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Dope: A Historical Perspective

I started racing in England in 1952 at the age of 16. I rode, trained, and hung out with more senior members of my cycling club, riders in their 20s and 30s and older. Every year we followed the Tour de France; it was an “open secret” that riders in the Tour took dope.

The drug used was Benzedrine, a brand name for a mixture of amphetamines that had been used by the military since the early 1900s. It was used extensively during WWII so in the 1950s everyone was familiar with the drug, and there were probably still ample supplies.

I never used Benzedrine and never saw it used by amateur cyclists, which is not to say it wasn’t. However, it was generally accepted that the pros used it, especially in the Tour and other big stage races.

My feelings at the time were neutral, if everyone around me accepted it why should I think otherwise? We didn’t look on it as cheating, the entire Tour de France field was on dope, it only becomes cheating if a substance is banned and only a few do it.

The subject was openly talked about amongst cyclists, but never written about or criticized in the cycling press. The general media could care less, and it seemed the UCI and other cycling governing bodies turned a blind eye.

All this changed on July 13, 1967 when British cyclist Tom Simpson (Top left.) died on the slopes Mt. Ventoux in Southern France. This was a mountain stage of that year’s Tour, and a brutally hot day. Tom Simpson died of heat exhaustion but would not have done so if amphetamines had not caused him to push his body beyond the limits of human endurance.

The general media Worldwide had a field day, and now performance enhancing drug use by professional cyclists could no longer be ignored. The open secret was out. Incidentally, Tom Simpson was a year younger than I was, so he would have grown up in that same era of tolerance to dope use by the pros.

My guess is that doping by professional cyclists can be traced back to the beginning of pro racing in the early 1900s; amphetamines became available about the same time. Six Day Track Racing became immensely popular back then, a sport crying out for a “stay-awake” drug. I was once told first hand, that dope was used in the 1930s six day races, one could suppose it was used before then.

I also suspect that dope was used in many other professional sports. If the use was an open secret, as in cycling, but never written about or recorded in the press, who can say it was not. Professional sport is entertainment, and the greater the athletic performance the more entertaining it is, which translates into more money the athlete.

I am skeptical when fans of other professional sports state that the “old timers” created records without the use of stimulants. The open secret of doping in cycling was amongst cyclists, not the general public. In other sports it would be the players who would know, not the fans. People who were around at that time have passed on, so we can never be certain?

Most professional sports were traditionally financed by spectators buying a ticket to view an event in a stadium. The Tour de France was unique in that it was free to spectators and its revenue generated entirely by advertising. Even before the days of television, this huge circus would travel around France, so people would see the advertising on vehicles, on free hand outs, plus see pictures of sponsored riders in newspapers.

Advertising revenue can be far more lucrative than income by paid spectators; the Tour de France pioneered this form of sports financing. Many people still do not realize the incomes generated by professional cyclists in Europe. Throughout the 1970s, Eddy Merckx was consistently among the top paid athletes in the World. Close to boxer, Mohammed Ali when he was at the peak of his career.

The UCI was slow to act on the doping issue, and the practice was still widespread throughout the 1970s. The professional riders would not give up dope individually unless there could be a guarantee that everyone would do so across the board. Sponsors would worry that racing would become slower and lack-luster if stimulants were dropped. And, the UCI is a group of officials elected to office. The first rule of politics is “Don’t piss off the people who can vote you out of office.”

Speaking of politics, I find it interesting to note that the cycling press who knew only too well of doping for many years but never touched the subject; after Simpson’s death and now beholding to their readership, were the strongest critics of the UCI and their handling of the problem.

It has been 40 years since Tommy Simpson died, and the sport of cycling is still struggling with the doping issue. However, one has to realize doping amongst the pros was an open secret and accepted for maybe 60 years before Simpson’s death.

The hero’s of my youth were riders like Fausto Coppi, Ferdi Kubler, Louison Bobet, and Jean Robic. They are still my hero’s even though I know they took dope, this was a different era.

Today’s dopers are a different matter, and I am definitely not a fan. However, because I have a few years behind me, and I was around when doping was tolerated, I look at the whole issue from a slightly different perspective.

This piece is based on my own memories. Some of it on second hand knowledge passed on to me, the rest is speculation and my personal opinion. My views are from someone completely detached from the sport and the bicycle business.


