Results from new research suggest that EPO, the banned substance that disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted to using in his seven Tour de France wins, doesn’t actually work. Could his prolonged doping programme, which led to the demise of his career and public image when exposed, all have been for nothing?
The new study conducted by Adam Cohen and published in the Lancet Haematology journal, is the first of its kind. A group of 48 cyclists took on the famous Mont-Ventoux climb (21.5 km) followed by a 110-km ride. Half of the cyclists had been given weekly injections of EPO for eight weeks prior to the climb, while the other half took a dummy.
After the ride, the results from the two groups showed no difference in performance.
The scientists behind the experiment say that “athletes are ‘naive’ about the benefits of illicit substances such as EPO, but that myths about their effectiveness go unchallenged in the murky world of doping.”
Cohen suggested that for Armstrong, “the simple act of illegally taking drugs like EPO may have given cheats like [him] an advantage as a psychological placebo.” He added, “Quite possibly all the stuff he was taking was useless.”
The studied cyclists were the most experienced amateurs they could find, as a similar test could not be conducted on professional athletes because of anti-doping rules.
Some tests were also performed in a laboratory setting. One was a high-intensity ride involving a ramp test.
Jules Heuberger, who co-led the study at the Centre for Human Drug Research in the Netherlands, says that while they “found that… (EPO) increased performance in a laboratory setting on high intensity tests, the differences largely disappeared in endurance tests, and were undetectable in a real-world cycling race.”
Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles in 2012, and issued a lifetime ban from all Olympic-sanctioned sports. On top of using EPO, he also admitted to using steroids, Human Growth Hormone and blood transfusions to enhance his performance.
In 2015 the UCI decalred that doping in amateur cycling was becoming “endemic”, with even amateur athletes using EPO to raise their game.