CyclingTips Podcast, Episode 43: An interview with Icarus director Bryan Fogel

For the documentary Icarus — which won the first-ever Orwell Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in January, and was released on Netflix on August 4 — lifelong cyclist Bryan Fogel set out to experience the effects of performance-enhancing drugs, and to expose how easy it is to outsmart anti-doping tests.

With the help of Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, director of the WADA-accredited laboratory in Moscow, Fogel used EPO, testosterone, and Human Growth Hormone as he trained for the 2015 Haute Route. Along the way, however, he inadvertently became entrenched in Rodchenkov’s clandestine world, which led back to state-sponsored doping of athletes for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.

By the end of the film, what began as an exploration into PEDs and evading anti-doping tests resulted in the mysterious deaths of two Russian anti-doping officials, with Rodchenkov becoming a key figure in the July 2016 McLaren Report, ultimately disappearing into the United States Federal Witness Protection Program. As Lawfare editor Benjamin Wittes wrote, “A documentary that was supposed to be about one man’s quixotic doping scheme came to be about a whole country’s menacing one.”

We spoke with Fogel about the original mission for the project, with interest on what ended up on the cutting-room floor after his documentary took an unexpected, and unimaginable, twist. The entire interview is presented below, and as a podcast. Click here for a direct download, and here to listen on Soundcloud. 

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Why make this film?

CT: Let’s start with your background in cycling. In the film you mention you had a bad cycling accident when you were young, and that changed your relationship with the sport. Tell us a bit about the role cycling has played in your life.

BF: I grew up in Colorado. I was born in Denver. Then I went to [university] in Boulder. I started racing bikes when I was 13 years old. My first races were the Red Zinger Mini Classics. And I did those all throughout high school. And then when I was 19, but I was still a junior. If I remember, I had just turned 19, but my racing age was 18. I was doing a race Tour de l’Abitibi up in Canada. I did a race right after that called the International Festival Du Hull. I was in a breakaway. There was about 10 of us left. The race was about five kilometers to the finish. It was pouring rain and a guy in front of me — two guys in front of me — starts going down. The guy in front of him hits his wheel, and he’s basically flying over the handlebars. I eat his wheel in my mouth. I end up on the side of a road and realized basically that my teeth are shattered. One tooth has been totally knocked out. There’s another eight that are just shattered. I’m stuck in one of my cleats and needless to say at that moment, I still had the idea that I was going to continue the race. And then quickly realized that that was not happening.

At the time, I was racing Cat 2 and I was still racing juniors, and then I was almost going to be upgraded into Cat 1. The crash was so bad, I ended up taking off almost a year. At the time, I was going to school in Boulder. I went back to race the following year and I just found that psychologically, I was just no longer there. The decisions that you have to make in racing to be competitive, to not miss breakaways, to push yourself on the descent, et cetera. I suddenly found myself holding back on descents, catching myself out in the wind and not staying in the draft because I was worried that I was going to be involved in another really bad crash. And I essentially stopped racing at that point. I continued doing the pack rides in Boulder for the next couple of years. I would continue to ride a lot and train a lot, but I pretty much stopped racing.

As I got out of college, I moved to Los Angeles and got into, essentially, the entertainment business. But cycling remained my passion in life. To this day, it’s remained my passion in life. And even more so as I really got into my thirties. And now I’m in my forties. It’s just remained my therapy. It’s just what I do. It’s the sport of my life that I’ve always had the most passion about. I can’t imagine a day or time in my life that I wouldn’t be wanting to continue to ride.

CT: What can you share about the moment that it dawned upon you to do this project, and particularly given your relationship with cycling, when you made the decision, “I’m going to create, direct, and star in a documentary that involves me doping.” Because there’s a leap to that. That’s something that you don’t just necessarily have the idea and decide you’re going to do it. That’s something, I imagine, you would have to think about for a bit, “Am I willing to go there?” What can you share about that thought process, and what it was that prompted you to ultimately say, “Yes. I want to do this.”

BF: Well, it’s interesting. I haven’t been asked this question. There were multiple variables for me. One was, at the time, I had finished directing this other film that was loosely adapted from a play that I wrote. The film didn’t go as well as I’d hoped it was going to. I found myself in really kind of a depression. Over what was about a year and a half, two years, maybe even three years, I found myself riding more, and more, and more, and more. Through riding more, and I live in Malibu, I was suddenly riding with just all these pros that were out here for training camps, guys like Dave Zabriskie, who was still racing competitively at the time, and his circle. I would joke around that I was “pro-rec” meaning that I was a professional recreational cyclist, essentially. And I was just invited whenever these rides were going along, because I could always hang in. I never slowed anybody down, but maybe I’d get dropped on the last few kilometres of a climb.

And during that time, was also the impending [Lance] Armstrong confession. That obviously would always dominate conversations out on a ride, even among the pros and all the guys that I was riding with.

What I found myself getting obsessed with, on a personal level, was this idea, that a lot of these guys were coming forward with that they had, in fact, doped. So I had this curiosity, this serious curiosity in my mind of, “Huh, what does this do? What does this do?” I had never taken anything. As a cyclist, you read about EPO, and you read about testosterone and HGH, and blood doping. I had this pure curiosity. It was like, “Okay, how much faster does this make you? Would I suddenly be able to hang with Zabriskie?” I had this real personal curiosity of what it is that this does.

