What's Cool In Road Cycling

Reflections On Doping From An Ex-Doper

It is said that a cat burglar designs the best security system and for this reason, Bike Pure sought the reformed doper, Joe Papp, to help us to talk about his checkered past and define solutions for the problem our wonderful sport has with drugs. Read on!

Contributed by Myles McCorrym and Bike Pure

On May 7, 2006, at the UCI Tour of Turkey, Papp was found positive for metabolites of testosterone at the post stage test for which he won – his fourth of the event. While he awaited definitive proof from his B sample, Papp’s continued racing into July. Competing in Tuscany’s 100-mile Granfondo Michele Bartoli, where he crashed with less than a half-mile to go. Papp initially thought he’d only endured a few scrapes. But by the time he lay down in his hotel room, his left buttock had swelled grotesquely. Papp cajoled his team soigneur into driving him to the closest hospital, in nearby Pescia. For he knew the injury was not innocuous. Surgeons operated on Papp several days later, removing a mass of EPO-damaged sludge that amounted to roughly a fourth of his blood volume.

Back in the U.S., doctors would later tell him that after the lethal cocktail of EPO and blood thinners that his team had provided , Papp was lucky to be alive. Joe Papp is now an outspoken, no holds barred opponent of the use of illegal performance enhancing methods and substances in sport. He has lived, he has witnesses, first-hand – the damage that can be done to a rider’s reputation, their marriage and their career in the wake of a conviction or admission of doping. While Papp is not unique in that he is one of dozens of professional cyclists sanctioned for doping during the past several years (over 60 in 2009 alone), his is a story worth telling, if only to deter one young athlete from taking the tempting first step down the dark path that ends for too many only in expulsion, arrest, or death – a career of cheating.

Papp never reached the top-tier of professional road racing, and he was not a household name when he was collecting UCI points around the globe, but the natural talent was there. Papp’s father died when Joe was 14 and a close uncle bought him racing bike. Two years later, in 1991 he won junior state road-racing titles, and another three were to follow. This national progress continued into the senior ranks building his reputation as a lethal sprinter, specializing in shorter or flatter races, the future was bright.

The first Papp was aware of drugs in cycling was the Festina scandal in 1998 and naively thought it just occurred in Europe, not in the US where he raced and on progressed his career, racing around the world. The future was still bright. So what happened?

Getting the honest truth from a convicted doper is a rare thing. So we quizzed Papp into the choices that led him to the dark side: “I took a few years away from full time racing to finish first my undergraduate and then to complete a Fellowship at Graduate level. When I came back in 2001 and was riding on form, and a guy who I could normally beat and who had suffered with me in the mountains for as long as I could remember – I recall him on one climb just riding away from me, so fast, so eye openingly fast, for a sprinter!!! I thought something had changed. Other guys were at a whole new level after only a few years away. When I asked a team mate- he laughed at my naivety.

But he would later provide the key to open the world of medically-supervised doping after I’d become so frustrated at being beaten by riders who were my equals – and I’m not talking about being beaten by Tyler Hamilton or Hincapie – guys who WERE on another ability level – but rather, these former criterium riders who went to Switzerland and suddenly became time trialists and mountain climbers. I was at the point of quitting cycling”

This was it when the seed of temptation was set for Papp. When you go down the dark path of cheating- cheating on yourself, your family and stealing wins from your compatriots there is little chance of coming back.

“I never once thought of the negatives of my decision to dope at the time. While I did have education on the health risks associated with doping, I foolishly thought that the doctor would seek to minimize risk – so the fear of dying in my sleep was no longer a deterrent. I also had never once been challenged to think about what it would mean professionally for me OUTSIDE of cycling if I doped and was caught cheating.

Anti-doping education efforts were so basic, and focused almost exclusively on health risks and ethics, that the practical implications of being forever known as a “drugs cheat” was, perhaps, taken for granted. No one ever said to me, do you realize that if you are positive, it’s not only going to ruin your cycling career, it will see you black-listed from the State Dept., where I wanted to work post-sport. I honestly believe that if it was presented to me in those terms, I would have had a very different attitude towards the risks and my ability to mitigate them, and may have avoided doping altogether.”

But as it was, on the advice of that same teammate who laughed at my naivety before, I earned an introduction to a reclusive Doping Doctor who would ’take care of me. We had a talk about what I needed and in less than half an hour I had a prescription for EPO, which I filled at my local pharmacy – that was it. For the rest of 2001, she {the doctor} managed my doping regime which made such a phenomenal difference”

We as cyclists all hear about EPO, and we all wonder how much difference it actually makes. Papp describes the transformation:
“At first it brought me back up to my previous level of competitiveness, but the more I took that’s when I moved up a level- it felt amazing. 12 or 13% enough a difference to block out any ethical or health issues. Enough to win.” Papp tells us of a hard to grasp paradox – that he doped not to earn money, but because he loved cycling so much, He wanted to keep cycling and that meant wins- which is ironic that this love for the sport is exactly what puts the sport and the health of its athletes in jeopardy.

