Lee’s Lowdown: Tramadol – The Biggest Non-Secret In Pro Cycling
They say you shouldn’t mix Tramadol and beer but what the heck, let’s see what happens. I should state that whilst I am drinking an actual beer, I’m not actually taking Tramadol but rather writing about it. Says nothing on the label about that combination and even if it did, I’m not sure that a keyboard would constitute the heavy machinery that you are recommended not to use whilst on the opioid pain medication.
A bicycle however, might be considered another matter altogether, and a raging peloton of 150 (almost) grown adult men entering the frenzied final kilometers of a race certainly is a heavy thing indeed, something you come to understand thoroughly if the force of it smashes through the back of our head at 60km per hour.
“When taken as an immediate-release oral formulation,” says Wikipedia. “The onset of pain relief usually occurs within about an hour. It has two different mechanisms. First, it binds to the μ-opioid receptor. Second, it inhibits the re-uptake of serotonin and norepinephrine.”
“Serious side effects may include seizures, increased risk of serotonin syndrome, decreased alertness, and drug addiction.”
Former Sky rider and confirmed doper Michael Barry said of the non-prohibited drug that it is “as performance-enhancing as any banned drug I had taken” (and that boy knows his sh#t) and added that “some riders took Tramadol every time they raced, along with a handful of caffeinated gels to counter the drowsiness it induced.”
BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney also detailed its use in the peloton, saying that it was prevalent and the possibly the main cause of crashes late in races. “You see so many late-race stupid crashes that I almost wouldn’t be surprised if some or most of those crashes are caused by people taking these hard-hitting painkillers at the end of races,” he said.
Team Sky have stated that they want Tramadol on the banned list. The Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC) have written to WADA to ask them to put Tramadol on the banned list. Riccardo Ricco has even started a Kickstarter fund to get it on the banned list, he feels so strongly about this issue. OK I may have made that last one up but, you get my drift: When people in the sport are demanding that a drug be put on the banned list, you get the sense that this stuff should probably be on that list.
WADA wrote back to the MPCC, and this is what they said: “Tramadol has been included in the Monitoring Program since 2012. The number of samples containing Tramadol is significant and the very large majority of them originate from cyclists.”
However, WADA’s experts have concluded that they need to monitor the use of the drug, to “better understand the reasons for using and the risks of abusing Tramadol.”
Did someone just say WTF in a very loud voice? It might well have been UCI President Brian Cookson, who has said he is “disappointed” at WADA’s decision, one that will see this powerful opioid remain unbanned through the 2016 season. I wonder how many amateur riders are on this stuff? It’s not banned, so taking it doesn’t break any rules, so why shouldn’t they take it? Morally hugely suspect, but legally? Absolutely tickety-boo. Pop your Trammies at will, folks.
You want a beer with that?
Cookson, may the gods bless him, is talking about going over WADA’s head and bringing in a UCI ban for the drug. And with that the folk at CAS reconsidering their vacation plans for 2016, because if the UCI do this without the support of WADA, they will open themselves yet again to the kind of humiliating backdown they faced over their attempt to revoke Astana’s Pro Tour status.
We all know what happened there. The issue of Tramadol and its use in the peloton, which has been shown to be widespread by WADA’s testing for it amongst cyclists, is indicative of a continuation of the same old attitudes within the sport that allowed the use of EPO to become almost universal at the top level. Tramadol, in any case, may just be the tip of a very large and dirty iceberg floating beneath the murky waters of the sport.
“There are drugs that are used that would never be given out if that rider walked into a clinic and asked a doctor for them,” Michael Barry stated in 2014.
“In a sporting environment, everybody’s paycheck is reliant on that rider’s performance. Everybody involved is biased and the rider’s health is secondary to their performance.”
I wonder how many riders racing for teams in the MPCC have tested positive for Tramadol? It’s not banned, positive test results are not revealed, and yes, here we go again, spinning around on the merry-go-round that is professional cycling.
WTF, Mr Cookson, WTF indeed. . .
Lee Rodgers is a former professional road racer on the UCI Asia Tour circuit now racing MTB professionally around the world. His day job combines freelance journalism, coaching cyclists, event organizing and consulting work. You can keep up with his daily scribblings over at www.crankpunk.com.