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.