How Clean is Cycling? Analysing the Anti-Doping Fight

Gent Belgium – wielrennen – cycling – cyclisme – radsport – Gent Belgium – wielrennen – cycling – cyclisme – radsport – illustration – sfeer – illustratie pictured during Gent / Belgium International Track Meeting in Gent – Belgium- photo PhC/PN/Cor Vos © 2021 doping controle pictured during Gent / Belgium International Track Meeting in Gent – Belgium- photo PhC/PN/Cor Vos © 2021

The sport of cycling has unfortunately been marred by doping throughout its history, both the acts itself and the speculation surrounding its prevalence in the peloton. But how does cycling stack up against other sports?

Every year, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) publishes the Anti-Doping Testing Figures Report, breaking down information on anti-doping samples. In this article, we will analyse the evolution of anti-doping in cycling and how it ranks compared to other popular sports.

Cycling vs Other Sports

Cycling, counting all UCI disciplines, is the sport with the third highest number of doping samples analysed in 2021 (the last year with data), just behind football. However, there are far more professional athletes in football than in cycling, so in reality doping control as a proportion of the professional population is much higher in cycling than in football. It should also be noted that the major U.S. sports leagues, such as Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL), have not signed on to the WADA Anti-Doping Code. Those leagues have their own anti-doping systems that are less onerous than WADA’s.

Looking at the graph above, we can see that cycling is even the first sport in the number of blood samples for the biological passport. The UCI was the first international sports federation to introduce the biological passport in 2008 and is still at the forefront today. The biological passport includes a haematological profile and a steroid profile, which measure the evolution of these values over a period of time. It is an indirect evidence of the use of a doping substance or method, allowing riders to be sanctioned even though they had not provided a positive sample. The majority of blood samples for the biological passport of cyclists are taken out of competition, where the number of urine and blood samples is almost equal.

Focusing on out-of-competition samples, cycling overtakes football, the latter of which falls almost to the level of aquatics. In cycling 63% of its anti-doping tests are out-of-competition, a clear emphasis on limiting the possibility of pre-competition doping. Athletes have to update their daily location in the ADAMS whereabouts system, so they have to be prepared to submit to an anti-doping test anytime, anywhere.

The fight against doping in cycling comes at a significant cost to many of the stakeholders in the sport. For example, each men’s WorldTeam has to pay annually 185,010 euros to the International Testing Agency in order to be registered and the men’s ProTeams each 96,345 euros – over 5 million euros from the top teams alone. The Tour de France has to contribute 214,000 euros and La Vuelta and the Giro 181,900 euros. The cyclists also contribute 2.7% of the already meagre prize money.

The Evolution of Cycling’s Fight against Doping

The number of standard samples analysed in cycling has remained more or less stable since 2009, even despite the growth of women’s cycling. The biological passport has therefore been the major development in the fight against doping in the last decade. In 2020 and 2021, the number of samples analysed was logically reduced due to mobility restrictions because of the pandemic, but it is assumed that the anti-doping pressure is now back to normal from 2022 onwards (2021 is the latest data included in the WADA report).

Despite cycling’s much larger investment in the biological passport compared to other sports, it is not a magic bullet in the fight against doping. Enforcement of biological passport violations, in the absence of a positive standard sample, are often slow and legally difficult. For example, the cyclist Roman Kreuziger was provisionally sanctioned by the UCI in 2014 for abnormal values in his biological passport, but ended up being cleared by the Czech Olympic Committee. Other cyclists such as Juanjo Cobo and Denis Menchov were sanctioned after retiring from competition. The Spaniard lost his 2011 Vuelta a España title eight years later after a long negotiation with the UCI and, importantly, with the rider not having sufficient financial resources to fight the legal battle all the way to the end.

The evidence must be very clear for the UCI to sanction a rider for an irregular biological passport. However, this tool allows them to analyse the haematological values of cyclists and focus their efforts on increased testing of suspicious riders, even if their passport alone does not have the ‘smoking gun’ to sanction them. This is what the UCI calls “intelligent testing.” For example, in the 2010 Tour de France, the UCI developed a “suspicion index” of participating cyclists based on their biological passport values which was leaked by L’Equipe. The purpose and limitations of this suspicion index was discussed in further detail by the INRNG.

The list was leaked by L’Equipe and this photo can be found on The Inner Ring

History shows that the absence of a positive test does not prove the absence of doping. Undetectable substances or methods may be used, which is why the biological passport is useful to show the physiological effects of such substances or methods. Even so, the number of positive tests has been drastically reduced in the last 15 years: from 643 positive tests in 2007 to “only” 146 in 2021. In 2004, 4.6% of the anti-doping samples tested were positive, and that is taking into account that there were many dopers who never tested positive. In 2021, the percentage of positive samples has been reduced to 0.71%, across a larger number of tests compared to the pre-2010 era.

Rather unhelpfully, WADA points out that this is the total number of positive samples, but not all of the positive samples are anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs). An athlete with a valid Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) may trigger a positive test for the relevant substance and that positive test is included within this data even though it will not be an ADRV. TUEs legalise the use of a banned substance for legitimate medical reasons. In addition, positive samples in the report may also correspond to multiple findings on the same athlete. For example, in 2019 in cycling, 149 positive samples constituted anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs), while 46 positive samples were cleared for medical reasons and 25 more were cleared for other unspecified reasons. Hopefully WADA will release separate reports regarding ADRVs using the 2021 data, which we will analyse in due course – the last ADRV report is of 2019 data.