All will be difficult to grasp for most fans, and many will see him as just a rider looking to cover up, each must witness and make their own mind up, but prostrating honesty is evident. Papp described in detail how synthetic testosterone helped him to
recover during multi-day stage races. Papp acknowledged systematically doping under the guidance of medical professionals in the United States, Europe and Latin America.

And on it went from 2001 to his near-death crash in 2006. Papp admitted to using nearly 100 different drugs including EPO, HGH, cortisone, insulin, thyroid hormone, anabolic steroids and amphetamines. He fell into a definitive program of cycling with substances – unaware of the dangers – or at least unwilling to see them. “When you have a doctor managing your doping program, the risks seem less tangible.”

With the positive test at the tour of Turkey and the crash Papp’s career was over. Lessons must be learned and the testing must be improved. Papp has indicated in the past that some doping officials took bribes- where protocols must be addressed to dismiss this possibility. He admits to the positive result for testosterone being only one of five drugs being taken at that time and even after the horrific crash and the ban he had yet to put his hands up.

For five months he fought the charges, but the combination of the deterioration of his marriage (which he solely puts down to the financial and psychological toll of fighting first a guilty doping ban, instead of dedicating his entire purpose to helping his wife – herself a champion cyclist who’d escaped from Communist Cuba and his isolation from teammates and managers who were distancing themselves from him (worried that Papp’s test result would cast a shadow over the entire squad – which, ironically, relied upon a systematic, team-organized doping program), forced Papp to consider a new analysis of the situation.

His Italian team, had completely managed and funded his doping regime. This endemic, illegal drug taking not only lacks honour and respect for the fellow cyclists, but destroys the duty of care that a team must exact to protect the physical and mental health of their riders- not exploit them, regardless of the cost. Back in the United States after a brief visit to Cuba to see his wife, who by then had be captured and forcibly returned to Cuba in early 2007, a wavering Papp met with Travis Tygart, who heads up USADA – the US Anti-Doping Agency. Tygart made soothing noises, telling Papp that coming clean promised him relief and redemption. The timing was fortuitous, and at the right moment a broken athlete came clean.

Outside Magazine interview recorded a feel for the immediate reaction to Papp’s decision to testify for USADA in the Floyd Landis 2006 Tour de France Doping Arbitration: “When Papp got busted, he tried to redeem himself with a bold public confession at a major doping trial—the May 2007 hearing in Malibu, California, concerning Floyd Landis’s alleged testosterone use during the 2006 Tour de France. But that turned out to be another catastrophe; it only raised Papp’s profile as a cheater…”

It would be putting it kindly to say that what followed Joe’s confession in the interim years has been a split opinion: 1) whatever Joe gets he brought it upon himself and deserves it, 2) an alienation from the core of professional cycling for breaking the still in existence Omerta and 3) praise for the new era of truth.

Bike Pure see Joe’s efforts as essential redemption. He has put his hand up and said yes I did this and here are the life destroying consequences. We wish all young athletes to be aware of the lifelong opportunity cost of doping which far outweigh the short term gain of drugs Papp, somewhat despondently, admits, “I hate to say it, but a fear based education from an early age, if you dope you put the rest of your life in jeopardy is essential to making doping something that is again unconscionable for the next generation.”

On that day when Joe first visited the doctor, starting his car was the decision to cheat, a switch in the brain opens a dark path that once given in to , can never fully be turned off in a sport as hard and intense as cycling. The Decision must never be an option. Through education or improved testing to enhance the fear of capture, removal of the supply system and the traditional team composition, experienced in doping or a change of culture where it is see as disgust.

So how do we learn from Joe? How will the sport improve? “The UCI have to have an absolute, robust stance against doping. And not put themselves into positions where they have a conflict of interests or show favouritism to any teams. The testing labs must evolve to be above and beyond question all over the world; this is why I think Bike Pure is a step in the right direction. You have a global platform and you are giving a voice to the grass roots, both the fan and the professional rider that they are outraged at riders cheating other riders and eventually themselves.”

One of Papp’s ideas is for a year Zero, a general amnesty and for all riders and staff to come clean without any possibility of remand. Everything exposed and the slate cleaned and the professional sport starts afresh. As Joe says himself “what cyclists wants to incriminate himself” It is a novel idea, with all solutions plagued with problems but it does display his sincerity.

To the riders he stole podiums from, they have the right to be bitter and angry but I heard a man trying to make up for the doping. I witnessed a rider recovering from years stuck in a system where cheating and lying are not only the norm but pampered and encouraged. To recover one self-belief and ones honour is an individual battle. We can only judge on the harm Joe has done to the sport and his efforts for reparation.

We must look to the riders like Joe and act on their experience and knowledge to fix the problem within top-level sport and let cycling recover to be a sport where victory is from hard work and champions can be viewed with pride.

“To dope puts your entire life in jeopardy”

Thanks to BikePure.org for the great story and to Joe Papp for his much appreciated openness.

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