Tour de France 2018: How big of a problem is doping in cycling?

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 23: Chris Froome of Great Britain and Team Sky looks on ahead of stage twenty one of Le Tour de France 2017 on July 23, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 23: Chris Froome of Great Britain and Team Sky looks on ahead of stage twenty one of Le Tour de France 2017 on July 23, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Doping has been a problem at the Tour de France, but just how big of a deal is it still?

The Tour de France, a century-old event which has entertained, excited, and angered millions of people from around the world. A sport of simple origins, built on endurance, heart, and talent — but now stained by one word, doping.

The tour is blessed with great moments, from Eddy Merckx dancing up Mount Ventoux gasping “Non c’est Impossible “as he reached the summit to clinch the stage victory. Before collapsing in the center of the media scrum from exhaustion.

To Bradley Wiggins becoming the first Englishman to win the tour in 2012.  However, the event isn’t without its controversy. Doping and cycling have become messily intertwined, a good versus evil complex which divides riders, teams and spectators.

Half a century ago an Englishman called Tom Simpson passed away during the race on the same Mount Ventoux made famous by Merckx. Simpson died of heart failure, but doping once again was apart of this tragic story. The rider had traces of Amphetamine in his body and a tube labeled “Tonedron” (A form of crystal meth) was found in his back pocket of his jersey. Yet such a tragic story hasn’t deterred riders from doping.

In more recent times another name has been synonymous with doping in cycling, Lance Armstrong. The American became the figurehead for one of the darkest times in the Tour’s history. A doping epidemic which destroyed trust and the sport’s credibility.

Sports Intelligence published an article which stated that during the time period 1998 to 2013, 12 stage winners have been found to be drugs cheats. With 65 percent of the riders who finished in the top 10 of the Tour between 1998 and 2013 were either found guilty of doping or admitted to doping while competing in the event.

More astonishingly the winner of the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005 was  Armstrong. Who for years stated his innocence after reports and whistleblowers confirmed he was a cheat. It wasn’t to 13 years after his first win at the Tour de France he eventually admitted to doping. After investigations from WADA, USADA and even a Federal Investigation. Which cost millions of dollars and dragged the name of the event through the mud.

Shockingly it was not just Armstrong who cheated his way to a yellow jersey. During the time period from 1997 to 2010 ,13 out of the 14 winners of the Tour have overtime either been found guilty of doping and stripped of their jersey or have admitted cheating while competing.

But how about now, is cycling a doping free sport or have the cheats just got cleverer?

Between 2013-14 WADA took 8,271 samples from professional road riders. 85 samples came back as AAF (Adverse Analytical Findings) – 1.03 percent of all samples taken. From the 85 AAF cases 54.2 percent of the samples were an ADRV –(Anti-Doping Rules Violation). 0.52 percent of the total samples taken, WADA identified as breach of the ADRV code. The remaining 45.8 percent either had medical reasons or the case was still pending.

In WADA’s most recent report 2016 -17, WADA took 13,372 samples from professional riders, 161 samples came back as AAF, 1.20 percent of total samples taken. From the 161 samples, 60 percent of these were treated as ADRV. That’s a total of 96 samples out of the 13,372 samples taken that were classed by WADA to have violated their anti-doping rules.

Comparing the figures from three years ago to now we see that WADA have improved their sample sizes and tested more riders, more frequently. WADA carried out 60 percent more tests in 2017 than they did in 2013. Which is a positive step taken by WADA. However, the worrying statistics from analyzing the data is the number of samples which WADA regarded as ADRV went up 109 percent from 2013.

The correlation between more test carried out and more ADRV samples been identified by WADA is worrying. Even if we compare 2015-16 results were WADA took 11,559 samples, 0.52 percent of all samples were classed by WADA as ADRV. In just one year there was a 38 percent increase in samples classed as ADRV.

These findings do not give you a decisive conclusion on whether the sport is a cleaner sport. The figures suggest two trains of thought. One, is that riders are doping more frequently, and the amount of riders cheating has increased in recent years. Or alternatively the number of riders who have been doping has stayed the same or even decreased. However, the technology and testing has improved dramatically since 2013.

Though one fact that cannot be ignored. The more riders WADA tests and more tests they carry out the more doping cases and guilty riders are unearthed. If you compare cycling to other sports between 2016 -17 it is among the highest for test samples coming back as an ADRV.

2016 – 17 : WADA ADRVs report

Road Cycling – 13,372 samples taken. 0.72 percent of the total samples taken were classed as an ADRV.

Athletics – 31,433 samples taken.  0.50 percent of the total samples taken were classed as an ADRV

Long distance running 3000m or above –   7,371samples taken. 0.53 percent of the total samples taken were classed as an ADRV.

Sprinting 400m or less –   5,980 samples taken. 0.54 percent of the total samples taken were classed as an ADRV.

Boxing – 4,713 samples taken. 0.68 percent of the total samples taken were classed as an ADRV.

Cycling in terms of a percentage has a worse ADRV sample ratio than all these sports. In terms of comparison, a professional rider is 44 percent more likely to break one of WADA’s 10 separate Anti-Doping Rule Violation than an athlete competing in athletics.

(list of WADA’s 10 ADRV rules )

This years Tour de France has been once again caught up in controversy around potential cheating and the race hasn’t even started. Chris Froome was reportedly denied from registering his attendances at this years Tour. After the race organisers decided the Brit would damage the reputation of the Tour and the organisers. With him being under investigation by the UCI for a potential doping violation .

The issue goes back to 2017 when Sky rider Froome’s sample of urine, taken at the Vuelta a Espana had reportedly exceeded the limit for salbutamol. He takes the drug(Salbutamol) as medication for his asthma. Froome went on to win the Vuelta a Espana later that month.

The issue many fans and teams have with this, is the time taken to come to a conclusion on whether Froome had actually broken any rules. The investigation started in September 2017 ,10 months ago and the UCI and WADA were seemingly happy for the investigation to drag on. It wasn’t until the Tour de France organisers refused him entry to the Tour. Did the UCL release the conclusion of the case to the public. Which showed Froome had done nothing wrong.

In an interview with BBC Sport ,the UCI president David Lappartient did admit the investigation had gone on “too Long.” He also spoke of the lengths Team Sky and Froome himself went to , to prove he was innocent. He said:”He brought a lot of experts with him to try to demonstrate that he’s not guilty.”

Lappartient did accept that cycling had a problem with doping in the past , but he was happy with the progress which is being made . He said: “Cycling is the sport of anti-doping,If you compare cycling today to 10 years ago, 20 years ago, you’ll really see now real cycling.”

However worryingly Lappartient did seemly admitted “Maybe situations like this happened in the past” to other riders. He added “Froome had more financial support to find good experts to explain the situation.” Which leads you to think , if a finically poorer rider have been in the same situation as Froome, they may not have been able to fight his case as thoroughly.

Doping in the past has been a huge problem for the Tour de France. Unfortunately, it still seems to be an issue today , but there has been progress made by the UCI and WADA in making the sport cleaner. However Doping and Anti-doping investigations are still making the headlines ahead of the history, the prestige, and the hard work put in by riders to just be able to compete in the race. The tour just can’t seem to move on from it’s dark past of doping.