Cycling’s biggest threat: Amateur doping
The unintimidating blue polo shirts that U.S. Anti-Doping Agency testers wear must be terrifying to see for an athlete full of the substances they’re looking for. A knock on December 5, 2015, brought Michael Buckley to his door. Outside, two blue polos. Inside, a decision.
There are two options for someone in this moment: Let them in, or shut the door. USADA is not the FBI; it can’t get a warrant or take blood and urine by force. But once testers have eyes on their quarry, closing the door is as good as testing positive. In refusing a test, an athlete automatically accepts a ban. Buckley wouldn’t have been the first to do so.
He didn’t. There was always the chance that they wouldn’t find anything, after all. They did.
Three weeks later, Buckley was handed a ban for two selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs), LGD-4033 and ostarine, an exogenous anabolic steroid that was confirmed by carbon isotope ratio testing, and anastrozole, a drug normally used to combat breast cancer.
But Buckley isn’t the story here, nor is what the testers found in him. He is but one of a dozen amateur cyclists caught doping in the last few years. More importantly, he’s one of thousands who have doped.
Amateur bike racing in the United States has a drug problem, and it is fundamentally impossible to use drug testing to catch all amateur drug cheats. Too many riders, too little funding. So if you can’t catch them, how do you stop them? You scare them.
The World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) has just over 1,000 professional cyclists on its control list and spends millions of dollars each year policing them. We’re all familiar with the results, or lack thereof, depending on one’s perspective.
There are roughly 50,000 amateur bike racers in the United States, and the budget to police them barely hits six figures. None of these amateurs is on a biological passport, and less than one-tenth of one percent will ever have USADA knock at their door.
An anonymous 2014 survey of 4,000 athletes conducted by Scottish anti-doping researcher Paul Dimeo determined that 10 percent of Category 1, 2, and 3 amateurs in the United States had used performance-enhancing drugs at some point in their racing careers. Using USA Cycling’s membership figures for that year, that works out to approximately 1,720 riders muddying up the results of races from coast to coast.
The 10 percent figure is likely low. It’s the highest one that researchers are confident in from a scientific perspective, but the actual number could be higher. The same study concluded that only 70 percent of racers could be confidently said to have never used any illegal performance-enhancing substances.
10 percent of Category 1, 2, and 3 amateurs in the United States use performance-enhancing drugs at some point in their racing careers.
There’s plenty of data on doping bans, as well as reams of anecdotal evidence, to back up the claim that amateur doping is rampant.
In the mid-2000s, Joe Papp turned his own doping into an online business, selling drugs to amateur cyclists and other athletes. When he was caught for the second time in 2010, his testimony included a list of 187 individual buyers—the infamous “Papp List”—and resulted in bans for both pros and amateurs.
When Derek Bouchard-Hall joined USA Cycling as its CEO in July 2015, one of his first acts was to set up an email complaint line to give American racers direct access to their new CEO. Bouchard-Hall says the most frequent complaint has been about perceived doping at the amateur level, with a particular focus on masters age-group events.
The head of USA Cycling’s RaceClean program, Jon Whiteman, receives frequent messages from amateurs across the country, always requesting the same thing. “They say, ‘ah, you gotta come to So Cal’, or ‘you gotta come to New York’, or ‘you gotta come to Texas, it’s crazy here,’” Whiteman says. “I get them from everywhere. People will see their competitors make a huge jump, or they hear something through the rumor mill, and it just doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
Access to drugs is not difficult. The proliferation of doping clinics dressed up as anti-aging facilities, and the ease of online ordering, have made testosterone marginally more difficult to obtain than Advil. EPO and human growth hormone are just a few clicks away.
