I know what it feels like to sports dope

October 11, 2012

The recent news about Lance Armstrong and his numerous teammates, who are now confessing to having doped, raises parallels to cheating in the profession of science. I suggest you read the linked stories which all contain a fair bit of excuse making from the confessed cheats. “Everyone is doing it”. “I always wanted to be a cyclist”. “I was ambitious” and “They told me I had to if I wanted to survive at this level”. You will also notice that to a rider they appear to say that they made it all the way into the professional ranks without cheating. The hard way. With work and talent. So far the cycling doping stories are free of anyone claiming that they started out as a cheat from day one as a 15 year old amateur. And larded up with stories of long, hard hours on the bike as a teen.

Sounds a lot like academic scientists who make excuses for their scientific fraud, doesn’t it?

Another consideration which fails to emerge is the very nature of the top level competition, 20 days worth of hard racing, 4-8 hrs per day in the Grand Tours. Not clear it is possible for feats of sustained excellence to occur without doping, is it? Do you wonder about what it takes for a record of sustained excellence represented by multiple Cell, Nature and/or Science publications year in, year out from the same lab? You should.

Anyway, I thought I would revisit this personal observation, reposted from my blog.

BikeMonkey Cross-Post
It was someplace in the middle of my college years and I was home for the summer. I went to a circuit race that I’d raced a few times over the years. It was maybe a mile per lap, around a park.

Normally the circuit race is my game…..crits (under a mile, four corners around a block, typically) were cool, in theory, but I didn’t usually have a team capable of support and I’m kind of a wuss at the high-speed, elbow rubbing, apex cornering mid-pack thing. So a full-mile, maybe 1.5 circuit suited me well. Slightly less importance on repeated, high-speed cornering, lengthier straightaways to group up and the possibility of a short rise. Now, I sucked ass at hill climbs, true, but short power climbs, taken up out of the saddle were doable. Short enough and they were actually an advantage to me.

The course had a hill early in the lap after four right angle corners. Then it was about 30 feet of gain from 0.22 mi to 0.37 mi and then it was drifting up, almost flat up to 0.7 mi, then back down to the start line. Just after the course started downhill there was a acute turn, sharper than 90….crank it up to the 1.0 mi mark, bank a 95-100 degree left and it was about a tenth of a mile to the line.

Races were maybe 45 min at that point? I was in the Cat IVs so that seems about right. That would make it on the order of 18 laps or so? maybe 20. Not so far but believe me, you were hauling ass the whole time.

I always loved this course and had managed a prime (intermediate sprints within the race) or two over the years but had never won. My memory suggests that I was never in there for the finish…for whatever reason. Most usually because the climb had me at my limit. I could hang for most of the race, and be at the front enough by the start of the downhill to dice for primes at the bottom of the course. But in the end, someone would light it up enough over the climb late in the race for me to lose contact with the front.

Not this year…..

I was FLYING. I mean, I didn’t feel like Superman, toying with the other riders. I didn’t feel like I was riding a motorcycle. I was working my ass off, dicing it at the front through the danger zones, then sitting in. Chasing down breakaways a few times…. and above all else, strategically climbing the hill. No big deal, I was racing. And I’d get tired….and have to back off for a lap.

But every lap, I was in there. Coming through the left-hand turn that started over the crown of the hill, I would gain places, slip up to the front….shut dudes down. I may even have had to chase down some real climbers on a lap or two. And my HR would spike. But then I’d settle down and catch my breath and get back to where I needed to be.

And there I found myself, last lap. Up the right-hand side as we hit the corner in the middle of the hill…jamming up to the slightly strung out front 10. Slipping into the top five just before the turn onto the downhill…and then I nailed it. It was downhill so I don’t even remember the usual dramatics….flat or uphill and my back wheel was typically jumping around a bit when I spooled up a sprint. But I was goooooooone. Flew into the final bend a bit hot and I do remember juuuuuust not clipping the curb on the outside…and then it was up again and across the line.


Of course, I hadn’t been doping, not really. But I HAD been training and racing above 6,000 feet for many months prior to this race. No doubt I had a significant red blood cell advantage over many of my competitors that day. I certainly had one over my own historical races on that course.

