segunda-feira, julho 30, 2007

Volta à França 2007

Puzzle of the Teflon Peloton: Risk, Reward and Ridicule

After 2,206 miles, 23 days and immeasurable moments of exhaustion, the best cyclists in the world will pedal down the Champs-Élysées today to finish the Tour de France, the prestigious race that was sullied again last week by doping problems, a year after the 2006 champion, Floyd Landis, tested positive for a banned substance.
Three top riders, including the race leader and a prerace favorite, were kicked out of this year’s Tour because of failed drug tests or suspicions of avoiding antidoping officials. Those transgressions may seem puzzling, considering they were brought to light at cycling’s most scrutinized event, where both urine and blood are screened for performance-enhancing drugs. The cheaters have not been scared off.
“Most athletes think they are invincible,” said Joe Papp, 32, a former professional cyclist who tested positive for synthetic testosterone and is serving a two-year ban. “Most cyclists who dope think that they won’t get caught. In most cases, they are right.”
The riders who dope are taking a calculated risk, and the odds may be in their favor. Only the race leader, the stage winner and two or three riders selected at random are tested every stage of the Tour, leaving most of the field of about 200 untested.
Some riders who dope may use small doses of drugs, like testosterone and the oxygen-boosting EPO, taking quantities that do not exceed the maximum allowed but hover just below the cut-off so they can slip past the drug testers.
Daniel Gilbert, author of the book “Stumbling on Happiness” and a psychology professor at Harvard, said the recent failed drug tests should lead one to believe that there was much more cheating in cycling than was known. The cyclists must know something that the general public does not: that more riders — perhaps many more — are able to avoid detection than are caught.
“These guys may be able to get jobs as economists,” he said. “They may be thinking very logically about their decisions.”
In 1998, the entire Festina team was ejected from the Tour after doping supplies were found in a team vehicle, but drugs remained in the sport.
Tyler Hamilton tested positive for a blood transfusion in 2002, the year he won an Olympic gold medal. This year, Alexander Vinokourov, one of the race favorites, tested positive for the same infraction. Last year, Landis was found to have synthetic testosterone in a urine sample, the same violation Cristian Moreni was cited for at this year’s Tour.
“They may be immoral, but they are not necessarily stupid,” Gilbert said. “Why would they put everything on the line for such a small possibility that they would get away with this? Well, who said the possibility was small? It might not be small at all.”
Doping in cycling has evolved from simple methods, like using alcohol or amphetamines on a tough ride, to more innovative ways of enhancing performance, like the use of bovine hemoglobin — a derivative of cow’s blood — which would give the rider more oxygen for taxing stages of a race.
In some cases, using performance-enhancing drugs goes unpunished, even in this era of heightened testing, said Donald Catlin, former head of the Olympic antidoping lab at U.C.L.A. At the Tour, riders are not tested enough — or at all, he said. They are given advance notice of testing, allowing them time to prepare their bodies to pass those tests by using techniques like saline drips to thin their blood.
“They have a very active underground that helps them figure these things out,” Catlin said Friday at his new antidoping research facility near Los Angeles. “But they don’t know all the answers. Sometimes things go desperately wrong, like they did in the Landis case. Sometimes they get caught.”
To outsiders, the drug testing at the Tour may seem unbeatable, but to some the tests are laughably easy to circumvent.
Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said last week by telephone that cycling is at a breaking point and should enlist the help of governments and law enforcement to catch those athletes who continue to cheat. He called the Tour “the annual disappointment.”
Greg LeMond, a three-time winner of the Tour de France, said that the drug testing needed to be plucked from the hands of the International Cycling Union and given to outside agencies to ensure stricter testing and prevent manipulation of the results.
Right now, he said, riders use drugs because they feel that they cannot win without them, considering the competition is most likely using them, too.
“Nobody trusts the system,” LeMond said last week in a phone interview. “What they need to be assured is that there are no loopholes.”
There is also little incentive for riders to admit having used performance-enhancing drugs because they can be suspended after the fact and are, at the least, ostracized from the cycling community for revealing drug use.
Papp, who has been out of the sport for a year, said he received hate mail and threatening phone calls after he testified in May about the testosterone use in cycling at an arbitration hearing involving Landis and the United States Anti-Doping Agency. But Papp knew he would be a target.
“When a rider tests positive, it’s like Stalinist Russia,” he said. “You are taken off the Web site, your paycheck stops coming, the team just washes its hands of you. The team goes on, and there is no motivation, outside their own morality and ethics, to stamp out doping. But they still expect you to keep quiet about everything.”
The cycling culture is such that athletes are brainwashed into believing that doping is acceptable, and even necessary, Papp said. He likened it to “being in the mob” because the cyclists have the backing of their teams to use performance-enhancing drugs, the promise of secrecy from their teammates and the audacity to look the drug testers in the eyes, knowing full well that their doping will go undetected.
Papp described the induction into that closed society. At first, a team official offers to initiate a cyclist into a special program. Then, with time, the rider is given more trust and more access to the world behind the closed doors.
Papp, a University of Pittsburgh graduate who hoped to work for the State Department, said he soon became a part of the doping fraternity. He became an expert on giving himself injections and transfusing his own blood.
“You are so focused on the travel, the training, the money and what a wonderful life you are having,” he said, “you almost don’t realize how far down the slope you have slid.”
NYTimes 28.07.07