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Doping might not be as common in the professional peloton as it was 10-20 years ago but there’s no doubt it still occurs and, with all likelihood, it will continue in some form as long as the sport exists. But when we think of doping in cycling, we tend not to think of the amateur and domestic professional ranks. With less pressure to win there is, generally speaking, less impetus to take steps to improve one’s performance through questionable means.
But doping at the amateur and domestic professional level certainly does occur. CyclingTips was approached by a former amateur racer who wanted to tell the story about how he started using performance-enhancing substances a few years ago. He has asked to remain anonymous and will instead go by the moniker JT.
I was born to naturally athletic parents who excelled at whatever sport they tried. I was lucky enough to inherit the right genes and grew up being good at whatever I tried as well. I would tell people that I was going to be a professional athlete one day and I believed it.
It took me a while to get into cycling. After being unable to excel in the sport I initially chose, I decided to give cycling my full attention. I’d started riding at 16, while doing a mixture of other sports, but when I focused solely on cycling I started to improve rapidly.
I worked my way up to local A grade level then decided to get a coach and do some more specific training. I got to the point where I was racing at National Road Series (NRS) level, but I had bigger visions. I wanted to get to Europe to “live the dream”.
Over the course of a couple years I had a handful of small injuries which took me off the bike for short periods of time. Each time I had to work hard to get back to the level I had been at. But in that cycle of getting injured and working back to form, I pushed myself too hard. I broke down and couldn’t get myself right. Every time I would try to train and I would have issues with my legs, my neck and my back.
I saw just about every doctor and specialist I could and did just about every test and scan that I could. But nothing was getting me any closer to finding out what was wrong with me. The whole process became mentally and emotionally exhausting and all the while I still harboured hopes of riding professionally. The combination of those dreams and a lack of progress saw me fall into a state of depression.
Eventually, finally, we found out what the problem was: chronic fatigue.
Being able to identify the problem instantly changed my mood — I now knew what I was up against. But then the depression returned because I realised I had to let my body recover … which meant more time doing nothing.
Isn’t it funny how, when you return to cycling after some time off the bike, you expect to jump back in right where you left off? That’s exactly what happened to me. I soon realised that I was a long way behind where I wanted to be and that getting back to where I was — let alone taking that next step to ‘Euro pro’ — was going to take more time and mental energy than I could imagine spending.
And so I tried to find a way to speed up the process.
After doing plenty of research online I had my hands on three substances that I hoped would help me return to my previous level. The first of these was Clenbuterol, a drug many cyclists have heard of, which helps weight loss in a big way. I also found that it helped make breathing a lot easier, not just in training but off the bike as well.
The second substance was Thymosin, also known as TB500, a peptide that promotes healing and reduces inflammation. My body felt very relaxed while using TB500 — it was like there was no stress on it at all. It had a noticeable anti-inflammatory effect as well, especially on an old knee injury, and it seemed to improve my mood. Crucially, TB500 helped my training because it meant I could ride harder and longer with less pain and discomfort.
The third and final substance was CJC-1295 DAC, another peptide. This compound helped me lose weight, build lean muscle, improve my endurance, help me get better sleep and even improve my skin tone.
You might be wondering why I didn’t go for tried-and-tested products like EPO or cortisone. In my head, the substances I ended up taking weren’t “as serious” as something like cortisone, EPO or blood doping in general. That might sound strange but that was my thought process at the time. From what I could tell, the substances I did take seemed relatively safe as long as I wasn’t stupid with the dosages.
That said, I did try and get my hands on some cortisone but the doctor I saw at the time wouldn’t allow it — he didn’t believe I needed it. And if I’d had a doctor that I could go to regularly there’s a good chance I would have tried EPO as well. As it was I was too scared to take it without a doctor checking my blood levels all the time. Eventually the thoughts of taking EPO disappeared.
