EPO: A Doping Drug Makes an Unwanted Cycling Comeback

By Joseph Calamia | May 26, 2010 4:35 pm

cyclingAfter years of denial, Floyd Landis–the cyclist who was stripped of his winning title to the 2006 Tour de France after failing a drug test–admitted last week that he did take performance enhancing drugs. And his confession is causing a stir, partly because he also implicated former teammate Lance Armstrong, seven-time-winner of the Tour de France (Armstrong denies the accusation), and partly because of the particular drugs he fessed up to taking:

Mr. Landis said in [several emails to cycling officials] that during his career, he and other American riders learned how to conduct blood transfusions, take the synthetic blood booster Erythropoietin, or EPO, and use steroids. All these practices are banned in cycling. Mr. Landis said he started using testosterone patches, then progressed to blood transfusions, EPO, and a liquid steroid taken orally. [Wall Street Journal]

EPO shook the cycling community in the 1990s, when police raids during the 1998 Tour de France (dubbed the “Tour de Dopage“) found that several riders were using EPO. It looks like the drug, believed to be thwarted by drug tests, has returned.

Our kidneys produce most of our natural erythropoietin, a hormone that leads to the creation of red blood cells. Since red blood cells carry oxygen, more cells means more oxygen in the blood. More oxygen means longer, harder workouts.

Anemics, who suffer from fatigue, naturally have low levels of the hormone. Dopers, who take a synthetic version, have high levels, which can give them endurance but also lead to dangerous side effects such as blood-thickening (and thus strokes).

Regulatory agencies like the International Cycling Union and the World Anti-Doping Agency have developed tests to combat the use of such drugs in competitive sports. For example, the biological passport program, unveiled in 2007, uses repeated sampling to make an electronic record of the cyclist’s natural levels of various hormones, which become benchmarks to test against before a particular race. And since a urine test introduced in 2000 could determine EPO levels, apparent use of the drug declined over the past decade.

But Landis’s confession forces regulatory agencies to face a loophole that helped riders pass urine tests. It’s called microdosing:

“In 2003, the athletes started to use a new procedure together with blood doping,” said Francesca Rossi, the director of antidoping at the International Cycling Union, the sport’s governing body. “I know that this microdosing strategy can be difficult to detect.” Working with doctors, cyclists discovered that carefully controlled, small doses of EPO eluded the urine test while still raising their red cell count. Microdoses of EPO let athletes put in superhuman hours of training without suffering the natural consequence of fatigue. [New York Times]

The debate over how much EPO doping is going on in competitive cycling will certainly continue in the messy aftermath of Landis’s claims. In one allegation, Landis claimed that Armstrong was caught with EPO in 2001 Tour de Suisse, but that officials had covered it up.

Landis suffered another blow to his credibility. The International Cycling Union said no riders tested positive for EPO at the 2001 Tour de Suisse, disputing comments made by the disgraced cyclist. [Boston Globe]

Related Content:
80beats: Can “Biological Passports” Save Sports From Doping?
80beats: First Hard Evidence: Human Growth Hormone Gives Sprinters a Winning Edge
80beats: Geneticists Are On the Lookout for the First Gene-Doping Athletes
80beats: Warning All Competitive Male Cyclists: Less than 5% of Your Sperm May Be Normal

Image: flickr / whileseated

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Cory

    Just a bitter failure trying to tear down his betters. Nothing new or interesting with the story, though it is entertaining to watch the regulatory agencies fight their losing battle against doping.

  • http://www.mvpchristian.com christian shoes sale

    Hands down, Apple’s app store wins by a mile. It’s a huge selection of all sorts of apps vs a rather sad selection of a handful for Zune. Microsoft has plans, especially in the realm of games, but I’m not sure I’d want to bet on the future if this aspect is important to you. The iPod is a much better choice in that case.

  • http://www.mvpchristian.com christian shoes sale

    Between me and my husband we’ve owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I’ve settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are.

  • http://commission-siphon.info commission siphon

    Your site has produced some interesting responses.

  • Death Merchant

    A bitter failure?! Looks like every member of US Postal is a bitter failure, since they pretty much all have implicated Pharmstrong being a serial doper cheat and a fraud. Lance Pharmstrong will soon be exposed and sanctioned by USADA, have all his Tour de France titles taken away and receive a lifetime ban. It has taken way too long, but better late than never. The lying scumbag has destroyed the lives of many good and honest people, and unfortunately that cannot be undone. If it was up to me, Pharmstrong would be spending a long time in prison.

  • Tony

    And this article has risen from the dead! The comment Cory made was from over 2 years ago.

    This whole doping mess is a sad, sad, thing.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

80beats

80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »