With the Tour de France just starting, a new round of allegations of blood doping has surfaced from the serial whistleblower Floyd Landis, himself stripped of a 2006 Tour victory for doping. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Landis admits that he paid an accomplice posing as an autograph-hunter $10,000 to deliver him bags of his own blood which he’d then transfuse himself. That’s about 3000 times more than an NHS courier gets.
He accuses the US Postal team, including Lance Armstrong, of similar practices. Armstrong and U S Postal are now the subject of a federal food and drug administration investigation, and whatever the outcome it seems likely that during this, Lance’s last Tour, some of the mud will stick.
Competitive cycling has always gone hand in hand with substance abuse. Ether, nitroglycerine, strychnine and cocaine have all been used at various times to improve performance, or to ease the pain of bodies pushed to breaking point. Doping was only outlawed in the Tour in 1965 and since then techniques to circumvent the rigorous testing regime which riders undergo have become ever more creative.
Now the favoured method is to extract a rider’s blood weeks before a race before transfusing it back, upping the red-blood cell count and allowing more oxygen to reach the muscles. It’s a curiously medieval sounding technique, an inversion of blood-letting that is tricky to test for.
For explanations, if not justifications, of such practices watch Jørgen Leth’s A Sunday in Hell, a film which documented the 1976 Paris-Roubaix. For years it’s been available only on VHS, but now someone’s uploaded it onto YouTube. It’s a wonderful film that captures something of the sheer pain involved in winning a bicycle race. Doping seems understandable, in this context, as simply a biological extension of the mechanical preparations that the bikes undergo. Man and bike are both, for the purposes of the race, treated as machines which must be massaged, conditioned and tinkered with to get the best out of them.