Six-Day racing and doping

Cycle racing and drugs, eh? What's to discuss - all top cyclists are doped up, aren't they? Certainly, one often hears comments suggesting that professional cyclists participating in six-day races use performance-enhancing products of a banned nature, so what's the real story?

Fat Nick is sticking his neck on the line a bit here, guys (tee hee! Fat Nick's lawyer has already gone a sickly shade of white), so let's understand one thing right up front. Fat Nick is completely opposed to doping in sport. As a Brit, Fat Nick has an inherent sense of what the French call "le fair play", and if some riders are using doping products, it is no longer a level playing field. (Fat Nick will not even lower himself to comment on the suggestion that perhaps all athletes should simply be allowed to take whatever drugs they want). Also, the body is a delicate mechanism - especially when pushed to the limits, as in a sport like cycle racing. Start mucking around with it by loading artificial products into the body, or by artificially increasing naturally-occurring products in the body, and you're simply asking for trouble. Trouble of the heart attack kind, the cancer kind, and a dozen other nasties that mean you don't need to worry about boring old-fogie things like pension contributions for your old age. So, no drugs, no doping, no pumping riders full of EPO.

Interestingly, many of the people who tell you how the six-day riders are all high on drugs most of the time will also be those people who tell you that all six-day races take place in smoke-filled halls where you need a flashlight to see the person in front of you. The reality isn't like that - many six-day venues these days are non-smoking, and even at those where smoking is permitted, most of the smoke comes from the Derny machines used for motor pacing. So if the smoke thing is a myth, a thing of the past, maybe today's riders aren't all swallowing pills?

Let's look at some facts: six-day cycle racing is governed by UCI regulations. That includes UCI dope testing regulations. Let's put it this way: if you win a six-day race, you WILL undergo a UCI drugs test. And any participant in a six-day race may be given a random dope test at any time. So, if you race in 10 "sixes" during the winter months, there is a very high probability that you will have a dope test on at least one occasion, and possibly more. People like Risi and Betschart, for example, who are winning four or five 6-day races in a season are probably having a UCI dope test every three weeks. In fact, riders competing in the six-day circuit are probably more likely to be tested than any other cyclists, or any other athletes.

So far, so good. Now life gets a bit more complicated. Once upon a time, when life was simple, failing a dope test meant that you were using drugs. This meant you were a bad boy, and were banned from the sport for a while. Quite right too - cue the applause, boos, hisses and cried of "Cheat! Cheat!" Having a urine-filled bulb of somebody else's urine inside your shorts (to quote one example from the Tour de France in the 1970's) clearly falls into this category, as does a male rider giving a urine sample which shows he is 3 months pregnant (the best bit is the rider didn't know his wife was pregnant - but I digress), as is also rumoured to have happened during a major road race.

Then, in the 1980's, life started to get a bit more complicated. There was a Dutch rider who kept winning mountain stages in the Tour de France, then "failing" the dope test he had to take as the stage victor because his testosterone levels were deemed to be too high. Now, Fat Nick is no expert on drugs, but let us consider human nature. If you win a stage in the Tour de France, even the most stupid pro cyclist knows full well he will be given a drugs test at the end of the stage. I'm willing to entertain the notion that maybe a cyclist would take some performance-enhancing drugs in the belief that he'd get off with it, duly win a stage, and get caught out. And he'd deserve to be caught out, too. But I find it hard to believe that the same cyclist would then do exactly the same thing the next year, and the next. And whilst I don't personally know the rider in question, I seriously doubt that he is stupid, given what he has gone on to do with his life since quitting cycling. Very determined, very tough, very aggressive - yes. In fact, the very qualities you'd expect of somebody with a naturally high level of testosterone. Fat Nick doesn't know the ins and outs of this case, but it was enough to plant the seeds of doubt in his mind.

We now jump to the late 1990's. Two promising young Danish cyclists score their first six-day win in the 1997 Grenoble Six. A few months later, the UCI announces that one of them, Jacob Piil, has tested positive in a sample he gave during the Grenoble Six. His "A" sample gave a positive result when tested (basically, a rider's urine sample is split into two containers. If the "A" sample is found to be positive, the rider is entitled to be present when the "B" sample is tested to confirm the result). We then got into some very murky ground, and it appears there were perhaps reasons to suspect that maybe the testing laboratory in question might just possibly have not followed the very highest of standards. It turned out, for example, that this same laboratory had found traces of exactly the same product, the anabolic steroid Nandrolene, in a urine sample given by Paola Pezzo, the Olympic mountain bike champion. A case which was also subsequently dropped, but not before the initial announcement had stirred up a good deal of discussion. The question of this product being found in a urine sample of a rider who was also tested by different labs shortly beforehand and shortly afterwards, with no trace of the product being found, also leads one to speculate. In the end, charges against Jacob Piil were dropped, but not before the UCI had issued a press statement announcing that his "A" sample had been positive, which could have had severe consequences for the career of a young rider and which, presumably, would leave a rider with a stressful few months to endure if he knew that he were innocent of the charges.

