. Dumoulin was shocked. “My values were World Championship-worthy values. That’s great to see,” he told Cyclingnews. “That’s why I was all the more surprised that Pogačar was 1:21 faster. I’m sure I can tell you I’m never going to reach that level. I may be able to win one per cent somewhere, but not five per cent.”
Dumoulin rode his time trial bike for the whole stage, rather than switch on the climb as Pogacar and Roglic did. He appears to have lost 21 seconds on the flatter part of the stage and then another minute on the climb.
I hope it was a clean Tour. But the old spidey sense is tingling.
JP is the author of Tour Fever: The Armchair Cyclist’s Guide to the Tour de France, which is available both as an eBook and audiobook. Experience this singular masterclass either as an eBook from Kobo , iTunes, Lulu, or Nook. Or Audiobook. Read the introduction here. Read the table of contents here. There’s nothing like the Tour de France. There’s no book like Tour Fever.