Wednesday 10 October 2012

Lance Armstrong - was he just better at doping?

OK, I need to rename my book Run, Swim, Throw, CYCLE Cheat. For those of us in the field have a lot of homework to do - 1,000 pages of documentation from USADA that illustrates the widespread nature of Lance Armstrong’s doping [1]. So as I said in a previous blog, beyond the sheer volume of incriminating evidence, what is new, at least to a scientist?  I can’t claim to have read more than a few extracts yet (I have a life and my own teaching and research to do after all). But what I have read seems to support one of contentions from an earlier blog - Armstrong was better as he was doping more smartly and/or taking more risks. Certainly in 1999 when he won his first Tour he was using EPO throughout the event, whereas others probably stopped once the race began. Given that there was no validated EPO test in 1999 this is perhaps a little surprising – although it agrees with Michael Ashenden’s interpretation of the later analysis of Tour samples [2].

The alternative view is that Armstrong always had the capability of being the top cyclist, but he was held back by a lower ability to deliver oxygen than his rivals. Once he could equalize this by taking EPO and blood doping, he was able to outperform them in the mountains and win consistently. In this model all Armstrong’s US postal had to do was dope as well as the other teams. How to choose between these two theories? Was Armstrong the best doper or the best cyclist once everyone was doping? What we scientists really need is a side-by-side comparison of all the team’s doping strategies from 1999-2006. That’s not too much to ask surely…….


  1. Hello

    Is the chain of evidence in the 1999 EPO testing up to the standards of science?

  2. If there was a break in the chain of evidence in that a lab performs a series of tests and then a news agency claims to make an identification of an individual involved in said testing that is clearly not scientific procedure. All 'evidence' involved would have to be retested and new procedures established to eliminate the possibility of lab generated contamination. Contamination may also account for the first test results.

  3. Hello Professor Cooper

    There is an article in U.S. News And World Report called 'Focus on the Other Side of the Lance Armstrong Story: Clean Athletes'. The article suggests that EPO gives a 10% performance boost. Take away that 10% percent and you might have an approximation of how an individual athlete an entire athletic field might have performed sans EPO. In this case the Tour De France from the questionable era.

    Further by using an EPO free athlete, say, Greg Lemond, one might have a statistical model for an EPO free comparison for the suspect races.

  4. The degree of performance boost from EPO is going to be highly variable, in part because some interesting new data suggests EPO might be able to directly stimulate the brain as well as having its well-characterised blood boosting effect. 10% is not an unreasonable guess, but I think it is likely to be a bit high if you compare elite athletes with hypoxic tents versus elite athletes with EPO. The best way to test this is to look at the lab studies where the red blood cell gain can be quantified. But these are, for obvious reasons, not done with elite athletes.Also in the Tour the EPO "bit" will likely have a disproportionate effect in the most extreme conditions e.g. time trials and climbs. So I doubt a 10% overall effect would be seen in practice.