This is what EPO does, of course. Increases oxygen carrying capacity. So does blood doping.

Several years ago I started to realize that this is why you see so much explaining and defending out of the cycling dopers that get caught. “Everyone is doing it”. “I had to if I wanted to keep my (domestique) job”. “I had a bad day and needed to stay with the team”. “You still have to put in the work!”.

Yeah….yeah you do. And no, you don’t feel like you are cheating.

What you feel like is …”finally! I feel right. Like I’m where I should be based on my training!”

I can see how it would be very easy to convince yourself it wasn’t exactly cheating.

But it is.

No Responses Yet to “I know what it feels like to sports dope”

  1. Okay, the motivation may be similar, but where the analogy to scientific misconduct fails, is that besides letting down their fans by breaking semi-arbitrary rules of a game, sports dopers haven’t really harmed society. It’s not exaggeration to say (especially in the biomedical field) that scientists who have “cheated” by falsifying results have actually *killed* people (if indirectly).


  2. bikemonkey Says:

    I don’t see where falsifying whether cotton top tamarins point to themselves in a mirror is going to kill people.

    Are you not familiar with the rash of young, fit professional cyclists who died in their sleep of sudden cardiac arrest?


  3. Grumble Says:

    Suppose you’re about to do a critical experiment that, unbeknownst to you, will lead directly to the pharmacological cure for drug addiction. Then you read a paper about how cotton-top tamarins point to themselves in a mirror. You get so excited, you just *have* to replicate that study. So you waste a year trying to do it. In the meantime, that critical addiction experiment languished at the back of your mind.

    What’s the yearly death toll from addiction?


  4. It’s harder to see the health harm as the science becomes less applied, it’s true — but falsified basic cognitive science like what Hauser was doing leads to flawed understanding of the brain and thus flawed (and possible fatal) treatments down the road.

    I don’t really follow the argument about the cyclists. Is the argument that they died of drug complications and that they were only using because Armstrong did?


  5. physioprof Says:

    Do you wonder about what it takes for a record of sustained excellence represented by multiple Cell, Nature and/or Science publications year in, year out from the same lab? You should.

    This is an absolutely despicable insinuation. You should be ashamed of yourself.


  6. anon Says:

    Why would you call that a despicable insinuation?. Is it not possible to ask whether what has happened in sports could be happening in science, business, and so on and so forth?


  7. Busy Says:

    Do you wonder about what it takes for a record of sustained excellence represented by multiple Cell, Nature and/or Science publications year in, year out from the same lab?

    I’ve met many superstars like the CNS types you mention and found that there are all types: from touched-by-god geniuses that do everything by the book, producing Nobel quality research time and time again while mentoring their grad students into successful academic careers and writing classic textbooks all the way to slime balls that publish student work under their names, fake data and steal other people’s results from the review cycle, and all points in between.


  8. BikeMonkey Says:

    Whining about how horrible insinuations (actually more or less an assertion) are is a sure sign of the type of reality denial that allows sports doping practices to continue unchecked. You should be ashamed of your naivete if you really think that all these high IF retractions are not really a symptom of an underlying cancer in the system but rather a statistically insignificant number of rogue actions.

    Now admittedly, it cannot be only fraud sustaining all labs which consistently hit the high level journals. Some, the rare few, may be deserving. In some ways, the analogy breaks down as well. There is a grey area of “not the way it is supposed to work” in science publication that doesn’t have a quasi-licit behavior analog in professional cycling.

    But then again, lots of Armstrong’s teammates claim that they stopped doping at some point….and they continued to perform at a high level. Because they got there in the first place through fraud. You should think about that in the context of people only getting busted at the ORI level after repeated and sustained cheating.


  9. Dave Says:

    There was a time when winning the tour was impossible without meds, no doubt. I *think* that time has come to an end for now, but I don’t know that it will last. There isn’t that much difference between training at altitude and using EPO and so there is an argument to be made that altitude training should be banned also (I’m looking at you DM!)

    There are some superstars who can produce CNS year in, year out, but I have never been suspicious of these people. There are usually a few characteristics that these guys share: (1) there are in a hot, hot field (usually stem cells/development), (2) their pedigree is immaculate and they have been publishing in CNS since post-doc, and (3) they are at good institutions and have a lot of money/staff.

