EPO tested: it doesn't work

People attribute almost magical powers to EPO.

Researcher Jules Heuberger asked 48 racing cyclists to bike up Mont Ventoux. Half were given doping, the other had a placebo.

“I once biked up Mont Ventoux on an old bike that didn’t allow me to set the right gear ratio. And the mountain, an infamous part of the Tour de France, is not very forgiving”, recalls Jules Heuberger (28), a researcher at the Centre for Human Drug Research (CHDR) in Leiden. “The climb is steep, right up to the end, at a continual gradient of ten to eleven per cent. When you’re going à bloc, you can’t stop. You can’t catch your breath and you keep asking yourself: why the hell do I do this? But when you reach the top, it’s just amazing.”

The ‘Pimple of Provence’ crops up again in Heuberger’s study of erythropoietin, better known as EPO: a substance our bodies produce naturally and which stimulates the production of red blood cells. “Your blood can transport more oxygen if it has more red blood cells, so it’s thought that you cycle faster. But it’s never that simple.”

EPO became extremely popular in pro peletons; it was put on the doping list and attributed with almost magical powers – domestiques who were usually dropped suddenly started speeding over the cols. At least, so they said. “There are all sorts of anecdotes about the effects of EPO but no sound scientific research, so we decided to do something about that.”

Heuberger recently presented a few preliminary results at the Science Battle, a competition for young scientists at the Leidse Schouwburg.

“In our study, we concentrated on the effect of EPO on well-trained racing cyclists”, Heuberger explains. “It included administering the substance to them. We raised the number of red blood cells, but not extremely quickly and not by more than 52 per cent. We made sure the health risks were kept to a minimum.”

48 cyclists took part: half were given EPO, the others had a placebo. “As well as undergoing all sorts of tests, they were asked to ride an étappe that included Mont Ventoux. Because, obviously, we wanted to know how it affected their racing performance.” The results of the study have not been published yet. “We did all sorts of tests, which we’ve described in the manuscript, but we have already announced the results of the race. Apparently, there was no difference between the two groups. EPO, in the setting of our race, does not seem to have any effect.”

Even though most people think that doping works. “I’ve tried to show people that the effects are doubtful.”
Heuberger is a true fan of cycle racing, he admits. “I’ve followed everything, ever since Bjarne Riis, the Danish cyclist, won the Tour in 1996. All those lads were chock-a-block with EPO and all sorts of other stuff. Riis’ nickname was “Mr Sixty Per Cent” because of the extremely high number of red bloods cells in his blood. It’s risky, because it thickens your blood. Your heart needs to work harder to pump the blood, increasing the chances of a heart attack. It can even impair your performance, by the way. I watched the race for the excitement. I still haven’t lost that exhilaration, ten years on. It’s a shame they cheated.”

“Former racing cyclist, Thomas Dekker, has written a book in which he describes how some racers lived from one dose of doping to the next, doing some cycling in between. It’s a shame, but the sport hasn’t lost its heroics entirely.”

Racers are still getting caught. Just before the start of the Giro, two were sent home for using growth hormones. Heuberger continues: “You still have some idiots. I have no idea how clean the peloton is now, actually.”
And what about Heuberger himself? Has he used EPO? “If someone else had set up this experiment, I would certainly have considered taking part.”

Vincent Bongers

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