Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps not surprising that cyclists have managed to get steadily faster not only through superior training techniques but also through improved pharmaceuticals. For example, erythropoietin, or EPO, one of the substances Armstrong said he used during his run of Tour wins, increases the concentration of red blood cells. That enables cyclists to transport more oxygen to their muscles during training, which improves their VO2 max prior to race day. During the race, it makes them more efficient at using oxygen and speeds recovery.
Doping is so effective in cycling because the sport is almost entirely a test of endurance. A basketball player can increase his endurance and strength through cheating, but it’s difficult to improve shooting technique with drugs. The same goes for such other high-technique sports as tennis and soccer.
In an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong explains why is now admitting to doping after 13 years of vehemently denying he ever used performance-enhancing drugs.
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Drugs have been part of cycling since the beginning. Long before EPO came on the scene, riders used alcohol, cocaine, strychnine and amphetamines. Cycling legend Jacques Anquetil has been widely quoted as saying, “I dope myself. Everyone dopes himself. Those who claim they don’t are liars. For 50 years bike racers have been taking stimulants.”
Given the extensive coverage of Armstrong and his disgraced colleagues, you might think that doping is far worse in cycling than in other sports. In fact, many sports have as bad a doping problem as cycling.
Cyclists failed 1.19 percent of the doping tests administered by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2010, which places cycling near the middle of the fail rate. Athletes involved in weightlifting (2.42 percent), boxing (1.94 percent) and archery (1.47 percent) failed at significantly higher rates than cyclists. (They use different drugs. Archers, for example, use drugs to calm their nerves and steady their hands.) Many inside the testing community believe other professional sports would have higher failure rates if their athletes were subjected to the rigorous testing regimes that have been imposed on cyclists.
None of this excuses Armstrong, of course. But his story is just one example of how humans respond to the incredible physical demands of sport, combined with money and public scrutiny.