Not all doping is created equal. Organizations like WADA and USADA determine the severity with an imperfect calculation based on the danger and effectiveness of the doping method and the premeditation required for a method’s use. WADA’s internationally accepted rules codify this. Some offenses result in longer bans than others. Certain positives are more likely to be the result of contamination. Injecting EPO is worse than accidentally taking cold medicine the morning a tester shows up. What’s clear, though, is that amateur doping runs the gamut from buyers of Papp’s EPO to topping up on testosterone at an anti-aging clinic to popping cold medicine on the start line.
“Karl Walters” is not his real name. He’d rather not use his real name, because he caught a doper. He’d prefer the doper not find out. He’d rather Michael Buckley not find out it was he who sent USADA to his door last December.
The whole thing was an amateur sting operation — or amateur entrapment, if amateurs could, by law, entrap. A vigilante investigation, sure, but not vigilante justice. The justice part was all USADA. What Walters did is something that the authorities — those working at USADA and USA Cycling who are charged with deterring amateurs from taking drugs — say is one of their most powerful tools, to be commended and replicated. “The racers are our eyes and ears,” Whiteman says.
A bit about Walters: A decade ago, he worked in a gym frequented by high-level basketball and football players, a space he describes as deeply infused with doping. He’s worked in national intelligence and specialized in criminal and terrorist networks. He’s been a bike racer for just over five years, and his experience in the gym makes him skeptical about some of the performances that surround him. He doesn’t know Buckley, at least not in real life.
Early last November, a friend of Walters insisted that no amateur bike racer would stoop to doping. He couldn’t get past the ‘why,’ Walters says. Since there’s no money, doping to win cheap prizes and sparse cheers was, to his mind, laughable. But Walters knew better. He’d seen with his own eyes the lengths to which athletes would go to step up a level. He had heard the rationalizations and justifications of dozens of men and women.
To prove his point, Walters Googled “cat 1 steroids bike racer.” He clicked on a link in a forum, to a post by Oscar74.
Hello, I’m new to this thread. I’m a 40-year-old competitive Category 1 cyclist. I recently saw an age doctor who prescribed the following:
0.5ml depotest 200mg/ml 1x per week
0.1ml HCG/arginine 6x per week
0.2ml sermorelin 6x per week 0.5mg arimidex 2x per week 25mg DHEA daily
25mg pregneglone daily
5g d-ribose before training daily 500mg microhydrin 1x before training daily
He also recommended 4500 velvet deer antler extract… I use before above cycle [sic] and had positive results…thoughts?
I am interested in SARMS…specifically, GW501516…it seems like a wonder drug for competitive endurance sports? What should I stack it with based on the above list? Is there a specific website I can purchase this from that you guys recommend?
I will be tested in middle of May, when should I stop this cycle so I don’t get popped? USADA urine test.
Walters has intelligence experience. But it didn’t take Edward Snowden to find the real name behind Oscar74. He created an account on the forum under the name RiccardoRicco and began a back and forth under the pretense that he had experience with doping products. In fact, the feigned experience was cultivated mostly through simple Google searches. Oscar74 asked about certain drugs, how they would work, what they would do, and Walters Googled, then answered. Buckley said he was seeing an anti-aging doctor who was the source of his doping products. Then Walters asked to change the method of communication. “I don’t trust message boards,” he wrote. “Email me.”
Typing on his iPhone, Oscar74 sent a note to Walter’s fake Gmail address. At the top of the email, his name: Michael J. Buckley.
The conversation continued. “Are you going to be tested outside of competition or just on the race date?” Walters asked.
“Tested just on race date mid-May…assuming I’m top three…which will probably happen,” Buckley responded.
Later: “After only six weeks of my program, I’m not noticing much. Maybe I’m expecting too much. I thought my power would skyrocket.” Should he try Clenbuterol, the drug Alberto Contador was popped for in 2011?
“Clenbuterol is not worth it,” Walters responded.
By this point, Walters had Buckley’s name and had him discussing doping products — enough, he felt, to reach out to USADA. “My dad told me something I remember to this day. ‘Always assume that anything you put on the Internet can be seen by anyone at any time.’ He was right,” Walters says.
