Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book Review: Doping in "A Dog in a Hat"

Like many cycling fans, I’m tired of reading about doping. That’s partly why the first half of my review of “A Dog in a Hat” was drug free. But Joe Parkin’s book has so many insights and anecdotes about how pervasive doping was in cycling during his day that I thought it was worthwhile to break out the interesting bits for this part of the review.

Parkin says he tried to resist the pressure to dope, though he describes at least one occasion when he took a little something.

He says to prepare for a kermis race, he usually just had three delicious tarts from the local bakery, half a Coke, lukewarm tea in his bottle “and a couple of Animine (caffeine) tablets in the pockets just in case.”

One of the strangest things he saw during his pro career happened before his first kermis. It’s illegal for racers to change into their team kit in or around their cars. So riders have to find a homeowner in the neighborhood who will let them use their garage, kitchen or living room for a locker room. Parkin was allowed into one home, where a third-year Dutch pro was already set up in the kitchen. About an hour before the race, the Dutchman took out a syringe and began injecting a clear liquid into his arm. Parkin says, “Ten seconds later, he started giggling like a 4 year old and pointed to the hair on the arm he injected … He was apparently hoping we’d enjoy the sight of hair standing on end as much as he did. Five minutes later, he did it again, and then again and again after that. After each injection, he was equally amazed.”

Parkin says that for some kermis racers, the competition was just an excuse to take amphetamines. When they were jacked on speed, they weren’t necessarily able to ride faster. But he says they had no inhibitions; they were always ready to go, attacking again and again. They also tended to speak English more.

Just like there’s a “Blue Code of Silence” in the police force, Parkin says there was a “Lycra Code of Silence.” As an American, he already stuck out a lot and he didn’t want to attract more attention by flying the clean-bike-racer flag. He also said many of his teammates, managers, friends and fans would consider not taking drugs as a refusal to give 100 percent to the team. It might get him left off the roster for races.

In one race, Parkin was struggling with stomach problems when his team car pulled up and he was handed a small plastic bottle with a cork. He was instructed to drink half of it and save the rest for later if he needed it. He says it tasted like a cocktail of Coke, a syrupy sugar drink called Champ and something chalky. Within minutes of drinking it, he was at the front of the group, climbing with ease. He says goose bumps started forming on his legs along with sweat with a baby oil-like sheen. He stayed at the front, setting a tempo that was torturing riders who have won classics and Tour de France stages. “I was inflicting excruciating pain on every inch of my body, but I didn’t care. It was amazing,” he says. But he didn’t go with the last attack, and when it was clear he wouldn’t win the race, he decided to stay off the podium so that he could avoid doping controls. Only the top three riders and two random picks would get tested. He says a doctor once told him that a well-trained rider can perform at 85 percent of his potential. But a well-trained athlete on amphetamines can perform at 105 percent.

Near the end of his Euro career, Parkin’s team doctor approached him with a new drug called erythropoietin, the now famous EPO. The physician thought the drug would help Parkin with the anemia that plagued him throughout his career. The big problem was that the drug cost nearly US$1,000 per month, and Parkin couldn’t afford it. He says his poverty probably saved his life. Doctors had yet to figure out how to safely administer EPO and riders from Holland and Belgium were dying left and right.

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