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15 Biggest Doping Scandals In Cycling History

by: Esteban On  Friday, June 15, 2012

biggest cycling doping scandals

With this being the heart of the cycling season—we’re in between the Giro d’Italia and the Tour France—and with everyone’s favorite one-testicled bracelet salesman (Lance Armstrong) making headlines in sports pages again, I thought this would be the perfect time to do a list of cycling’s biggest doping scandals. But here’s the thing. It turns out that doing a list of the sport’s biggest doping scandals is like doing a list of Coldplay songs with terrible lyrics: there are so many, it’s almost impossible to choose.

Nevertheless, I managed to slog through the endless list of doping cases in cycling and come up with what I’m pretty sure are the most notable examples.

15. Arthur Linton (1886)

arthur linton with choppy warburton

British cyclist Arthur Linton has the honor of being considered the first person known to have used PEDs. Of course, back in 1886, they weren’t using HGH and blood transfusions to create a race of superhumans. Doping just meant snorting some coke and drinking a couple liters of coffee. How quaint.

Anyway, the 24-year-old Linton died a few weeks after finishing the Bordeaux-Paris race. Another racer named Rudiger Rabenstein said Linton “massively doped” before the race, drinking an “energy beverage” containing cocaine, caffein, and strychnine. (Why yes, strychnine is a pesticide.) The cause of death was cited as typhoid fever…and exhaustion, which means something wasn’t quite right there.

Incidentally, Linton’s coach was a guy named Choppy Warburton, who was widely suspected of drugging his riders to make them faster—two others also died. Thus, it’s Warburton who is credited with instigating the widespread use of PEDs in the sport of cycling.

14. The Pélissier Brothers (1924)

pelissier brothers cycling

In the middle of the 1924 Tour de France, Henri, Francis, and Charles Pélissier gave an interview to Le Petit Parisien in which they said they used strychnine, cocaine, chloroform, aspirin, and “horse ointment” (whatever that was) to get amped up for races. Needless to say, this causes quite a stir in the City of Lights. Later, Henri would claim that the brothers were just pulling the reporter’s chain, since he didn’t know much about cycling. But I think most people agreed this “joke” came from a very true place.

13. Fausto Coppi (1949)

fausto coppi

Pharmacological amphetamines were developed and used during WWII to keep sea- and airmen alert and awake. After the war, they became popular among endurance athletes—like cyclists. And in a TV interview in 1949, an Italian cyclist named Fausto Coppi said that he used amphetamines. In fact, he said one had to use them if one wanted to remain competitive in cycling.

At the time it probably just raised some eye brows. Now, we look back and see this as the start of something huge.

12. Knud Jensen (1960)

knud jensen

Denmark’s Knud Jensen ushered in the modern “doping era” when he collapsed during the 1960 Olympics, smashed his head, and later died. The autopsy revealed massive amounts of amphetamines and a drug called ronical in his system, and the chairman of the Dutch cycling federation came out and said “whole cartloads” of dope were being used in “royal quantities.” So at this point, the International Olympic Committee decided to start looking in this whole “doping” thing.

11. Tom Simpson (1967)

tom simpson

By the 1967 Tour de France, there were actually doping laws and regulations in place. (France passed a law in 1964.) Obviously that didn’t do much to stop doping, and Britain’s Tom Simpson died during the mountainous 13th stage of the Tour. The autopsy revealed that he had taken amphetamines and alcohol, which were often taken together to create a powerful diuretic potion. Unfortunately for Simpson, however, this mixture, combined with extreme heat, a tough mountain climb, and a previously diagnosed stomach condition, proved fatal.

10. Eddy Merckx (1969)

Eddy Merckx

By 1969, cycling officials knew doping was a big problem, what with people dying and all. So they had begun drug testing.

The first big case of a cyclist testing positive to PEDs came during the 1969 Giro d’Italia. Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, who was leading the tour through 16 stages, tested positive for a stimulant called reactivan. He denied the charges, obviously, and there was a huge controversy over the way the samples were handled. However, unlike Ryan Braun, Merckx didn’t get off on a technicality, and he was disqualified from the Giro.

9. Rudi Altig (1969)

Rudi Altig

Just 6 weeks after Merckx’s Giro d’Italia scandal in 1969, German cyclist Rudi Altig—a guy they called “the pedaling pharmacy”—tested positive three different times during the Tour de France and was disqualified. (I guess the French didn’t have a zero tolerance policy.)

This was really the straw that broke the camel’s back—the moment people realized there was a big problem in the sport of cycling. Thus, the powers that be decided to take serious action…in a series of incremental steps over the next 40 years.