At that stage, Fat Nick thought that the UCI (or the relevant dope testing specialists) would get onto the case and ensure that all labs tested to the same standard. Apparently not. In January 1999, the six-day world was stunned to learn during the Stuttgart Six that one of Germany's top six-day riders, Carsten Wolf, had tested positive for Nandrolene during ... the 1998 Grenoble Six. Hmm, and which lab did they use to do the testing, asks the more suspicious reader? And, equally interestingly, what sort of approach would the German federation (the BDR) take during the hearing?

Fat Nick received the following press statement from Carsten Wolf. The original was in German, and this English translation is provided by Fat Nick:

"A Press Statement by Carsten Wolf
Berlin, 19th February 1999

In recent weeks there have been articles published about me in Berlin newspapers and other publications in which I have been accused of doping. The facts need setting straight:

Since the articles first appeared, the hearing at the Bund Deutscher Radfahrer (BDR) has been held on 16.02.1999. During the course of this hearing, one of the things that was expressly stated is that all the circumstantial evidence surrounding this case points strongly against me having illegally taken performance-enhancing products. As the Olympic team doctor Professor Josef Keul, the senior doctor at the Freiburg Uniklinik who is responsible for the medical supervision of the Telekom cyclists, is quoted as saying in the dpa statement on 1.2.99:

"I am surprised that such an experienced athlete should use a product that offers no benefits and is certain to be detected."

No cyclist will take anabolic steroids that have absolutely no performance-enhancing effects and that also remain readily detectable for a long period of time. Any rider competing in 6-day races is fully aware that, given the scheduling of one 6-day race straight after another, he is likely to undergo doping tests at frequent intervals. When one also considers that the substance under discussion here, Nandrolene, provides absolutely no performance enhancement for a racing cyclist, then this indicates that all the circumstantial evidence speaks against the accusations that have been made about me. In addition to this, in the summer of 1998 my doctors discovered that I have severe heart rhythm irregularities, which would mean that the use of doping products would endanger my life - a risk that nobody would take. I therefore told the BDR hearing that I honestly did not take the doping substance. In response to the question as to how this Nandrolene came to be in my body, I could in all honesty only reply that the doping substance must have entered my body in liquid of powdered form without my knowledge. I noticed no physical changes, and I would have immediately had myself checked if I had, on the grounds of the risk this would present to my own health. With my heart rhythm irregularities, I would be unable to take even the slightest risk without endangering my health to a life-threatening extent. The (unsubstantiated) allegations that have now been made against me have had far-reaching consequences for me:

I had originally planned to pursue my career as a professional cyclist until the end of the six-day season in 2001, and also to participate at the Sydney Olympics. However, I now fear that incidents such as those I am now accused of could keep occurring. I cannot explain how this positive dope test came about; I am therefore afraid that such an incident may occur again, and that I am unable to protect myself against it. I have therefore decided to end my career and to terminate the sponsorship that I had in place until 2001.

Quite apart from any considerations relating to myself, it should be noted that the laboratory that tested the samples has frequently been the cause of controversy in the past. Amongst cyclists, for example, traces of Nandrolene were detected by this laboratory in the urine of the Danish cyclist Jacob Piil and of the Olympic Mountain Bike champion, Italy’s Paola Pezzo. In both cases, the charges were dismissed by the national federations due to the dubious circumstances. On a related point, this is the appropriate place to mention that, in breach of UCI regulations, my name was visible on the carbon copies of the doping sample report, even though this is expressly forbidden in the regulations. The BDR hearing acknowledged this fact, but it had no effect on their decision as breaches of protocol / regulations are only deemed to be pertinent where they have a significant influence on the result of the dope test. However, these precedents in themselves demonstrate that the laboratory clearly works in a negligent way.

Finally, it must also be stated that I am not a "repeat offender". The incident in 1994 was the subject of a decision by the hearing held on 9.2.95. The hearing explicitly acknowledged that, given my physical condition at the time, a higher level of care than that exercised by me could not have been expected. I was only banned because the UCI regulations make no provision for taking into account the innocence or guilt of the alleged offender. However, the hearing explicitly recommended that the ban should be suspended because the doping allegation from 1994 involved no guilt on my part. This was confirmed by the hearing.

Finally, I can only hope that, in the interests of all followers of cycling, a full picture of my career remains, characterised by the positive elements, namely my successes in world championships, national championships, 6-day races and the Olympic Games."

Fat Nick would like to end this page with a personal comment. Professional racing cyclists are like any other group of human beings. There are some really nice guys and some who you wouldn't want to meet, there are some who are very honest and there are probably some who, as in any walk of life, would be willing to twist the rules to their own benefit. Unless Fat Nick is a very poor judge of character, Carsten Wolf comes under the heading of "nice guy". As a professional cyclist he was just that - professional. Not boringly, clinically so, but professional in the sense that he always involved the crowd, always put on a good show, always had time for a smile or a quick chat with a fan. I for one am very sad to see Carsten Wolf forced to retire early from our sport under such circumstances, and it is still my personal belief that young six-day riders looking for a role model could do far, far worse than look carefully at Carsten.

Whilst Fat Nick has readily expressed some personal opinions on this page, he has tried hard to ensure that all information is factually correct. If you know of any factual errors, mail nick's e-mail address and he will be pleased to correct them immediately.

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