CIRC report: 20-90 percent of modern peloton still doping

Doping has waned in professional cycling, but remains a serious issue, the CIRC report contends

Photo: Tim De Waele

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The CIRC report makes it clear that doping has waned but not disappeared in the modern peloton, with the first real drop in 2006 and the most impressive improvements coming after 2008. Drug use in cycling remains a serious issue.

One unnamed but “respected” professional cyclist felt that 90 percent of the professional peloton continues to dope, though “he thought that there was little orchestrated team doping in the manner that teams had previously employed,” according to the report. Another professional, also unnamed, put the figure at 20 percent.

The days of 15 percent gains in performance through massive EPO doping seem to be a thing of the past, according to CIRC. Instead, riders are skirting the edges of the anti-doping system, taking advantage of Therapeutic Use Exemptions, using overnight gaps in testing and a deep understanding of the Biological Passport to micro-dose without getting caught. Some are taking drugs that aren’t yet banned, like Tramadol, and using pill regimens that dull pain or improve recovery.

Cycling’s doping days are not behind it. CIRC’s interviews and investigation, which did not name names, make that clear. It does not, however, provide much detail. Because the report does not name any specific riders, teams, doctors, or facilitators of doping, it’s difficult to gauge the true breadth of the problem.

Could the negative view of modern doping make clean riders believe that they must, once again, dope to win? If that is the case, the effect of the report could be precisely the opposite of the one desired.

2008: A turning point?

The Athlete’s Biological Passport (ABP), enacted in 2008, is named as a primary catalyst of the change, and a “paradigm shift.”

CIRC wrote: “Prior to the ABP, only three riders were convicted of blood doping. In the first three years of the ABP, 26 riders were found positive for the presence of EPO stimulating agents in their specimens. In 20 out of the 26 positive cases, it was the abnormal blood profile which raised suspicions leading to a targeted anti-doping urinary or blood test.”

An unheralded but important landmark in the decrease in doping, according to CIRC, was the introduction in 2008 of anti-doping chaperones at all UCI races. The report cites this change as a catalyst to a cleaner peloton, as riders could no longer quickly prepare for a test with masking agents or similar dodges.

Therapeutic Use Exemptions

Abuse of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) are cited as an ongoing and pervasive problem. “Interviewees reported that TUEs are systematically exploited by some teams and even used as part of performance enhancement programs,” according to the report.

Corticoids, used by Chris Froome (Sky) and Chris Horner (then Lampre-Merida) under TUEs last year, are subject to particular abuse, according to the report. Abuse of insulin is said to be a problem as well.

CIRC wrote: “According to the head of one laboratory, and many others interviewed, corticoids should generally only be administered for acute conditions, which would mean that if a rider needed to use them, they should not be able to compete.”

It is, according to the report, “too easy to obtain a TUE.”

“In one rider’s opinion, 90 percent of TUEs were used for performance-enhancing purposes,” CIRC wrote.


The Biological Passport has led to a rise in micro-dosing, according to the report, as riders try to ensure that their blood parameters stay in the normal range.

CIRC wrote: “One rider confirmed to the Commission that following the introduction of the ABP [Athlete’s Biological Passport], he was told by his doping doctor to only conduct transfusions of a maximum of 150—200ml blood, whereas the size of the blood bags previously used by USPS/Discovery Channel and Team Telekom/T-Mobile (according to the Reasoned Decision and Freiburg Report) amounted to 500 ml.”

The CIRC concluded that it is still possible to micro-dose using EPO without getting caught by the Biological Passport, largely thanks to the lack of nighttime testing.

The lack of testing between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. is a problem, according to the report. Testers are currently barred from testing riders between these hours, unless a rider is under suspicion. This allows for micro-dosing, as “riders are confident that they can take a micro-dose of EPO in the evening because it will not show up by the time the doping control officers could arrive to test at 6 a.m.”

Women’s racing

The report notes that TUE abuse exists in women’s cycling as well. “Some riders would turn up at the race registration with extensive folders of TUE-related documentation,” the report reads. The report does not provide any details regarding this allegation, however.

The report alleges that “riders in the sport had been exploited financially and even allegedly sexually,” but provides no details.

CIRC wrote: “Doping occurs in women’s cycling, although it most probably is not as widespread and systematic. This is likely because far less money is available in women’s road racing currently. The Commission was told of doping at the highest levels nevertheless, and it is logical to assume that when women’s cycling is finally developed to a status comparable to the men’s sport, it will attract the same problems as the men’s unless steps are taken now to protect it from that fate.”

Corticosteroids and weight loss

CIRC wrote: “Corticoids are widely used today both to reduce pain and therefore improve endurance capability and to achieve weight loss to improve power/weight ratio.”

Weight loss, both through illicit methods and as a result of eating disorders, is a problem in the modern peloton. Corticosteroids are often used, under a TUE, to aid weight loss.

Some interviewees told of “dramatic weight loss in certain riders, which they felt could only be explained by use of performance enhancing products,” according to the report.

One unnamed doctor explained to CIRC that riders use corticoids to “lean out” without losing power. A drop of 4kg (8.8 pounds) in four weeks would lead to a 7 percent increase in power/weight for such riders, the doctor explained.

Ozone and AICAR

CIRC wrote: “One rider informed the Commission that by way of using ozone therapy he felt stronger, and that the muscles recovered, but that it had however not been as efficient as EPO. Several interviewees mentioned that AICAR [5-Aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide ribonucleotide], which supposedly has similar effects to EPO, has become popular in the peloton.”

The report does not provide any specific examples. Dr. Chris Mertens is currently under investigation for the use of ozone therapy on a number of professional road and cyclocross riders.

Pills and substances not on the WADA prohibited list

Abuse of pills, both on and off the WADA prohibited list, still occurs.

“The Commission was also told by a rider of a ‘pills system’ used during races in 2011, involving up to 30 pills daily,” according to the report.

Riders take tranquilizers at night and anti-depressants in the morning, and one rider testified that he believed crashes in the peloton were due to these drugs.

The use of painkillers like Tramadol is said to be “used widely.”

Changes in the system

The report makes it clear that systematic, team-initiated doping programs are either gone completely or nearly so.

“Programs today are often individually organized, clandestine programs,” according to the report.

Riders still may have extensive groups around them to facilitate doping, but these are not usually associated with their trade team.

CIRC wrote: “The largely non-orchestrated nature of doping today was echoed by a number of knowledgeable and reliable people. They were of the view that there is an elite who are still doping in a sophisticated way today.”

“Most activities are alleged to have taken place in Italy and Switzerland, and to a more limited extent in Tenerife and Monaco,” according to the report.

Sources of drugs

Gyms and the Internet are becoming increasingly popular as sources of performance-enhancing drugs, according to the report. False prescriptions and drugs stolen from pharmacies and hospitals are also common sources.

CIRC wrote: “In Italy, for example, it is suspected that only half of EPO sales from pharmacies are used for the treatment of a medical condition, and it is suggested that the other half is used for doping purposes.”

The report concludes that “doping doctors” are still operating in the sport today, often through intermediaries in other countries.

Avoiding detection

The aforementioned gap in testing offers on opportunity to avoid detection. CIRC recommends using a new WADA rule that allows for testing overnight if a rider is under suspicion.

The Biological Passport is used to avoid detection, according to CIRC, because riders have access to their profiles within the system and can use that information to stay within the limits. Riders also “deliberately schedule high-altitude training camps and use oxygen tents, not only for their potential training effects, but also in order to explain a potential jump in their values if there is a test,” according to the report.

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