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by Peter Flax
April 12, 2016
This story begins with a doorbell sounding in a residential neighborhood.
It is a Saturday morning in December, and the sun has not yet risen in Reno, Nevada. Some time passes before the door is answered. Those are moments that, in retrospect, become the last seconds before one’s life is changed forever. The door swings open into darkness and there stands a doping control officer, asking to speak with Michael. And so it begins.
But perhaps this story starts a few weeks earlier.
It is a Monday in November when the first of several amateur athletes contact the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s Play Clean Tip Center. The agency welcomes anonymous tips via a toll-free number, email, or the U.S. Postal Service. The complaints outline the same story about the same cyclist breaking the same rules. These tips set in motion a USADA investigation that is quickly determined to be credible. This is what leads to the doorbell and out-of-competition test on December 5. So that’s when it begins.
That’s unless you consider an online forum thread that was entitled “Endurance Sports Stack Help Needed” and started on a Saturday afternoon in early November.
The first entry posted on November 9, 2015, at 3:37pm on isarms.com, a site that is dedicated to a community of athletes interested in steroids and other anabolic agents.
The person who begins the thread calls himself Oscar74, and he does not waste any time getting into his business. Right in that first post, he describes himself as a 40-year-old elite cyclist who already is taking a long list of medications and looking to improve his endurance without running afoul of USADA testing. Oscar74 discloses so many details about himself and his plans that other amateurs are able to piece together his identity. And so the trouble begins.
Or maybe it starts before that.
Truth is, it’s simply not possible to know where this story begins. But I can tell you how it ends — with USADA announcing on March 25 that a master’s cyclist named Michael Buckley had tested positive for multiple anabolic steroids and accepted a four-year sanction.
The headline is straightforward, but the narrative is not. This is a detective story about justice and a classic sporting tragedy wrapped into one. This is the story of Oscar74.
Buckley, on right, finished third overall at the 2015 Chico Stage Race. Photo: Oli Ryan.
Michael Buckley was passionate about racing bikes — and he was good at it. USA Cycling has record of nearly 250 races he has contested, most of them masters events in the highly competitive region that spans Northern California and Nevada.
Three times Buckley won the individual time trial “state championship” in the NorCal/Nevada region for his age group. He also competed at the masters national road championship on four occasions between 2012 and 2015, never finishing higher than fifth, though a couple of his competitors who I spoke with were quick to mention that he rode very strongly in service of a teammate who won the 40-45 national road championship last September.
Most of these competitors, some of them former teammates, expressed some shock and frustration about the news of Buckley’s suspension, as well as genuine concern about his well being after the story blew up. Others were like the teammate who said he was “still sorting out his feelings about Michael.”
In any case, people who raced with and against Buckley describe him as a talented time trialist and good sprinter whose primary weakness might be long sustained climbs.
His Strava profile seems pretty typical for a rider of his caliber, painting the picture of a highly committed masters racer who was balancing riding with a regular life. In the six months between April and September 2015, he rode a little more than 3,000 miles. He has logged a total of 22,350 miles on Strava, and set himself a goal of riding 5,152 miles for 2016. But since the day he was tested in December 2015, he has pedaled only about 150 miles, and he hasn’t logged a ride on Strava in three months.
Buckley has raced for several teams in the past decade, most recently with the Specialized-Touchstone masters squad for 2014 and 2015. This small team was full of fast guys and bike-industry insiders who live in the Bay Area and wine country to the north.
Fellow masters racers who lined up with Buckley were careful and measured when describing their surprise at his positive.
One who raced against him “dozens of times” noted that Buckley was “friendly, but not too friendly — you race enough and you see who is just having fun and who is taking risks and drafting off vehicles in a race and yelling at people.”
