Blood doping became widespread in the cycling culture in the 1990’s and 2000’s. But the practice of enhancing cycling performance through artificial means is as old as competitive sport itself. Blood doping is controversial, and justly so. It’s full of risk.
Not Just Professionals
According to a recent report made public by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC,) doping in cycling remains widespread in contemporary cycling culture. The report goes on to suggest that today’s cyclists are experimenting with a range of substances that are becoming more sophisticated and those who participate in doping continue to contrive different methods of doping that are more difficult to detect and it’s not restricted to professional cyclists.
According to the UCI (The Union Cycliste Internationale), the world governing body of cycling, the prevalence of doping in amateur cyclists is a result of an easy access to drugs via gyms and the internet, the reduction in costs for substances, a wealth of knowledge in methods of administration, and a lack of funding for regular testing at the amateur level.
No War on Drugs
The lack of a “war on drugs” is one of the reasons blood doping has become mainstream is it’s classification. “Drug trafficking” is generally thought of as coke, heroin and other mind altering drugs. But the kind of drug trafficking at work in blood doping is far different. The sale and distribution of blood doping drugs is considered a pharmaceutical crime, and is handled by a different branch of law enforcement, one that doesn’t have the same “war on drugs,” stigma attached to it, although it is increasing.
For the most part, doping drugs aren’t illegal to possess or consume but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Most often, the drugs are classified as medicine; the most famous example being testosterone, which is used for specific symptoms, illnesses and diseases in a highly-regulated setting.
Men and Women
While cycling is the most publicized doping scene, the issue stretches way beyond cycling to gyms, marathons, and even high school track meets. However, the report concludes that doping in women’s cycling is not as widespread and systematic as it is in men’s cycling. This is likely because less money is available in women’s road racing. But it’s logical to assume that when women’s cycling develops to a status comparable to men’s, it will likely include the same widespread issues with blood doping.
During rigorous cycling, approximately 90 percent of your oxygen is sent to the muscles. The remainder is sent to the brain, heart, and gut. When the body has fully optimized the available oxygen supply, one way to improve performance is to dope.
What is Blood Doping
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has defined blood doping as; “The misuse of techniques or substances to increase one’s red blood cell mass, allowing the body to transport more oxygen to muscles for the purpose of increased stamina and performance.”
Here’s where it gets off track. “blood doping,” and “doping” in general are two different approaches, but “blood doping,” has become the overall blanket description that is commonly used to describe all the techniques to enhance cycling performance.
“Blood Doping,” is actually a drug-free way to increase the number of red blood cells in the body. Sometimes referred to as blood boosting, it effectively increases endurance beyond a natural level. Blood doping or boosting, is accomplished when cyclists transfuse themselves with either their own blood or someone else’s blood.
When using their own blood, or an autologous transfusion, a cyclist withdraws blood following a time of rest to ensure there is a maximum amount of oxygen-rich cells in the blood. It is then stored for a period of time and re-transfused at some point prior to competition or at a critical juncture in the race or ride.
The risks increase if using blood from a donor source, which is known as a homologous transfusion The risks include rejection of the blood or getting an infection with a disease such as hepatitis. There is no viable test to detect blood doping of this type, though tests can sometimes show an unnatural level of mature blood cells.
Performance Enhancing Drugs
Performance-enhancing drugs (or PEDs) are another blood doping technique used to fortify blood. PED’s have the ability to considerably improve athletic performance by fortifying the blood. Blood doping drugs however can be dangerous and deadly.
Erythropoetin (EPO) is a hormone that regulates the volume and number of red blood cells and is involved in the wound healing process. EPO can be used therapeutically for helping with anemia caused by chronic kidney disease or certain types of blood cancer. EPO increases an oxygen uptake. This allows athletes to boost endurance beyond that provided by training as well as assist in muscle recovery. EPO is injected into the bloodstream.
Testosterone is a naturally occurring steroid hormone. Its primary functions include development of the sexual organs in men, as well as the growth of body hair and increased muscle and bone mass. Testosterone is used to treat delayed puberty, some types of impotence, as replacement therapy for middle aged men, and some types of infection or other muscle-wasting diseases. It increases bone growth and muscle mass to enhance strength and endurance. It can be administered in a number of ways including injection, pills and application via creams or gels. It is firmly on the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited substance list.
Cortisone is another naturally occurring steroid hormone. Along with adrenaline, it is produced by the body when it is under stress. Cortisone helps the body prepare for a fight or flight response by increasing blood pressure but its affects are short term. It is also on the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited substance list.
Growth Hormone is produced by the body to encourage cell growth and reproduction. It also has a role in a number of other developmental and maintenance factors in the body such as increasing muscle mass and strengthening bone, breaking down fats, increasing the development of proteins, and aids in recovery. It is also on the prohibited list.
The Future of Doping
The next step forward in terms of cheating in endurance competition and cycling is likely to come from the genetic arena. These practices may already be in use along with micro-dosing which is doing one of the above methods but in amounts low enough to not be detected. Fortunately the testing is improving along with the methods to test and the penalties that result from a positive test. Furthermore, the culture of cycling is changing for the better where doping is no longer an accepted part of competition.
Why We’re Telling you This
Doping is not just an issue relating to health and ethics but is also relevant in the culture, profitability, and sustainability of the sport as a whole. Cycling is doing more than most other sports to combat this problem and is targeting it from the top level down to the grassroots such as in the US where lower level amateurs have the possibility of being tested this year. Doping in sport takes away its credibility and draw from sponsors which is where the majority of funding for professional racing comes from. The more people that know not only that there is an issue with doping in cycling but also what it is exactly that riders are doing, the more pressure that is placed on the sport from all directions to minimize these practices to create a more sustainable sport over the long term.
What You Can Do
This depends on where you’re at in the sport but nearly everyone that rides comes across younger riders in the sport. Give them positive support and that the only way to do anything in life is to do it in a way that they can live with the rest of their life and look anyone in the eye and tell them the truth. Furthermore, the health effects of doping can be astronomical, from cancer causing to even death. It is never worth it to try and cheat to get ahead. Do the hard work and your or their rewards will be achieved with dignity and will be something to be proud of.