Pedal Float

A subject I often see discussed on the various bicycle forums is clipless pedals, and pedal float. This is more by way of an observation than to give advice because clipless pedals came on the market in the last few years I was in the bike business.

For many years, we all used toe clips and straps, and there was no float in the pedal cleats. Which leaves me to wonder who in their wisdom decided when designing clipless pedals, the foot needed to have sideways movement (float) on the pedal?

Was it demanded by the riders, or offered as a sales gimmick by the manufacturers as something that the “old tech” pedals didn’t have? Because like every piece of new technology that comes on the market, consumers soon find they can’t do without it.

I understand that now some pro riders are going back to fixed cleats on their clipless pedals, and the many riders who try to follow suit have all kinds of problems with their knee joints, etc.

When I started riding seriously in the early 1950s, cycling shoes had leather soles, and cleats were nailed on. They came in a little packet with 20 or 30 nails per cleat. Luckily, this was in a time before God created tennis shoes, and every household had basic shoe repair equipment.

This included a shoemaker’s last or iron foot that you put the shoe on to nail the cleats in place. Imagine doing this for the first time, staring at a flat leather sole, with absolutely no indication where the cleat should go.

You nailed them on, went out for a test ride. If they were wrong, you came home, and ripped the cleats off with a pair of pliers. Then you had to find some new nails and start over.

We soon learned where the cleats should be. If they were misaligned, guess what? We had knee problems, just like riders with clipless pedals today. It seems to me that the real problem is, not with the pedal having float, but with the correct alignment of the cleats.

I still use toe clips and straps, and my cleats are aligned as follows. With the shoes side by side, soles and heels touching, the slots in the cleats are in a straight line across both shoes. You could drop a straight edge in the slot.

This means when pedaling, the inside of my foot is parallel with the crank arm. In addition, when I place the two shoes with soles facing, the slots in the cleats line up.

As usual, my post contains a little bit of history. If we look back at how we got where we are today, often the problems we encountered in the past are a clue to solving the problems of today.


Running vs. Cycling

I’ve done both. In England during the 1970s I rode cyclo-cross October through to February. I trained by running 30 minutes each evening after work, and riding a cyclo-cross event at the weekend.

As a measure of cycling fitness level attained in this fashion, my cycling club always ran a 10 mile time trial the day after Christmas. (Boxing Day.) I would usually turn in a respectable 25 minute ride.

I always reckoned a one hour cyclo-cross race was the equivalent of 80 miles on the road. At least that was the effect it had on my legs when the event was over. The reason I chose running over cycling was mainly a time consideration. My framebuilding business took a great deal of my time, and I had a family to consider.

Thirty minutes of hard running was a pretty intense workout. To get out on the bike it would have taken me thirty minutes to get dressed and pump my tires up; then I would have to ride for an hour and a half or two hours. Plus, it was winter time; I could endure half an hour of running even if it was raining or snowing.

So running at that time suited my busy schedule. Years later when I left the bike business in 1993, I scaled down my lifestyle and moved into a tiny studio apartment. I sold off many of my possessions including my bike, and went back to running as my main form of exercise.

I kept this up until about three years ago when my hip started hurting and I realized I had to quit running. I switched to walking but that didn’t do it for me; I started to gain weight, even though I am not a person to overeat.

Last summer I started riding a bike again, and now I wonder why I didn’t start back sooner; now that time is not such an issue. Running was never a pleasure, it was a chore; something I would discipline myself to do.

Three hours of cycling is all pleasure, an hour of running would be purgatory. On a bike I can ride up a hill to the point of exhaustion, knowing that I will recover as I coast down the other side; running I had to constantly pace myself, and there is no such thing a coasting down hill.

Heat is less of a factor when cycling because you create your own cooling breeze as you ride, plus it is easy to carry two large bottles of water on a bike to keep hydrated.

Cycling for me started a love affair with the machine, with its looks and beauty. Once I started riding it became a love of being a part of the machine. At times, it is still an almost surreal experience and I marvel at how fast I can go, realizing that it is me alone driving the machine forward.

Out this weekend I rode over the Cooper River Bridge here in Charleston; on the bridge runners probably outnumbered bike riders by at least ten to one. This is what prompted me to write this piece.