I talked to two former teammates who didn’t know what he did for a living (it’s worth noting that most of his teammates lived in the Bay Area while he lived a few hours away in Reno). Most didn’t think he fit the profile of a doper, but more than one admitted that their point of view had shifted in the past few months. “I remember one time he rode off the front at Chico [Stage Race] and the field couldn’t bring him back,” says one. “I look at that different now than I did then.”
No one I spoke with claimed to know Buckley well enough to know what led to his forum posts in November. One former teammate speculated that the change of venue for the masters national road race, from Provo, Utah, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, better suited Buckley’s riding style and pushed him to find something to get on the podium himself. “But that’s just a guess,” said the former teammate. “I mean, who the hell knows?”
I made numerous attempts to contact Buckley but was not able to reach him.
In his initial isarms.com post, Oscar74 describes himself as a 40-year-old, Category 1 cyclist, itemizes the medications he already is taking, and asks for advice about purchasing and “stacking” anabolic drugs. “I will be tested in the middle of May, when should I stop this cycle so I don’t get popped?” he asks, adding “USADA urine test.”
By the end of the weekend, Oscar 74 has gotten specific recommendations of products to ingest and where to buy them, tips on how to deal with testing, and some helpful back and forth about the utility of trying deer antler spray. Oscar mentions, “I miss ephedrine. I need something along those lines.”
The tone of all the participants in this forum is polite and supportive, and the advice is direct and actionable. Within three days, a total of 34 messages related to Oscar74’s original request have posted.
In some posts, Oscar74 offers some extremely personal insights into his life. He labels himself as a “recovering alcoholic and drug addict.” In one post he writes, “I’ve been sober for almost two years. I’m grateful everyday [sic] for my sobriety.” And in another he offers this: “I’m currently on the 5th week of this stack and I’m really having issues sleeping at night. Is this from the SR9009? I’m having to take Ambien to knock myself out…. really sucks.”
On Thanksgiving Day, Oscar74 posts an update on his progress. “Ok guys…GW [GW 50516, also known as Cardarine] is no joke. I train 10-15 hours a week on my bike. Raced pro for 5 years and now just race for fun in Masters 40+ age group. I know how to train and what my limits and power #’s are. I have only been using for 5 days and my power numbers have skyrocketed. What’s most impressive is the recovery from interval to interval and day to day. I am now sold on PE and bought Sr9009 arriving Saturday. What can say? I thought it was all bullshit snake oil. I was wrong. It’s my off season now and I don’t start racing until Feb…but I’m already looking forward to ripping people’s legs off. Thanks to everyone who held my hand in the process. Happy Thanksgiving.”
A few days later, Oscar74 and a couple of his new online buddies were chatting about when to stop taking GW to avoid getting popped in testing. One commentator who calls himself “Iwannagofaster” suggests stopping three months before a potential test. Oscar74 responds, “I’m confused how USA Cycling is going to increase testing on a local level based on a $3.00 per year increase on licenses? They are already losing money. I think this is a scare tactic…”
On December 4, the day before a doping control agent rang Michael Buckley’s doorbell, Oscar74 wrote his last post on isarms.com: “I haven’t heard of a cyclist getting popped for GW in the USA…pro or amateur. It would be all over the Internet. In fact, I’ve never heard of it anywhere.”
A few bike racers caught wind of the posting that Oscar74 made and passed that intelligence on to USADA via the Play Clean Tip Center. I’ve had some communication with one of them. Other people who were tipsters (or alleged) tipsters have posted on reddit and in blog comment sections about their actions. It is not yet clear to me how they initially found Oscar74’s posts, but my understanding is that this will be made public shortly.
The one tipster I communicated with claims to be the first person to contact the tip line. This individual had reached out to CyclingTips and expressed an interest in telling his story. Someone with knowledge of the investigation confirmed the authenticity of his assertions.
When I asked for an interview I was turned down with a most peculiar 107-word text message: “Hi Peter. Unfortunately, I’ve decided to go with another publication that got in contact with me a bit earlier and the story is set to run (without my name attached) shortly. In the end I decided that it was a bit vindictive to spread this story so wide. The NY Times even wanted it, but at the same time the rider is local and I overheard some of his old teammates talk about how he lost his job over this and is borderline suicidal. So, in the end I don’t think anything is gained by blowing it up too big. Sorry man, thanks for the contact though.”
I received this message while I was at the Los Angeles Zoo with my two sons and a friend as we were standing in front of the gorilla enclosure. I reread the message a few times and looked up as a silverback picked bugs off his shoulder. The whole thing gave me pause. Riders cheating and broadcasting it in absurd fashion and then possibly being in genuine crisis mode. Fellow amateur cyclists sleuthing it out and being whistleblowers to catch a cheater and being humanitarian in an ambiguous and seemingly insincere way. And me, the journalist, eager to find the truth and feeling the sharp edge of concern about a fellow human being as I’m eager to get the breaking news.
This is what almost every doping story is like. People blog and tweet like it takes place in black and white but the reality is messy, where the lines between good and bad are porous. I walked away from the gorilla enclosure and started writing this story in my head.
Someone with knowledge of the USADA investigation confirmed that the agency got one initial tip about Buckley, and then at least a couple more that synched with the narrative. The first thing the agency does when tips come in is to determine whether they are credible. In this case, the answer was a definitive yes. There were tipsters who were not anonymous. There were extremely specific details in the isarms.com thread. More than one tipster had “off-board” communication with Oscar74 to gain corroborating evidence. And officials were able to find digital evidence tying this handle to the real-life Michael Buckley. USADA determined the tips were extremely credible, and took steps to move forward with an out-of-competition test.
USADA declined to answer questions about the specifics of the vetting process. But Ryan Madden, the agency’s media relations specialist, had this to say about USADA’s tip line: “It’s a tremendous resource for us. But I think what’s more important than the line itself, is the resolve of clean athletes to utilize it in a way that helps protect their rights and the integrity of their sport. The truth is, when clean athletes come together, form a community, and fight for what’s right, there is very little that can stand in their way. We just want to make sure those athletes have every available resource at their disposal, and I think the Play Clean Tip Line is a very good example of that.”
USADA has an in-house testing program, and the process got going, stat. The agency has a doping-control officer in the Reno region who conducted the test, who rang the doorbell.
No advance knowledge of the visit was offered. Blood and urine samples were taken and then sent to one of two WADA-accredited labs in the United States — either in Salt Lake City or Los Angeles — for analysis. All testing and notification procedures were conducted in accordance with WADA codes. The A sample was positive, as was the B sample.
In its press release, USADA noted that Buckley was tested positive for one anabolic steroid and three anabolic agents though Carbon Isotope Ratio (CIR) testing. A source close to the case confirmed this. This is an interesting and expensive test to give to an amateur racer. In a nutshell, an athlete’s urine is analyzed to determine the ratio between testosterone and epitestosterone and thus the presence of synthetic testosterone. This is the same test that USADA used when Tom Danielson tested positive last summer.
USADA reported Buckley’s positives at the same time that it shared that he had accepted a four-year ban and that he would forfeit all “medals, points, and prizes” he won on or after December 5, 2015.
I reached out to a couple of sports psychology experts to get a clearer picture of why an amateur would go to such unusual lengths to perform better in amateur races for middle-aged men.
One of them is Dr. Kristin Keim, a former elite cyclist who has a master’s degree in sports psychology and a doctorate in clinical psychology. She runs a practice called Keim Performance Consulting and has worked as a sports psychologist with many professional, Olympic, and elite cyclists.
In her experience, amateurs who cheat are remarkably similar to professionals who cheat, despite the difference in financial upside for the pros. “The same kinds of storylines play in their heads,” Keim said. “They tell themselves they’re not doing anything wrong — they tell themselves they’re taking things to be more optimal. All of them contrive a story like this and all of them believe it.”