And the second thing, and the biggest driving force to me was the Armstrong of it. The guy confesses, and I had believed that he had likely doped because, at that time, Ullrich had come out that he had doped. We knew that Basso had doped. We knew that everybody else of his generation had essentially confessed at that point, or been caught — Pantani, Tyler Hamilton, et cetera. And what was shocking to me of it was that the only way that they get him is through a criminal investigation. This guy, to this day, has technically never failed a doping test.

And not only that, Levi Leipheimer had gotten away with it, George Hincapie had gotten away with it his whole career, and the vast majority of his teammates had gotten away with it their whole careers. And I’m going, “Wait, wait, wait, he’s being presented as a haystack.” And I’m going, “He’s the needle in the haystack.” They’re all doing it, and he still hasn’t been caught. It led me to think, “What is wrong with the system?” rather than “What is wrong with Lance?”

On a personal level, I had a great disdain for how Lance has treated others, how Lance went about his defense, how Lance needed to basically destroy anyone in his path. And that, I have no respect for. But on an athletic level, and to this day, I still view him the greatest champion, or the greatest cyclist, possibly to ever live. I mean because anybody who understands the sport understands that doping or no doping, to win seven Tours de France, it’s unfathomable, the odds that had to be overcome. Lance took cycling to this pure scientific level. He was a machine. And the doping was just one part of him being, essentially, this spectacular, single-minded athlete in pursuit of greatness.

And so to that extent, there were myriad factors that I wanted to explore in the film.

To boil it down, I would say that one, I was very curious on a personal level what doping was going to do for me; two, I was incredibly interested how the anti-doping system had utterly failed to catch the most tested athlete on planet earth; three, I was really surprised by the public reaction, because if you talked to anybody in public who was not deeply in cycling circles, everybody believes — and most people to this day believes — that Lance got caught. He actually didn’t get caught. He confessed. And not only that, the entire system to catch him had failed.

And lastly, I was interested in showing the bigger system, way outside of cycling, which is, “Hey, this is the most tested sport on planet earth.” And at the time when I set out on the journey, “What does this mean for the Olympics? What does this mean for basketball? What does this mean for baseball, football, et cetera, where these guys are not under the scrutiny that cycling is under?”

So these were all the driving factors that set me out on this journey to decide to make the film.

Lance Armstrong, former IOC president Jacques Rogge, and former UCI president Hein Verbruggen, at the 2002 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos.

CT: It’s not cheating to take drugs for a documentary about doping, but there is still that knee-jerk reaction that some people have that, “You were an amateur cyclist and you were taking drugs.” What kind of feedback have you gotten — or how has the documentary been received — from the cycling community?

BF: I think it’s an interesting thing because first of all, the way that I look at it and looked at it was, I didn’t go out and renew my USCF [USA Cycling] license. I wasn’t entering into races. The two races that I did in France were unsanctioned; you didn’t need a license to compete in them. And I wasn’t setting out to cheat. I was setting out to explore and to investigate. I was not a professional cyclist or on a pro team with a salary.

The problem is that if you take that point of view, what happens is that you essentially put your head and bury it in the sand to basically stand on some sort of moral high ground, rather than actually looking deeper into the problem. What I found was divided. Even among the cyclists that I knew, half of them were like, “This is really cool that you’re doing this, and I applaud you that you’re going to really explore this and check this out.” The other half were like, “Oh, my God, how could you? How could you?” And I’m like, “But I’m not a pro. I’m a filmmaker. I’m an investigative journalist. And I’m setting out on an experiment. This is not about cheating. This is about learning about the truth.”

And had I not done this, then where we got to, we would have never gotten to.

Without naming a specific name, there’s one very well-known pro who found out what I was doing, and he was just appalled. He basically told me, “I never want to talk to you again” and all this stuff. Cut to two and a half years later, the film’s done. The guy calls me up and he says, “I want to apologize to you. What you did was the most extraordinary thing and an incredible act of bravery. I can’t imagine it. And now seeing what you did in this film and how you put this together, and what you uncovered, you’ve made the world a better place. I am so happy that you took those risks. I apologize, profusely, for how I treated you and what my perception was.”

So I think that the ends justified the means, which is also half the problem with what’s going on in this fight for clean sport. The clean athletes want to stand on a soapbox, and pretend that everything around them is roses. And yet, they aren’t looking at what is wrong with the system that while it’s their choice to be clean, what are the failures in the system that are allowing other people to cheat them? And so it becomes a moral and an ethical question, rather than a scientific one, or rather even a question of what is fair play.

And so for me, I was out to investigate that, and not to cheat. I never really viewed what I was doing was cheating, because I was documenting it. I was filming it. I was going to come out with what I found, right or wrong. In this film, I was going to come out and go, “Actually, I was wrong. The system works.” Or, “I was right. The system doesn’t work.” Or whatever those findings were, I was going to open up for the film.

So that’s how I would respond to that. I think anybody who thinks that I was a cheater or setting out to cheat has basically got their head in the sand.

The definition of “sport”

CT: There was never actually a moment in the documentary where we learn whether or not you would have beaten the tests, because the urine was at the Moscow lab just as WADA was starting to apply pressure, and therefore Grigory Rodchenkov was not able to test them. Is that correct?

BF: Well, yes and no. Many things happened. We get to a lot of it in the film, and a lot of it we don’t get to. First of all, the shit hit the fan as Grigory was figuring out ways to test my samples even though he shouldn’t have been, through that laboratory. I had brought him about 15 urine samples that I had taken during the [2015] Haute Route, that I had collected before the Haute Route, during the Haute Route, after the Haute Route. He had built a biological passport for me. I had done somewhere in the neighborhood of about 26 blood tests over a period of nine months or 10 months. I was just in and out, getting my blood taken every week. So he had been building my biological passport.