￼Walters was not the only person to spot Buckley’s forum post. In fact, USADA received at least five independent tips relating both to that forum and to another Buckley had posted on. But officials confirmed that it was Walters’ digging, and his evidence, that moved them to act. He was the only person who came to USADA with a name, and with off-board communication, including both complete conversations from the message board and then a long email string.
The date of Buckley’s positive test, December 5, came less than a week after Walters contacted USADA.
The official USADA anti-doping tip line Walters used is pivotal to the organization’s targeted, out-of-competition testing. Given the sheer number of races and racers and limited testing resources, without a tip, USADA is looking for a needle in a stack of needles. The organization rarely, if ever, tests amateurs out of competition without some prior cause for suspicion.
Walters sent a note to USADA, which followed up and requested all his correspondence with Buckley. USADA performed its own investigation on the emails and messages. (Email chains have been faked before, including recently by—kid you not—a scorned lover, according to a source close to that investigation who requested anonymity.) When USADA determined that the tip was credible, it flew testers to Buckley’s home.
There is undeniable power in out-of-competition testing and, by extension, the tip line. Both USADA and USA Cycling say tips are the best means they have for catching amateurs where and when they’re most likely to use: at home, while training—confident in the knowledge that random out-of-competition tests are about as common as Haley’s comet. The testing is simply too expensive to apply casually among amateurs.
In-competition testing, performed at actual races, is a good step and a solid deterrent against the use of day-of doping products (stimulants and other products that provide a race-day boost fall in this category). But a rider like Buckley, who knows precisely what contraband is coursing through his veins, can just walk away if he sees that USADA has arrived. And the most powerful drugs—EPO, testosterone, HGH, and the like—provide benefits long after their “glow time,” or the period during which a rider will test positive.
“[At-home testing] is the most effective,” says Papp, who has worked with USADA to apprehend multiple other dopers since his own ban in 2011. “If they really want to test the people who are really messing up age-group racing, they need to rely on useable, reliable, real-time intelligence.”
Experts like Dimeo, the amateur doping researcher, and Whiteman say catching dopers both in and out of competition is the only way to convince others that there is a chance they could be tested. Fear is the great deterrent. The very social pressures that inspire doping can and will turn mercilessly against anyone. Going from local hero to pariah is just a urine test away. Convince them that such a test is inevitable and maybe they stop. That’s the hope, anyway.
“USA Cycling does believe that anti-doping testing is a significant deterrent that can materially decrease levels of amateur doping,” Bouchard-Hall says. “Intuitively, we believe that a meaningful risk of getting caught prevents antisocial behavior, such as cheating. This concept is well supported outside of our sport, be it in controlling speeding on the highways, combatting insider trading, or stemming tax evasion. Detection methods and penalties work.”
Amateur testing is a coordinated dance between USA Cycling — Whiteman, in particular — and USADA. Cycling’s governing body provides the funding, and USADA does the actual testing. The issue in the past has been that the relatively small budget could provide for only infrequent and inconsistent testing. Funding used to come from USA Cycling’s local associations, but now it comes directly from members. There’s more cash available now, so testing programs will grow.
USADA acts with a great deal of autonomy, often based on its own intelligence efforts. But Whiteman can provide recommendations as to where and when USA Cycling would like testers to show up. “I can select any race that I want to send USADA to for testing,” Whiteman says. “We have a number in our head. We know how many dollars are going to come in for the year, and I know how much each event costs. So we roughly sketch out our year. I have an idea where I’m going to test at the beginning of the season, but that’s not written in stone. We will move with the tip line, to spend our money where USADA thinks we can make the most bang for our buck.”
We don’t know for sure why Buckley began doping. He did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story. But his posts on the forum and emails to Walters reveal a man who was displeased with his fifth place at masters time trial nationals in 2015 and who was possibly convinced that others he competed against were already using.
