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I have heard the claim that it is almost impossible to succeed as a professional bicycle racer without taking drugs because everyone else is taking it.

Is it true?

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Well... can you remember the last Tour de France with clean athletes? Yup, me neither :) –  Lagerbaer May 12 '11 at 14:28
    
Most of them indeed. A friend of mine was semi-pro, clean, and doing very well, so he asked his coach about professional cycling. His coach answered "you know what you have to do", undoubtedly implying drug use. My friend stopped cycling right afterwards. –  Isaac Clarke May 12 '11 at 14:34
    
Makes you wonder whether the practice is not common in other sports... or only the cyclists are serious about cleaning up –  apoorv020 May 12 '11 at 16:19
    
@apoorv020, apparently during en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operaci%C3%B3n_Puerto_doping_case one of the doctors being investigated said he had a number of footballers and tennis players on his books, but no one was interested. –  NimChimpsky May 12 '11 at 16:20
    
@apoorv020 : I would be interested about other sports too. I figured if I didn't pick a specific sport, the question would get closed. –  Samuelson May 12 '11 at 22:15

2 Answers 2

This is a very hard question to answer - how do you prove that a given cyclist isn't taking some undetectable drug?

What you can say is, in recent years, cycling has developed one of the most rigorous testing programs in all sports. Each professional cyclist has their own biological passport which tracks markers associated with drug use - the point is not to test for known drugs but for the likely effects of doping. If an athlete has a sudden rise in red blood cells, or makers associated with growth hormone, they're investigated or stood down.

A particular case in point is Brad Wiggins surprise result in the 2009 Tour de France. When he rode better than most people expected, he was able to show a long-term series of blood results which didn't show any evidence of doping

In the end, you will have to make your own judgement, but I think the level of testing used in modern professional cycling, and the fact only a relatively small number of cyclists are found guilty of doping, makes it reasonable to infer that most of the peleton are not cheating.

(there is more information on the biological passport here)

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Very interesting information on the biological passport - test for the physiological changes that are out of norm, rather than individual drugs or drug markers, since "New drugs are produced at an unprecedented pace today and there is often a lag of several years between the availability of a new drug and the application of an effective detection method." –  Adam Davis Aug 17 '11 at 15:11
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@david: Yes, and the high number of easter eggs prove, that there is a easter bunny. :) –  user unknown Aug 18 '11 at 0:17
    
I'll have to search for sources, but apparently one of the successor drugs to EPO was specifically manufactured to include a harmless tracer. This would make it trivial to prove use by sporters. –  MSalters Aug 18 '11 at 13:52

Yes.

Willy Voet, a physiotherapist, claimed as much in his book Breaking the Chain: Drugs and Cycling: The True Story. The book contains a detailed account of a wide range of drug abuses, in the period leading up to the nineties. It is, btw, thoroughly recommended.

Circumstantial evidence against Lance Armstrong is outlined in this book : LA Confidentiel

And, of course, most recently Contador, Floyd Landis, Michael Rasmussen, Team Astana.

To say "most professional cyclists"? Well, I guess you'll never know. But the sheer number that have been caught is very high in both absolute and percentage terms. All may protest their innocence, but they were caught with banned drugs in their system - it's quite simple.

A comprehensive list is here, and a quick count shows that in 2006, for example, 42 separate cases occurred throughout the year. The biggest court case, as fair as I know, is Operación Puerto carried out in Spain

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Can you back this with data? "But the sheer number that have been caught is very high in absolute and percentage terms." All the other links are unreliable sources. –  Sklivvz May 12 '11 at 15:51
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One of the old-time "Campionissimo" riders, 5-time winners of Le Tour, said, "Le Tour is not won on mineral water". That was in the thirties.... –  M. Werner May 12 '11 at 15:56
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They are necessarily objective. I agree with your answer, but I would like to see stronger evidence. There's plenty to be found, but the important thing is finding reliable evidence, not merely an autobiography or a news clipping. A court case would be much better, or a statistics study. –  Sklivvz May 12 '11 at 16:57
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So whilst I can't definitely prove them clear with anything massively substantial, I also think a book by Willy Voet saying "everyone did it" isn't hard enough evidence. After all, given his involvement in the Festina affair and subsequent prosecution, it is difficult to say that his account of events aren't without bias. Doping happens, no doubt about it, but whether it is to the extent portrayed in these works, I am not so sure. –  Ninefingers May 12 '11 at 18:48
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Armstrong has never tested positive for any controlled substance, despite the extremely rigorous testing regime of the UCI. Without any hard evidence of guilt I think assuming that he must have been doing drugs simply because he's won 7 Tours De France is unfair. And I think using the evidence of what is essentially a jailhouse snitch is especially dubious. –  MJeffryes May 14 '11 at 9:53

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