What then happened though, was before we could get everything done, the lab is shut down, he resigns, and his life is in crisis. From what he told me, and what I know, is that essentially, in the biological passport that he had built for me, even though I was taking all this erythropoietin over time, that I could not have been proven positive with the exception of one data point that was questionable — that could have probably been reasonably argued in the CAS system. So it appeared to him that I would have gotten through the biological passport with the exception of one data point among about 26 different tests I had taken.

Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel review Fogel’s urine samples in the Netflix documentary Icarus.

CT: So you never tested positive, but there was one blood sample that would have flagged the biological passport.

BF: Right, that would have flagged the passport. You’ve also got to realize that I didn’t get all the results from the 2015 Haute Route because of what happened. But when he came to Los Angeles that May, he brought back all my urine, and what he was doing was determining my washout period. So in the initial film that I was making, there’s hours and hours of conversations with my doctor and Grigory and all this stuff where we’re figuring out my washout period. We’re figuring out when I could take, and how much I could take, and what would trigger [the doping tests].

But here’s the thing: What I was actually doing isn’t what Grigory was doing for the Russian athletes. For the Russian athletes, he was doing a much more complicated system. I was doing old-school stuff. What he was doing with the Russian athletes, he had developed this three-drug cocktail, which has been widely read about, which basically allowed the steroids to only be passed through — not enter into — the blood system by diluting it in alcohol. He was able to evade the long-term metabolite test, which was allowing all the Russian athletes at the London Olympics to cheat and go undetected. So I wasn’t even using that methodology.

But I do believe that there are so many different ways, and what you ultimately see in the film is, “Forget about the science of it. All that you need is one bad apple and your positives can go away.” So there’s so many different stories I heard along the way of this person who was paid off to do this, this person who was paid to do that, and this bribe that was given for that. It was never ending, which is the bigger thing to me. It’s not whether or not the “science works,” it’s that you have a system that is going to forever be a cat-and-mouse system. And the question is, how do you combat that, other than morals and ethics?

Even, let’s say, hypothetically, cycling is clean right now. Let’s just say that cycling is clean, and that Chris Froome is clean, and that cycling is the cleanest it’s ever been. Let’s say that. I don’t know that equivocally to be true, but certainly the sport is a lot cleaner than it has been in the past. The question then goes into: What is the future?

And if you read any medical journal or science journal, what you see is the exact same thing that is going on in our technological advancements as humans, to allow us to live longer lives, is the same thing that is essentially performance enhancing.

I’m reading that at the genetic level, they have figured out how human beings can just, at birth, naturally create more erythropoietin. They are figuring out how human beings can naturally have their bodies continue to make growth hormones. The list goes on and on and on. There’s a lab out of Japan that just figured out how to synthesize every single anabolic steroid on earth, basically at the genetic level that’s undetectable. I don’t understand the science of it, but the question is not a question of clean sport, it’s a question of science. And unless we believe that human beings are stopping evolving — that there isn’t going to be an iPhone 8, and an iPhone 9, and an iPhone 10 — outside of the moral and ethical questions regarding clean sport, the answer on a very fundamental level, and just flat out scientific level, is that it’s never going to work.

And even if it does work, it’s only a period of time before the next thing. And what is going on right now is the genetic innovation of humans, the same thing as being able to go in, if I have a couple hundred thousand dollars and I want to have a child, I can see to it that my kid is born with blue eyes instead of brown eyes. I can see to it that my kid is going to be 6’2″ instead of 5’8″. I can see to it that he isn’t going to develop prostate cancer, and he probably won’t have Alzheimer’s, and on and on and on. That’s what’s going on.

So within that has to become the question of what is clean sport? How does that exist and what is essentially the athlete of the future?

Bryan Fogel used erythropoietin, testosterone, and human growth hormone in the documentary Icarus.

CT: Although maybe it wasn’t your intent when you started it, based upon the scope of the whole film, how it started and the change that happened midway, and how it ended, you may have broken quite a few hearts along the way while educating people about what’s really going on. It does bring into question whether any [sports fans] can or should believe anything they see.

BF: I think that what happens — and to wax philosophical about this — is that we have this, whatever we want to call it, Judeo-Christian kind of value system of black and white, or right and wrong. But there’s always the shades of gray. The problem is that we’re in a world where sport is a big, big, big-dollar business. Cycling might not be, with the exception of Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan, but this is a multi-trillion dollar industry. And within that industry, essentially the guys who win are the ones we care about. Nobody cares about second place. We don’t care about third place. We care about first place. We want to root for Usain Bolt, we want to root for Chris Froome. When Lance was winning, there was nothing more exciting than Lance. When Barry Bonds was smashing out home runs, that was a spectacular era of baseball.

So I think we have to step back as fans and go, “Hey, what is it that we’re actually asking?” The Lance defense of it is Lance kept saying, “Hey, look, I didn’t win because I doped. I won because I was the best athlete and I was the most single-minded in that pursuit.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I know that all the doping in the world does not negate the hundreds of thousands of hours of training and dedication that it takes to be a spectacular athlete on a world level. So it’s a very hard question, because it divides people in a very strong right-or-wrong ethical sense. I certainly don’t condone doping at all. I don’t condone cheating. But there are so many variables to this question, that you ask, “What is clean sport?”