Why is this? Is cycling so much of a well kept secret. Of course, there is the cost of equipment; a pair of running shoes is a lot cheaper than a bike, but I can’t believe that is the only factor. Maybe it is a time issue, as it was with me.

Physical fitness has always been important in my life; over the years, my level of fitness has varied but has never dropped below a certain level. If I start to feel discomfort in a simple act like putting on a pair of socks, it annoys me, and drives me back into an exercise regimen.

The older I get, the more important exercise is to me; the old adage of “You're gonna die anyway” is not the issue. It is about quality of life, having the energy to do all the other things I want to do, besides ride my bike.


Update on 1940s American Framebuilder Mike Moulton

On April 6th last, I wrote about an California framebuilder named Mike Moulton in a piece named “1930s Moulton Special.”

Later I emailed Ted Ernst who raced at a national level in the US as early as the 1950s; here was what Ted was able to find out:

I got in touch with a few guys in regards to Mike Moulton; the memories are sketchy.

He didn't start to build until after the war, sometime like 1947 or so and only built for a few years. Framebuilding was more a hobby as he was a full time employee at Lockheed Aircraft. Guys raced on his bikes all around especially in those early years when the Burbank track was up and running around 1948/9.

From what was said he had no direct connection to the bike game, as far as club or business affiliation, but went out to the races watched, talked to the guys, enjoyed the mechanics of it all and started building and selling, probably for about 4-5 years until he dropped away.

They were nicely done and at the local level here had moderate success. Like so many others, a brief encounter and duration in the game. I'll keep ears open, and any old codger comes along, I'll try to get more info and relay to you.
Ted Ernst

[Ted Ernst, (Lower Right) competing in the National Board Track Championship in 1956. Picture from Wool Jersey.]

Last week I received a picture of an all chrome Mike Moulton frame built in 1949; still owned by the original owner Joe Cirone. Joe won the California State Championship on this bike in 1949, 50, and 51.

Here we have a known Mike Moulton frame; if you look closely at the picture at the top of the page, his name is stamped on the front of the fork crown. Looking at the distinct style of the head lugs and comparing them to the frame I wrote about on April 6th; my opinion is that the two frames are the work of the same builder.

The unknown frame (Left.) also had the name “Moulton Special” which was found under the many coats of paint applied over the years. As I previously stated, “How many framebuilders named Moulton can there be from that era?”

If the unknown frame was indeed built by Mike Moulton, then it was from the 1940s not 1930s as the owner had guessed it was. However, because of WWII, bicycles developed very little during those years and a 1940s frame will look pretty much the same as one built in the 1930s.

It appears that Mike Moulton built frames as a hobby, but even so they were very well crafted and were raced successfully in the 1940s, and a few of these frames still exist today. There would have been few American builders at that time; US framebuilding didn’t proliferate until the 1970s.

I find it interesting because we share the same last name, though not related as far as I know. This is a small but never-the-less important part of American cycling history and should be remembered and documented, even if it is only on a blog such as this. I am hoping that there will be more information forthcoming, maybe from family members and decendents of Mike Moulton.


When it comes to bike saddles, how level is level?

The general consensus among experts is that a bicycle saddle should be level. If the nose is pointed up, it will put pressure on the perineum and cause discomfort.

If the saddle is positioned sloping downwards, this will throw too much weight onto your arms. Weight should be balanced between your seat and your hands.

But, how level? I feel to get out the carpenter’s level is over kill. If the saddle appears to be level to the naked eye, and it feels comfortable, to me that is level.

There are also so many differing designs of saddles. On my bike (above) I have a Concor saddle that was popular in the 1980s. Its design is swept up at the back and if I were to place a level from front to back it would indicate the saddle pointing downward, because the back part is higher.

However, visually the part where I sit is level. Unless the top of the saddle is flat front to back, it can’t be level at all points. Bottom line is how does it feel? If the saddle is not obviously up or down at first glance, I would say you’re okay.

This last part is for men only; so ladies you can stop reading now...

If you get that burning sensation in your scrotum, it is probably because the skin is pinched between the perineum and the saddle. If you reach down in your shorts and lift your boys up clear of the saddle; a proper pair of cycling shorts will hold them in place and this usually takes care of the problem.

Ladies, if you are still reading, don’t you do anything you are told?