Blood is thicker than Coffee

There is a drug that pervades the peloton like no other. Almost every single rider administers it to themselves, usually several times a day. Cyclists are totally addicted to the extent that they can’t even fathom going for a training ride without taking it – sometimes a double dose, maybe even a triple.

But this drug has no need for omertà. This drug is legal. This drug is caffeine.

Caffeine can reduce fatigue, improve muscle contractibility and increase the time it takes to reach an exhausted state. It provides enough performance enhancement that it is currently being monitored by WADA as a substance which might be subject to abuse. We once saw a rider revolt during the 1998 Tour de France because of the indignities suffered by dopers being investigated. That protest largely consisted of the peloton sitting in the middle of a road. If WADA decided to ban caffeine, then we’d really see what a rider revolt looks like.

It actually used to be banned, if your body contained over a certain amount. Gianni Bugno had one too many espressos one morning in 1994 and got himself a two-year suspension. He appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and succeeded. His ban was reduced to time served (three months) and CAS also came to the realisation that a ban on caffeine was stupid so they decreed that the rule be changed. A court of arbitration? Or an arbitrary court?

Caffeine was once fine, then it wasn’t, then it was again, now it kind of is but they’re not sure yet. They might change their minds again next year.

Should we judge Bugno for testing positive for drinking coffee? Surely he should be judged more harshly for his name appearing in the files of Professor Conconi, he who organised courses of EPO for his clients. Or for that time when he was arrested after the police intercepted a delivery of amphetamines on its way to his father’s house. But if the resulting punishments are anything to go by, its the coffee we should be more concerned about.

To serve a doping ban for caffeine these days would seem preposterous. It’s probably the least controversial drug of choice in cycling and in every day life. So contrast that with the most controversial, the most abhorrent form of doping – a blood transfusion.

Francesco Moser stocked up a bit of blood and juiced it back into himself in preparation for his world hour record attempt in 1984 (with the help of Prof. Conconi). He beat Eddy Merckx’s unbeatable distance. No rules were broken. No problem.

Of course now blood transfusions are very much against the rules. It’s a reasonable stance to believe that anybody caught partaking in the practice should be banned for life. But in the 1980s, it was grand, ‘work away lads, sure we can’t detect if you’re doing it anyway‘. Nowadays we consider it appalling to spank a child.  Back then it was just parenting. Even if you’re merely considering a single era and all it entails doping is not a black and white issue. But trying to liken one era with another is futile.

Bugno-Cartoon

In this current era there’s a tendency to immediately pour scorn and admonish any rider who tests positive for anything. A permanent asterisk (both literal and metaphorical) is placed next to their name and that’s that. Sullied. Shamed. A reputation in tatters. Perhaps it’s the availability of information now that makes it easy for us to keep track of all these things – who tested positive when and for what. When Bugno started as a pro, if you tested positive you got a time penalty and 15 words on the bottom corner of page 28 of Cycling Weekly. Nowadays you’re a headline on dozens of websites before breakfast, ripe for judgement and derision while thousands read all about it over their own morning dose of caffeine.

It’s always funny to hear a victorious cyclist say after a win ‘they can never take that away from me now’. We raise our eyes to heaven and think ‘you eejit’. As we now know, any victory can be taken away. But an asterisk can’t. That’s a blot for life.

Perhaps if Bugno was Irish or British or American – one of the ‘English-speaking brigade’ that journalists so loved to lump together back then – he might have been given a free pass, by us English-speakers anyway. ‘Caffeine? That’s ridiculous. The rules are too harsh and need to be changed. The riders are victims of an absurd system’. But for poor Gianni it was more likely to be ‘Caffeine? You can be certain sure that’s not all he was taking and sure aren’t the Italians all at it anyway?’. Doping and the stream of stories that accompany the topic never fails to elicit a distinct form of protective jingoism in a certain type of cycling fan.

Bugno also doesn’t help matters by having positioned himself as the President of the CPA, a representative body for professional cyclists. In the wake of Lance Armstrong’s confession, Bugno called for the establishment of an anti-doping commission which was independent of the UCI because he felt the UCI couldn’t be trusted. Bugno the doper. Bugno the drug smuggler. Bugno the guy telling us now that the anti-doping system needs to get its act together.

As a rider he was rather unspectacular. He has a cracking palmarés which includes the Giro d’Italia, Milan San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and two world road race championships. But his success was built on a calculated approach. He was a cool character with an aloof air. The exact opposite of his compatriot and contemporary, Claudio Chiappucci.

Chiappucci failed the 50% hematocrit test twice during his career – a clear indication of EPO use. But that’s not important. What’s important is that he was swashbuckling, plucky and fearless. All the clichés that Bugno wasn’t. Nobody likes to remember that Chiappucci was a doper. We’d all much rather remember him crying with happiness as he made his way up to Sestrieres in 1992. Bugno never gave us a moment like that. But unlike Chiappucci, he did give us a positive test for an actual drug.

Bugno is the personification of the swamp of contradictions which we must wade through when deciding how to think about any given doper. What’s he like as a rider? What era are we talking about? What substance did he use? What country is he from? What’s he doing now? Did he confess? Did he apologise?

It’s never straight forward. And it is certainly not black and white. The way you feel about a given doper says more about you than it does about them. But then again, perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t think about these things. Perhaps you can sit back and enjoy a day’s racing for what it is while gently sipping a nice cappuccino. Or perhaps you’d rather sit back and enjoy a satisfying blood transfusion. Sure what’s the difference anyway?

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