Doping in Randonneuring?

With the recent news that Lance Armstrong effectively admitted to a large-scale doping conspiracy on his teams, the issue of doping has been front and center in the cycling news. A few readers have asked whether doping exists in randonneuring, too.

The short answer is yes – doping exists in any sport. A random test during a French cyclosportive (a timed long-distance ride) found astonishing numbers of riders with forbidden substances in their urine and bloodstream. Interestingly, it was not so much the faster riders who resorted to doping, but those who really wanted to beat 10 or 12 hours for a 200 km event.

What about the fast randonneurs of the past, the ones you read about in Bicycle Quarterly? Many of them have admitted to taking amphetamines, of the type the Air Force administers to its pilots. Like the Air Force pilots, they took these medications not to improve performance, but to fend off sleep.

Roger Baumann (on the right in the photo above) was the fastest single-bike rider in the 1956 PBP. He told me: “Most of us took it. Daniel Rebour said it was better to take it than to crash into an oncoming car.” At the time, the over-the-counter product, called Maxiton, was not yet on the list of forbidden substances, so technically, it wasn’t doping.

Gilbert Bulté (second from right in photo), who was part of the fastest tandem in that year’s PBP, also questioned its effectiveness: “I took three pills during the 50 hours of PBP. When I later told a doctor about this, he said: ‘Considering how much you ate and drank during the ride, the amphetamines had absolutely no effect.'”

From my own experience, I know that with experience, it is not difficult to stay awake for a 50+ hour ride, even without coffee or other stimulants, unless it involves long mountain descents where the rider does not pedal. So perhaps it was all about a placebo effect.

Among these old randonneurs, there are some behind-the-back stories of “x en a pris (used to take it),” but few of these stories can be corroborated. It is hard to know for sure, but considering how open and honest these randonneurs have been about other thorny issues, I suspect that they are telling the truth, and that performance-enhancing doping was very rare.

What about lead groups in recent PBPs? Having ridden with them for hundreds of kilometers in 2007, I was surprised that their pace was not as fast as that of typical racers. When we approached the first control, everybody was jockeying for position on the last climb, knowing that only the first riders would get through the control without delay. It was not difficult for me to maintain a position in the top five of the group. My conclusion was that you don’t need to resort to doping to stay with the lead group. More important is an efficient support team and consistency – I lost significant time and had to chase hard because I had to get my own water at the control. On the road, it appears that riders get dropped not because they aren’t fast enough, but because they suffer from a weak moment or two.

For everybody else, a fast time in a brevet mostly depends on managing your off-the-bike time well. No amount of doping will make you faster at the controls. So yes, it is likely that there is doping in randonneuring – as there is abuse of medication in all parts of society. But unlike in professional bike racing, doping is not a prerequisite for success in randonneuring, however one chooses to define that success.

P.S.: For the comments, I will discard comments about Mr. Armstrong, since he has been discussed on many other forums. I’d like to keep the discussion focused on doping in randonneuring and other amateur sports.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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34 Responses to Doping in Randonneuring?

  1. Andy says:

    If you cannot provide a source that shows that someone has doped, I find it unfair to say that they were “effectively doping”.

    • Please read again: I wrote “effectively admitted…” When someone stops contesting the charges shortly before the final hearing, it means that they are effectively admitting, especially in a case where they have been so aggressive with their defense for many years. Why else would there be such a sudden change of heart just as the case is coming to a close?

      Whether they should be prosecuted, whether what they did followed the unwritten rules of the sport (i.e., everybody was doing it), etc., is a totally different matter. I have strong opinions about this, but I’d prefer not to discuss them here.

  2. djconnel says:

    There is this well-documented example of doping for Paris-Brest-Paris (tandem). The article, by Stuart Stevens for Outside Magazine, was a real eye-opener for me when it was first published.

  3. I dope religiously during and after every randonnee I participate in. Chocolate-covered coffee beans during, and beers after. Essential for completion! Though frankly I think the beers functioning as a ‘carrot’ do more than the beans.

