Cycling's dark side revealed

HEALTH ISSUE: Nathan Dahlberg says doping gave riders rapid and pronounced gains, but many were worried about the effects on their health.
HEALTH ISSUE: Nathan Dahlberg says doping gave riders rapid and pronounced gains, but many were worried about the effects on their health.

American cyclist Lance Armstrong was once regarded as one of the world’s elite sportsmen. Now the seven-times Tour de France champion has been outed as a drugs cheat. Local cyclists Nathan Dahlberg and Robin Reid talk to Wayne Martin about their involvement in a sport tainted by doping allegations:

When Tommy Simpson died of exhaustion on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967, drugs in cycling moved out of the shadows and into the public consciousness.

The former British world road champion was only 29 years old when an autopsy identified a lethal mix of amphetamine and alcohol in his system on that ill-fated 13th stage of the Tour de France.

Drug use had been part of a seedy subculture associated with professional cycling long before Simpson’s shock death. However, he was widely regarded as one of the first cycling superstars to be confirmed as a drug cheat.

Since then, names like Tyler Hamilton, George Mincapie and Floyd Landis have joined professional cycling’s Hall of Shame. But it’s taken the extraordinary confessions of former seven times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong to reveal the magnitude of illegal doping within the sport.

Clearly, not all professional cyclists are drug cheats, although prominent Nelson cyclists Nathan Dahlberg and Robin Reid admit they’ve always been aware of the rumours of doping surrounding the sport’s elite professional riders.

Both competed extensively overseas, Motueka-based Dahlberg as a professional with a number of teams, starting with American-based outfit 7 Eleven in 1988, through to 1997. However, a serious crash while racing in the United States in August 1992 meant he was never able to recapture his previous competitive levels.

He later formed the Marco Polo Cycling Team, where cyclists from non-traditional cycling countries were given the chance to show their talent. Former Olympian Reid was one of them.

Dahlberg and Reid have never used performance-enhancing drugs but are certainly familiar with the stigma attached to any competitive involvement in the sport.

‘‘I think generally our knowledge [now] is just far greater than when I started,’’ says Dahlberg. ‘‘It was all kind of hearsay; you heard it from someone else and rumours and likewise with any sort of drugs thing.’’

He says that Simpson’s death finally forced a reaction from administrators and officials.

‘‘From that time on the controls got much stricter for these amphetamine products. The controls were largely never there for cheating or anything. The cheating  idea wasn’t that much of a deal; it was more of a health issue which is largely lost on people nowadays. They were quite widely used and quite readily available.’’

With all the attention by now on the use of amphetamine, Dahlberg says the nature of doping was about to take an inevitable and sinister turn.

‘‘In the late 80s we heard about this product called EPO which is a blood booster. We didn’t know anything about it except a whole bunch of guys died from taking it.

‘‘At the time we heard about it, we were like, ‘Man, you’d be pretty crazy to take the stuff’, because we’d heard how many guys had died already. That’s what can happen, you take it one day and then not wake up the next morning – it’s pretty crazy.’’

Yet, despite the inherent dangers, Dahlberg says the results were spectacular.

‘‘If you’re a tennis player, you need all that skill, I mean there’s no drug for skill.

\‘‘If you do the big miles that road cyclists do, you’ll soon get injured. It just so happens that in cycling, this blood booster mixed with some other hormones really seemed to work. It worked spectacularly well actually, you know, it gave guys a 5 to 6 per cent improvement in a very short time ... that’s almost the difference between the first guy and the last guy.’’

Dahlberg’s not surprised by the prevalence of doping. He says that the pressures surrounding top professional riders to produce results meant constant, and often subtle, reminders of their ‘‘responsibilities’’.

‘‘A manager would say, ‘your contract’s running out, you haven’t had a good year, are you doing everything necessary?’

‘‘You get guys who’ve turned pro, they’ve got a mortgage on the house, the fancy girlfriend, a new car and they’ve got to start paying for all these things and then two years later they’re faced with the prospect of no job. Usually these guys are pretty much uneducated, they’re going to work at the factory or they’re going to keep on racing. Suddenly you need results and what are you going to do? How are you going to get them?’’

Dahlberg first recalls competing against Armstrong in 1992 and although he’s never met the man, quickly began to appreciate the American’s unique and complicated personality.

‘‘Armstrong is much more complex than the normal bike rider. Lance was a politician, he was a businessman, he was ruthless, mean and obviously anybody who got in his way was crushed.

