Nearly a year ago, Gicquel, an 80-year-old grandmother, therapist and avid cyclist from California, set a world record for her age group at the 2019 USA Cycling Masters Track National Championships. She had been a regular on the medal podium at masters cycling events for years and was thrilled with her latest achievement.
But because a record was involved, Gicquel was subject to drug testing. She failed the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s urine test, which set off a year-long legal battle and raised questions about whether prescription medication that Gicquel had used for years enhanced her performance on the track.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride emotionally,” she told The Washington Post in an email, “fraught with anxiety, some depression, and disbelief that they wanted to believe I was doping, rather than just trying to live.”
Gicquel took up cycling at 57 and wasn’t content pedaling around the neighborhood. Twice she traversed the country, trying to ride in every velodrome in the United States. She has raced in about a dozen now and is at home navigating the steep, sharp-angled turns around the track.
“Racing motivates me to work hard,” she said. “It’s been great fun to race, and so I’ve worked hard almost daily to be able to do it well.”
A doctor first prescribed her a drug called Estratest in 2005 to treat bronchitis and issues related to menopause. She had also developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Since then, she has taken a half-tablet every other day and, she said, thought little about the effects it could have on her cycling. She faced drug testing following other age-group records but never tested positive until Aug. 29, 2019, when at 79 she broke her own mark in the 500-meter time trials. Estratest contains an anabolic steroid called methyltestosterone that has long been on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances.
“I did break a rule by taking a banned substance,” she concedes. “But I did not dope.”
Because the medicine was doctor-approved, Gicquel tried to obtain a retroactive therapeutic use exemption. The request was denied by USADA because she “did not establish a medical condition that required the use of methyltestosterone,” according to an arbitrator’s decision on her case. Gicquel said the original prescribing doctor was no longer practicing in California, and the medical clinic didn’t have her years-old medical records on file. According to the arbitrator’s decision, USADA “concluded that methyltestosterone ‘on a balance of probabilities is likely to produce performance enhancement beyond what would be considered a return to a normal state of health.’ ”
Gicquel said she initially learned about five years ago that Estratest contained a banned substance but felt it probably wouldn’t disqualify her because of her low dosage and advanced age. She wrote in her appeal that “it was easy to justify that since the list was written with young elite female athletes in mind, it really wasn’t meant for older women like myself, so I continued to take it as prescribed, fearful that if I didn’t, [my condition] might well get worse and I might lose my health and even my life earlier than necessary.”
After years of smoking and several bouts with bronchitis, she felt the drug was providing important health benefits, not athletic ones. Gicquel failed to include it on her list of medications she submitted before competing last August.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter to USADA that I took a small amount of it for valid health reasons,” she said. “It mattered only that I had taken it knowing that it was on the banned substance list.”
USADA doesn’t typically test veteran athletes at masters events, but a negative doping test is required to certify any cycling records. The anti-doping agency encountered a similar case last year when it sanctioned a 90-year-old cyclist named Carl Grove. Doping officials determined Grove’s positive drug test wasn’t intentional and was “more likely than not caused by contaminated meat.” Grove was issued a warning and stripped of his recent world record.
In Gicquel’s case, the arbitrator’s decision cast some doubt that the medication substantially affected her performance, noting she had previously passed anti-doping tests while taking Estratest, which lends “some credence to the idea that it was in such small amounts that it did not provide a competitive advantage.”
“Because there are so few athletes actively competing at her age, the evidence presented to demonstrate that Estratest gave her a competitive advantage is thin and derives from the assumption that methyltestosterone helps the performance of all athletes, regardless of their age,” the arbitrator wrote.
But in upholding USADA’s determination, the arbitrator also said Gicquel failed a transparency test by failing to disclose the drug and seemed “to make a unilateral decision that the anti-doping rules ceased to apply after the athlete achieved a certain age.”
“No one can know if any competitor would have beaten her if she had ceased taking Estratest after she learned that it contained methyltestosterone or whether she might have won competitions and even broken world records without taking Estratest,” the arbitrator said.
Gicquel said she spent thousands of dollars fighting the ruling and disputing terms of the sanction. USADA officials didn’t have much leeway. The International Cycling Union, the world’s governing body for the sport, has a doping code that clearly states, “It is each Rider’s personal duty to ensure that no Prohibited Substance enters his or her body.”
Gicquel was disappointed with the arbitrator’s opinion. “The fight in me was gone,” she said. “I just wanted this to end.” Gicquel accepted a one-year suspension, and the arbitrator ruled her race results since August 2015, when she first learned Estratest contained a banned substance, would be wiped from the books, including her national and world age-group records.
Her period of ineligibility began last August, which means she’ll soon be eligible to compete again, if she chooses, moving into to the 80-85 age group. Gicquel still uses an inhaler daily, and she said her doctor has told her that exercise staves off a decline in her lung function. The way she sees it, she needs cycling, and she needs her medication. Gicquel could have both — and take aim at future world records — but she probably would need a therapeutic use exemption from USADA before returning to competition.
“I truly believe USADA rules should be altered and that riders should be able to take prescribed medications,” she said. “No wonder there are so few older women riders competing in Track. Masters age group racing should be fun. Allowing reasonable prescriptions like mine, to combat [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] or whatever other ailments older folk inevitably come by, would seem to me a good and healthy change in USADA.”