By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Did Floyd cheat?

Dan Kennedy invited me to guest blog on Media Nation today. Since I’m a Tour de France fanatic, he asked me for my reactions to the news that Tour de France champ Floyd Landis apparently tested positive for testosterone, a performance-enhancing drug, during this year’s tour.

For me, the biggest surprise out of all the media coverage has been learning that the elite athlete had consumed “moderate” amounts of beer and whiskey the night after his flame-out in Alps in Stage 16 when he dropped from first place to 11th and lost about 10 minutes on the new leaders. The Boston Globe reports, “He thought his chances of winning the Tour were slim and was looking for ‘a way to get through the night.’”

Jack Daniel’s? Whatever it takes, I guess.

Although, as we’re learning now, that may not have been all that it took to get Floyd through the night. He may very well have chased his chaser with a testosterone patch.

The collapse — or “bonk” in athletic performance parlance — was painful to watch. Floyd literally ran out of gas. It was evidence, ironically, that this year’s tour was the cleanest it’s been in years. Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, who’s been outspoken about the need to clean up the sport, told The Guardian that he thought the riders this year were honest: “Riders looked tired, they had bad days. For years you never saw any suffering in the riders.”

Did Floyd cheat? The Boston Globe quotes two experts who say that an athlete trying to recover from bonking the way Floyd did would not have turned to testosterone for help:

However, two leading physicians and crusaders in anti-doping circles deplored the release of the damaging information before the second analysis. They added that it would have been nonsensical for Landis to use testosterone as an instant fix.

An elite rider who needed to perform well in a climbing stage as Landis did would be likely to turn to stimulants or blood-boosting techniques such as erythropoietin injections to improve oxygen processing capability, rather than using a strength-building substance like testosterone, they said.

“Something seems a little smelly here,” said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor emeritus of exercise and sport science and nationally recognized expert on steroid use. “Testosterone is a training drug, not a competition drug. It doesn’t act that quickly. It’s not going to change your life in a day or a week.

“I feel in an odd position defending any Tour de France rider, but if you wanted to make up eight minutes, you’d blood-dope.”

His view was backed by Dr. Gary Wadler of New York University, who helped craft the current WADA code. “You don’t take anabolic steroids in the morning and race in the afternoon,” Wadler said. “It takes many weeks to get benefits from them. There’s no good evidence that they enhance the aerobic system, although they do shorten recovery time and make you more aggressive and assertive. This makes no sense pharmaceutically.”

But has this from German doctor Kurt Moosburger (though the interview took place before news of Floyd’s positive test result and he was not talking about Floyd):

In a frank interview, Moosburger pointed to the average speeds of modern professional races, especially hard tours. “The average in last year’s Tour was 41 kilometres per hour – that is incredible. You can do a hard Alpine stage without doping. But after that, the muscles are exhausted. You need – depending on your training conditions – up to three days in order to regenerate.”

To help recover, testosterone and human growth hormone can be used. “Both are made by the body and are therefore natural substances,” he said. “They help to build
muscle as well as in muscle recovery.”

Dr Moosburger explained how it was done. “You put a standard testosterone patch that is used for male hormone replacement therapy on your scrotum and leave it there for about six hours. The small dose is not sufficient to produce a positive urine result in the doping test, but the body actually recovers faster.”

I’m a Tour de France fan thanks to Lance Armstrong and the OLN Network. Every July for the last seven years, my days have revolved around watching the Tour. Like many, my favorite stage is L’Alpe d’Huez, an insane ride up a mountain so steep that it’s categorized as “beyond classification.” It’s the stage Lance Armstrong dropped German rider Jan Ullrich on in 2001 with what’s now remembered as “the look.” The two were riding head to head on the final part of the climb when Armstrong surged ahead. Instead of just sprinting away without notice, Armstrong arrogantly telegraphed his move by looking directly at Ullrich as if to say: “You coming with me?” And then he took off. Ullrich never recovered. Ullrich, of course, was a favorite to win this year’s Tour until he, along with a bunch of other riders, was booted out of the race under suspicion that he was using performance-enhancing drugs.

I thought this year’s race, without Armstrong, wouldn’t be that exciting to watch. I was wrong. This was the best Tour I’ve ever seen. It was impossible to predict what was going to happen from day to day. The race leader changed from Stage to Stage and, as LeMond remarked, the riders just seemed more human this year. As for now infamous Stage 17, breathlessly described as an “epic” performance by everyone who saw it? It was all that and more.