If I have a tent in my house that I spent $15,000 on to simulate that I’m sleeping at 15,000 or 18,000 feet of elevation, to make my body produce more erythropoietin, there’s no problem with that. But if I take some EPO, there’s a problem with that.

So there’s these constant variables that I don’t have answers for. Even the WADA banned list is just a clusterfuck of what this is. You’ve got a thousand substances on this list, and three quarters, 90% of these substances haven’t even been proven to enhance performance. Most of them haven’t even been proven to be harmful or detrimental to health. And yet they’re just on the list. So what they do is just every year, they just add another 50 substances. Now it’s Meldonium, now it’s this, now it’s that.

So the athlete is in this constant cat-and-mouse game of “What I can take? What I can’t take? Are my substances clean? Did I check in my whereabouts?” They’re checking in 24/7. And at what point is this just a total invasion of somebody’s privacy? And what do we want out of our athletes, short of every athlete on planet earth living in a domed village where they’re micro-chipped and monitored 24/7, and every morning and every night they give a drop of blood and piss into a container? That’s the reality. How do you actually, effectively, police and control this?

CT: What’s interesting is that that’s the reality for athletes that are under WADA code. But there’s this sliding scale in public perception of what is tolerated across different sports. In the U.S. with the NFL, I don’t know anybody who believes the NFL is clean. And I don’t know anyone that really cares. That’s one end of the spectrum. Whereas the sports that are under the IOC umbrella and that are signatories to WADA code are held to a completely different standard. So, in terms of expectations, you’ve got the NFL at one end, and let’s put cycling and swimming and track and field at this other end. In the middle you’ve got Major League Baseball or the NBA, and they’re not under the IOC umbrella, and maybe they do some testing, but it’s a privatized league. So it’s sort of like there is one standard for more of a skill- or agility-oriented sport, like the NBA, and something very different for endurance sports.

BF: Exactly. And it’s never ending. And then what you see, which is so interesting… And again, not to be pro-doping or anti-doping, whatever you want to call doping… “Okay, so I’m a 44-year-old guy. And by the nature of me being a 44-year-old guy, my testosterone level is like 400. And if you’re a 21-year-old guy, your testosterone level is, let’s call it 900. Now you’re talking about a level playing field. Well, if you’re truly saying that you’re competing on a level playing field, shouldn’t I be allowed to bring my testosterone levels to 900 so that I can compete equally — if I have the athletic ability and the training and the prowess — with the 22 year old? Why, because my body has stopped making a hormone that I need to stay competitive, why am I not allowed to supplement that hormone to actually be on a level playing field if that is the concept of what a level playing field is?

There are so many nuances in this discussion that all get caught up into this one word of “doping.”

Look at human growth hormone. Let’s say that Peyton Manning took HGH. I don’t know if he did or not. Let’s say he took HGH. Why are we so mad about it? The guy is a professional football player, being paid tens of millions of dollars a year to play football. He has a surgery, and he can take something to help him recover from that surgery so he can go back to do his job — to heal an injury so that he can go back to work. And somehow, this man is now a diabolical cheater? Why?

You look at the anti-aging industry. On one hand, this is the fountain of youth. It’s being presented as, live longer, live healthier, be stronger, recover, help your body, because as we age as humans, we lose all these hormones, right?

Well, on the flip side of it, this is doping, this is cheating, this is diabolical, and you’re the worst human being on planet earth. So there are just so many questions to this.

CT: Obviously the sporting argument would be that yes, injuries and aging are part of being an athlete. The argument is that we all have to face getting older. Being able to recover from an injury, naturally, is part of the process. I understand your point, but the sporting argument that you would not be allowed to use foreign substances is, “We all get older. We all get hurt. That’s part of being an athlete.”

BF: Yeah, and again, I’m not saying what the rules should be, or what they shouldn’t be. It’s just a constant philosophical debate, because I think that even if it’s not testosterone, if it’s not HGH, if it’s not EPO, there’s always going to be something else.

CT: I actually made the exact same argument you did about Peyton Manning when that happened. I looked at that, and I thought, well first off, it’s the NFL. I think it’s the wild west in the NFL. Again, I don’t know if he took HGH or not, but I would suspect he might have. I looked at it and thought, “He was injured. He wasn’t competing. He was just trying to save his career, and growth hormone would help him recover during a season where he sat out just trying to get back to where he was.” I had sort of the same reaction is, why exactly is that banned in the first place? He’s not out on the field, he’s just trying to fix his neck, his injury.”

BF: I can tell you personally what I found so interesting in taking all this stuff. It wasn’t like all of a sudden I was Superman. That, I was really disappointed by. I had this idea, “I’m going to take EPO and testosterone and HGH and all this stuff. And all of the sudden, I’m just going to go out there and wow, I’m going to beat all my Strava times.” That did not happen. It did not happen.

But what did happen, which was the amazingness of it — which again, calls into the philosophical debate — was, I was recovering. The recovery was amazing. And so I would go out and train. All the same pain was there, all the same dying and all those feelings that cyclists feel when they are pushing themselves to the limit at whatever ability they are. All of that was there.

The only difference is that I could suffer and kill myself and literally go to the place that I feel like I’m going to die, but the next day, I was better able to do that. My body had not torn itself down as radically as it had before. The biggest thing was, which I don’t get into in the film, is at the end of that first Haute Route [in 2014], where I had trained like hell in Boulder…. it’s this seven-day race. The hardest day was 17,000 feet of climbing. The shortest day was 11,000 feet of climbing. It was just brutal. And at the end of that first race, I finished 14th. But the last two, three days of that, I couldn’t even walk.Not only did I not touch my bike for three weeks, I went into rehab. I had Achilles tendonitis. I had hip dysplasia. I was ripped to shreds. I had just destroyed myself.