Therapeutic Use Exemptions

The possible abuse of TUEs has been a controversial topic in sport, as TUEs permit athletes to take substances that are otherwise banned. In some instances, TUE authorisation for steroid-based substances has been granted and backdated even after a rider has started a race. Russian hackers Fancy Bears uncovered in 2016 that athletes such as Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Simone Biles or cyclists Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Fabian Cancellara and Jakob Fuglsang made use of TUEs.

The Bradley Wiggins case was particularly controversial, after a British Parliament report stated the following regarding Wiggins’ TUE prior to his 2012 Tour de France victory:

The purpose of this was not to treat medical need, but to improve his power to weight ratio ahead of the race. The application for the TUE for the triamcinolone for Bradley Wiggins, ahead of the 2012 Tour de France, also meant that he benefited from the performance enhancing properties of this drug during the race.

Combatting Doping in Sport – British Parliamentary Report

Importantly, the report also stated that the use of the TUE was within the WADA rules and did not contravene the WADA code. This suggested a deficiency within the TUE process itself, which permitted exemptions for the use of corticosteroids within competition. For some time the use of corticosteroids within competition, even with a TUE, was prohibited for all voluntary member teams of the Movement for Credible Cycling. However, after lobbying from the UCI, WADA introduced an in-competition ban of all injectable glucocorticosteroids from the start of 2022.

Document leaked by Fancy Bears

On its website, the UCI reports on the number TUEs granted from 2015 to 2020. In 2017, 20 TUEs were granted, but since 2018, when the Bradley Wiggins case broke out, no more than 10 TUEs have been granted in a single season. In any case, considering the size of the professional peloton, these are not numbers that warn of widespread use in the peloton.

Remote Locations

Many athletes train outside of Europe, often in remote locations. Training in a remote country can make the UCI suspicious and ultimately be counterproductive for a would-be doper seeking to circumvent testing. In the UCI Regulations for Testing and Investigations, a number of factors are listed to determine which riders should be tested more frequently, and one of them is “moving to or training in a remote location”. In the list (page 22), there are other factors such as “any abnormal biological parameters”, “withdrawal or absence from expected competitions” or “nearing end of contract”.

As you can see on the map below, there are 30 WADA-accredited laboratories worldwide, but there is only one in Africa and one in South America. Unless an athlete is training in Bloemfontein or Rio de Janeiro, samples taken in Africa or South America will have to travel further to a WADA-accredited laboratory compared to if they were taken in Europe, where the vast majority of anti-doping samples are analysed. Logistically, it is also more expensive and complicated to get an anti-doping test carried out in locations with infrequent travel connections or few anti-doping testing agents nearby – bearing in mind that financial resources for anti-doping are limited.

There are also legitimate historical reasons for the UCI regulations including training in a remote location as a reason for target testing. A documentary presented on ARD in 2016 by renowned investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt, alleged that packets of EPO were found in a bin on the premises of an athletic training centre in Iten, Kenya. In the last week, New Zealand’s Olympic long distance runner Zane Robertson was given an eight year ban for an EPO positive test in a race in May 2022. Robertson has been training and living between Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the Rift Valley in Kenya since he was 17 years old. As part of Robertson’s defence he stated that he attended a medical facility in Kenya to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and was mistakenly administered EPO:

He provided sworn affidavits from Kenyan doctors, hospital notes, a hospital report and a witness statement from a Kenyan detective to support his claims, arguing that there was “no fault or negligence” on his part.

Zane Robertson: New Zealand athlete handed eight-year ban for doping violations, CNN 2023

Robertson received an additional four year ban due to his attempt to subvert the doping control process.

The Future

The data above shows great progress from the beginning of the century until now in the fight against doping in cycling. All stakeholders are making a huge sacrifices in the fight, particularly the riders with their adherence to the daily whereabouts protocol. Despite this, due to the history of cycling and the perception of the sport within the broader populace, it will be very difficult to ever dissociate the terms cycling and doping in the minds of the spectators – who may not think twice about the possibility of doping when watching their local football match.

This scepticism comes at a significant cost for the sport, with the perceived risks of a potential anti-doping scandal causing damage to a sponsor’s reputation perhaps being enough to dissuade large corporations from investing in a team or the broader sport. Whilst nobody can guarantee the complete absence of doping in any sport, the UCI should also consider the dissemination of information regarding the progress and success of the anti-doping fight as an important pillar in combatting doping itself. If athletes perceive the sport to have a level playing field with almost everybody playing by the rules, it is possible in some cases that this could reduce instances of doping:

“It’s been building on me for a few years — frustration and anger at the sport itself, and at any elite sport. I just believe the top is — it’s not a level playing field. I started asking myself this question, ‘Why do people like myself always have to be the ones to lose or suffer and in the end lose our contracts, lose our income, lose our race winnings and eventually end up not having the ability to have a family or live anywhere else in the world from the predicaments we’re in?’

Zane Robertson, Runners Only! Podcast, March 2023

  1. I think that the thing people forget is that cycling, despite its history, it’s probably one of the cleanest sports at the professional level. Even if there are doping cases and people gaining the system it’s not like combat sports or football ect where everyone does it and it’s just ignored. Ultimately the controls exist to protect the health of the riders from their own desire to win at any costs and it’s a good thing that they do.

  2. La lucha antidopaje siempre va una década atrás. Hoy cuando se normaliza el dopaje directamente como impulsos sensoriales en el cerebro es improbable qué encuentren sustancias por fuera del reglamento en los fluidos corporales. Esto ha cambiado de método pero de fondo.
    Uno ahora los ve común y corriente con sus bala as de sonido al finalizar las carreras y muy cándido creemos que solo escuchan música.

    1. Any source on that? Even music can have a ‘doping’ effect, if you will, in the sense that it increases the production of endorphins and dopamine in the brain.

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