‘‘He was obviously one of those alpha [male] types who was going to get ahead at any cost, whereas I could say probably most of the other great cyclists in history were never like that. It’s not saying they were good guys or bad guys, but they were basically just athletes. Sometimes they had a business element or a political element to them, but he was kind of the complete package.

‘‘The drug side was just one of the weapons in his arsenal to get ahead and like all weapons in his arsenal, he did whatever was necessary. He was willing to take it to the limit whereas someone else might back off.’’

A book, co-authored by Hamilton in 2012 entitled The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-Ups and Winning at all Costs revealed Armstrong’s complicity.

A team-mate of Armstrong’s in the 1999, 2000 and 2001 Tours de France, Hamilton’s revelations left little room for doubt, despite Armstrong’s vehement protestations of his innocence. Yet Dahlberg’s initial suspicions had effectively been confirmed for him after Armstrong’s first Tour victory in 1999.

‘‘Another American rider told me straight away what had happened. I mean it was almost word for word what Tyler Hamilton said [in his book], including covered-up dope tests and everything like that.’’

Cycling’s taken some serious hits, although Dahlberg’s commitment to the sport remains resolute. He still  admires riders like Australian Cadel Evans, Italian Vincenzo Nibali, who finished third on last year’s Tour, and Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara who never register the alarmingly contrasting results associated with obvious dopers.

He’s not entirely convinced about last year’s Tour de France champion and Olympic road race gold medallist, Bradley Wiggins, ‘‘but nothing’s come to light’’.

If there’s any good to come out of the controversy, Dahlberg hopes that it might encourage cycling’s governing body UCI to fragment its operation and allow the other cycling disciplines to become separate entities.

‘‘I think the big problem with the sport is that it’s all wrapped up with pro cycling and basically with the Tour de France. They need to realise there’s actually a lot more to cycling than just the Tour de France and pro cycling.

‘‘You know, there’s mountainbiking, there’s women’s cycling and [now] there’s under-23s, which was previously amateur.

There’s track cycling and BMX.

‘‘Consolidating everything under one banner has been a failed experiment and it’s time to fragment and have everyone running their own shows. They’re all riding bikes, but that doesn’t mean they all have to be governed by the same organisation and that would leave a lot more time for pro cycling to govern itself.’’

Reid is a former Olympian but admits he never competed consistently at the same top professional level as Dahlberg, having contested the road race at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

He also admits to being an Armstrong fan earlier in his career, a judgement subsequently influenced by the former Tour de France champion’s damning confessions. ‘‘People were saying it from day one, from the first year that he won the tour, that he’s on drugs or whatever. But they say that about anyone who wins a race basically,’’ Reid says.

‘‘It’s pretty disappointing, but people use this excuse like at that time, all the pros were doping, so what’s the difference, it’s a level playing field. Until a couple of months ago, I probably shared that opinion as well until I spent some time talking with Nathan Dahlberg.

‘‘For a start, not all the professionals were doping and it’s not a level playing field either because some athletes obviously respond to doping better than others and some of have access to better doping products or procedures than other athletes. It’s not a level playing field, it’s just cheating.’’

Eventually, the overwhelming evidence against Armstrong meant it could no longer be ignored.

‘‘I probably never accepted it until Tyler Hamilton’s book came out. When someone writes that much stuff in a book and nobody sues him, then the guy’s telling the truth obviously isn’t he?

‘‘By this time, I wasn’t so much of a fan of Armstrong. I’d moved on and got over it. So it wasn’t really too much of a shock, it was just ‘oh well, I kind of half expected that anyway and he’s going to keep denying it’.

‘‘When you look at the number of people who were adversely affected by what he did, you know, cheated and robbed of their livelihood and lost their job or whatever, then that’s appalling and shocking and hopefully they can get some kind of recompense for it now.

‘‘But to be honest, I don’t really care what he’s like as a person. I never knew him, he’s not my friend, I don’t want to know him. He was [hailed as] a great cyclist, but I can forget about that now as well because he was a cheat.’’

Yet Reid can still appreciate the benefits accruing from Armstrong’s once solid but now tarnished reputation, specifically the Livestrong Foundation founded by him, a non-profit organisation that provides support for people affected by cancer.

‘‘If he didn’t win seven Tour de Frances, would Livestrong Foundation have raised over $450 million? Probably not. Would other people have gained what they gained from it as well? Probably not. There’s certainly a lot of good that came out of it."