I hate to think that Floyd cheated. He’s such an appealing character. Check out Outside Magazine’s profile of him from its July issue (Z-man refers to professional rider Dave Zabriskie, who is a close friend of Landis’s):

Landis begins our visit by showing me something on his computer: an image of his grimacing face superimposed on the heavily muscled body of an ax-wielding maniac. Beneath the image, in stylish typescript, are the words I’M A HOMO.

“I e-mailed this to Lance and Z-Man and my wife,” Landis says, smiling hugely. “Z-Man and my wife got right back to me—they thought it was pretty funny. I never heard back from Lance, though.”

“I wonder why?” Z-Man asks, deadpan.

We’ll probably never know if Landis cheated. But if he did, I want him to come clean about it, like world championship rider David Millar. Drugs aren’t going to kill the sport. After all, if that were the case, it would have happened by now. But there are consequences. The German public broadcast network, which airs the Tour de France annually, is rethinking that move: “We signed a broadcasting contract for a sporting event, not a show demonstrating the performances of the pharmaceutical industry,” ZDF editor-in-chief Nikolaus Brender said. “We are going to think about our future as broadcaster and maybe refuse to broadcast this event.”

I’m sure I’ll watch again next year. It’s become a July tradition. But it won’t be with nearly the same excitement I felt in watching this year’s race.

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  1. Anonymous

    With all due respect, there are misstatements, some serious, some not, in this write-up. I will list them in the order they appear.1. Landis did not test positive for “testosterone, a performance enhancing drug.” His sample was flagged for a high testosterone/epitestosterone ratio. This is not a matter of semantics, and is the basis of his now strong defense of himself and resentment toward such descriptions in the media.2. He “literally ran out of gas.” Please.3. Alpe d’Huez is the most picturesque and historic of the Tour’s climbs, but it is hardly unique. In fact, it is not even considered the most difficult of the beyond classification climbs but, owing to its history and the fact that it is at the very end of the stage, it is perhaps the most noteworthy.4. The account of Lance Armstrong’s look is pure legend. It makes for nice drama but, as Armstrong himself has explained on OLN, the look had nothing to do with defiance or challenge. He was merely checking on where everyone was behind him. The announcers read into it and no one has bothered to correct the story since — except Armstrong himself, that is.I apologize if I seem harsh. I probably share your feelings about Landis and this year’s tour.

  2. Anonymous

    I just finished reading “Game of Shadows,” the book by the SF Chronicle investigative reporters about the BALCO steroid scandal–the Barry Bonds thing. It’s chilling, really. After reading all the names I read in that book, my new personal theory with athletes and juice is guilty until proven innocent. The science with this stuff is crazy–it’s a cat-and-mouse game, with the juicers constantly forcing the testers to play catch-up. At one point in the book, the authors relay a conversation Victor Conte (the BALCO guy) had with a source, in which he basically remarked that in any professional sport, the athletes who tend to rise above the pack also tend to be on steroids, just matter-of-factly. In another section of the book, an Olympic track & field guy who got caught juicing said that if drugs and human growth hormone and who-knows-what-they’re-using were truly eliminated from sports, people would be less interested, because, particularly in sports like track & field (and cycling), the performance numbers would be so low people would lose interest. It’s that bad. I hope I’m wrong about this guy, but I don’t think people realize how pervasive it actually is.

  3. UU Soul

    I’d like to offer a more emphatic please watch your facts! There is too much mis-information being passed around and anyone who claims to love the sport of cycling should not be adding to it. The fact is that Floyd’s testosterone to epitestosterone ratio was off BECAUSE his epitestosterone was LOW. The officials should be handling the press better on this to avoid this unnecessary damage to the sport and to this year’s Tour de France.I’m 100% behind Floyd Landis (joined by my husband, who is the Editorial Director of ROAD magazine). I look forward to watching next year’s Tour and I hope to see Floyd there.