The second year [2015], I had a technical problem. My Di2 broke and I lost an hour. I had a crash that I don’t show on camera, because we didn’t capture it on camera. I had a flat tire, which I don’t show on camera, because we didn’t capture it, and I lost five minutes because the neutral support van got to me five minutes later. So I’d lost all this time and I probably would have gotten 10th place, but the biggest difference is that I finished day seven of that race with the leaders. There was two guys ahead. And then I came in with the group of 10 right behind. So I was having my very best day in the entire race on the final day of the race. And had that race gone on another week, I would have been fine. I was like, “Bring on day eight. Bring on day nine. Bring on day 10.” I was literally getting better.

I had a physiotherapist. She was working on me every night. About day four, she goes, “You know, this is kind of extraordinary. Your muscles are not deteriorating. You’re not breaking down. You’re recovering.” And that to me, was the most amazing thing — which I attribute to the testosterone and the HGH — that I was able to recover. That recovery, it had nothing to do with how much I would suffer every day. It was just that I was able to recover. That recovery is pretty substantial.

It certainly, again, gets into those questions of, “Well, okay, this is this horrendous three-week bike race,” or what these events are. Philosophically, why can’t you recover? It still doesn’t change how good you are. Philosophically, why shouldn’t you be allowed to recover?

CT: Well, it’s an interesting debate, but at the end of the day, cycling is an endurance sport. It comes down to what the definition of “endure” is. What does it mean to endure? What is it that you’re enduring? And what are the parameters of endurance?

BF: What’s interesting is my notion, despite everything that I covered in the film, as I was going through this personally, what I found very interesting is, as I was taking all these drugs, and hormones, whatever, and training, in my mind, I stopped thinking that I was doing anything against the rules, because I was not only on the experiment, but just in a weird way, it was like, “Oh, my God. I’m killing myself. I’m training harder than I’ve ever tried.”

I can understand how a professional athlete, having went through this myself, I can understand how also, as a professional athlete, you would stop thinking in some ways…. You’re going, “Wait. What exactly am I doing wrong? I’m just taking something to help my body recover.”

It opened up, to me, all these different philosophical debates that I didn’t have when I went into it. When I went into it, I had a very straight black-and-white perspective. I came out of it with so many more questions than I had answers for, and so many philosophical debates that presented themselves to me.

Especially as I started talking to all these scientists and all these doctors. That’s a whole other question. But I did so much research, talking to countless doctors and scientists and those questions that they were bringing up to me… it’s a topic that is never going away.

I don’t think the question is whether or not cycling is clean or not clean, or whether or not sport can be clean or not clean. I think the question is, what, as fans and as participants, are we willing to accept and not accept? And how do we continue to find enjoyment and love and that passion for sport knowing that medical technology and science and human evolution is going to continue?

Breaking point

CT: One thing I never fully understood in the film, was with Grigory — why exactly did he agree to be part of this? I think there was actually one point in the film where you said, “I have no idea why a WADA lab director is helping me.”

BF: I think there’s a real reason. The reason why he helped me was this was a guy who was in this system. I do not condone a single thing that he did. But he was an employee of the Russian government. He was working for the Russian ministry. He came into a system where there never was anti-doping. The anti-doping system was purely the anti-anti-doping system. Everything about it was set up as a fraud. ??So this is a guy who grew up at age 16 years old and his mother’s injecting him with steroids. That’s happening because all of his friends are taking it. Everybody’s taking it.

When we step outside of the Western perspective — we have our Western perspective of right and wrong and this, that, and the other — this is just a guy who, this is how life is, this is how life was , this is how it was done. So this is a guy who was deeply, deeply entrenched in this system.

But what happened to him is that he reached a point where his own integrity was being asked to be sacrificed. And what I don’t get into in the film, is what was going on behind the scenes, and why I know that he offered to help me — and I also know why he became a whistleblower and really, truly wanted to tell this story out.

He went from being a scientist — meaning a guy who believed that he was doing what everybody else was doing, which was just figuring out how to get around the science, and that in his mind, there was a certain element of fair play to that, which you can argue is the Lance Armstrong of it, “Hey, if the science doesn’t work and they aren’t going to catch me, then if I don’t do this, somebody else should. Russia should do this because if Russia doesn’t do this, the United States is going to do this.” That was the mentality of it, “Everybody’s doing it and Russia’s just doing what everybody else is doing.”

When it turned into criminal fraud — which was, this is no longer about a science game of trying to outsmart, in science, and beat the testing, in science, this is now just taking all the drugs you want and basically swapping out dirty urine for clean urine — this is where his morality brought into question.

Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel review Fogel’s urine samples in the Netflix documentary Icarus.

CT: That was his threshold?

BF: That was his threshold. That’s the argument to even be made with the Lance of it, or anything else. Where you go, “Well, hey, if the system doesn’t work, and I believe that everybody else is doing this, okay, then it’s just purely an ethical and moral question, rather than a scientific one.” And then it becomes a question of, “Well how badly do I want to win?”

And so, there was that question. And Russia, being Russia, they looked at it and said, “Hey, China’s doing this. The US is doing this. They’re all doing this. We want to win. Everybody else is doing this. And this is a science equation.”

