I have written here before how doping has possibly been prevalent in professional cycling probably as long as there has been professional cycle racing.
Possibly as far back as the late 1800s soon after the invention of the bicycle as we know it today.
The picture on the left is from a French magazine article from the 1930s.
I have also mentioned before that when I started racing in the early 1950s it was an open secret that professional cyclists in races like the Tour de France took amphetamines. This is a stimulant that wards off fatigue and keeps you awake and alert.
Amphetamine was discovered by a Romanian chemist named Lazar Edeleano at the University of Berlin in 1887, but was not used clinically until Gordon A. Alles re-synthesized the drug in the 1920s for use in medical settings to treat asthma, hay fever, and colds.
In 1932, Smith-Kline, marketed the first amphetamine product in the US; an amphetamine-based inhaler to treat nasal congestion.
During the remaining 1930s, amphetamines were promoted by U.S. pharmaceutical companies as treatments for a range of ailments, such as alcohol hangover, narcolepsy, depression, weight reduction, hyperactivity in children, and vomiting associated with pregnancy.
Methamphetamine (MA), a variant of amphetamine, was first synthesized in Japan in 1893 by Nagayoshi Nagai from the precursor chemical ephedrine. MA was not widely used until World War II (1940s), at which time German, English, American, and Japanese governments began giving their military personnel the drug to enhance endurance and alertness and ward off fatigue.
Even today, amphetamines are sometimes used by the U.S. military. In 2002, U.S. pilots in Afghanistan killed and wounded Canadian soldiers in “friendly fire.” The defending lawyers argued that the pilots’ use of amphetamines, which is sanctioned by the Air Force, may have affected the pilots’ judgment.
Amphetamine was available in France under the trade name Maxiton. It was still available there over the counter at any pharmacy well into the 1950s; so it was hardly a banned substance. There was no rule banning its use by athletes, certainly not in professional cycling anyway.
It was counter-productive for a Tour de France rider to take too much, as one of its side affects is that it delays recovery, and of course keeps you awake. Something you definitely don’t want in a major stage race where you have to get up and race every day.
So was this cheating? I didn’t see it that way. It was not prohibited by the UCI or any other body; it was looked on at the time as something necessary to compete in an event like the Tour de France. It probably did a better job than coffee, is the way I still look at it.
As far as I remember the main brands used were Benzadrine (US. and UK.) or Maxiton (France.) which were amphetamines, not the more potent and highly addictive Methamphetamines.
Everything changed with the death of Tom Simpson in 1967. Simpson died of heat exhaustion on Mont Vontoux during the Tour de France; his autopsy showed that he had taken amphetamines mixed with alcohol. Whether the amphetamines contributed to his death is open for debate; after all athletes can die of heat exhaustion with or without amphetamines.
However, alcohol mixed with a stimulant is not a good cocktail; especially on an extremely hot day that this was. The amphetamine would mask the effect of the alcohol and alcohol would cause dehydration. Add to that a Tour regulation at that time restricting the riders to two liters of water each. (Four bidons.) The effects of dehydration not being fully understood back then.
In the end lack of water killed Tom Simpson, amphetamines and alcohol mixed contributed. However, the point was by 1967 amphetamines were now a controlled substance and therefore it was used illegally. The world’s press and media had a field day.
The UCI at some point banned the use of any form of stimulant and instituted drug testing. From this point on it has now gone from the use of amphetamines, a simple stimulant, to the use of Blood Doping, EPO, Testosterone along with Steroids and Clenbuterol that can actually alter an athlete’s lean muscle mass.
Today it definitely is cheating, because the cyclist or the team who has the most money can buy the best doctors and scientists to produce the best possible drugs that not only give that rider or team a definite advantage over other less financed riders, they are always one step ahead of the drug testers.
Those who claim that through the 1990s for example, that everyone was doping therefore the playing field level should consider this: Back in the 1950s and before that when everyone took the same amphetamine tablets, the playing field was level, but in more recent times who knows what “Super Dope” one rider or team might have, when quite often it can’t even be detected.
Because winning at this level is such a huge financial enterprise; money available leads to bribery and corruption so that which does get detected is covered up. The sport will never rid itself of this problem until the top officials at the UCI are held accountable.
The UCI created this problem by allowing amphetamine use to continue into the 1960s, long after governments had placed controls on the drug’s use. Then they followed up by doing a half assed job of controlling doping through the 1970s until the present day. They have let loose a monster that will be difficult to get back in the cage.