Top cyclist tells how painkillers give him edge

Last updated 05:01 16/06/2013
Alex McGrego
ALEX MCGREGOR: "I can see the effects of using paracetamol, for example, it stops .... you don't feel the pain, as such. You don't feel that real heat."

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A Kiwi cyclist has admitted to using pain pills to aid his performance - and says he knows other riders who are doing the same.

Dunedin road rider and winner of this year's Tour de Lakes, Alex McGregor, told the Sunday Star-Times he has been influenced towards the practice by a sport scientist - who also works for national body Bike New Zealand.

Last night New Zealand sport's anti-doping boss, Graeme Steel, expressed concern, saying: "Athletes begin on the road to doping by doing things that are technically permitted, but really are on the verge of unethical behaviour."

McGregor, 23, confirmed that over the past two years he has taken over-the-counter painkillers before and during races to intentionally dull the effects of fatigue.

McGregor says he will continue to experiment with the practice despite suspecting it interferes with medication prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

While admitting "it's not a good look" to swallow pills on the start line, McGregor says he doesn't believe there is an ethical problem.

"A lot of people think your taking it to work like a drug or enhance performance, but it doesn't really do that," McGregor told the Star-Times.

"I can see the effects of using paracetamol, for example, it stops . . . you don't feel the pain, as such. You don't feel that real heat.

"There's been times on a road race where I've found it really beneficial, like a cold, shitty day, where the legs are cold but hurting as well. You can feel the painkiller working, but you've got to have the dosage right, because when it wears off, you notice it.

"I'm looking into it with a sport scientist here in Dunedin."

McGregor confirmed that person is Matt Shallcrass, who is studying the effects of paracetamol on athletic performance and the brain at Otago University, and is also a BikeNZ junior development coach.

"That's who I'm working with on the whole study," McGregor said.

"Just the dosage side, 1000mg, and we're just going to . . . what we're going to do is test it over a 40km time trial. We'll measure the effects of when you take the paracetamol and when you don't."

Shallcrass responded to a post by McGregor on a social media site on April 21, after winning a silver medal in the elite men's road race. "yea buddy! paracetamol all day!! [sic]" Shallcrass wrote. A minute later, McGregor responded: "Haha aw yea far out i got drug tested as well lol . . . Awkward hah [sic]."

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However, Shallcrass denied working with McGregor when contacted by the Star-Times and said his research was not about performance enhancement. "With the Masters we're not actually looking at performance with paracetamol, we're merely looking at what the interactions are in the body during exercise," Shallcrass said.

"He [McGregor] hasn't stepped foot in my lab at all. I only know him through cycling and we both just cycle at the Otago club.

"I'm completely unaware of if he's used it and when he's used it, to be completely honest with you.

"I've got absolutely no knowledge of his use at all."

Shallcrass confirmed he is a BikeNZ development coach and said he would not recommend using painkillers during a race.

"Absolutely not," he said. "I've told no athletes at all to use paracetamol or any other ergogenic aid. It's completely dangerous and probably not in the best interests of the sport. I wouldn't believe it's ethical or wise."

BikeNZ high-performance director Mark Elliott said he was unaware of any such situation and was concerned by the Star-Times inquiries. He also questioned what it had to do with BikeNZ.

"Of course I'm concerned. I'm concerned by anyone who is influenced by a study," Elliott said.

"But, what's this got to do with BikeNZ, by the way? He [Shallcrass] works with junior riders but isn't part of the high-performance programme."

Drug Free Sport New Zealand chief executive Steel said while some actions can be "technically permitted" they can also be gateways to "unethical behaviour".

"It's something we would prefer athletes didn't do," Steel said. "We really have no jurisdiction over it in one sense, but one of the things that concerns us is that athletes begin on the road to doping by doing things that are technically permitted, but really are on the verge of unethical behaviour."

- Sunday Star Times

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