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Academic study claims no evidence that EPO boosts performance of elite cyclists

Notion that EPO helps win races "rather naïve," says academic... but what if everyone else is on it?...

A new study analysing existing research on EPO claim that there is no evidence that it boosts performance among elite cylists, with the academic who led the study saying that believing a rider could win races solely as a result of taking the banned substance as “rather naïve.”

The startling assertion is made in a study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, which is based on the findings of 13 previous studies carried out between 1991 and 2010, reports Bloomberg Business Week.

It comes at a time when EPO use within the peloton has once again been under the spotlight as a result of the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation that resulted in Lance Armstrong being banned from sport for life and stripped of the seven Tour de France titles he won between 1999 and 2005.

The study’s authors, led by Adam Cohen, professor in clinical pharmacology at the Centre for Human Drug Research in Leiden, state that there is “no scientific evidence that it does enhance performance, but there is evidence that using it in sport could place a user’s health and life at risk.”

Banned by the International Olympic Committee in 1990, although a test for the substance was only introduced at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, EPO – in full, erythropoietin – boosts the production of red blood cells within the body, which in turn can help boost the supply of oxygen to muscles.

The drug has been at the centre of a succession of doping scandals within cycling from the Festina affair of 1998 onwards, and suggestions that there is no proof that it has an effect on a rider’s performance is bound to be treated with scepticism within the sport and among anti-doping agencies.

“An elite cyclist runs on technique, on muscle power which is supplied by oxygen and glucose and amino acids and foods, on team tactics, on weather, on millions of things,” insisted Cohen. “To assume that one of these factors, which is delivery of oxygen to tissue, is going to clinch the whole thing, is rather naïve.”

To an extent, he has a point. Taking EPO isn’t going to turn a Monday to Friday commuter into a Tour de France winner. But he also acknowledges that “most of the research has been done on people who aren’t actually elite cyclists.”

He went on: “If you assume that Mr. X. was actually a mediocre cyclist and became very good just by injecting stuff, that seems premature. Once you start explaining that to people, and they believe you on the basis of data, they are probably less willing to do these sorts of things.

“So in the prevention, it is better than trying to chase these people to their homes, extract urine at unexpected moments and hope that you find something. It costs an enormous amount of money.”

The big question that doesn’t appear to have been addressed is whether it can make a difference to the performance of two top cyclists of equal ability. There’s plenty of examples of riders, not least those who provided evidence to USADA, insisting that EPO did make a difference.

To put it another way that several of those USADA witnesses touched upon - if everyone else is taking it, the rider who isn't will be at a disadvantage.

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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