Monday, May 28, 2007

Dope: A Historical Perspective

I started racing in England in 1952 at the age of 16. I rode, trained, and hung out with more senior members of my cycling club, riders in their 20s and 30s and older. Every year we followed the Tour de France; it was an “open secret” that riders in the Tour took dope.

The drug used was Benzedrine, a brand name for a mixture of amphetamines that had been used by the military since the early 1900s. It was used extensively during WWII so in the 1950s everyone was familiar with the drug, and there were probably still ample supplies.

I never used Benzedrine and never saw it used by amateur cyclists, which is not to say it wasn’t. However, it was generally accepted that the pros used it, especially in the Tour and other big stage races.

My feelings at the time were neutral, if everyone around me accepted it why should I think otherwise? We didn’t look on it as cheating, the entire Tour de France field was on dope, it only becomes cheating if a substance is banned and only a few do it.

The subject was openly talked about amongst cyclists, but never written about or criticized in the cycling press. The general media could care less, and it seemed the UCI and other cycling governing bodies turned a blind eye.

All this changed on July 13, 1967 when British cyclist Tom Simpson (Top left.) died on the slopes Mt. Ventoux in Southern France. This was a mountain stage of that year’s Tour, and a brutally hot day. Tom Simpson died of heat exhaustion but would not have done so if amphetamines had not caused him to push his body beyond the limits of human endurance.

The general media Worldwide had a field day, and now performance enhancing drug use by professional cyclists could no longer be ignored. The open secret was out. Incidentally, Tom Simpson was a year younger than I was, so he would have grown up in that same era of tolerance to dope use by the pros.

My guess is that doping by professional cyclists can be traced back to the beginning of pro racing in the early 1900s; amphetamines became available about the same time. Six Day Track Racing became immensely popular back then, a sport crying out for a “stay-awake” drug. I was once told first hand, that dope was used in the 1930s six day races, one could suppose it was used before then.

I also suspect that dope was used in many other professional sports. If the use was an open secret, as in cycling, but never written about or recorded in the press, who can say it was not. Professional sport is entertainment, and the greater the athletic performance the more entertaining it is, which translates into more money the athlete.

I am skeptical when fans of other professional sports state that the “old timers” created records without the use of stimulants. The open secret of doping in cycling was amongst cyclists, not the general public. In other sports it would be the players who would know, not the fans. People who were around at that time have passed on, so we can never be certain?

Most professional sports were traditionally financed by spectators buying a ticket to view an event in a stadium. The Tour de France was unique in that it was free to spectators and its revenue generated entirely by advertising. Even before the days of television, this huge circus would travel around France, so people would see the advertising on vehicles, on free hand outs, plus see pictures of sponsored riders in newspapers.

Advertising revenue can be far more lucrative than income by paid spectators; the Tour de France pioneered this form of sports financing. Many people still do not realize the incomes generated by professional cyclists in Europe. Throughout the 1970s, Eddy Merckx was consistently among the top paid athletes in the World. Close to boxer, Mohammed Ali when he was at the peak of his career.

The UCI was slow to act on the doping issue, and the practice was still widespread throughout the 1970s. The professional riders would not give up dope individually unless there could be a guarantee that everyone would do so across the board. Sponsors would worry that racing would become slower and lack-luster if stimulants were dropped. And, the UCI is a group of officials elected to office. The first rule of politics is “Don’t piss off the people who can vote you out of office.”

Speaking of politics, I find it interesting to note that the cycling press who knew only too well of doping for many years but never touched the subject; after Simpson’s death and now beholding to their readership, were the strongest critics of the UCI and their handling of the problem.

It has been 40 years since Tommy Simpson died, and the sport of cycling is still struggling with the doping issue. However, one has to realize doping amongst the pros was an open secret and accepted for maybe 60 years before Simpson’s death.

The hero’s of my youth were riders like Fausto Coppi, Ferdi Kubler, Louison Bobet, and Jean Robic. They are still my hero’s even though I know they took dope, this was a different era.

Today’s dopers are a different matter, and I am definitely not a fan. However, because I have a few years behind me, and I was around when doping was tolerated, I look at the whole issue from a slightly different perspective.

This piece is based on my own memories. Some of it on second hand knowledge passed on to me, the rest is speculation and my personal opinion. My views are from someone completely detached from the sport and the bicycle business.


VintageSpin said...

My wife's father Robert Krushel always reacted with a "They're all on dope attitude" whenever I would talk about the Tour with him.
His father, Albert Krushel won a bronze medal in the 1912 Olympic road race, and also raced six-day races in Madison Square Gardens, at a time when they really were six non-stop days. Riders would hold their partners up while they slept on the bike, and as you say any doping or stimulants were just part of the sport.
I always viewed his words as somewhat fanatical, but now realize he was just stating what he felt must have been true.
The difference now is the vast amount of money to be had without having to race to win all year, concentrating on only one race, the Tour de France. It is a “get in, get all you can and then get out” attitude.
But maybe some feelings have not changed: Risking health and detection is worth the money rewarded winners. And this is not exclusive to cycling. It is the way it is from NASCAR to the NFL.
And the fans, the public has joined in. What was once rare is common: from sport motorcyclists splitting lanes on the freeway at 100mph to pocket race cars challenging each other on streets, all with no reward but beating catastrophe.
I prefer to stay in this long term. And that takes a more calm approach to life. Which doesn’t mean I will allow someone to beat me up the next hill-they will have to earn that.

Bruce's Bike Blog said...

My neighbor is on the coaching staff of our local high school. He asked me how I felt about Floyd Landis and all the dope related press cycling is receiving. I guess I didn't quite know what to say--the idea that depending on how the test is done, results can vary--who knows?

He told me that while in high school, (1990s)most of the football players on his team took steroids, and that he's certain that the young men on the football team at our high school where he coaches do as well.

I was a little surprised that this would be the case, with all the press, and the health hazards...

Anonymous said...

Great post Dave! Just makes me wonder about all the rest of the past stars of other sports. Great subject for a book.

Yokota Fritz said...

I didn't know about the 'open secret,' but what you report is about what I've suspected. I have a friend who quit pro mountain biking because of the pressure to dope.

Anonymous said...

Well, I can attest to the fact that doping can enter all facets of life. Why, I remember my mother, when pushing me in a stroller as a wee infant, was sometimes accused of pushing dope.

I had to say this, but I believe that it will actually be easier to name those who do not dope in the peleton, than those who do. I am sorry to see how the headlines are affecting cycling, when one surely has to know that it occurs in all sports.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Dave. Did you know that during the 1980's, the San Diego Velodrome used to give away cases of a product called "up-time" as primes? Up-time was a concoction of stimulants designed to keep truckers awake on the road. Caffeine was already on the list of prohibited substances (as a supplement). I was 16 years old and winning CASES of this stuff, and it was the race organizers that wee giving it to me.

I mush prefered to win cases of "Bikini Cola" though.

Anonymous said...

The adoption of EPO by the peloton in the 1990's was rather hard to miss. We were seeing average stage speeds of 23-25 MPH back in the late 1980's. By 1996, we were starting to see averages in the 29-30-31 MPH range. Heart rate monitors had already been in wide use since 1985 among the pro riders, and they all had access to modern training techniques by then. No one was saying it, but those of us who had ridden at halfway high level within racing...We all certainly knew what was going on.

Anonymous said...

Patrick, not to detract from your comment which I agree with. Those MPH numbers are also very closely related to bicycle weight/construction. I love lugged steel to death, but for a race bike that is disposable, those 15lb carbon bikes will destroy anything else on the field.