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.

tom First

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


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.



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.


Howard Brazee

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.


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).

Eric M. Jones

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!


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?


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


maybe these stories are Landis' personal stories and he is just projecting them onto other people. The details could be highly accurate but instead of saying they are his stories he puts them onto other people? That is one idea....

But....I believe where there is smoke there is fire.


This is just a huge scandal that is taking forever to unfold. If Armstrong doped, do people not get how completely morally reprehensible his capitalizing not just on his athletic accomplishments but on his cancer foundation, too, would be?? It would be the apotheosis not just of the steroid/cheating culture, but of the marketing/media culture, too. (Hint, hint, ESPN, and everybody else who rode his publicity wave). Personally, Armstrong's corporate-created image of purity and endurance, his idiotic American underdog/medical miracle myth, makes me sick, and if you or anyone you know has battled cancer, it should make you sick, too--cancer miracles are few and far between. If Armstrong is guilty it would make Mark McGuire et all look like small potatoes. Why is nobody talking about this!!!


Dave: "I think people get upset because they don't want their kids thinking that becoming an athlete means doping...."

Not quite. People also get upset when they see adults dying during races because they were so desperate to win that they drugged themselves. Permit athletes to compete not just on innate ability, training and effort but also on doping and you'll see yet more deaths as athletes try riskier drugs in order to gain a competitive edge.

As a separate argument, bicycle racing is a sport, and there's positively nothing sporting about a game of see-who's-the-best-doper.

James Myers

Ya missed the low hanging fruit, Freakanomically speaking. What's the likelihood of undoped riders beating doped riders so consistently, given they are all at the top of the sport? Lance almost *has* to be dirty.


A few thoughts:

1) I agree with the "just because he gives details doesn't mean anything" slant. Maybe Floyd is just really creative.

2) "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?" - I disagree with this. The types of doping preferred and referenced in the article (autologous transfusions) are not tested.

3) I'm interested in the handful of other riders they interviewed, but didn't specifically name.

4) USPS riders went to other teams and were in several cases (Landis included) caught doping.

5) In approximately 147 stages (7 x 21) over 7 years, Armstrong lost time to real contenders only a couple of times. That to me is the the strongest evidence of doping. He simply won at will, and only in 2003 (if I recall) did he lose time in a climb or two and a time trial. Maybe that is also simply evidence of him being superior.

6) As far as "let them dope..." Why not just create remote controlled 2 wheeled vehicles and see which one can make it up Alp d'Huez the fastest?



The one think that Steven and the rest of you are forgetting is that Lance is, almost undoubtedly, the single most tested athlete on the planet. In the course of the 2-3 weeks leading up the tour he has been tested more than 6 times, both blood and urine. On the night before the tour, he gave another 6 vials (3 blood, 3 urine) in a very highly monitored testing procedure and there is testing throughout.

Do I think that you can fool these tests some of the time? Of course, but Lance has never failed one in hundreds...(despite an ALLEGED positive EPO test)

Do I think that Lance may have doped in the past, before testing was as's a possibility but we'll really never know so why bother with accusations.

Landis is a bitter, bitter man whose accomplishments and immense talent are now completely overshadowed by a career in ruin. He's grasping and pulling at anything he can and there's not a cyclist out there who sides with him or has an ounce of respect for him anymore.



As a long time fan of professional cycling and of Freakonomics, I have often wondered whether any statistical analysis could reveal evidence of doping, so I'm glad to hear someone is working on that.

I also found Landis's story to be quite believable, but I've been convinced for some time that Lance has had some pharmaceutical help just like the rest of them. Look at how many of the people who finished 2nd and 3rd behind Lance during his reign eventually were caught for doping. There's no question Lance Armstrong was the most talented cyclist of his generation, and he probably had the best work ethic of anyone he competed against, but he also benefited from extraordinarily good luck (7 straight Tours with no race-ending crashes is remarkable for anyone), and from being a smarter cheater.

As for giving up and just allowing doping, my reason for not liking the idea has nothing to do with athletes as role models (even if I thought Lance was clean, I still wouldn't want my son to be like him). When I watch professional cycling, I want to be able to go ride the same roads and see how I compare. I figure if they can climb L'Alpe d'Huez in under 40 minutes, I could train to be able to do it somewhere close to an hour.



It's pretty surprising that you would publicly air your opinion on this topic, when it seems to be based on nothing more than an intuition that Landis is telling the truth (for once).

Landis has spend years and all of his fortune claiming that he never doped. His sudden reversal is based on the fact that he's now broke and wants to stick it to those who didn't stick by him, and gain financially from the new attention. It's mind-boggling that someone would give the benefit of the doubt to someone who has never done anything that wasn't self serving over someone who has used his earned celebrity and all of his free time to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fight cancer.

Of course Landis' descriptions are vivid, he's now admitted to doping himself for years. He's just attributing his own activities to others.

You also inaccurately describe Armstrong's alleged positive EPO test. It was not discredited because it was illegally obtained, it was discredited because there is no chain of custody showing that it is actually Armstrong's sample.

I do like your idea of retaining samples for years to test later, but there wold have to be an impartial and accountable party responsible for the storage of samples. The WADA, which has shown that they are more interested in high-publiciy busts than they are in ensuring fairness, has too vested an interest in the outcome to be relied upon.



I am against allowing doping. By allowing doping you are essentially forcing anyone who wants to compete to do the same.

With the current (apparent) de-facto doping use, at least those who play it clean have the hope that dopers will get caught and eliminated.

If doping were allowed I would want to have separate classes of races for dopers, similar to how some triathlons have heats that only 1st timers can run in, or only pros, etc.


If the details of any story are imaginative and creative, then it must be true?

What kind of logic is that, especially for an economist??? That kind of logic is borderline childish, e.g., "I read about it on the internet, so it must be true," or "I saw it on Entertainment Tonight, so it must be true."

Besides, what is so imaginative and creative about this story? Keeping a freezer in an apartment is imaginative? Pretending to have a broken car on the side of the road is creative?

In the words of Eric Cartman, "Lame, dude."


I'm a big Lance fan, and find it hard to believe that he didn't dope during the period of 7 wins. I think the other top contenders were doping too.

I think that's a huge part of why he came back to the sport. He wants to show himself (and his kids) that he really was that good.


People hesitate to point a finger at Armstrong because our culture has decided that getting cancer and not dying from it makes you special.

He can even make his wife go through fertility treatments so he can have "his" children after chemo, then ditch her for a rock star girlfriend once the publicity wore off, and nobody seems to mind so long as he wins races and continues to be the cancer survivor poster boy and raises money.