I was surprised how easy it was to get my hands on the three substances I ended up taking and how easy it was to learn how to use them. I did most of this on my own, but I also asked my doctor for advice on how best to use them. He wasn’t surprised that I was asking — he told me he got those questions a lot. But he was very much against the idea. He tried to talk me out of using all three substances before eventually giving me some information on how to be safe when using them.
As far as I knew, none of the substances were illegal to own or use. And even if they were, I was ordering them from within Australia so I didn’t have to worry about customs kicking down the front door one day and arresting me.
At the time I justified using these substances by promising myself I wouldn’t race until they were out of my system — they were simply to help me get to the level I had been at previously.
It sounds strange but taking those substances never really bothered me because I was so focused on making up for lost time and getting back to where I was fitness-wise. On the odd occasion that I started to worry about how safe the substances were I’d do some more research and convince myself that everything was going to be OK.
As effective as those three substances had been, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I didn’t manage to get to the level I was hoping to and then, one day, I just had enough and I broke down. I realised it was time to let the dream go — I wasn’t going to be a Euro pro.
I remember the turning point. I was out training, doing some hill climb efforts. I thought to myself “Why am I doing this? What is the point pushing myself so hard when there is a good chance my body will just break down again and I’ll be back at zero with all the pain and stress?” I just didn’t want to go through that again.
With that turning point came the realisation that I’d been kidding myself. I’d been trying to tell myself that just because I wasn’t blood doping the substances I was taking were fine. In reality, taking a pill every morning and using a needle twice a week was a world away from where I wanted to be and why I got into cycling in the first place.
When I first started riding I did so because I enjoyed it. And like most people, whenever a doping story came on the news I’d think the individuals involved were pathetic. Somewhere along the line that changed and I convinced myself it was all OK because I wasn’t racing while doping.
So why am I telling my story? Part of it is a desire to get this off my chest — until now I’ve only ever spoken to my doctor and a therapist about my use of PEDs. But perhaps the more important reason is to (hopefully) help other athletes that might be in the same mental space I was in.
For a lot of young athletes, the message “doping is bad” often comes from some random bloke from ASADA, reading out slides from a stupid Powerpoint presentation. It’s not surprising that, for many young athletes, the message goes straight in one ear and out the other. Young riders (and athletes) need someone that’s been in the same position as them to give them some real-world insight.
I also think there’s a lesson in here for coaches. I’m not saying my coach was in the wrong, but I think, generally speaking, coaches need to be better at understanding what sort of mental shape their riders are in, not just physical shape. They need to know what to say to their riders and to not be afraid of asking delicate questions if they feel something is amiss.
Athletes also need to realise that there is always someone they can talk to if they have been tempted by doping, or have succumbed to that temptation. Any good therapist shouldn’t judge you for those decisions and shouldn’t treat you like a murderer (which some people within the world of cycling might).
The reality is that performance-enhancing drugs are going to be around forever and there will always be athletes that are tempted by them. If we agree that doping is bad then seeing young riders doping is particularly worrying. I’m reminded of an 18-year-old Slovenian rider who tested positive for EPO a few years back. That simply shouldn’t happen.
There is a bad culture in pro sport, driven by money and a ‘do or die’ attitude. I certainly needed to be reminded of the fact that sport isn’t everything, and I wasn’t alone.
It’s hard for me to say how widespread doping is at an amateur or domestic pro level in Australia (or outside of Australia) because I sourced and used everything myself. That said, I do know that the use of steroids is quite common in Masters racing. And I’ve certainly seen local riders that I suspect of Clenbuterol use. After using it yourself you get an eye for what it does to people — it eats away fat very quickly and when you see people week in week out you tend to notice super-fast weight loss.
As for me? Well, these days I’m only riding once or twice a week, normally to clear my mind and relax. I watch as many races as I can and hope to get more involved in the sport at a professional level one day. I am a massive fan of the sport and always will be.
Have you got questions you’d like to ask JT? Feel free to do so in the comments below.