  4. Susan Ryan-Vollmar

    This is a response to the comment by the first Anonymous above. I’m going to address his/her points in order.1. Yes, it’s true that Floyd Landis did not test positive for testosterone. His urine levels showed a high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone. It can’t exceed 4 to 1; I haven’t been able to find any published reports that say what the ratio was in Floyd’s test sample. Chalk that error up to my having written the post too quickly. Sorry about that.2. Bonking, to me, feels like “running out of gas.” Back in my pre-kid days when I regularly competed in endurance athletic events, I bonked several times — it’s unpleasant. You might describe it differently. I don’t see what the big deal is here. 3. I did not say that L’Alpe d’Huez was the most difficult or unique stage of the tour. I said it was my favorite one to watch. Also, just for the record, reasonable people can disagree on just how difficult that stage is. I’ve never ridden up L’Alpe d’Huez, but given that it encompasses 21 switchbacks at a 12 percent-plus grade, I’m going with those who have ridden it and describe it as a difficult ride. 4. You are incorrect in saying that “the look” was a meaningless glance back to see where everyone was. Have you ever watched that stage? In July, 2005 USA Today interviewed Lance and asked him to describe his favorite moments from past tours. The moment he picked from 2001 was giving Ullrich the look, which he described as “one part of a great battle with the Telekom team all day.”A quick note to UU Soul: Yes, there is a lot of misinformation flying around and we need to be careful. One thing that no one knows right now is why Floyd Landis’s testosterone to epitestosterone ratio was high. Including whether it was high because his levels of epitestosterone were low. There are a lot of variables that could have contributed to the test result: The cortisone he was taking to ease the pain in his right hip, medication he has been taking for a thyroid condition, and the alcohol he had had the night before he was tested. Of course, the test result could also have been produced because he did, indeed, cheat.

  5. Anonymous

    2. The comment was about the “literally”.3. No, you did not say that Alpe d’Huez was unique. You just presented it as if it is in your description.4. Frankly, you are flat out wrong about the look. I did not read an article in USA Today. I watched Armstrong on OLN when he was told that the look was voted the fans’ most memorable Armstrong moment because of the intimidation factor. Armstrong laughed and corrected the story, saying that he was simply looking back to see where everyone was.

  6. Anonymous

    Boy, do I miss Dan.

  7. R. Scott Buchanan

    Armstrong has given different and sometimes contradictory explainations of The Look over time. From “Every Second Counts” (p. 111 of the first hardcover ed.):I purposefully looked over my shoulder. I stared into Ullrich’s sunglasses for a long moment.It was important to really look at the face of a rival: a guy’s mouth, the way he’s sweating, and whether he’s squinting behind his glasses. The look told you everything: whether he was tired or fresh, how much he had left in him. Ullrich was clearly hurting. His earpiece dangled down, his jersey hung open, and so did his mouth.I stared over my shoulder for a moment longer, and later spectators would say it seemed I was taunting Ullrich, as if I was saying, “I’ve been playing with yu all day, and now the real race is just starting. Catch me if you can.” But the truth is that I was checking to see what the shape of the other riders was, too. I wasn’t looking only at Ullrich — I was looking over his shoulder. What I saw convinced me to make my move.To my mind, Armstrong’s story here could be read either way. On the one hand, it was important to stare into Ullrich’s eyes and take the measure of the man before taking off, but that wasn’t all he was doing, so he wasn’t being gauche about it and taunting Jan, he was just trying to be sure what was what.Having once been a semi-serious athlete myself, I used to just wallow in the taunting. I was too good for the class I was competing in, but not good enough to make it in the next class up, so I’d do things like swim the 1500m Freestyle entirely using the butterfly to make the guys who finished behind me know that I was their master, even though I wasn’t worthy to be in the pool with the guys who were basically cooling their heels until Seoul. But hubris is a funny thing, and I got to have both shoulders repaired surgically at the age of 17. God will have His little jokes.

  8. Anonymous

    Yeah, that Lance Armstrong’s a regular Sonny Liston. When I become more interested in the doping scandal in bicycle racing than I am in the doping scandal in baseball, I’m going to get my own testosterone patch. A low enough dosage where I don’t want to vote Republican, go bald, or watch CMT.Bob in Peabody

  9. S. Tompkins

    I’ve never seen somebody become more mired down in silly arguments over insignificant minutiae than Anonymous. Susan-Ryan Vollmar’s points are excellent. I’m a huge cycling fan and watch the Tour religiously, and I’m as dismayed as anybody to think that Floyd cheated to win. At the same time, I find it troubling that an athlete’s entire career and livelihood can hinge on the outcome of testing on a single urine sample (OK Anonymous, two urine samples). It would seem that the situation is ripe for tampering and sabotage. I hate to think about anyone’s professional career and reputation ruined by malicious intent. Anyone who cheats, including Landis if he is indeed guilty, needs to be thrown out, but I would take greater comfort if there was a more iron-clad way to identify the bad guys. But I guess as it is with “The Look”, there’s going to be lots of second-guessing and ambiguity.

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