  4. Dave Cramer says:

    Stuart Stevens rode PBP after using all sorts of PEDs, and wrote an article about it: http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/Drug-Test.html?page=all

    • We also rode PBP that year on a tandem (same start, comparable circumstances on the road). We did not dope, and finished more than 20 hours faster. It appears that in that case, the doping did not contribute to a truly fast PBP time.

      • Fred says:

        That ignores his feeling of full recovery afterward, that if not for his saddle sores from the new setup on the tandem, he’d have been perfectly ready to do the whole thing again in the morning.

      • 78 hours after the start, I was fully recovered, too. On a tandem, it’s almost impossible to work as hard as on a single, because you have to match the second rider. If you try to force things, you wear yourself out immediately – see Routens’ description of their PBP, translated and reprinted in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 2. So for me, the tandem ride was the one that had the fastest recovery of all.

        The main point, though, is that success in randonneuring does not require doping. (No matter how you define success.)

  5. William M. deRosset says:

    Dear Jan,

    Randonneurs seem to take a more natural approach to training (those that train at all), and the line of acceptability has moved over the years.

    Jo Routens recommended Corydrane, mixed amphetamines and aspirin, available over the counter in France post-war. It was the headache remedy of a generation of Existentialists. He called it (loosely translated), “excellent if not abused,” in his writeup of the 1948 PBP. Mr. Baumann recounted taking Maxiton (amphetamine sulfate; available OTC) in his interview with you. Their intent was to combat sleep deprivation, not to wring more performance from their body.

    At the time, these weren’t outré, any more than taking an Ibuprofen or having a cup of coffee is today.

    On the other hand, one American randonneur actively doped (epo; steroids; HGH; pretty much the then-state-of-the art in performance enhancement) under a doc’s supervision, rode PBP, then wrote an article about his experience for Outside magazine.

    Thankfully, we’re more a “come as you are; do what you can” sport. Our culture values the journey. The experience is the ride, not the finishing order, and doping doesn’t aid the experience of effort, regardless of how fast we are on the course. I don’t doubt a few riders look for a bit of help, but they’re not motivated by the spirit of randonneuring to do so.

    Best Regards,

    Will
    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO

  6. GuitarSlinger says:

    I rather doubt there is a single sport today , professional , amateur etc that doesn’t have more than its fair share of doping . The simple and sad fact of human nature is that at the moment the concept of competition is conceived someone will always look for an Unfair Advantage : find it …. and proceed to use it despite any consequences be they health , legal or otherwise . The idea that any sport is devoid of such behavior or is ‘ pure ‘ IMHO shows more than a fair bit of naivete on behalf of anyone trying to make or defend such a claim . Even Chess players today are now getting caught ‘ doping ‘ before a match .

    Personally and this is only my opinion I do also feel that cycling is and has been over demonized when it comes to doping .. with as I’ve stated above there being nary a sport to be found that is without its dopers ( of one performance enhancing drug or another )

    • To me, these issues of doping call into question competition altogether. When I am riding with friends, enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful scenery, and having an interesting conversation, nothing could be further from my mind but doping. My experience would not be enhanced by taking performance-enhancing drugs.

      But when riding an event like PBP in the lead group, you begin to think about compromising your ideals to keep up. What if I used battery-powered lights to reduce the resistance of my bike? What if I had support at every control? (None of these things are wrong, but they aren’t in accordance with my personal vision for the sport.) Unless you are superhumanly gifted, your choices are to do what everybody does, or you drop out and ride your own ride.

    • Matthew J says:

      Jan – Sad, but I think this comment is the closest to the heart of the matter. Frankly, from elementary school through college (I attended a large public institution) all my encounters with organized sport standouts were negative. Despite the many grandiose platitudes of the benefits of competition, in reality the best competitive athletes are more likely to be coddled sociopaths with no reconizeable code of ethics.

      Fortunately I discovered the joys of hiking and long distance touring early in life. My self supported bicycle ride across the United States and hikes in places such as the Donner Wilderness Area were certainly physically and mentally challenging. But it never once occured to me that I could somehow enjoy these activities more by doping or cutting corners. Nor did I go seeking third party praise or renumeration.

