Would You Ban Lance Armstrong if He Was A Trainer?
Armstrong was banned for life recently from competitive cycling (and triathlons), even before his public admission of guilt, but the fact remains that he passed hundreds of drug tests in his lengthy career, hundreds of them. Possibly, he failed 1-2 such tests that he was able to cover up with his money, power, and influence – but that hasn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, yet. Any ‘proof’ of such violations would be in the form of yet more circumstantial evidence – mounds of which have led to his current suspension.
So, if he was a US thoroughbred trainer – you would have hundreds of horses that had run under his name and been drug tested in multiple jurisdictions, passing in every incidence, but he would currently be serving a lengthy suspension based primarily on the testimony of his fellow trainers, grooms, assistants, etc. It’s also important to note here, some of his more well-known accusers – men such as Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, are fellow drug users who FAILED the same types of drug tests that Armstrong passed, then lied under questioning about the results. Landis even wrote a book called ‘Positively False’, while Hamilton posited his failed test was due to the infamous ‘vanishing twin’ theory: where unbeknownst to him he was conceived as a twin, but his sibling perished quite early, leaving some different blood behind.
And these guys are your expert witnesses. They’re no choirboys.
Of course there are many others willing to testify to Armstrong’s abuses, and they cannot all be lying, and Armstrong was a famous jerk: a bully bent on vengeance to all those who opposed him. Similarly, Rick Dutrow is quite mouthy with the press, and fellow trainers surely can’t be happy when he says things like this about fellow Belmont competitor Casino Drive:
“I saw him coming off the track when somebody pointed him out to me. There’s no way in the world he can beat Big Brown. He’s just another horse in the race. Big Brown will have to school him just like he’s done to every other horse.”
Imagine banning Rick Dutrow for life based on the eyewitness testimony of other trainers themselves possessing a laundry list of violations (yet always steadfastly maintaining their innocence) and a handful of ex-employees who had been dismissed over the years – yet Dutrow never failed such a test. (In real life he did, of course, dozens upon dozens of them.)
Just what is the purpose of drug tests in cycling, then?
I’ve heard cyclists, and probably Lance himself, refer to these drug screenings as pesudo IQ tests: meaning you have to be a dummy to get caught. Many are not aware that cycling drug tests are not necessarily geared (pun intended) to expose a foreign substance, but to determine if blood values are within pre-defined naturally-occurring ranges. Let’s examine one such test: the T:E Ratio – or the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in the blood. The approved range used to be 6:1, but was lowered to 4:1 several years ago. Allegedly, 3 times in the 1990s Armstrong tested up to 9:1, but when the ‘B’ sample was tested (a more extensive screening involving carbon isotopes), the result was within the approved range.
Again, imagine a trainer testing above the level of TCO2 allowed on 3 instances out of hundreds of runners – those findings being dis-proven by B sample testing, but then punishing him anyway based on the eyewitness accounts of rival trainers who had failed the same tests but ‘saw’ him with the box of baking soda and the gastric tube in hand. That is what happened to Armstrong.
Today the question is moot because he admitted to cheating for the past 2 decades, but let me take this chance to enlighten a few on the scientific advances Armstrong brought to cycling. First off, conditioning for cycling throughout Europe was typically ‘racing oneself into shape’. Legions of top level cyclists would sit around the months before the big races literally eating cheese and drinking wine. Similarly, in the US golfers used to be quite a lethargic beer-swilling bunch until Tiger Woods came along and changed the way many prepared for such events.
Armstrong, during his rise to prominence, spent hundreds of more miles on his bike than did his competition, quite often in the hills of Spain many months before the Tour de France. Likewise, Rick Dutrow isn’t afraid to buck (pun again intended) tradition by running his horses back on short rest to great success:
Perhaps my favorite nugget gleaned from reading several books on cycling science was the concept that Lance rode with a much different RPM value than had previously been utilized in the European cycling classics. Typically men would choose a bicycle gear that would allow them to turn their legs at a pace of 90 revolutions per minute. Most famously, German star Jan Ullrich would turn his pedals at a snail-like 70rpm, putting massive stresses on the muscles of his legs – and he won the Tour in 1997 with such a method. Lance also pedaled similarly before his bout with testicular cancer, but when he came back he, along with physiologist Chris Carmichael, eschewed conventional ‘wisdom’ and found that Lance generated more sustainable power at 110bpm – while simultaneously lessening the stress on his legs and passing it onto his titanic cardiovascular system. Now, many follow that lead – but he was the first.
Back to Dutrow, who I’ve noted in the past is still a huge proponent of the pre-race blowout made famous by old school conditioners like Carl Nafzger:
Please don’t take this post as an homage to either Armstrong or Dutrow; these two pathological cheaters deserve their punishments. But don’t overlook how Armstrong was ‘convicted’, nor the fact that both men also used physiological edges, frowned upon by many at the top of their respective sports, to achieve greatness – as sullied as these achievements now appear. They won not only because they cheated better than other cheaters, but also because they were practicing their craft differently than the others who followed carbon-copy methods.
Lastly, I owe Armstrong, actually his coach Chris Carmichael, a debt of gratitude for showing me how physiological testing and analysis in training can help one become a better competitor – but of course I adapt that to horses.
Before entering a young horse in a big race, like these Derby preps, I like to see them 2 min lick for one mile with their heart rates staying below 85% of maximum – that tells me they possess the aerobic stamina to run 9F at race pace. Likewise, I’d like to see the same youngster breeze 5F in 1:00 or better displaying a maximum value over 220bpm and showing half that number, 110bpm, as a heart rate recovery number within 2min after passing under the wire, during the gallop out. To enter a 3yo in a big race without those metabolic numbers is sure to be a bad idea – because that’s what the winners of those races possess under the hood.
Here is a brief blog entry I authored regarding this topic on my 40th birthday a while back: