Does cannabis belong in bike racing?

by Shane Stokes


Opening up a conversation about drugs in cycling world is dangerous. One quickly falls into a big black hole of past scandals that continue to taint our sport. But riders like Floyd Landis and Teal Stetson-Lee are willing to take the risk if it means de-stigmatising the use of cannabis.

These days, the once disgraced ex-Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, welcomes his association with drugs. In the years after his Tour de France victory and subsequent drug bust, Landis struggled with opioid addiction, an ugly reminder of hip surgery in 2006. His solution? Weed. Praising the cannabis’ non-addictive analgesic properties, he’s become an evangelist for the drug, fighting for its normalisation and even investing in a cannabis oil company.

As legalisation of the drug is increasing in the U.S., should cycling ease its stance on marijuana and its derivatives? An increasing amount of riders and industry folk are saying yes, it’s time.

Marijuana laws are rapidly changing in the US. Twenty-nine states currently allow the medical use of marijuana and six states have legalised the recreational use of cannabis as well.

Yet in sports, the use of cannabinoids of any kind — without an approved Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) — are strictly prohibited for athletes. That includes cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD does not contain tetrahydrocannabinolis (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis.

However, this is about to change.

In October, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released its updated banned substance list, which no longer included CBD along with alcohol, mitragynine and telmisartan.

This means that starting January 1, 2018, athletes are permitted to use CBD as long as it does not contain THC.

Floyd Landis, inspecting the his product. Photo courtesy Floyd’s of Leadville.

Cannabis, the medicine

As the United States slowly comes to accept the medicinal and therapeutic qualities of cannabis, an increasing amount of athletes are turning to cannabidiol (CBD) as an alternative to other pain killers and anti-inflammatory agents.

With little to no THC, CBD products have none of the psychoactive effects (the “high” feeling) associated with marijuana but have been proven effective in treating pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia.

There have been some high profile athletes in the sport of football and baseball advocating for the use of CBD in recovery and pain management. The cycling world, too, is coming around.

Former professional cyclist Floyd Landis has been an outspoken advocate for the drug since his hip replacement led to an opioid painkiller addiction. Seeking a non-addictive alternative, Landis was introduced to cannabis and CBD. He became a believer. So much so that the disgraced Tour de France winner founded Floyd’s of Leadville, a hemp seed oil company that specialises in CBD daily supplements marketed at athletes.

“As a resident of Colorado, I discovered cannabis as a way to tailor my pain management and take control of my life,” Landis told CyclingTips “Soon I was no longer dependent on habit forming pills with their negative effects on my health. In fact there were many, positive effects from cannabis. I was pain-free and for the first time in a long time. I started to feel happy.

“This is something that creates a lot of value and benefits for people that probably at one time thought it was taboo and wouldn’t have gone near it.”

Other cannabis companies are jumping on the athlete connection as well. Nevada-based cannabis cultivation and extraction company Kynd is using athlete ambassadors promote the benefits of cannabis and its extracts for medicating, for recovery and for enhancing recreational experiences.

With support from Kynd, enduro and cyclocross racer Teal Stetson-Lee became one of America’s first professional cyclists to be sponsored by a cannabis company, a role she does not take lightly.

“It’s a bit of a dark black hole opening up the conversation around substances, especially on the road side because that sport has been plagued with some significant scandals that are not that far in our past,” Stetson-Lee said. .

“I think the whole cannabis conversation is an important conversation to have. The legalisation of it, recreationally, in a variety of different states now only just exemplifies the fact that it’s here it’s on our doorstep and it’s here to stay. And so as a culture we need to start delving into all of the different facets of the conversation. Sweeping it under the rug and pretending it doesn’t exist by making it illegal is not the right approach.”

When it comes to cycling and marijuana, Stetson-Lee’s message is clear:

“Cycling and marijuana go well together and it should be legal,” she said, advocating for both the medicinal and recreational use of all cannabinoids.

While she’s a vocal believer and user of the drug, as a professional athlete, she’s careful to adhere to the rules of competition even as she challenges them.

“During my enduro season, drug testing is not a part of that sport at this point, and so I have less of a concern for using medicinally and recreationally during the course of my enduro season. But for cyclocross, there is UCI testing so for that season, I try to keep my system clean so that I am following the rules until the rules change,” she said.

WADA’s removal of CBD from its banned substance list is a step in the right direction, Stetson-Lee said.

“Although it’s controversial, I can have a conversation with anyone any day about the issues with our extreme opioid addiction that’s rampant in the US, and the way that athletes have medicated themselves on substances that are much more harmful and have long-term damaging effects to their bodies,” she said.

“There’s the whole variety of over-the-counter drugs that people take for dealing with pain and dealing with chronic issues and all of those have actually been proven to have damaging effects on your liver and your intestines with longterm use. So having a viable option out there for people to use that an alternative substance that has less damaging effects, I think is kind of a no-brainer.”

Cannabis, the recreational drug

Medicinal benefits aside, what really gets Stetson-Lee fired up is hypocrisy behind the marijuana stigma.

