The science of doping

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for general interest purposes only. Pushys in no way condones any form of doping or any other illegal activity. 

Doping can generally be defined as the act of using banned performance-enhancing substances by an athlete. Athletes trying to skirt the rules to gain an advantage have been around as long as sport itself. However, in more recent years, their techniques have become far more refined. No longer are you able to race part of the Tour in the back of a car and get away with it, with modern doping techniques relying on the most recent advances in medical science.

Why do they feel the need to take on those risks? 

It’s easy to sit on the sideline and cast judgement upon professional cyclists for doping, and many would say that we, the spectators, should, but it is interesting food for thought to understand a few things. Professional cycling is a cut-throat sport where seconds matter, and to some, doping provides an easy fix to find those seconds. Studies into the effects of blood doping show barely significant effects (1), equating to a performance increase of about 1 percent. So if a weekend crit racer starts cryogenically storing blood and reinfusing before their Sunday club race, all they’ll get is a heart attack. However, if you’re a professional athlete competing over the course of two weeks, separated from your rivals by mere seconds, that 1% could be the difference between glory, or finishing 23rd, and to those who cheat, accepting the risks of doping is simply easier than putting in the effort required to be a professional, champion athlete.

In Lance’s tell-all interview with Oprah, after being asked if it was possible to win without doping, he replied, with the bold assertion, “The Tour de France? No. Impossible to win without doping.” While this opinion is highly debatable, it may help us to understand the culture of professional cycling and the permeation of doping in the cycling world.

“If he’s (Armstrong) saying things like he doesn’t think it’s possible to win the Tour clean, then he should be quiet, because it is possible.” – Tejay van Garderen

The science

There are a number of mechanisms by which an athlete can increase their athletic performance, including stimulants, steroids, and perhaps the most disturbing of all, abortion doping, the act of getting pregnant for an event for the physiological benefits it provides, then terminating the pregnancy.

The most common form, or at least the most commonly reported form of doping, is blood doping. Blood doping is increasing the number of red blood cells (erythrocytes, RBC’s) in your body to increase your oxygen carrying capacity and in turn your athletic performance. The increased blood volume also aids in lactic acid buffering, maintaining muscle pH within the normal range for a much longer period of time, increasing the doper’s time to exhaustion.

Increasing blood volume can be achieved in a number of ways, the most common two being the abuse of medications or autologous blood transfusions. Autologous blood transfusions are the hardest form to detect, as there’s no evidence of additional hormones of pharmaceutical agents in the athlete’s blood or urine. The process involves the removal of some of the athlete’s blood, and then re-infusion a short time before the event.


Haemoglobin – The major mechanism of oxygen transport throughout the body.

Blood doping is tested for using carbon dioxide rebreathing. Athletes are required to breathe a CO2/Oxygen mixture for 10 to 15 minutes prior to testing, and by comparing the concentration of carbon dioxide that is bound to haemoglobin before and after breathing the CO2 heavy gas, the mass of the athlete’s haemoglobin can be calculated. If the concentrations are abnormally high, the athlete is deemed to be blood doping. The problem with this test is that carbon dioxide binds to haemoglobin with an extremely high affinity, much greater than that of oxygen. This means that the amount of haemoglobin then available to transfer oxygen to the body’s tissues is diminished, potentially reducing the athlete’s ability to perform.

Blood doping, however, is not without its risks, and it’s these risks that are the biggest dangers of doping. The increased volume means that the blood is much thicker than normal, making it much more difficult for the body to circulate blood around the body. This leads to strokes, heart attacks and pulmonary embolisms. 18 cyclists have died as a direct result of blood doping in the past 15 years.

How many cyclists in the pro peloton are currently doping? While we do hope there are none, it’s impossible to know. Thankfully Tejay van Garderen doesn’t seem to think it’s as common as Lance implied; referring to Lance’s controversial opinion, van Garderen stated, “If he’s saying things like he doesn’t think it’s possible to win the Tour clean, then he should be quiet, because it is possible.”


Image – Lance Armstrong – By opababbo, available at https://flickr.com/photos/115827683@N07/14890352213 under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

1- Jones, M., & Pedoe, D. T. (1989). Blood doping–a literature review. British journal of sports medicine23(2), 84-88


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