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Published: Monday, 7/2/2012

COMMENTARY

Cycling fun: A sport within sport

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Nearly everyone hosts or attends a Super Bowl party. March Madness is it for some. Others can't wait for the Olympics or the World Series or an annual bowl trip, preferably to somewhere like Pasadena and not Shreveport.

Not me, dear readers. No, I live for the three-week period, just under way, of thrills and spills we call the Tour de France. I haven't been on a bicycle in 45 years, give or take, but I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Men in spandex -- no, get your minds out of the gutter -- and helmets from all over the world gather to ride in the suffocating heat of the flat stages and through the cold, rainy, sometimes even snowy tight passes of the high mountains, some brutal climbs like that to Peyragudes on the balcony of the Pyrenees.

There is triumph, and there is heartbreak. It is three weeks, 3,500 kilometers, mostly of sheer misery.

But that's not the best part. No, that comes afterward when everybody has to pee in a cup. That's when they get around to some serious sport. That's when it gets fun.

We'll learn about the latest techniques in blood doping, who has the most human growth hormone in his system, whose tests were compromised by faulty lab procedures, and who comes closest to perfecting the art of EPO.

EPO has been a real crowd pleaser since the late 1980s. Blood doping -- transfusions to increase red blood cells that inflate the muscles with extra oxygen -- is small potatoes to EPO, a manufactured hormone that is normally produced in the kidneys and stimulates bone marrow growth and, thus, red blood cell production in a way doping does not.

Of course, EPO makes the blood thicker, which increases the risks of blood clots, which, in turn, can kill you. And it is believed to have done just that to a rider in the '89 Tour de France. But, hey, anything works with that coveted yellow jersey at stake.

Whether you believe -- or even care about -- the most recent allegations made by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency against seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, and regardless of that outcome, professional bicycling must be the dirtiest sport in the history of sport. The training practices of Eastern European women weight lifters back in the Cold War days were dainty by comparison.

There once was a cycling manager named Choppy Warburton from England who was accused of doping his riders, including a guy named Arthur Linton who died under mysterious circumstances after a race from Bordeaux to Paris. That was in 1896.

So this has been going on for well more than 100 years, and the Tour de France had its first big scandal in 1924 when three cyclists, all named Pelissier, told a journalist they drugged themselves with strychnine, cocaine, and chloroform.

I did an Internet search of cycling cheaters figuring I'd come up with a few dozen names, guys like Alberto Contador and Floyd Landis who were stripped of Tour de France victories. Instead, I found a list of hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of names and incidents.

That this sport still exists and is actually important to millions is rather jaw-dropping. Cyclists have been banned, entire teams have been banned, doctors have been banned. From amphetamines to testosterone to various steroids, to stimulants like Ritalin, to blood doping and EPO, if it hasn't been tried, then it hasn't been discovered.

The International Cycling Union claims it is doing more than ever to combat it all. Of course, it had more to do. Get those little cups ready. Three weeks until the real fun begins.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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