Based on his emails with Walters, it appears that Buckley was clean at nationals last year. He discussed getting on a program after that race. But that, too, is impossible to confirm.
There’s also no telling if the men he raced against in Ogden last fall were, in fact, clean. USADA was present at nationals but would not release the names of the athletes it tested. We do know that no positive tests came out of the event.
Aaron “Boups” Bouplon finished eight seconds ahead of Buckley at nationals. He is, he says, just the sort of rider that USA Cycling should be trying to protect. A former elite runner and a staple of the cycling community in Boulder, Colorado, Bouplon was unequivocal in his assessment of riders who dope in his masters category.
“I think it’s pathetic,” he says. “I’m just glad I beat the guy. We all know it happens, and I’m glad testing is increasing. It’s one more thing to think about—not taking cold meds that are banned and things like that—but I don’t mind. There didn’t seem to be much talk about it for a long time. I’m glad there’s talk about it now.”
USA Cycling did not always seem so keen to solve the amateur doping problem. A quick perusal through public forums focused on doping indicates that, until recently, it was common knowledge that USADA’s testers showed up only at national championships. Every once in a while, the polo shirts would arrive at a race in southern California and suddenly vast swaths of masters categories would simply vanish. There was no credible threat.
“I think it’s pathetic. I’m just glad I beat the guy. We all know it happens, and I’m glad testing is increasing.”
The actions of Bouchard-Hall since taking office suggest a different response to doping issues.
“Derek has been very stern on his approach to anti-doping,” Whiteman says. “He doesn’t want us to be construed as ambivalent in any way, shape, or form on our stance on this. There’s never a question of how hard to push: As hard as I can.”
Last fall, USA Cycling announced it would triple the amount spent on amateur testing. “This will absolutely bring testing into masters racing, Cat. 3 races,” Bouchard-Hall said at the time. “It’ll go across the sport so that amateurs face a credible risk that they may be tested.”
The new program, led by Whiteman and his RaceClean program and overseen by a brand new anti-doping committee led by Dimeo, tacks $5 onto every Cat. 1 mountain bike and Cat. 2 and 3 road, track, and cyclocross license sold through USA Cycling, $25 onto each Pro mountain bike and Cat. 1 road, track, and cyclocross license, and $50 onto all Pro road licenses. Every cent of it goes straight to the costs of testing; none will go to Whiteman’s salary or into other USAC overhead costs.
Why no Cat. 4s? The need simply wasn’t there. “We know there is significant enough use in the Cat. 3s that there is reason to implement that $5 surcharge. We didn’t want to tax anybody that wasn’t a component of the problem. Cat. 3 was the cutoff mark,” says Whiteman.
“The key question for us is not whether testing is effective, but what level of testing should we conduct,” Bouchard-Hall says. “Testing is expensive, so we need to use it judiciously, but we also need to create a credible threat of getting caught.”
There’s a catch-22 in anti-doping work. The result one hopes for—no positives— indicates failure as much as success. If there aren’t any positives, does it mean people aren’t doping?
“Positives affirm the need for the program, but that’s not the intention,” Whiteman says. “The intention is deterrence. I don’t want to find 75 positives, because that means we have a really large problem.”
Whiteman’s not winning, though, and he knows it. As long as there is competition there will be cheating. Whiteman isn’t up against one element of sport; he’s up against human nature.
Stories like Buckley’s might let the testers at least fight to a draw. If Whiteman and his allies can convince amateurs that they will be tested, at races and even at home—and if riders like Walters see that their whistleblowing won’t fall on deaf ears—then America’s amateur race scene might get the credible threat it desperately needs.
Even before USAC implemented its new program, dopers appeared to have taken notice. Buckley mentioned it during an email exchange with Walters last fall. “Looks like USA Cycling is tripling there [sic] efforts on masters testing this year,” he wrote. “Of course, the year I decide to jump on. I may have to calm this shit down.”
He didn’t, and he paid for it.