      If there are people who can ride ocean to ocean or hike up a mountain faster than I, bully for them I suppose. Just hope they get the same satisfaction doing so as I. And if the only satisfaction comes from besting another’s time, kind of sad, really.

      • My experiences in racing were more mixed. Some racers were the nicest of people. Others were very self-centered. In the end, the total focus required to compete near the top of the sport was off-putting and contributed to my retirement. Going to collegiate nationals in Durango, I tried to convince my team to visit the nearby cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde during our day off. (We had a van at our disposal.) There was no interest.

        The different attitude makes the randonneurs of old (and new ones, too) so fascinating: They rode fast, but they also had a great interest in the scenery, culture and history they traversed on their bikes. One brevet was called the cyclo-cultural brevet: At the start, you’d be given the next landmark to visit. You had to find the landmark on the map, plot the quickest route, and then ride to the landmark, where you’d be given the next destination. Speed was only one aspect required for doing well in that event. (Today, it would be hard to do this, since many of the fastest roads aren’t pleasant for cycling.)

  7. phr3dly says:

    I think it’s useful to distinguish between inadvertent doping and intentional doping.

    Lots of amateur athletes probably take cold medicine that would disqualify them from professional competition. But they’re not taking it for an edge, they’re taking it because they have a cold.

    I have no idea which of the substances or medications I take might or might not be banned. The same is probably true of the vast majority of randos. Does Nuun contain any banned substances? Maybe, who knows. How about NoDoz or 5-hour energy? Not sure. Caffeine gum?

    • Before our PBP in 2003, we did look into the electrolyte supplements we took to make sure they were legal. Not because we feared doping controls, but because we wanted to be sure to follow both the spirit and the letter of the rules. If you are competing at a high level, it is incumbent on you to make sure you are not taking anything that is questionable. The excuse “It was my allergy medication” is not very credible when athletes are caught doping. Fortunately for me, I don’t have to take any medication, so it was very easy to make sure I complied.

  8. Chris L says:

    I think the more important question is “what is doping”? Is it simply passing drug tests? If so then a rider like Lance is not doping. Of course the same could be said for many pros who never tested positive but were later found to be doping or admitted to doping (Fignon, David Millar, the Festina Affair, etc.) If it’s simply based on a given physiological effect, say increasing the oxygen capacity of your blood cells then altitude tents could be considered doping. Why is boosting your red blood cells ability to carry oxygen through the use of an oxygen tent not doping but receiving a blood transfusion is? Their both artificial means to the same end. Is using a naturally occurring stimulant such as caffeine OK but an artificial stimulant made in a lab not? If so doesn’t that also mean many lab derived sports drinks also constitute doping? It’s all a very complicated issue and so long as money and prestige remain a part of sports their will be a desire to game the system by people who feel the need to be “winners”. Doesn’t matter if it’s Lance, a local Cat 2 racer or just someone wanting to clock a faster century than their buddies.

    • Andy says:

      And the other concern is time. Coffee drinking may be acceptable now, but what if they ban it later, and any past coffee drinkers then are considered disqualified, even 10+ years later?

      • As I understand it, you can be disqualified only for products that are forbidden at the time you took them. The retroactive part only comes into effect when tests are developed that can detect substances (like EPO) that were undetectable before. Then you suddenly get people whose old samples are re-tested for substances that had been banned all along.

  9. Jason Marshall says:

    I think performance diminishing drugs are probably more common.

  10. bryanwieyes says:

    The “what is doping” question is a huge one. For years I took a drug called advair – a mix of flovent (a steroid) and serevent (another anti-asthma agent.) Before racing (in a car race, but same substance rules) I dropped it for simple flovent because while advair was legal with a doctor’s note, I didn’t want the hassles. About that time, the FDA banned serevent for asthma (but not for other uses) and I just never went back to it. But it was never ever about “doping” for some advantage in any sport – it was and is about controlling (quite well) my otherwise out of control asthma. At least in endurance motorsports (and perhaps cycling?) they warn that they won’t accept more than a certain level of caffine – so you could in theory be “doping” because you drank too much soda or too much coffee. But I just really like soda.

