There’s a new doping scandal in sports that has nothing to do with pro athletes, million dollar contracts and the potential for fame.
Sure, we know about the home runs and the steroids, the seven Tour de France titles stripped from a fallen global hero and all those tainted track and field achievements through the years. As unsavory as the cheating may have been, we can at least understand the motivation to cash in and bask in the limelight.
But the latest targets of anti-doping efforts compete a long way from the limelight.
They’re working folks, often middle-aged. They train hard. Most have the very latest high-end equipment. And, yes, some of them are cutting corners by taking performance enhancing drugs.
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While the effort to catch cheaters is well chronicled in professional cycling, including the Tour de France, which starts Saturday, far less known is the effort to crack down on amateur cyclists, many of them designated as “masters” racers over the age of 35. Many of them have a win-at-all-costs attitude – even if the prize is a T-shirt and a box of Clif bars.
“Cycling has a long history of drug abuse. We have the perfect storm for something like this because we have the very best masters racers in North America right here,” said Keith DeFiebre, 49, who lives in Prunedale and races in the famously competitive Northern California Nevada Cycling Association. DeFiebre is on the association’s board and is a former president.
“Certainly the temptation is going to be there. It’s sad that we have people doping and we’re trying to crack down on it.”
About 50,000 amateur bike racers are active in the United States. In 2015, USA Cycling announced it was adding a surcharge to amateur racing licenses ranging from $5 to $25, depending on the rider’s racing level, to pay for performance-enhancing drug tests. While top pros are tested randomly and often, testing at the amateur level is comparatively minuscule.
Yet even that amount of testing has nabbed a dozen or so cheaters, including two riders in the New York Gran Fondo, a relatively low-level race open to all comers.
“They believe everybody else is doing it, so they have to do it to be competitive,” said Travis Tygert, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, in a 2012 story in The New York Times about amateur cycling cheats.
While many might find it odd that 40- and 50-year-old amateurs are on the juice, the athletes themselves, whether in cycling, track and field or triathlon, take racing and training very seriously.
One look at DeFiebre’s ride history on Strava, the website and app that uses GPS to track riding, running and swimming activities, shows a dedicated athlete who trains 15 to 20 hours a week. Once a year, he travels to the Philippines to train and race.
During a recent interview, DiFiebre had just wrapped up a grueling five-hour training ride and sat down to chat at 9:30 p.m. The day before, he rode up Mount Diablo, not once but twice.
The hot topic in Northern California for the past few months has been Michael Buckley, a 41-year-old racer from Reno, who was suspended for four years for using performance-enhancing drugs. Through a friend, Buckley declined to be interviewed for this story.
Several others have been busted in recent years, including Kenny Williams, a top-ranked cyclist from Seattle, who was 42 when he was caught in 2009. In 2014, Todd Robertson of Boulder, Colo., was 51 when USA Cycling banned him for eight years after a urine sample found banned substances in his system. It was his second transgression. Cheaters use a wide variety of prohibited substances to gain muscular strength, increase aerobic capacity and, as is the case with testosterone, aid recovery after a tough workout.
“With Michael Buckley, I was super let down. I raced against him. I thought, ‘That guy is really amazing,’ ” DeFiebre said. “A lot of this is about bragging rights. Most of the masters racers do know that even though we are the best in America, it’s still a hobby. Hardcore racing at the highest level is fun and cutthroat, and doping is part of being cutthroat.”
Chris Baker, 47, raced on the same team as Buckley the past four years and said “he was super talented. He trained really hard.”
“In NorCal, some might argue that you need to dope to compete. But Michael didn’t need that,” Baker said. “Winning knowing that you cheated, what would be the point? It’s a hobby. We do it so we can hang out with our friends afterward, talk about how great the ride was and have some beers.”
Indeed, those who win the Saturday office park criterium or have a standout performance in the weekend road race, still have to show up for their job on Monday.
According to reports in the cycling press, Buckley was caught after someone tipped off officials through the anti-doping agency’s anonymous tip line, 877-752-9253.
Many of Sacramento’s top racers were dismayed by the news. One of them is Jason Grefrath, who commutes 40 miles on his bike each day from his Sacramento home to Intel in Folsom. A husband and father, the 42-year-old Grefrath squeezes in races on weekends and has finished in the top 10 in national championships.
“There have been previous RaceClean programs and they’ve been nothing more than lip service. I’m really happy to see USA Cycling put their money behind their mouth,” Grefrath said. “The biggest thing this does is it creates fear. I don’t think the problem is rampant, but I like the vigilance. If somebody is cheating, I want them to worry about getting caught.”
While Grefrath is disciplined about his training and rides 8 to 12 hours a week, he says people who dope have lost their perspective.
“You’re just boosting your ego,” he said. “It comes down to the people who are doping; they define their character through being No. 1. Every bike racer, if they don’t do well at a race, they look for ways they could do better. I can’t speak for them because I haven’t gone through that process where I would go to that extent to win a T-shirt. They are win-at-all-costs people.”
Sacramento’s Michael Claudio, 37, says the doping issue with masters racers is especially complex, since many aging men can rightfully seek treatment for testosterone if they’re feeling weak or tired. But testosterone can give people a competitive advantage.
“It’s really easy for people to sit back and point fingers without knowing what the real story is,” Claudio said. “The leap from ‘I’m going to spend three grand on a set of wheels that will make me faster’ to ‘I’m going to spend a couple of grand to go to some youth doctor outside of my insurance company,’ it’s not that big of a leap. I’m not saying it’s right, but you’ve got these doctors who are more than willing to prescribe testosterone, human growth hormone and all kinds of things.”
When Claudio enters a bike race, he realizes some of his competitors may be doping. But he says he’s not going to worry about it.
“Who cares? I’m not saying I’m OK with it, but life is way too short to worry about it,” he said. “At the end of the day, what are we racing for?”