Monday, January 28, 2008

Monday morning talk around the Coppi machine

My post on Fausto Coppi last Thursday brought the following comment:

“Coppi was a legend but before making an idol out of him, we have to remember he himself admitted several times that "you don’t win a bike race on mineral water alone"

Interpretations are open but doping was quite rampant.

To read the rich cycling culture from the pages of history is great but it’s not possible to look up to these people anymore, at least for me.”

It was not my intention to bring up the dope issue; I didn’t mention it in any of the pieces I have written about cyclists from the 1940s and 1950s. I felt I covered the topic pretty well in my Historical Perspective on Dope. However, since it was brought up I will touch on the subject again.

European professional cyclists taking amphetamines was an open secret in the 1950s. I knew it as a teenage kid in England, and if I knew, the governing body of cycle racing (the UCI) knew and so did the cycling press. Everyone turned a blind eye, and did or said nothing.

Like your mother always said, “It’s only fun ’til someone gets hurt.” That’s how it was with the doping issue, nobody cared until Tom Simpson died. Then the cycling press who for years had kept quiet, were among the first to cry out for the UCI to do something.

What is, and what is not acceptable in our society changes constantly; smoking is a good example. Fifty or sixty years ago, drunk driving was not the serious issue it is today; people tended to look the other way if someone a little tipsy got behind the wheel. One can hardly go back and criticize a person who did that back then. It doesn’t make it right that society accepted it, but that was then, and this is now.

Think of recreational drug use in the 1960s and 1970s. It was illegal but accepted, not necessarily by all of society, but certainly accepted among pier groups of like-minded people. Dope taking by professional cyclists was much like that; accepted as the norm by the pros and fans of cycling alike.

Street drugs today have become nasty, dangerous stuff; crack cocaine, and methamphetamines; drugs used in the 1960s were mild by comparison. Dope in sport too has escalated. It used to be stimulants only, like amphetamines, now it’s blood doping, steroids, and other body altering chemistry.

A person wouldn’t necessarily denounce their parent or grandparent because they did drugs in the 1960s. It is wrong, in my opinion, to go back and condemn great riders like Fausto Coppi and the others from that era because they took amphetamines. It doesn’t make it right by today’s standards, but it was open and accepted at that time.

If Fausto Coppi on dope rode away from the rest and finished minutes ahead of the others, I can guarantee those chasing him were on the same dope. The playing field was level. Today doping is banned so to do so is cheating; in the 1940s and 1950s the taking of amphetamines was an open secret, so by not taking them a professional rider was cheating himself.

When Fausto Coppi made the statement, “You don’t win a bike race on mineral water alone.” He was being honest, but in doing so, he discredited himself and other riders of that era. They are now judged by today’s standards, and the present anti-doping mindset.

Amphetamines or not, these were tough, hard men. Take a look at the above picture and consider this: These cyclists rode as much as 170 miles a day, on dirt or gravel roads sometimes over three mountain passes. They did this on bikes weighing 25 or 26 lbs, carrying some of their own food, water, tools, and spare tires. I am not advocating the use of stimulants, but it could be argued such a feat was not possible on just mineral water.

I neither condone nor judge the riders of the 1940s and 1950s era, and I don’t pretend that doping didn’t take place. Having said that, they were the heroes of my youth, and they still have my admiration today. Maybe a person has to be of my generation to understand that.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,
I just wanted to say that I think your perspective on drug use in our heroes of the past is a superb one, well thought out and eloquently put.
To me, the only thing worse than the doping problem is the Salem Witch Trials-like hysteria surrounding it at the moment.
By all means clean the current scene up, but what good does it do to drag these retired legends who helped create the sport we all love through the mire?
Cheers, Oli

Anonymous said...


I agree with your perspective completely. It must all be taken in context of what was "normal" at the time, right or wrong.

Even Lances 7 tour wins are still valid since the peloton was playing by the same "rules".

Anonymous said...

Just because everyone is a thief, doesn't make it OK to steal. Stealing is wrong whether you do it alone, or whether everyone does it.

Nevertheless, I appreciate why people want to look for the best in riders of the past. I can admire riders like Coppi, even if I feel they are tarnished by doping

Maybe in the past regulations against doping were very weak (if non existent). But, nowadays there can be no excuse. If you dope - you're a cheat, end of story.


Anonymous said...

I love your cleaver little puns you use in your titles.

I agree with your post, there is nothing to be gained from blaming history. Learn from it and move on.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Dave! Far too much mud slinging these days...Val

Anonymous said...

Well-presented take on the use of race enhancers from a historical perspective.

I don't care if Coppi was high on dope every day for years...he's still one of my cycling heroes and always will be!

Anonymous said...

Not to pick nits, but I have always heard the mineral water quoate attributed tp Jacques Anquetil in the 1960's, not Coppi. I don't think drug use would even be mentioned in an offhand way in Coppi's era.

VintageSpin said...

