Science: Lance Armstrong’s PEDs Were Bunk, Didn’t Enhance Performance

Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty Images

The only thing worse than losing seven Tour de France titles for using performance-enhancing drugs —other than, like, death, poverty or any number of the quotidian, actual misfortunes we plebs suffer every day—is losing seven Tour de France titles for using performance-enhancing drugs that didn’t enhance your performance.

This cosmic joke is the latest sling suffered by disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, the inspirational, cancer-surviving, wife-leaving, friendship-destroying story once worn around every the wrist of every positive-thinking American susceptible to a popular fad.

In case you forgot—and who could blame you, since 2012 was so very long ago—here’s the story arc: In 1996, Lance Armstrong, obscure American professional cyclist, is diagnosed with cancer. He beats cancer, and then, beginning in 1999, beats everybody else in the Tour de France, cycling’s World Cup, every year, for seven straight years. (At the time, at least part of the credit for Armstrong’s incredible run, in addition to spectacular luck and the ruthless efficiency and selfless sacrifice of his U.S. Postal Service teammates, was due to his super-sized internal organs.) He leaves his wife for a rock star, every insufferable person in America wears a Livestrong bracelet, he is God.

That’s the rise, and here’s the fall: Armstrong cheated. He was a Roger Clemens-level fraud who relied on a performance-enhancing drug called EPO—and what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”—to achieve his place in cycling’s Pantheon.

Never mind that almost everybody else Armstrong raced against also cheated! He cheated the best, and thus he must be reviled.

EPO is a hormone involved in the production of red-blood cells. The more red-blood cells you have, the more oxygen can be carried to your brain and body—and thus, in theory, the better you will perform in endurance sports contested at high altitudes, like key stages of the Tour. In theory.

As a study recently published in The Lancet found, EPO had no effect on a few dozen amateur cyclists asked to perform several feats of cycling similar to those seen on the Tour.

Over an eight-week period, two groups of male cyclists, aged 18 to 50, were asked to complete a 110-kilometer race and then race up Mount Ventoux, the towering climb that’s a signature stage of the Tour, and the site of Armstrong’s greatest success. As the researchers found, EPO didn’t make any difference in the amateur cyclists’ performances.

Most of the cyclists given the drug—12 out of the 23—didn’t even realize it was in their systems. Even worse: the placebo group of cyclists’ average time up Mount Ventoux was 17 seconds faster than the group given EPO. The drug may have hindered performance. 

The researchers say that the experiment shows that the actual benefits of purported PEDs can be safely studied in a laboratory setting. They also give credence to the theory, often proffered by defenders of legendary steroid cheats in baseball and elsewhere, that PEDs are secondary to an athlete’s actual capabilities.

“It’s just tragic to lose your career for something that doesn’t work,” said Jules Heuberger, of the Centre for Human Drug Research in The Netherlands, “to lose seven yellow jerseys for a drug that has no effect.”

Now. Armstrong didn’t just lose his accolades for cheating (although that is why he received a lifetime ban from the World Anti-Doping Agency, the same crew of do-gooders that believes cannabis is a performance-enhancer and has no place in athletes’ lives).

He also lied about it, constantly, for more than a decade, and did whatever he could to destroy the careers and lives of anyone who dared to attempt to expose his charade.

He is and was a colossal dick.

At the same time, almost everyone he competed against also cheated, and he did this during the great era of steroid use in baseball. Many successful people are colossal dicks. That can be fine—they’re not our friends, they’re not babysitting for us.

In hindsight, it might be nice to try enjoying what Armstrong did for the mere sake of it without the sanctimony that accompanies every discussion of doping in sports. Or, failing that, you can laugh even harder at the sheer enormity and ultimately tragic farce of his hubris.

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