    The only things I ever did to “amp myself up” for competition turn out to be entirely legal. (Using OTC pain killers to manage arthritus so I could train, and sleeping a great deal before long events.)

    But of course, somebody could take a lot of some legit NSAID (or allergy med or …) and it would be hard to tell who is trying to control arthritus, allergies, some other medical issue, and who just wants to be “amped up”.

  11. Russell Moore says:

    At the 1995 PBP I had sworn off caffeine in the lead up training for three months. Then as I approached my first sleeping checkpoint I forgot about the consequences and accepted a coffee from some friendly locals. The result being that I couldn’t sleep, and my stomach was in knots, and I felt very sick. Needless to say that was a DNF year for me.

  12. Gert Pagter says:

    I think doping as such is common among randonneurs. And by this I mean taking usually over the counter drugs, which normally are not on a banned list, to overcome individual problems that might otherwise prevent them from finishing.
    I have several problems in brevets: lower back pain and stomach problems, for which I take painkillers (as few as possible, as even normal doses can be dangerous when the body is stressed) and some antacid, which helps with the stomach, but not entirely. I still have to be very observant to drink and eat correctly and not pushing myself above a certain limit.
    If there was a drug, which could keep my stomach problems from arising, I would probably take it. And if it was then on the banned list, then so be it. As long as I would not have to abandon because of a small mistake in eating or drinking correctly in an event that I paid a lot of money to go to and participate in.
    And no matter if it would be on the banned list or not, it would in that perspective be performance enhancing in the same way that astma-medication is.
    There is a big difference in taking performance enhancing drugs that helps you complete an randonneur event and taking the same drugs to compete in an event.
    In the nineties suddenly having astma seemed to be an advantage in endurance sport: Running, cycling, swimming and cross country skiing had a very high proportion of astmatics at the top level.
    So there is a big difference in doping banned or not to complete an event compared to compete in an event.

  13. Thomas Dusky says:

    I am doing a 200k this weekend and would like to break 10 hours—DOPING!?—good idea Jan. What should I do? any suggestions? I do like coffee, how much should I drink?

    • Training would be my suggestion! (Although you should start more than a week before the event.)

      It’s amazing how serious many (especially French) riders are about rides like PBP. In the results brochure from the ACP, I saw that one rider was caught impersonating other riders – twice; in 2007 and 2011! – and riding PBP under their name. Some riders covet that PBP medal more than anything, it seems. (The two fake riders were stripped of their PBP results, and the impersonator received a life-time ban.)

      Those same riders also make the start so dangerous. They try to hang onto the lead group for dear life, getting more and more ragged. If they don’t crash, they are dropped, completely shattered, after only 70 or 100 km of the ride. Starting in the third wave, we passed many of them just barely crawling along. And even in our wave, there were plenty of them.

      By comparison, the riding toward the finish, after 50 hours on the road, was very smooth and nice. Riders had been sorted by ability at that point, and even the fatigue of 2 days without sleep did not present a problem.

  14. Kathryn says:

    There are substances in all energy foods or drinks called excitotoxins that are powerful stimulants. Even so-called organic energy bars or gels are heavily loaded with excitotoxins that make up the majority of their ingredients. And all processed foods like chips or cookies bought in a market include excitotoxins. This is why I am disinclined to regard personal bests as valid if the rider is consuming these substances. I hesitate to call them food, because they are not food. They are a jumble of chemicals that fool the person into thinking they are doing well when they are in fact harming the body, They don’t just act as muscle stimulants, either. They also stimulate the hunger center in the brain as well as the growth and proliferation of cancer. Here are two links to pertinent information for those interested.

    http://www.naturalnews.com/020550_excitotoxins_MSG.html

    https://www.google.com/search?q=hidden+sources+of+msg&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a

    Consuming any fruit or vegetable raw is the most powerful natural energy food I know of. Raw foods contain enzymes that the body needs to oxidize nutrients into energy. Dried fruit is a good supplement for a sugar boost. Home made energy bars that combine oats, dried fruit, honey and nut butter are another safe way to go.