There's a huge difference between what Fausto Coppi used (amphetamines, alcohol) to win a Tour and what it takes to win today. When Jacques Anquetil said "it takes more than mineral water to win" he was alluding to what those that chose to know already knew.
Personally I admire the Heros of old more than any recent racer simply because today they race in denial. Today’s winners use medicines that change the very physiology of their bodies, unheard of in the past.
The contrast:
To take a drink (of alcohol) to dull the pain or pop a stimulant to keep riding through is way different from today’s science programs that create a body just to win the Tour de France.
Today’s riders are constructed, to paraphrase Ivan Basso.
I do not admire that.

Anonymous said...


I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts, especially the historical ones.

Thank you for taking time to write, I'm looking forward to future posts.


Ron George said...

Hi Dave,

Great writing.

I believe I posted that comment. I admire those old riders very much, don't get me wrong. Only a cyclist can understand the difficulties that they went through, riding on unpaved roads, without sleep, fatigued and dehydrated with exceptionally heavy equipment.. etc

What I meant was that while admiring them for their good characteristics, one also cannot revel too much in the racing feats they performed. Todays standard is THE standard whether you like it or not.

Few things to note :

1. Short term therapeutic effects of drugs lead to increased energy and performance enhancement. But how sure is the scenario that a person will not abuse it? The dangers of excess usage are well documented.

2. Riders at the time were probably not educated too much about these things. Ignorance can cause you to do many dum things.

3. The science of athletics was in a woeful state at the time. No one knew anything really much about this topic. Superstition and myth was quite prevalant, for example during Simpson's time, race organizers forbade riders from drinking water from team cars since the widely thought belief by everyone was that drinking water in the heat was detrimental to racing. The combination of fatigue and dehydration with drug use spelled disaster on one's health.

4. Pressure to win and put bread on the table.

Ron George said...


I'm sorry if you cannot relate to these times. Science and knowledge about the human body has really multiplied. But I'm sure you'll enjoy racing NOW in its purest form, without alcohol or drugs.

I'm optimistic about our racing scene!

VintageSpin said...


“one also cannot revel too much in the racing feats they performed”.

And for what reasons should we not?

“But I'm sure you'll enjoy racing NOW in its purest form, without alcohol or drugs.”

Not in any of the Tours…
No one can finish any of the tours on training and equipment alone, much less win. That has always been the case.

Rather than not relating to modern science, I am very knowledgeable of it’s current (and future goals) state, as well as the ramifications of athletes using medications intended for patients.
Instead of better living through chemistry it is better racing through biology. That is different from the days of lore because those athletes formed their base from training and diet, unlike today where an athlete uses drugs to alter their muscular structure and metabolism (recovery).
The affects of speed and alcohol did not change their biology, in other words. Today, that is the goal that is often achieved (at least with the winners).
I cannot agree with altering what you were born with through such regimes.
And many (not all) of those “superstitions” from the past actually worked, science only recently confirming what has been “known” for centuries.

Ron George said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron George said...


Tour competitors do have a genetic advantage compared to you, me or any average person.

Coupled with advanced training methods (East European type periodization as opposed to archaic training used by the oldies), strength training,diet,and dope, these guys fly across hills like there are no hills at all.

It also seems to me as if you're saying that cyclists today dont care about any of the base foundation issues. Do you think they spend 30 hours a week training across the world, half a year away from their families, and have coaches,cooks and a train of other specialists around them for nothing??

You also seem to be saying alcohol is harmless.

Please read up on :

1.Liver Damage
2.Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (or brain damage)
3.Nervous Impairment

Besides, you're also ignoring the fact that in the past, cyclists didn't use alcohol ALONE, they combined it with drugs/chemicals for potent effects such as

2.Amphetamines (made in 1880's) as opposed to the more modern EPO.
3.Trimethyl (the first reported drug overdose from a cyclist 1886.)

Amphetamines were found in Simpson's post-mortem (1967)

As to the steroid use (hormones), you're right in saying they get to the biology of the human body. EPO,Growth Hormone etc come to my mind.

But with the tactical measures in place today, and with the significant "passport" system, these are bound to change. My argument is that you need to believe in the sport and not stop watching Tours!!

Read :

VintageSpin said...

“My argument is that you need to believe in the sport and not stop watching Tours!!”

I don’t believe the sport of cycling can go back to days when racers used stimulants and depressants, and it was known. That is the progress of all sports, to use whatever science has developed to athletic advantage. Next is genetic engineering, creating athletes to perform ever-greater feats.
I agreed with you on all your points: today’s athletes pay attention to their training and diet and drugs in ways athletes in the past didn’t. I did not counter that.
My counter argument was that there is a fundamental difference in how Tour riders prepare today. They actually change their long and short muscle fiber percentages; they shorten their recovery times, increase their oxygen-carrying capacity and change their metabolism; all with medicines that were never imagined when Coppi was racing. All through artificial means, not just training and diet.
And the biggest difference is that the winners today deny everything.
That is huge.
I cannot believe in people, or the sport they play, that cannot be genuine.
When my wife’s grandfather won the Bronze Medal in Cycling in the 1912 Olympics, he, along with Jim Thorpe, embodied what I consider to be a true athlete.
To explain that would distill it’s meaning.