8. Dietrich Thurau (1980)

Dietrich Thurau

From 1969 to 1979, the scientists creating doping agents managed to stay one step ahead of the scientists creating doping tests. Sure, some riders were caught during that time, but there weren’t any huge incidents. However, in 1980, the scientists creating the tests caught up—albeit briefly. Cyclist Dietrich Thurau tested positive for PEDs three times during the Tour de France, and that generated a lot of publicity. Doping was back on the map.

7. The Festina Affair (1998)


After another long period in which most cyclists were able to stay a step ahead of the testing capabilities, doping scandals made a big comeback in 1998. And now they were bigger than ever.

That year the entire Festina team from Spain was kicked out of the Tour de France when a team masseuse was arrested at the French border and found to have four hundred vials of the blood-boosting drug EPO (which increases the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles). Left no choice, all the cyclists admitted to doping so they could start serving their suspensions and resume their careers ASAP.

6. Marco Pantani (1999)

marco pantani

1998 Giro d’Italia champ Marco Pantini was kicked out of the 1999 race when he tested positive for PEDs. Needless to say, that was a big kick to the gut for cycling fans at the time. Three years later the investigation into the situation concluded with Pantini receiving an 8-month ban. Unfortunately, the ban was never completed, as Pantini died of a cocaine overdose the following year. (I guess he decided to go old-school in his doping techniques.)

5. Giro d'Italia (2001)

Fassa Bortolo

So, yeah, the late 90s and early 00s were a rough time for the Giro. This is the middle of three consecutive doping scandals involving the second most prestigious cycling event in the world.

In 2001 there all kinds of problems. First Pascal Herve tested positive for EPO and was suspended by his team. Then Mercatone Uno (great name) tested positive and withdrew. Following these incidents, police got a warrant and search the hotel rooms of every ride on all 20 teams, confiscating a bunch of medicines and medical equipment. At this point riders called a meeting amongst themselves to discuss the raids, and race officials cancelled the 18th stage altogether. Miraculously, the only prominent rider who could be definitively linked to the doping materials confiscated was Fassa Bortolo (pictured), who was in second place at the time.

4. Giro d'Italia: the Sequal (2002)

Roberto Sgambelluri

Well, it was more scandals for the poor Giro in 2002—three, to be precise.

First there was the arrest of Nicola Chesini after stage 5 as part of a probe into the sale of PEDs. Then there was the positive test and disqualification of Giro favorite and 2000 champion Stefano Garzelli. Third, and probably most significant in terms of the history of doping in cycling, Roberto Sgambelluri of Italy (pictured) and Faat Zakirov of Russia became the first cyclists caught using the new-wave blood-boosting drug NESP, the harder-to-detect heir to EPO.

Cue Lance Armstrong scandal…

3. Lance Armstrong (2005)

Lance Armstrong

Part of the reason the French press had it out for Lance Armstrong when he was winning those 7 consecutive Tour de France titles was that everyone knew there were drugs available that current tests couldn’t detect. (The other reason they had it out for him was that they didn’t like an American dominating the Tour. That was their thing.)

But the anti-doping agencies were smart. Since they knew riders were certainly using drugs they couldn’t yet detect, they would freeze samples to test at a later time. And in 2005, according to French sports daily L’Équipe six of Lance’s samples from 1999 tested positive for EPO. Later it was revealed that the samples weren’t handled properly, and the AFLD (the French Anti-Doping Agency) asked if Lance would like to re-test other frozen samples to confirm his innocence. But Lance declined, saying the results wouldn’t be valid since they couldn’t confirm the samples had been stored properly.

But here’s the deal, everybody: Lance probably did use PEDs. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great cyclist. They all use them, so it’s not like he had a leg up on competition.

Would it be nice if Lance were some god-like specimen able to beat mere mortals, au natural, even though they are using high-tech blood transfusions to boost their endurance? Sure. But he’s not, and he didn’t. Accept it.

2. Tour de France (2006)

floyd landis

The 2006 Tour de France was the ugliest ever. One day before the race even began, all the big names were kicked out for failing doping tests: Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Oscar Sevilla, Joseba Beloki, Francisco Mancebo—all of them.

This of course left the race wide open, and American Floyd Landis won. But yeah, he later tested positive, too, and had his victory taken away.

1. Alberto Contador (2010)

Alberto Contador

In 2010, Spain’s Alberto Contador tested positive for a small amount of the stimulant clembuterol. As a result, the 2010 Tour de France winner had his title stripped from him. Oh, and his 2011 Giro d’Italia title, too. But he got to keep his 2008 and 2009 titles.

In any case, with Contador’s doping scandal in 2010, none of cycling’s biggest stars from the last 10 years went without an official doping violation. Accept Lance Armstrong, of course…until this month, when the USADA officially charged him for positive PED tests stemming from samples taken in 2009 and 2010.