    In this day and age of magic bullets for everything from athletic performance to disease cure, we have forgotten the value of real food. It is, in fact, the difference between health and degeneration.

    • Steve says:

      That’s pretty scary stuff. I personally don’t care much about pros doping except that they are role models that have a big influence on younger folks. Pro sports is big business and the win at all costs attitude will never go away. If they get caught they pay and the ‘arms race’ evolves.

      Completely different sport and scene, but the CHL is the highest amateur hockey league in the world and consists of players between the ages of 15 and 21, most trying to make the jump to professional hockey (Washington has the Spokane Chiefs in this league). There are disturbing stories of players taking handfulls of over the counter amphetamines like Sudafed before games. I can just imagine what this could do to a teenager’s body, playing 3 or more games per week for a whole season.

      — Rolly

  15. Steve says:

    Bach to cycling: Years ago I worked with a guy who claimed to be a semi pro in Belgium. No reason to doubt him; he was the strongest rider I ever remember meeting.

    Anyway, this guy swore that every single pro was doping and his aim was to become a full on pro without doping (his claims; I have no knowledge that is’t public knowledge). His solution to becoming a drug-free pro was what I could only call extreme supplementing: Every 6 months he’d send his blood to a lab in Europe to have it analyzed. The lab would then customize a supplement concoction that he would INJECT. I don’t remember how many needles a day he took but it was kind of mind boggling to imagine (especially considering my father was a diabetic on 3 needles a day). He made no money being a semi pro and so would try and sell the stuff to his co-workers and friends to offset the high cost.

    Not sure how many athletes do this kind of thing, and I’ve never heard of such a practice before or since.

    — Rolly

  16. Chris Heg says:

    This may sound strange but Is there a banned substance list for Randonneuring? Who controls it?

      • Chris Heg says:

        Guess you better start collecting pee from anyone who applies for an R60. I’ve heard that some people use 5 hour energy during rides, I’m sure there’s something in there that’s prohibited.

        Maybe I’m morally defective but I could not care less if a randonneur takes EPO or growth hormone so he or she can buy a medal from RUSA or get an extra hour of sleep on a 600. I have no desire to do it but I can’t muster any outrage either.

        I find it interesting that cannabinoids are prohibited at all times in all sports but alchohol is only prohibited “in competition” in motorsports, flying, karate, and archery
        (not target shooting?). Must be because weed is so effective at enhancing focus and concentration :-)

      • Will deRosset says:

        Dear Jan,

        Late to the party, but the RM rules don’t indicate that RM, ACP, (or, by extension, any of the national randonneuring organizations) follow the WADA protocols. Article eleven might ban doping, depending on whether it is broadly considered fraudulent to dope for non-competitive events.

        http://www.audax-club-parisien.com/FR/index.php?showpage=322

        I’m happy that, for the most part, it isn’t an issue. The experience is the ride, not the finishing time (or the finish order), and we can give our all, appreciate the journey, challenge ourselves to the outer limits of our capacity in randonneuring without doping–at any level of the sport.

        Off the topic at hand, I’d argue that GPS devices with turn-by-turn routing are more disruptive to the fabric of the sport than the potential for a few riders doping (at great expense and for no tangible reward.), despite their great popularity.

        Best Regards,

        Will
        William M. deRosset
        Fort Collins, CO

  17. Chris Heg says:

    PS. Does that mean Lance is barred from riding brevets for life? What happens if someone lets him do it? Who gets punished and who imposes the penalty?

    • Gert Pagter says:

      In Denmark he could not as the arranging club is part of the Danish Cycling Union.
      But I do not expect Lance to show up for one of our Brevets
      I do not know what the punishment would be. But maybe I will check whether people I do not know are banned in the future :-D

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