When asked about Buckley’s alleged behavior on the message board, Keim said that she didn’t want to comment on the specifics of his case, but noted that many athletes can seem delusional once they are comfortable with their narrative. “The board could actually be a part of the process to convince himself that he’s doing the right thing,” she said. “It could feel like a safe domain, so safe that he loses the ability to put two and two together.”
Keim believes that people who struggle with other substances are more likely to get into trouble with PEDs. “People who are compelled to push the envelope often are looking for other ways to push that envelope,” she said. “There’s a kind of high to feeling like you’re pushing the edge or beating the system or doing what it takes to win.”
“To be an elite athlete, you can’t really be normal,” Keim added. “To be at the top level, you often need to be on the edge of depression or anxiety, or to be bipolar — you need to be on that high or low.”
For a second opinion, I turned to Dr. Nikos Ntoumanis, a research professor of psychology at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. In 2014 WADA commissioned Ntoumanis to assemble a definitive meta-analysis of 63 previous studies to shed light on the psychological factors that are indicators of doping intentions and intent.
Among other things, that analysis found that athletes who use legal supplements are more likely to have a favorable view of doping behavior, as are men, people with ego-oriented personality traits, and those with what the study labeled as “moral disengagement.”
Like Keim, Ntoumanis believes that the psychology of amateurs who dope is similar to the pros. “Obviously, money and fame are not that relevant in amateur sport,” he notes. “But recognition and achievement (or approval by others) within the immediate circle is a motivator.”
When asked to explain why an otherwise intelligent person would offer so many clues about his cheating in a public forum, Ntoumanis was wary to speculate on Buckley’s individual situation, but nonetheless offered this observation: “It is likely that he was hoping to get caught but equally he could have been very naïve,” says Ntoumanis. “There are a lot of naïve people on the Internet talking about the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.”
A former teammate of Buckley’s, an accomplished master’s racer who is insistent that he has never taken a performing-enhancing substance, nonetheless understood why amateurs would cheat, even if there is no fame or money to be earned. “Sure, we don’t stand to make any real money, but at this level you certainly spend a lot of money,” he says. “It’s a lot of time and money. People put a lot in their racing and some want a lot out of it.”
We live in a climate in which the response to new doping stories is swift and without certain kinds of nuance, and the particulars of this situation — an amateur masters cyclist outing himself on a steroid-users message board — merely fanned the flames. Several blogs immediately took Buckley to task for what he had done, including American race commentator Bob Roll. Twitter and Facebook and reddit threads were articulate and unkind. The man formerly known as Oscar74 was an instant pariah.
I am in no way defending his actions, but I am filled with empathy for a cyclist I have never met. Most of us come to amateur sport looking to test ourselves, to challenge our limits and have fun, and cheaters undermine the entire endeavor. One of Buckley’s former teammates wrote me a long email to clarify his own position on doping in the amateur peloton. “There is no place for PED abuse in masters cycling,” he wrote. “Nobody should have to take drugs or risk their health to compete. We are all out there to have some fun and blow off steam. There is no result that is worth drugs.”
We train and we suffer, we occasionally succeed and more often we fail, and we turn the pedals to learn something elemental about ourselves — and the presence of amateur dopers has the potential to ruin these aspirations.
But who among us has not cheated at some element of life? Who has not struggled with demons and sometimes failed? Who holds no mercy for a fellow man whose personal life is in peril over indiscretions regarding a recreational endeavor? For the same reasons that it is pointless to take drugs to win an amateur age-group bike race, it is also pointless to destroy someone for that stupid mistake.
I would argue that a four-year ban might be too short. Maybe Michael Buckley should never race again. But I would share a ride with him any time. Anyone who has ridden that much understands the beauty of riding a bike, the healing powers of turning the pedals. I hope Oscar74 finds a safe place in the pack, and pulls through.
Peter Flax, the former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine, presently works as features editor at The Hollywood Reporter. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore.