Watchdogs Seek Doping Clues From a Distance

Watchdogs Seek Doping Clues From a Distance

GAP, France — As riders in the Tour de France churn their way up the towering Alpe d’Huez on Thursday, not once but twice, Ross Tucker will be watching on television in South Africa 5,500 miles away, laptop and stop watch at the ready, looking for clues to the Tour’s perennial question: Are any of the riders doping?
A smartphone and a laptop are among the tools used by Ross Tucker, who attempts to compare current Tour de France performances with past ones.

Tucker, a 32-year-old physiologist, cannot know for sure, of course. But by using basic physics to estimate riders’ power output up the 13.8-kilometer climb, he said he believed he could compare current Tour performances with those of riders past, particularly those from the heyday of cycling’s doping culture.

His focus will be on one man in particular: Chris Froome, the race leader. In Stage 8 in the Pyrenees, Froome, a British rider on Sky Procycling, sped away from the pack with a power and speed not seen since Lance Armstrong, whose seven Tour titles were stripped because of doping.

Tucker is not accusing Froome of using banned substances, and Froome has never been tied to doping. But Tucker’s efforts to raise concerns have prompted Sky to deride his calculations as “pseudoscience.” Even many scientists in the field question the accuracy of his data and the fairness of his methodology.

“They want to sensationalize certain results,” said Edward Coyle, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin.

But Tucker said that uncomfortable questions are what the sport needs right now to clean up its image. “The scrutiny the questions bring helps, in my opinion, to drive transparency, and build credibility,” he said.

In his gadfly quest, Tucker is part of a small group of physiologists, sports doctors and cycling enthusiasts from around the globe who have formed a loose alliance on the Internet to weed out doping in cycling. Like investigative journalists armed with calculators instead of note pads, they are pressing professional teams to allow independent analysis of riders’ doping tests and physiological data.

Their outside scrutiny is essential, they argue, because many of the athletes revealed as dopers in recent years — including Armstrong — were not exposed by drug tests. Not only did the athletes manage to stay a step ahead of the testing protocols, but the sport itself seemed unwilling, or unable, to clean itself up.

“People want to believe the sport has changed,” said Tucker, a senior lecturer in sports science at Cape Town University, who runs a Web site called Sportsscientists.com. “But the sport is saying: ‘Trust me.’ Well, we trusted you before and before that and before that. And you’ve never, ever delivered on your promises. So let’s get some data.”

Though their work is contentious and often criticized, it is also read by riders and cycling journalists. The debate it has sparked may be having an impact. This week Sky said it may be willing to release physiological information about Froome and other riders for scrutiny by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“Then they could tell the world — and you — whether this is credible or not,” David Brailsford, the team general manager, told reporters on Monday.

In his mild-mannered way, Froome seems genuinely wounded by the questions. Hard training, including at high altitudes, and not drugs, is behind his remarkable run at this Tour, he said this week.

“I think it’s sad that we’re sitting here on the day after the biggest win of my life talking about doping,” he said Monday, a day after he won Stage 15 atop Mont Ventoux. “Lance cheated. I’m not cheating.”

Tucker and his allies talk in the cautious language of science, but at heart they are like scorned lovers, burned by doping revelations about their favorite racers. For Tucker, it was Armstrong. For one of his allies, Michael Puchowicz, a sports medicine doctor at Arizona State University, it was Floyd Landis, whose 2006 Tour victory was stripped after he tested positive for testosterone.

“That was pretty hard,” Puchowicz said.

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