When it became fraud, that’s when it broke [Rodchenkov]. Out of Sochi, he was promised that this system was going to stop, because he had stopped being a scientist.

I didn’t even get into this into the movie. He had a urine database. He had collected 16,000 clean urine samples from other athletes all over the world that had come to Russia to compete in international competitions. And if they tested clean, they would keep their urine even though they were only supposed to hold it for 90 days. They would catalog the urine, and they built a database of the steroid profile, so that when they needed the urine to swap for a Russian athlete, and they didn’t have that Russian athlete’s specific clean urine, which they were very meticulous about with Sochi, they could pull from that database of clean urine and just pick the closest one and swap it.

So this is what was going on. And it had reached its logical conclusion.

There was another part of this that Grigory had a massive ethical and moral issue with. There were two parts to this. One, which I don’t get into in the film, was part of this program, part of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, was they had to sacrifice athletes. So there was a constant sacrifice of athletes who believed they were being protected under the program suddenly realizing that they were being found positive — because if there wasn’t positives, then it would appear that there was something afoul.

So what Russia was doing, and Grigory had a real issue with this, is a past Russian champion, or somebody that would get third or fourth place, and the ministry would view that they were no longer going to be a champion, or they couldn’t win a gold medal, they would find these people positive and sacrifice them for the greater good.

So constantly there are athletes that are believing that they’re under protection — that Grigory has personal relationships with, because he’s advising them — and suddenly they’re positive. And they’re thinking that they’re being protected. So there was that going on.

And then the biggest part of this was right after Sochi, Vladimir Putin goes and attacks Ukraine. All of a sudden was, people are dying. Literally there is blood on [Rodchenkov’s] hands because Russia, they’re success at Sochi, these 33 medals, gave Russia this spectacular national pride. You look at Germany and the World Cup. After they won that World Cup, it was insanity. That is what sports does, is it unites people. When the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl, six million people turn up for a parade. People are into this.

And in the case of Russia, they’re winning Sochi, Putin’s approval rating shot through the roof, and he used that consolidation of national pride to go and attack another country. People died and were murdered, and [Rodchenkov] had blood on his hands. And that is why he decided to embark on this journey. I think he had a bigger game plan. He knew that the noose was tightening. And I was his way out, to tell this story.

CT: So you had no idea going into this, that that was his ulterior motive. You two sort of used each other, in a sense. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but you needed something from him, but he also, when he agreed to it, he saw something that you could offer him that you were not aware of.

BF: I believe so. And what ultimately really happened was trust, which was this unbelievable story. In the year and a half that I’m working with him and he’s under investigation most of that time, he is basically my advisor. He’s my guru. He is taking these risks, these extraordinary risks to help me basically prove this thesis, to help me make this film. And never once was there a dime of money exchanged, not once ever. This was a friendship. We were on this journey together. And then, when the tables turned, and that investigation comes out November 2015, he is truly in jeopardy of his life. I was the guy that he trusted. I was the guy that he knew was going to protect him. And it was because he had protected me. It was the friendship, truly this friendship that the two of us developed, that allowed this story to come forward, the movie to be made, and what happened, happened.

Beneath all of it was a friendship, a true trust and care about each other. He knew that when he came to me, because of the trust that we had built, that I wasn’t going to go run to tell the story. I wasn’t going to do anything without seeing for his wellbeing. He put his life into my hands, essentially. That was an extraordinary responsibility and very, very, very stressful.

Ultimately, it was a decision to bring this story forward. We did it for all the clean athletes in the world, that is really the bottom line. You see it on the faces in that WADA meeting in the film where I’m presenting what had happened. I’m sitting there with Beckie Scott, who’s the head of the WADA Athlete Committee, and Claudia Bokel, who was in charge of the IOC Athletes’ Commission. You’re seeing these two athletes that have spent their lives competing under the Olympic credo and believing, essentially, in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny, and seeing that every value that they had held out to be truth in sport was being taken from them. And that there have been thousands, and thousands, and thousands of medals stolen from athletes who might have otherwise won, or stood on that podium, because they were cheated. That was a pretty huge burden to bear. It was also why we decided to go to the New York Times, because I had no faith in the IOC. I had no faith in WADA. And I had no faith in the Department of Justice of the United States that this story would come forward in the way that it needed to come forward, and that it wouldn’t be obstructed and destroyed and picked apart before the truth came out.

That was part of Grigory’s decision too. We wanted to make sure that this came out before the Rio Olympics. We wanted to make sure that the athletes of the world that had been cheated, whether or not they could do anything about it or not… that this knowledge was not there. Because that’s the only way that there can be change, whether or not the anti-doping system has a solution in all of the hurdles that it faces, there has to be integrity within the leadership of these organizations — the Olympics and the individual sporting federations — to uphold rules. Because if not, what is the point of the Olympic games? What is the point of any of these competitions if the organizers themselves are basically encouraging you to cheat? Because there’s really no punishment in that.

Doping at the Haute Route

CT: Let’s circle back to riding the Haute Route on performance-enhancing drugs. Did you feel like you were cheating any of the riders there?

BF: No, no. I didn’t. There were multiple things. One, the race said that they tested. They didn’t test. Two, there was all these guys in their thirties and forties, and I believe that the vast majority of them were taking something. And third of all, there were no prizes. There was no money to be had. It’s guys, basically masochists, from all over the world that are going to do this thing.

