From Ether To EPO: A Brief History of Cycling Doping

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Cycling is a thrilling spectator sport, but there is a darker side to the pro peloton: cycling doping.

Cycling doping has existed for almost as long as the professional sport itself and was initially common and accepted, even in the biggest pro races.

However, since the banning of doping, it remained common practice for a long time, resulting in a lot of controversy around the sport. Rather than stopping the practice, riders tended to just alter the form of doping to get around more and more advanced tests.

But how has doping evolved since the inception of the sport?

In this article, we’ll be telling you all about the history of doping, from alcohol to amphetamines, and how it has influenced not only the sport itself but the image of professional cycling. We’ll be covering:

  • What Is Cycling Doping?
  • Substances Used For Cycling Doping
  • Modern Anti-Doping Precautions In Cycling

Let’s dive in!

History of Cycling Doping: Title Image

What is cycling doping?

Cycling doping is the general term given to the use of any substance that may lead to an unfair advantage in a cycling race for the user.

In other words, cycling doping is the use of any performance-enhancing substance in a professional cycling event.

Doping isn’t a phenomenon unique to cycling and is the name given to the use of a performance-enhancing drug in any sport.

What is considered a “performance-enhancing substance” is something that is frequently updated as new types of doping come to be. The full list of prohibited substances can be found on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s website.

Although it’s likely that doping in cycling has been used across the board in pro cycling events and even some competitive amateur events alike, the practice has gained the most attention in the context of cycling Grand Tours – such as the Tour de France.


Doping, in any professional sport, is illegal.

Not just because it’s unfair to the other athletes: it’s also an incredibly dangerous practice that has even caused a number of deaths during televised, professional sporting events.

It’s easy to judge those who have been caught doping, but when doping becomes ubiquitous in a sport like cycling, athletes will feel compelled to put themselves in danger in order to not be at a disadvantage in an event.

This is why in modern cycling, as well as all other sports, a huge amount of effort is put into attempting to completely irradicate the phenomenon through thorough, regular, random testing and deterrents like bans, fines, and the retrospective stripping of titles and records.

Two glass vials containing a substance used for cycling doping.

Substances used for cycling doping

Doping in cycling has developed significantly during the development of the sport. Here are some of the most common forms of doping throughout the history of cycling.

By no means is this an exhaustive list, but perhaps the most famous and prevalent substances used to enhance cycling performance.

Early doping in cycling

Doping actually predates cycling’s most popular event: the Tour de France.

Beginning in 1903, the early Tour de France was almost completely unrecognizable from what it is today. Riders used 40-pound single-speeds for 300+ km, usually taking 15-18 hours of grueling riding to complete each of the six stages of the race.

During this time, rather than using substances that would enhance performance directly, riders often used substances as more of a pain relief, indirectly enhancing riders’ performance by allowing them to ride for longer.

Alcohol

The most common form of doping at this time was the use of alcohol, with riders often guzzling huge amounts of beer, wine, and brandy both before and during the stages.

Alcohol use was so common in early Grand Tours that riders were even known to be seen dismounting, sprinting into roadside restaurants and shops, and stealing as much alcohol as possible before attempting big climbs.

Even when theft wasn’t involved, the format of the early Tour de France meant that cyclists would need to stop at restaurants and cafes en route to scavenge any food they could find. They would also take advantage of their stop to consume as much alcohol as possible.

Ether

Diethyl ether, commonly referred to as ether, was another substance commonly used to relieve the pain felt in cyclists’ legs – it was one of the first forms of surgical anesthetic.

In small doses, it was a potent pain relief.

Cyclists would moderate their dosage by using it as an inhalant, inhaling the fumes that evaporated from a small bottle of the substance.

Some were more extreme, however, and there are even photos of riders with an ether-soaked rag tied just underneath their nose and mouth so that they would constantly inhale the fumes.

strychnine

For the first few decades of the Tour de France, the strongest drug that was commonly used was strychnine, a substance that is now used as a pesticide.

When taken in small doses, however, it tightened the leg muscles, allowing riders to output power even with severely fatigued legs.

Doping during the anti-doping movement

During the ’50s and ’60s, more and more people began to become opposed to doping in cycling.

The risks of doping were becoming more and more apparent, and the form of doping was more and more extreme and dangerous to the riders.

During this time, there were a number of high-profile accidents that ultimately led to the criminalization of doping in 1965. This didn’t even begin to eradicate the practice, however.

Instead, riders used new substances and more advanced strategies to avoid a positive test.

Amphetamines

Amphetamines were arguably the most common – and dangerous – form of doping in cycling from the 1940s through to the ’70s.

The most powerful stimulants cyclists could get their hands on, amphetamines would effectively enhance performance by massively boosting the nervous and cardiovascular systems, increasing alertness, stamina, and adrenaline while reducing fatigue.

In fact, amphetamine use was so widespread in the Tour – particularly prior to the criminalization of doping – that even the Campionissimo himself, Fausto Coppi, admitted to using amphetamines to boost performance:

“Those who claim that cyclists do not take amphetamine, it’s not worth talking to them about cycling.”

Fausto Coppi

After the illegalization, it took a little while for amphetamines to become less prevalent in the pro peloton (although professional cyclists would no longer talk about it so nonchalantly as Coppi did).

One of cycling’s most tragic events in history, however, began to bring the dangers of amphetamine use into the fold.

On a blisteringly hot day in the 1967 TdF, a British cyclist, Tom Simpson, fell off his bike two kilometers from the summit of Mont Ventoux, seemingly from exhaustion or dehydration. He was lifted back onto his bike and insisted on continuing up the road.

However, just 500 m later, Simpson collapsed from his bike once again. There were efforts from the team’s medical van to save him on the roadside, before he was taken by a helicopter to the hospital.

Unfortunately, however, Simpson was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Later, two empty tubes and a third filled will amphetamine were discovered in Simpson’s jersey.

Simpson had taken two full tubes (it’s unknown how much each contained) of amphetamines, leading him to overdose during the race and ultimately resulting in his death.

Although this definitely got the attention of the cycling world, even this tragedy didn’t result in the eradication of amphetamine use in cycling.

Eddy Merckx at the 1974 World Championships.
Eddy Merckx at the 1974 World Championships.
Credit: KenCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Steroids

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when a greatly-improved test for amphetamines was developed, that the cycling world eventually moved on to other forms of doping.

This test caught out many high-profile riders, including the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddie Merckx.

This increase in the risk of getting caught on amphetamines led cyclists to change their strategy, and the ’70s ultimately became the decade of steroids.

In contrast to their most famous use – to build muscle – steroids in cycling were largely used to aid in recovery, allowing riders to ride harder and longer with less rest.

Once again, improved testing precautions led to the demise of steroids in cycling just a decade later. However, as is a common theme here, riders simply began using an alternative rather than stopping doping altogether.

Cycling fans hold a banner protesting against doping at the Tour de France.
Credit: WladyslawCC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

Doping in Cycling Since the 1980s

From the 1980s onwards, although doping was still just as prevalent in cycling, it was well-established that the practice was incredibly dangerous and was largely met with condemnation from spectators, pundits, and the law – a far cry from the 1950s.

However, cyclists just found more creative ways to avoid positive tests. One of the major trends here was to use hormones – naturally produced by the body’s endocrine system – to enhance performance.

This meant that it was very difficult for testing to distinguish between naturally occurring amounts of a hormone or an amount artificially boosted through hormone injections.

Testosterone

Testosterone – similar to artificial steroids – increase the muscles’ ability to metabolize protein. This means that they will effectively aid in recovery and allow cyclists to ride harder and further with less need for recovery.

In the 1980s, testing for testosterone use improved as it became more obvious what plausible testosterone levels for each age group could be and whether they had artificially boosted their testosterone levels.

EPO

Erythropoietin – commonly referred to as EPO – is a hormone associated with increased red blood cell production.

This improves the oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood, allowing the cardiovascular system to more effectively transport oxygen to the muscles, preventing lactic acid buildup.

EPO is perhaps the most famous form of doping in cycling because of one man – Lance Armstrong.

Lance Armstrong was the poster boy for the sport, winning seven consecutive editions of the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005.

However, in 2005, mere months after his final victory, he was accused by the French sporting newspaper L’Equipe, of using EPO. They claimed to have evidence of a failed urine test by the French National Laboratory for Doping Detection.

It wasn’t until 2012, however, that Armstrong was penalized by UCI. He was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France victories, banned for life from the competition, and later admitted to doping on live TV with Oprah Winfrey.

Armstrong’s defense was that he was simply leveling the playing field. If everyone around you in the peloton is using EPO, cyclists face a brutal choice between doping or facing their career slipping away from them.

In 2005, for example, every single one of the top ten riders was at some point accused of doping. Three were stripped of their result (including Armstrong), five failed conclusive doping tests, one was accused and later acquitted, and one was accused without test.

Regardless of the riders around him, though, Armstrong broke the rules and the law. The use of EPO in professional sports was illegal, and he knew that but chose to do it anyway.

And even though Armstrong beat other riders who were doping too, many argue that cycling in this era became a contest determined by who had the strongest doping regimen rather than who was the greatest athlete.

Whatever your opinion on the Lance Armstrong case, it could be argued that his case was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Doping has existed in cycling since the sport’s inception. However, such a high-profile scandal really brought it into the public eye.

This is arguably one of the reasons that doping is seemingly less prevalent in cycling today – though it would be naive to believe it has been eradicated entirely.

A sample collected for anti-doping protocols.

Modern anti-doping precautions in cycling

After the Lance Armstrong scandal, the UCI felt that it couldn’t survive another scandal on that scale. It had done huge damage to the reputation of the sport.

The UCI stepped up their testing – and this seems to have worked.

The testing is now so randomized and thorough, and the medical testing procedure so advanced, that it makes it extremely difficult for riders to get away with doping.

At the end of every stage of the Tour, four riders are tested – the yellow jersey holder, the stage winner, and two riders at random. Every single rider is tested before the start of the competition.

Every team will be randomly tested at some point during the three-week race. Riders are even occasionally tested during the off-season.

Such rigorous testing is incredibly difficult to deceive, and as such, there have been very few cases of positive test results in the wake of the Armstrong scandal.

That’s not to say there haven’t been controversies since then.

The Bradley Wiggins “Jiffy bag” scandal is perhaps the most famous example, but there have been a number of doping rumors and allegations around the peloton, despite the increased attention in the world of cycling post-Armstrong.

Undoubtedly, the dark and traumatic history of doping in cycling has left scars that will endure for many years to come – and perhaps enduring doping rumors are destined to remain a part of that legacy.

Enjoyed this Cycling Doping feature? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Jack has been a two-wheel fanatic since a very young age. He loves zooming around the local country roads in Sussex on his road bike, and more recently enjoys flying down MTB trails on his gravel bike. A supreme lover of bikepacking, Jack has ridden many long-distance cycle tours in the UK.

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