    Once you get ahead in the game, it is easier to stay in the lead.


  10. DJMH Says:

    I have been in one lab that hits repeated high profile papers every year, and it was through hard honest work. I may not have liked everyone in the lab, but their CNS papers were in no way due to cheating, lying, or misrepresentation.


  11. Mike_F Says:

    There is one clear difference between a cyclist who wins the Tour De France every year, and a research lab’ that publishes multiple high profile papers every year – the first author (the one that did the heavy lifting) is usually not the same person on all those publications. DM’s insinuation might have some merit if the same individual was publishing multiple first author high profile publications every year over a long period; but a large multi-postdoc HHMI or MPI lab’ can certainly do it in an above-board manner. Moreover, many of those groups have multiple postdocs that end up without such publications – suggesting that there is no merit to DM’s insinuation except in rare cases.


  12. BikeMonkey Says:

    The cast of domestiques changes on a TdF squad from year to year and the rider tapped as the GC “protected” guy can change too.


  13. rs Says:

    Agreed with Dave and DJMH. In the high profile lab I was, the atmosphere was stressful, but the C/N/S paper came out after a hard work and a lot of politics (fighting with editors, involving other high profile big shots for reference etc etc), but data was real in all cases. First couple of papers needed all these guarding, but later it became easy as the lab was getting known for high profile articles. Don’t know how it will go in the long run.


  14. BikeMonkey Says:

    Some of us view that “politics” in the same vein as sports doping.


  15. Dave Says:

    I think the threshold for CNS papers is lowered if you have a reputation for regular high-profile shit. I am in no way suggesting the work is not as good, rather that reviewers might give experienced CNS authors more breaks if they have the track record. Probably stating the obvious.


  16. rs Says:

    BikeMonkey: yeah, if you think this way, then this politics is like doping, and this game is played at all level, not only in publishing but in hiring and promoting as well. Scientist are people too. All the game which are played in real life are replicated in science too.


  17. BikeMonkey Says:

    And right minded people work to reign in the excesses rather than throwing in the towel. Or, god forbid, concluding if you can’t beat them you might as well join in enthusiastically.


  18. rs Says:

    hard to say what is the right choice. Thrown out of the game because you can’t play the game, or join the game because you think this will allow you to continue doing science and contribute to it. I have seen second case as well where people play the game, but don’t take it to the heart.


  19. […] Economics and genetics meet in uneasy union Generating MLST profiles from short-read data Rejection improves eventual impact of manuscripts A diamond bigger than Earth? (of course, if we have the power generation ability to reach that planet, we’ll be able to manufacture diamonds de novo) I know what if feels like to sports dope […]


  20. MudraFinger Says:

    “Another consideration which fails to emerge is the very nature of the top level competition…”

    This is an interesting point, and should lead us to also ask whether how competition in science is structured is likely to yield the optimal outcomes sought, or something else.

    Richard Freeman and colleagues noted in 2001, that “the incentives to principal investigators and other participants in academic bioscience create a self-perpetuating ‘tournament style market’ where small laboratories compete for research grants through extensive hours of work and inexpensive graduate student and post-doctorate labor.” https://www.ascb.org/newsfiles/careers_rewards.pdf
    Tournament models of competition lead to ramping up of work effort because small differences in performance are associated with disproportionately large outcomes for winners.

    A few years later (2006), Freeman and Gelber conducted a tournament based experiment in which they varied the equality/inequality of payouts for task completion as well as information about competitor skill level at task prior to play. It appears that not only do “winner takes most” type outcomes lead to sub-optimal effort among competitors, they also found that “cheating/fudging on the experiment responds to the level of inequality and information about relative positions.” https://www.nber.org/papers/w12588.pdf?new_window=1

    In sports competitions, winning is itself the primary outcome. There really is no greater end or purpose in mind. It strikes me that part of the problem we have with cheating in science today may stem from the fact that “the very nature of the top level competition” is leading scientists to think in much the same way. Shouldn’t competition in science be about something more than just winning?


  21. bill Says:

    This is an absolutely despicable insinuation. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    No, it’s a perfectly reasonable extrapolation. I wonder why you are taking it so personally?


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