The guy who won the event like six years in a row is a guy by the name of Peter Pouly. And I am not saying that he was doping or not, because I don’t have any proof of it, but what I do know is the guy basically holds the record on Strava of every single climb in the Dolomites, in the Alps, and in the Pyrenees. If you go look this guy up, he holds like every single Strava record, unless, now, eBikes or something have destroyed it. I don’t know. He’s got faster times than all the guys in the Tour de France up these climbs. And not only that, he rode in two Tours de France. He was found doping, and instead of serving his suspension, he retired and got sponsored by the country of Thailand to be its cycling ambassador. And he now comes and does these Haute Route races every year where he wins, and is basically the ambassador to cycling in Thailand.

So, look, I have no idea if he is clean or not. But there’s certainly a lot of suspect information, and this guy is riding on a level… I mean, his times up these climbs, when you look at his Strava times, are literally like Chris Froome-caliber times. I mean, this guy was on a whole other level of anybody else in the race. He came in, in both of those years, and decimated it. But then he won it again last year. He won it for two years before I got there. I mean, his closest rival he beat by like 30 or 40 minutes.

Bryan Fogel, exhausted at the conclusion of the 2015 Haute Route Alps, where he finished a disappointing 27th. One year earlier, without using performance-enhancing drugs,  he finished 14th.

CT: Have you had any communication with Haute Route organizers since the film was released?

BF: No. I’ve got a communication from some of the race people that shot it, how beautiful the footage is. Look, the film is an extraordinary advertisement for the Haute Route. I mean, wow. What amateur hardcore cyclist doesn’t now want to go do the Haute Route? I mean, it’s an amazing event. And the scenery and the organization behind it is pretty awesome. There’s not anything like that in the United States; they brought one to Colorado this last year. I would think that anybody in the Haute Route organization should be incredibly grateful that I’ve given their race that level of exposure that tens of millions of people around the world are going to see.

CT: In your estimation, do you think that Haute Route is interested in having a clean event? Or do you think that’s not their priority?

BF: Look, here’s the thing — the cost of testing is incredibly expensive, right? So who’s going to pay for this? Who’s paying for the testing? And that is even half the problem of the current system, where … Who’s paying for it? Who’s paying to do a carbon isotope ratio test for testosterone? Who’s paying to do the better testing for HGH, which can actually determine HGH in a smaller period, versus the current test that most organizations, and the NFL, and everybody else uses, that basically allows you to not be able to detect HGH after 12 hours? Who is paying for the advanced detection of erythropoietin in blood?

So you’re talking about incredibly expensive stuff. And who’s paying for this? This is an amateur race that is a for-profit event, right? And there’s no prizes at stake other than bragging rights and Strava times. So who’s paying for this?

CT: At the professional level, pro cycling teams are paying for it. That’s actually a substantial part of their budget. [An initial estimation in the conversation was incorrect, the figure is closer to $200,000 per WorldTour team per year. — Ed]

Bryan: You just look at this, and these guys … And I don’t know what the solution is. I mean, these guys are under 24/7 Whereabouts programs. They have no privacy. They’re being woken up at two or three in the morning, as they’re supposed to be recovering. They’re constantly getting their blood taken, their urine taken. I mean, it’s really kind of nutty that our athletes are turning into these human pin-cushions. It’s a very complicated issue of how this system ultimately works, and what is involved in that. If you are truly a professional athlete, subscribing under your federation’s protocol and under the anti-doping federation’s protocol, and subscribe to the Whereabouts program, you might as well be wearing a collar and be under house arrest. It’s serious.

CT: I realize you’ve been busy putting the film together, and everything that comes with after it’s released, but do you still ride? And if so, do you still feel any long-term effects from the performance-enhancing drugs you used in the film?

BF: It’s funny. I saw that it was actually yesterday, two years ago today, that the second Haute Route ended. And it was basically two years ago today that I went from being a professional recreational cyclist, training 16-20 hours a week, to getting out on my bike a couple hours a week at best. So I haven’t been riding like I’d like to. Hopefully I’ll find time to be able to do that again, in the near future. Because I really love it.

As to the long-term effects… first of all, I experienced no negative side effects. And I’m not a doctor, but pretty much everything I was taking, with the exception of erythropoietin, I was able to get a prescription for through the auspices of anti-aging. And then I was being monitored, and my blood levels checked, and all that stuff, too, to try to keep it at safe levels.

So I didn’t experience any negative side effects, and quite the contrary. I experienced better recovery, better libido, I found myself sleeping better. Better metabolism. My body just seemed to be metabolizing fat better, with the increase in hormones. My Achilles tendonitis went away, my hip dysplasia went away. I was having these knee problems, that went away. So you’re kind of going, “Wait. All these ailments suddenly are going away, and I’m sleeping better, and I’m recovering better, and my libido’s amazing, and I’m burning fat.” It was kind of like, “Huh. I don’t know what the negatives are.” Other than if you’re a competitive cyclist, or athlete, and you’re under WADA Code, and the rules are that you don’t take this. And that’s the rules, so I believe that you should be clean, 100%, if you’re competing.

But if you’re an amateur, and you’re out there and just enjoying the sport, and you’re just out there and just love the sport, and you’re training for your own purposes, and you’re in your forties, or in your fifties, or in your sixties, my own personal experience would say that these really helped in my recovery, and just helped my overall wellbeing.

CT: And when you say, “the sport,” I’m assuming you’re referring specifically to the activity of cycling, and not amateur racing. Because obviously, if you’re taking performance-enhancing drugs, even at an amateur level, you would still be cheating other amateur racers who aren’t taking drugs. So when you say, “enjoying the sport” you mean enjoying the activity of cycling — correct?

