An Overview of Doping in Road Cycling and Good Books to Read

A topic I have become more interested in over the years is Road Cycling and doping. As you watch videos on youtube and road cycling events it becomes clear that some if not most astounding outcomes were a result of external biological enhancements from drugs.

Of course – the nature of the topic – is if you are involved you don’t talk. O’merte. So there are very few tell all stories from insiders. The only 2 I have found is from Rodchenkov – the Russian olympic doping doctor and Willie Voet – the Festina team helper. Soigneurs – probably have to sign NDAs and are taught not to talk and are protected by the team via contract.

But just as money doesn’t create happiness but goes a long way towards it, doping doesn’t create a champion but doesn’t do him any harm either. – Willy Voet. “Breaking the Chain”

An Overview of Doping

There are many entry points to begin learning about doping in road cycling. Oftentimes the primary route is through the biggest name: Lance Armstrong. Historically though the god father seems to be Francesco Conconi.

The interesting thing about Francesco and his disciplines: Michele Ferrari and Luigi Cecchini – is that they were experts and deeply involved in human athletic performance. The holistic approach in terms of training, tactics, nutrition, breathing, bike/equipment, scientific experimentation was included in their approach.Their primary employment was working on catching anti-doping techniques – therefore making them the experts in also avoiding being caught.

Michele Ferrari even has a website with many useful articles and observations that are helpful to understand that doping is just one tool in order to enhance performance. From past results it is clear the doping is the best and easiest way to acquire an advantage.

The history of doping in road cycling really only became professional in the 1980’s. Testament to this is the breaking of the Hour record by Francesco Moser assisted by none other than Francesco Conconi. It was later revealed that blood doping was involved – Francesco reported to be the person who introduced EPO to the sport.

The interesting thing about EPO is that unlike amphetamines, testosterone and steroids – EPO was at the time undetectable. It is a hormone that stimulates the body (bone marrow) to create more red blood cells.

Team members (soigneurs) – masseurs etc. – are in on the doping.

Creatine is a legal substance which only builds up muscular mass if it is used in tandem with an anabolic agent such as nandrolone.

mestolerone can be detected for 6 months – nandrolone leaves the system in a week

From 1999 onward: EPO has already been overtaken by other methods of doping, based on reproducing cells and molecules. Interlukin (code-named IL-3), a drug used in treating certain cancers. It is a sort of growth hormone which concentrates its effects on certain muscular tissues.

Building Blocks of Cheating

It started with short term boosts during the race – amphetamines. Then moves to testosterone, anabolic agents (Clenbuterol), steroids and corticoids that lasts around 2 months. Only amphetamines were forbidden as they would show up in urine. Cortisone not detectable in urine and testosterone is flushed out.

Clenbuterol is one of the most powerful to develop muscle mass.

A week before the grand tours – Decca-Dorabulin (Nandrolone) – is taken. The effects last for a month and is detectable. Before the classics season – Synacten is taken – makes the adrenal glands produce cortisone.

Amphetamines: Pervitin or Captagon were hidden in energy bars – code word being – who wants: eyes, a nose or a mouth on their bar?

Sprinters use Caffeine injected directly into the muscles -the most prevalent was Trinitrin. 5km before the sprint they pop the pill – dangerous to the heart.

Some bidons had 300mg suppositories -with caffeine and amphetamines.

There was of course other cheating happening where it could work- smaller races – where the seignore would drive the cyclist in the car a portion of the way.

EPO was injected until a week before the end of the tour – EPO results were delayed.

Avoiding the Controls

At the point of testing – is always where the cheat has to be done. It started with a tube of urine under the arm, then evolved to a tube from ass and a recipticle kept in the rear. Riders were made to undress completely. Sometimes delaying and have a flask/vial hidden in the testing caravan. Some urologists would inject the urine up the urethra before the test.

Doctors are also fans -and many can be influenced by a handshake or a signed memorabilia item.

Often the doctor controlling the controls -was associated with the top riders -like Eric Rijkaert.

It became harder in the late 1980’s when cyclists were forced to go direct from the podium to the caravan.

Books and Movies


  • The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Russia’s Secret Doping Empire – Grigory Rodchenkov
  • Breaking The Chain: Drugs and Cycling – The True Story – Wilie Voet



  • Bjarne Riis: "Mr. 60%" – when 60% of your blood is red blood cells – that is an extremely high, dangerous and unnatural level. Bjarne’s doctor was Luigi Cecchini.
  • Erik Rijkaert: "Dr Fiat Punto" – with his strict max hermatocrit of 55% and not issuing EPO to any riders any higher – preventing better results and more risky from other doctors. Preventing blood clots and high blood pressure.