PARIS, Jan 19, 2013 (AFP) – Lance Armstrong’s monosyllabic admissions that
he used a classic cocktail of doping products to win his seven Tour de France
crowns came as little surprise to anti-doping experts.
In his television interviews with chat show host Oprah Winfrey, the Texan
admitted using blood-booster erythropoetin (EPO), blood-doping transfusions,
testosterone and human growth hormones.
All had already been listed by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in the
damning report on which it based the 41-year-old American’s life ban and the
loss of all his cycling achievements since August 1998.
In the 1990s, EPO was the doping product of choice in top-level cycling, as
it could be used throughout the year, even during competition, without fear of
detection until a test devised by a French laboratory came into force for the
In the wake of his admissions, it seems highly likely that the hormone,
which increases red blood cell production, increasing the supply of oxygen to
the muscles and helping endurance, was heavily used by Armstrong in his 1999
and 2000 victories.
That is borne out by an analysis of six samples from 1999, as the French
sports newspaper L’Equipe revealed in 2005.
But from 2001, he had to change his tactics.
“With the arrival of the test, riders had two options: stop using EPO three
to seven days before a race to appear ‘clean’ — although that was only any
good for week-long races where the effect would persist — or resort to blood
transfusions,” said Michel Audran, professor of biophysics at the University
That seems to have been the option favored by Armstrong. By limiting his
race appearances — he never took part in the Tour of Italy in May — he could
organize his transfusion programme in the weeks leading up to the Tour de
“Those who did not ride in the Giro did it in May, the others in the
winter,” said Audran, an expert in blood-doping who bases much of his
knowledge of the affair on documents seized from Eufemiano Fuentes, a Spanish
sports doctor implicated in the Operation Puerto doping case.
Riders would systematically find a suitably private retreat to inject
themselves with EPO, testosterone or growth hormones then take samples of
their own blood, which could be kept for up to seven weeks or longer if they
had a special deep freeze.
“A transfusion during the (mountain) stages in the Alps or the Pyrenees,
usually during a rest day, would be enough to maintain a rider’s form level,”
This had the advantage that EPO injected during the European winter or
spring months remained in the blood serum which was not transfused, while the
haemoglobin was entirely free of any trace of banned substances.
But things changed again in 2005 when random doping controls were
introduced and riders feared being caught in the act.
Perhaps significantly, that year marked the last of Armstrong’s Tour
Tranfusing one’s own blood, which remained undetectable, was still the
doping method of choice for most riders, who, in order to pass doping
controls, abandoned taking large amounts of EPO for smaller doses, or
testosterone patches, which as well as helping repair muscle fibre, has a
similar effect to EPO.
As for growth hormones IGF-1 and insulin — other products likely to have
been in Armstrong’s armoury — they were so difficult to detect that riders
could used them almost with impunity.