BF: Right. If you have a USCF [USA Cycling] license, if you’re going into licensed events, then you should be competing under the rules. And the rules are, “You don’t take this stuff.” That’s the rules. And you have that code among other athletes. And if I was a licensed cyclist, and I was competing in Masters, or as a Cat. 2, or whatever that is, I flat out wouldn’t take this stuff. Because those are the rules.

And cheating at the amateur level is just so lame anyway. I mean, you’ve just got to be just such a loser. So, what, you’re just beating somebody to beat them? I mean, there’s not even prizes or money. It’s just like, “So, why you going to go in there?” And how can you feel good about that? Oh, great. So you cheated somebody, and you’re an amateur. In that case, you’re just a loser.

Doping for a documentary: Bryan Fogel set out to experience firsthand the effects of performance-enhancing drugs, while also seeking to expose how athletes can outsmart anti-doping tests.

CT: The male ego can be a powerful thing.

Bryan: Right. But if you’re just riding recreationally, and you’re out, and you’re not racing, and you’re not licensed, and you’re not going in and competing under those rules, there certainly seems to be some positive side effects as far as overall health and recovery, especially as we age.

But what I’m hoping will come of this film, for me, is a couple of things. Outside of the doping, and cycling, and anti-doping, and all that stuff that you and I have discussed, I think the bigger questions are, “What are we, as a planet, willing to tolerate in terms of the Olympics, and what these games are?” Because, to me, the film calls into question, “Why are we having the Olympics?” What is the point of the Olympics if we see how the Olympic body themselves have operated in the face of this spectacular scandal — and how they have basically failed to try to protect any single athlete on planet Earth that is actually going in and competing in these games under the credo that they’ve set forth?

I think we have to look deeper, and look at this film as a keyhole into “What is Russia willing to do to assert itself on a global and geopolitical level?” And what this film shows is that, beyond a reasonable doubt, they have perpetrated this level of fraud in the sporting world. And if they were willing to do that over the last 40 years, what else are they willing and are they capable of? And what are we willing to accept?

And so when you look at the current election hacking, and the meddling, and the current U.S. administration, the questions have to be brought up as to, are we going to accept this? Are we going to accept a foreign power meddling into our democracy, and into our political process, in this capacity? Because the same thing that they have pulled off for 40 years in sport in the Olympics they seem to be able to now pull off in regard to politics and our own electoral process. And what are we going to do about this? Because we see that there is zero accountability. I mean, what we’re seeing in the fallout of this film is that, even with all this evidence, Russia has still not admitted it. They’ve still not confessed. They’ve still not apologized.

I mean, so these are the bigger questions that I’m hoping that people will take from this.

And in regard to athletes around the world, the Olympic athletes who are going into these games clean have got to band together and say, “We’re not going to accept this. We’re not going to participate in these games if you’re not going to protect us. As the athletes who are coming there, who have trained and spent our whole lives preparing for this opportunity, knowing that a country can come in and cheat and steal our medals, and there’s no punishment for that.”

So these are the much bigger questions than that which is of [specific] interest to the cycling community, and amateur cyclists, and enthusiasts of the sport. These are, to me, the takeaway questions of this film that I hope will be thrust into a much broader and bigger narrative.

Leaving a legacy

CT: I’m sure your mind must have been blown on a regular basis towards the end of this project. What you had started out to produce began crossing these, as you said, these geopolitical lines. All of a sudden you’re five people removed from Vladimir Putin. The last question I wanted to ask, and maybe it’s one and the same question, or maybe it’s two questions: How has your life changed since the film was released? And specifically, Grigory is now in the Witness Protection Program, and there is reason to believe that his life may be in jeopardy. What about you? Based upon your relationship with him, do you fear for your safety? If so, would that be how your life has changed since the film was released?

Bryan: Well, look, I mean, my life has changed in so many ways since the film was released, and the making of this film, from Sundance to now. I mean, it has been game-changing for me in every way, on a career level, on a filmmaker level, et cetera.

On a personal level, I think everybody… We all make certain choices in our lives. And those choices may be right, they may be wrong, they might put you at risk. But they’re our choices. I followed this story. I pursued this story. And ultimately, this story came and manifested itself to me. And I made a choice that it was more important to me, and in the greater good of this planet, and the greater good of all these athletes, and our democracy, that I operate with integrity in bringing this story forward.

I’m sure I could’ve sold this to the Olympics, and they probably would’ve paid anything to sweep this under the rug. I probably could’ve gone to Russia… There’re so many places where I could’ve basically just decided that, “Hey, I would rather profit than do this.” Or, “I’m scared of the risk, and I don’t want to take on Putin. I don’t want to take on Russia, and this is not worth the risk to my life.”

But, then, that’s being a coward, and I don’t believe in being a coward. And I think it’s the same mentality of anybody who’s into cycling. It’s the same kind of thing of why you want to go climb Mont Ventoux, or why you put yourself through these insane endurance events. There’s just kind of this spirit about it. And I actually think that it’s been my background as a cyclist which has made me pretty tough, and not scared. Because every single time I go out on that bike, I’m taking risks. And this film just was an extension of that, to me. So I try not to focus too much on that.

I also know that if something happens to me… Russia is not ISIS. They don’t claim responsibility for anything. You’re just going to have a heart attack, or end up in some random accident. And I’m hoping that I’ll be okay. Regardless of that, I have a legacy of my work. I think that anybody that goes through life wants to leave a legacy, and I have one now.