Doping in the Tour de France

The Wall Street Journal has published a fascinating piece about Floyd Landis‘s allegations of widespread doping in professional bike racing.

Predictably, Lance Armstrong dismissed the allegations, saying he is too busy to address the specific claims and attacking Landis’s credibility.

I’ve never studied lying versus truth-telling academically, but I have thought a lot about creativity.? And one thing that I have come to believe is that people – virtually all people, including me – are really bad at coming up with new ideas and insights.

That is why I find the Floyd Landis allegations so compelling.? He describes in great specificity and detail scenarios involving refrigerators hidden in closets, and the precise temperature at which the blood stored in those refrigerators had to be kept; and faked bus breakdowns during which Lance received blood transfusions while lying on the floor of the bus, etc.? To make up stories of this kind, with that sort of detail, strikes me as a difficult task.

If indeed the stories Landis tells are not true, my guess would be that these incidents actually happened, just with a different set of players, and then Landis switched the names.

Further convincing me that there is likely to be truth to what Landis says are personal conversations I have had with a former Tour de France champion.? He also spoke with great specificity and a clear understanding of the physiology and science of biking and doping.? He was completely convincing to me, and indeed after talking to him I gathered a bunch of data from the Tour de France.? An undergraduate working for me found suggestive, but not completely persuasive, statistical evidence of doping in the Tour de France.? One of my graduate students is now studying the issue.

More surprising to me than the allegations is the fact that people seem so willing and eager to believe that Lance Armstrong is not doping.? The evidence suggests that the benefits of doping in bike racing are perhaps greater than in any other sport except weight-lifting.? In contrast to sports like baseball, where it is hard to find obvious links between steroids and performance, when racers/racing teams are caught doping and confess the details of when they started, the improvement in their times is stark.? When the benefits of cheating are so great, it is statistically unlikely that anyone could race at the top without cheating. ?So many of the top racers have been caught.? And it is not like Lance looks particularly clean.? An Italian doctor who he worked with, Dr. Ferrari, went on trial for doping-related charges.? Interestingly, Armstrong denied any ties to Ferrari until he was caught on a hidden camera exiting Ferrari’s office building, or so I am told.

The single best idea I’ve heard with respect to doping comes from Aaron Zelinsky, who argues that the blood and urine of current competitors should be kept around for decades and systematically tested as new technologies are developed.? If anything illegal is ever detected, the cheating is then publicly revealed.? Indeed, in a shadowy and perhaps illegal way, that basic approach led to an alleged positive EPO test for Armstrong, when a French newspaper reported that old urine samples from an earlier period (before a test for EPO existed) tested positive for the substance on the new test.

Maybe the answer is simpler still…just let the racers dope freely, as Dubner argued on the blog a few years back.

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  1. tom First says:

    i think it is hard to believe that Lance is clean- despite what we want to believe…

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  2. Dave says:

    I have to agree with the last statement. Let them dope. What really is the difference between someone that has some genetic quirk that might cause a natural doping vs. someone that uses artificial doping? They both perform better than the rest, and that is really what is measured in a race.

    If people really are that averse to the effects of doping, perhaps they should spend more time watching their own kids race in more controlled environments. But if the goal is to watch the best of the best in the world produce the best times, we’re probably going to have to live with doping. Even the worst doper is still a human producing a human result.

    I think people get upset because they don’t want their kids thinking that becoming an athlete means doping, but if that is really the primary concern for these parents, then these parents should not direct their children into sports at all. It is a long shot to make it in sports and it probably isn’t worth it to encourage kids to engage in the first place unless they just love it. They can teach them that winning is not everything, and that winning at the expense of doping isn’t worth it. Then, let them make the call.

    It is called, growing up.

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  3. Patrick says:

    The fact of the matter is almost every single cycling champion in the last years has been “outed” as a doper. Of course, Lance’s story is an incredible one and I think few want to that one tainted. You are correct in the details being too compelling to make up and several other fellow teammates have cited similar stories. However, in comparison to other cyclists that have been caught the level of doping cited by Landis is relatively light. Blood doping, for example, at one time was legal and other cyclists were caught on agressive doping schedules including EPO and Human Growth Hormone.

    Personally, I feel that professional athletes, like politicians, will ultimaltely miss the hero status readily assigned to them by fans and media and should be treated as such. As a competitive cyclist, I knew years ago that Lance had taken performance enhancing drugs just like every other top cyclist he raced against. He’s no hero to me, yet I still admire his accomplishments.

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  4. Howard Brazee says:

    I have no idea whether these accusations are valid.

    But it isn’t that hard to make up very detailed conspiracies. Many successful novelists have that kind of detail.

    Just because an accusation includes a lot of detail doesn’t make it any more valid (or less valid) than an accusation without that detail.

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  5. jeff says:

    The fact that Landis can tell a highly detailed & convincing story of systemic doping is not really indicative of anything. Remember he was just as detailed & just as convincing in his accounts of NOT doping for the past several years (and in his book).

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  6. Eric M. Jones says:

    So why is the bike allowed to get zillions of dollars in technological upgrades when humans aren’t? I think human biotechnology will defeat any possible dope testing.

    But the answer might be found in realizing that it is all just a spectacle, not an actual fair contest. So yes, I’d just allow all legal (ahem…) drugs.

    This brings up the notion of having categories of contestants….Drugged….Non-Drugged…. Handicapped … Seniors ….Centenarians….Pre-Schoolers. Hey it’s all just a spectacle!

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  7. Revolver says:

    I am not sure that it as much as “that people seem so willing and eager to believe that Lance Armstrong is not doping” – but more the fact that he has been tested more than anyone else with no test indicating use of performance enhancing drugs?

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  8. Byron says:

    Interesting take, in the cycling community, Landis’s allegations seem to have just divided the two camps even more.

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