The last issue of New Scientist has an interesting article on the topic:
Each extraordinary performance in the race will, however, generate suspicion as well as admiration. Allegations of doping have plagued the Tour for so long that any rider who excels now inevitably attracts talk of drug use.
But what if a superhuman performance itself could be used as evidence of doping? That's the thinking behind a new strategy, which asks: "Is this physiologically possible without the aid of drugs?"
The idea is straightforward: work out the boundaries of human ability, based on what we know about physiology and its maximal capabilities. If an athlete's performance lies outside this limit, they are highlighted as a potential drug-taker and given more frequent and extensive drug screenings.
The article notes that, prior to widespread EPO use, Tour winners' average power output was 380 watts on big climbs, with none exceeding 410 W. From 1994 onwards, when EPO use became more widespread, about six riders per year averaged over 410 W. Levels then dropped at the end of the decade as EPO testing improved, then rose again after 2000. Similar advances have been seen in VO2 max measures. (The Science of Sport also has some good posts on point here and here).
The article asks:
Do these high levels reflect a leap in human achievement, or are they a signature of artificially enhanced physiology? . . .
On the basis of a person's physiological measurements alone, it is impossible to say otherwise. "Doping can never be inferred from performance only," says Schumacher.
During last year’s tour, I blogged about sports doping, the suspicions raised by Contador’s record-breaking climb on the Verbier, and about the differing takes of Michael Sandel and Richard Posner on the sports doping issue (which I just reposted yesterday). And I’m sticking by my heretical contention that the Tour is less interesting in the absence of doping – it’s precisely these types of superhuman efforts that we love to watch. As I said in that post, Vive Le Tour! Vive Le Dope!:
We loved Contador’s heroic feat on Verbier – it was exciting. Just like we loved Floyd Landis’s epic 2006 comeback; Tyler Hamilton’s superhuman 142 km solo breakaway, stage win, and fourth-place GC finish with a broken collar-bone; and Vinokourov’s spectacular mountain-top breakaway. Because, as Phil says in this video of the relevant Vino footage, “everyone loves a fighter.”
. . . Until we found out they were all doping, that is.
Maybe the Tour exists because – not in spite – of doping. And it’s a wonderful spectacle. Vive le dope! Vive le tour!
Photo: me (or, at least, my hand) showing off entry passes to the Nike box on the final 2008 stage on the Champs-Élysées (thanks Martha!)
Image Source (AG2R La Mondiale rider Lloyd Mondory of France gestures after he crashed near the finish line of the 1st stage of the Tour de France cycling race from Rotterdam to Brussels yesterday).