Bicycle racing dragged back into its shady past

Players

August 06, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN STAFF

Floyd Landis was a feel-good story in a sport that desperately needed one.

Bicycle racing, plagued with doping virtually as long as people have pushed pedals in anger, had started this year's Tour de France under a familiar cloud. The two top favorites and several other contenders were kicked out because of allegations that they were involved in a doping ring in Spain. There was no final verdict of guilt, just evidence, but in a sport trying to rid itself of a chemical-enhanced image, that is all it takes to get banned. Bye-bye Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso.

Hello, Floyd Landis. The American born in a humble Mennonite community in Pennsylvania who rebelled in a not-so-rebellious way - he took up bicycle racing. And he turned out to be very good at it. As he began to establish himself as a favorite early in the three-week tour around France, he revealed something else - his hip bone, broken in a 2002 crash, is dying and soon after the race is finished, he will undergo a hip replacement. So he lacked the charisma and back-from-the-brink-of-death story ofLance Armstrong. Landis was just what cycling needed.

Then, just as it looked as if the Tour was his for the taking, the unthinkable happened - he was left behind on the final climb of the 16th stage of this 20-stage race. In cycling terms, he bonked, totally ran out of fuel. Barely able to push down one pedal after another, he watched his challengers disappear in the distance. Now he was eight minutes behind, his Tour dreams shattered.

But no. In a comeback of legendary proportions, he rode away from the field early in the next mountain stage, a brilliant tactical move that he followed up with a physical performance that ranks with the great rides in Tour history. He gained over five minutes over his closest pursuer and made up the rest in the final time trial. Landis rode into Paris in yellow.

For a few days, the Tour de France was back, its glory restored as an event that produces sporting heroes with epic stories. And then there was the "adverse analytical finding," the technical term for something wrong in the urine sample Landis provided after his Stage 17 comeback ride.

Suddenly, tragically, the Tour was right back where it started - under a cloud of doping that it had tried to chase away with the wholesale suspensions.

What complicated the picture was that Landis was not found to have an illegal drug in his system. If he had, the finding would have been clear-cut. The adverse finding was for a high level of the naturally occurring substance testosterone. Actually, it wasn't clear that level was high, only that it was high in relationship to the amount of epitestosterone in Landis' urine, the way drug tests measure it. Maybe his epitestoserone was low for some reason.

Landis immediately and aggressively proclaimed his innocence. But two things hit his defenders hard. For starters, most men have about a 1-to-1 ratio of testerone to epitestosterone, maybe 2-to-1. Drug protocols allow a 4-to-1 ratio for tested athletes, allowing for higher levels of the substance in these well-trained men. Landis, sources say and his doctor confirms, had an 11-to-1 ratio. That is so high that many of the innocent explanations - the beer he drank the night after he bonked - went out the window.

The second blow came from reports in the French sports paper L'Equipe and The New York Times that the drug tests confirmed that the testosterone in Landis' urine did not come from natural sources. This is a complex test involving carbon isotopes in the testosterone. But if it is true, it shoots down the explanation that the elevated level came from something natural, such as his intense effort on that comeback stage.

As slam-dunk as the case seems (barring the unlikely occurrence that analysis of the B sample of Landis' urine, given the same time as his A sample, produces a different result), there are still questions. The bottom line is that Landis' alleged violation makes little sense. Artificial testosterone is essentially an anabolic steroid, a substance that works over time to build muscles. Taking it before a difficult mountain stage would be of no benefit to a rider.

The drugs that would help are those that give the body extra oxygen carrying capacity, most notably erythropoietin, usually known as EPO. This has given cycling many scandals. It was the drug that took down Roberto Heras after he won last year's Tour of Spain - an event just below the Tour de France in prestige. That was another positive that made little sense, as Heras had a commanding lead when he tested positive for EPO in the last contested stage. But it was a time trial and Heras, a great climber, has had trouble with such stages.

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