Tour de Dope

A Miami rider broke from the pack and admitted to drug use in cycling

In 1967 popular British cyclist Tom Simpson dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of the Tour de France. An autopsy of the 29-year-old found traces of amphetamine and methyl amphetamine in his bloodstream, and cited a mix of drugs and exhaustion as the cause of death. Steroids and amphetamines were subsequently banned from many competitions. The first sports to embrace the ban were cycling and soccer, but the 1968 Olympics made testing a near-universal practice.

Athletes were always one step ahead of the enforcement, however. In the Seventies and Eighties, cyclists began experimenting with oxygenated blood transfusions — removing a pint from their bodies, separating the red blood cells from the white, and adding back the enhanced blood before a race. Soon this, too, was outlawed, though it's nearly impossible to detect.

Designer steroids evolved faster than the tests designed to detect them. Synthetic human growth hormone (HGH) is almost identical in molecular structure to hormones produced by the body, and until recently there was no reliable way to confirm its presence in the body. What's more, often the physical changes produced by these drugs remained after the evidence was out of a rider's system.

Jacqueline Carini
Jacqueline Carini

The drug to end all drugs, for cyclists at least, arrived in the mid-Eighties. EPO was a synthetic hormone intended to regenerate red blood cells lost to kidney failure or chemotherapy. (Lance Armstrong took it as a cancer patient.) The drug enhances the body's ability to carry oxygen. DeCanio likes to point out, with a wry smile, that Amgen, the pharmaceutical company that makes a recombinant form of EPO, also sponsors the Tour of California, the biggest pro race in the United States.

DeCanio's best memories of his two years' racing in Italy are nearly all of time spent on the road, training. He and his teammates would bike past vineyards and wineries to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Ponto Vecchio in Florence. They would stop to eat at cafés and whistle at pretty girls. The American's arrival even made news — he was interviewed by a local television station.

"We all loved bike-riding," he recalls. "We all loved competing. Unfortunately there was all this other stuff going on."

According to DeCanio, his coach would often hold meetings to berate the team for poor performance. "He was basically trying to force us to take drugs," DeCanio says. "He'd say, 'The problem with this team is you're not taking enough medicine!' Every time I rode poorly, he'd ask me to take EPO." (The team no longer exists, and the coach could not be reached for comment.)

For prescriptions, he says, the team had an arrangement with a "friendly pharmacy" in a nearby town. It also had a deal with a local blood lab, which would check riders' red blood cell counts before races. When DeCanio's iron levels dropped after a particularly hard month of riding, he contends the pressure was especially intense.

Indeed he says riders who didn't take drugs were given the worst equipment and inferior roles on the team. DeCanio claims he took shots of vitamins but adamantly refused HGH and EPO despite peer pressure. He would see HGH in the refrigerator, and riders openly carried syringes with cortisone in fanny packs to shoot up before a race.

Many of the meds were administered by less-than-professional people, like the owner's son-in-law. DeCanio says a Russian teammate received a glucose injection that contained a tiny air bubble. It wasn't enough to kill him, but sufficient to cause excruciating pain. "They had no respect for you as a person or for your health," DeCanio says.

DeCanio's friend from the 1996 U.S. team, Brent Aucutt, felt similarly pressured. In 1997 Aucutt rode for Pontivy, a sort of minor-league team for Festina, a name that would become synonymous with drug scandal at the following year's Tour de France. Aucutt says the drug use wasn't as prevalent or as open in France as DeCanio describes it in Italy but that everyone knew it was happening. Speaking on the phone from his hometown of Clovis, New Mexico, Aucutt is matter-of-fact: "I quit in 1998, after I lost a contract to ride the next year for Festina. At the world championships, I'd told reporters that I would never do drugs to race my bike. When I couldn't get signed again, a French friend said it was probably because I'd said that."

When a young French rider on Aucutt's circuit died of a cortisone overdose, he decided he was done with the sport. "That's when I hung up my bike," he says. "I said, 'I'll just quit and do something else. Riding my bike isn't worth dying for.'"

Rene Saenz, another racer from the 1996 U.S. team, went to ride for an Italian team in the town of Sansepolcro in northern Tuscany. He says his team's house was also full of syringes. "There were needles and IVs, but they said they were for vitamins — glucose drips and amino acids, stuff like that. I didn't know much Italian, though, so it could have been anything." He adds that he was competing at a different level than DeCanio. "He was on a really good team," he says. "I was just on a side, shady team. I remember getting second place in races like fifteen times though, and my coach saying that the winner was on drugs. They don't do the Tour de France on just Gatorade."

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