Cannabis derivatives containing THC are a popular recreational drug as it alters the state of mind — ranging from a euphoric feeling to feeling relaxed or even hallucinations — not unlike alcohol.

“Alcohol is a recreational substance that’s culturally accepted and people use to self medicate for various reasons. Though it doesn’t have any medicinal properties to it, people can alter their mind states using alcohol without it being frowned upon,” she pointed out.

The public perception about marijuana is only just starting to change, however, and it’ll be another five-to ten- year process before we see a full cultural shift, Stetson-Lee projected, especially in the sporting world.

“Those conversations are coming from more of a medicinal angle because it’s safer that way. It makes people less nervous, yet the rebel in me wants to push back against that and say, but marijuana is recreational too and that’s cool, too. But in order to warm people up to the conversation, especially at the pro level, it has to start in small steps like that.”

“It’s important for athletes to step up and say. ‘I use marijuana and here’s how it helps me’. It makes the conversation a bit more normalised.”

Cannabis and performance

While WADA has now officially recognised CBD as a non-performance enhancing substance, THC remains strictly prohibited.

The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a signatory of WADA, explains why.

“Cannabis can cause muscle relaxation and reduce pain during post-workout recovery. It can also decrease anxiety and tension, resulting in better sport performance under pressure. In addition, cannabis can increase focus and risk-taking behaviours, allowing athletes to forget bad falls or previous trauma in sport, and push themselves past those fears in competition,” the USADA website states.

Additionally, cannabis poses an actual and potential health risk.

“A number of studies show that marijuana use may cause a variety of health risks. These risks include negative effects on respiratory, cardiac, and mental health. Frequent marijuana smokers can experience respiratory problems including more frequent acute chest illness and a heightened risk of lung infections,” USADA claims.

And finally, there’s the question of sportsmanship behaviour.

“[The use of cannabis is a] violation of the spirit of sport: Negative values and ethics included in sport, and beyond sport, are considered in this criteria. Due to the illegal nature of marijuana in most countries, the use or abuse of marijuana does not exhibit the ethics and moral judgment that upholds the spirit of sport.”

Stetson-Lee said that while recognising the potential judgement risks of in-competition marijuana use, she found the performance-enhancing argument laughable.

“In the events that I compete in, I could not see getting high before an event as an advantage in any way. [Cannabis] certainly is a mind-altering substance so it does affect your ability to react quickly, to be sharp, to be focused and be responsive,” she said.

“There are those who use before going out on recreational rides as a way to connect with the outdoors, but in the realm of competition, I don’t see it as performance enhancing in any degree.”

De-stigmatising the drug through sponsorship

While governing bodies in and outside the sporting world are grappling with legalities, the young marijuana industry is booming.

States where recreational marijuana has been legalised are reporting significant economic benefits from massive tax revenues, job creation and new income.

And for one American cycling team, a new industry means a new funding potential.

Grown Rogue, a cannabis company out of Medford, Oregon, is the first cannabis brand to become the title sponsor of cycling team.

The Portland, Oregon based cycling team formerly known as Olympia Beer Cycling will be carrying the Grown Rogue name next season, hoping to de-stigmatise the use of cannabis in the process.

“We are now the first racing team to be title-sponsored by a cannabis manufacturer,” said team owner Dave Aldersebaes proudly. “Cannabis is an economic mover for Oregon and for the whole Pacific Northwest. It’s exciting to be part of this changing landscape.”

A prominent feature in the Pacific Northwest racing scene, the team has a development and elite component for both its men’s and women’s programs, and has fostered several professional riders over the years.

When Aldersebaes gained employment with Grown Rogue, he saw a unique potential.

“From a branding standpoint, this is exciting to me because no one has ever done this before. There aren’t many established brands in the marijuana industry yet. The whole industry is so immature that there is no Coco-Cola yet, there is no Kleenex yet, and that’s part of my job — to promote that branding,” he said. [The cycling team] is just an extension of that, you know, rolling billboards.”

He is, of course, well-aware of the legalities and stigma of cannabis and cycling, and ensured his riders are equipped with information and talking points.

“Sure we are promoting cannabis but we are promoting it in the most responsible way through healthy, active lifestyles, and making sure that people enjoy it responsibly,” he said before clarifying that not all his riders consume the drug and that rules of competition are adhered to.

“If we can be a mouth piece for cannabis for pain-relief or relaxation or anything that can help them, great. This is just another brick in the wall of de-stigmatising everything about pot. The genie is out of the bottle, people using it and they’re using it responsibly, and if you want to go down the statistical road, it’s a lot safer than any other recreational drug.”

Floyd Landis agreed.

“Grown Rogue Cycling is another extension of the viability of the cannabis market, and another sign people’s – and athletes and the companies that sponsor them – attitudes are changing after decades of negative stigma,” he said.

And at the end of a day, it’s just another logo on a cycling jersey.

“From a sales point of view, it’s like any other product out there in terms of visibility and promotion,” said Aldersebaes. “There are all sorts of weird companies on cycling kits that have nothing to do with the sport.”

Pictures courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons and Floyd’s of Leadville. Feature Photo: cc/(Team Vaping360) Secondary photo: cc/(eggrole)

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