A short story.I think it would have be the spring of 1997, I was riding up the Snake Pass early one Saturday morning with Glossop Velo. I hadn't intended on riding with them but as I turned onto the A57 they were passing so I joined their group. In the pack was a contemporary to me, young and keen, roughly 16 or so but I didn't know him from my school. He knew some basic sports science and had a "secrete weapon" to help him get up and over the Snake faster than anyone else. He said he had it in his bottle, a special bottle he'd use when the gradient got steeper and he wanted to go deeper and faster. He wouldn't say what his juice was just that he had read something and worked it out himself.
As a pack we climbed the lower steady gradients at a good pace then ramped up the speed around a third of the way up and a few people blew out the back. It's a road I've ridden a million times and I know the bends well. Ever so often I used to ride with "Mad Paul" and we'd know where to attack each other and where to play. Getting towards the top section where the road bends left and the verge ramps up, the kid riding to my right and just over my shoulder deployed his secrete weapon and took a massive swig from his bottle. Within seconds, there was an eruption of pure power; as his breakfast accelerated, shot out of his nose and mouth and over his handlebars.
His basic logic and small grasp of sports science had told him that muscles create lactate when in oxygen debt - such as trying to sprint up the Snake and beat us to the summit. To buffer the lactate, you need to mop up the hydrogen ions and what better way to do that than to use a buffer - a basic or alkali solution. He had read and probably seen in the school science lab how a alkali such as sodium bicarbonate (or baking soda) neutralises an acid. In theory, if he could neutralise his lactate he'd be able to go harder! Except he had forgotten the acidic content of his stomach. This turned him into a bottle rocket or Ks2 volcano demonstration........just on two wheels and on the Snake Pass. After reassuring him he wouldn't die, he did a free wheel of shame back to Glossop looking pale green while the rest of use rode on towards the reservoirs.
Why this story?For two reasons. The first is because everyone likes to think they have a special way of going faster, harder or longer. Some people will train harder or smarter. Some people will buy more expensive or lightweight kit, or think that swapping out all the titanium bolts for a slightly higher grade titanium might dramatically cut their 20 mile PB by 10%. Some people will convince themselves that they have to have the Di2 version because the mechanical groupset will cost them 0.38 seconds more per shift. There are some people who if offered a vitamin pill that will make them do better, they will swallow it. There are also people who think they need those vitamin pills to stay competitive and will actively seek them.
The second reason is more to do with the mindset of me and the other rider that Saturday morning in the late 1990's. The other rider was naive to the science and made a misguided mistake. At that time, I like many others was very naive to the doping culture in professional cycling. We enjoyed the epic Alpine battles, the super human efforts in TT's, the hardmen of the classics and full on action racing of the professionals. EPO was being discussed in magazines and Cycling Weekly, heamatocrit levels were being published with slapped wrists if it was over 50% but doping was a shady dark remark with plenty of unsubstantiated rumours. 1998 was the Festina affair, Marco winning the Tour and rumours of blood levels over 50%. From 1999 onward are the blank pages of the Tour where a Texan used to have credit, raids on riders and revelations of riders links to dodgy doctors. At the time, we didn't want to believe that certain heroes were doping but now we know differently. Talking to some fellow cyclists in recent years who were young and impressionable and racing clean in those days, I have heard about promising talents being denied the opportunities to move up not because they weren't good enough, but more because they wouldn't take what the coach was suggesting.
Modern doping and my stance.Which brings me on to modern doping and the fine line between supplements and doping, and what I do.
First off, I don't and have never taken a performance enhancing drug (PED). I have never been directly offered a performance enhancing drug or ever been given the name of "some one I should speak to." When I was a student (the last time I was in a proper gym around 12 year ago!) where steroid abuse is more likely to be apparent, I never had any interest in going down that route or offered although I know of other who did use. When I used to row at Chester College, I was never aware of a amateur drug culture. I have never been tested for a PED or had any reason to be tested. In this challenge, I won't be test or have any requirement to be tested. As part of life, being a student and in kayaking culture, recreational drugs have figured, but that's a different story.
I still don't and I won't take a PED and have no interest in acquiring a PED. The reason for this is partially ethical (I don't want to dope, I want this to be my achievement) and partially practical (I don't know what I'll be buying).
Ethics.Ethically I have no motivation to dope. This is a challenge and I have people supporting me and charitable money being raised based on my performance. The only person I will cheat, will be myself. The London-Edinburgh record is 17 hours which although I'd love to challenge, realistically I won't be threatening it so I won't be cheating the record holder. I do want to be able to say I did this by my own training, perseverance and determination. I want to be able to apply the training, science, knowledge and insights I've gained into doing this. Biochemically, doping would be taking this a step further and an extension of sports refinement, yet to me it is still cheating.
Practical realityPractically, PED's are banned and/or restricted products. They are frequently pharmaceutical products that are being used off script, such as EPO. As products such as EPO have become the PED of choice for the affluent middle aged Cat 4 and above racer, there are a host of generic and biosimilar products that you can buy from China if you know which website to add your credit card details to. All the products look the part etc, although these can't be assured to come from a reputable source. I don't want to be putting anything into my body which can potentially damage it and cause severe side affects. To me, this route is fraught with pseudo-science, bro-science marketing and counterfeit products from dodgy websites - no matter how many reviews the products claim to have. Finally, a practical implications of doping are financial. PED's don't come for free and I don't have the disposable income to play around in this area.
Food, supplement or PED?The final thought is the differences in a food, supplement and PED. Beetroot has been shown to have a beneficial effect on performance. To go down a vegan route, I'm sure they would be saying that I should have a whole beetroot stashed in my back pocket when riding and take a bite ever so often. Practically, this isn't going to work, but I could use a processed beetroot extract - a supplement in a bottle I could swig ever so often. This is all well and good and a lot of recent research is showing how good this is. But beetroot has this habit of turning my poop red which gives me a fright and makes me think I have internal bleeding. So what if I isolate the beetroot compound that is important, see how it changes my own human response, and then develop a similar compound that has the same mode of action? I could synthesis that compound, and instead of having to drink beetroot juice every day, I could have like a Nicorete patch which will release it throughout my ride, straight into my blood stream!
This is an extremely simplified thought process, but in some cases, the differentiation between a PED, a supplement and a therapeutic can over lap. I don't intend on going into the grey areas and have no interest in trying to exploit them but it makes the point that the slope into doping isn't always clean cut and reports of doping in the press often have to have a lot more qualifications to support the accusation.
Doping has been an arms race between developers and testers. EPO was the drug of choice because it couldn't be detected. Once it could be detected it became a regime of micro-dosing to keep below the threshold. Now, contamination can lead to positive results as testing methods can find the most minute traces. As the drug chemistry changes with human interactions, detection methods are improving, but this is largely a world away from what I do in my sporting ambitions - but the science is fascinating.
The kid on the Snake.The story I started with was an event around 19 years ago and I still tell it ever so often when the context comes up. What happened to that kid, I have no idea. He'll be in his mid-30's too and I'm sure he didn't go into a glittering pro-cyclist career. But he showed the mentality of someone willing to experiment to try and get a competitive edge. In this case it was the wrong logic and the embarrassment was enough to make him turn round and go back down the hill, Kudos for trying, but yeah, bad choice. Only through experimenting and pushing the boundaries do we learn new methods and techniques, but this should be done in a controlled and logical manner.
Had that same kid picked up advice from an older rider who did dope, I wonder what would have happened. Would that impressionable kid gone on to dope and become a semi-pro or pro? Instead of a vomit rocket on the Snake, would it have been more like Tommy Simpson on Mont Vontoux if he'd been introduced to PED's? If he lacked that basic understanding of sports science, would his naivety blindly led him into PEDs because a coach said it would make him recover quicker? Would his lack of understanding made him make mistakes in doses?