Is Eddy Merckx wrong?

“The UCI is going too far by banning the use of syringes for recovery products… it’s foolish and dangerous. The riders, as a consequence, are taking pills and risk unsettling their intestines. What they are doing in a Grand Tour is extraordinary, so why lay such strict rules on them? If a doctor says that they need recovery products, then they do. It’s not by drinking sugar water that they will recover from their efforts produced in the rain of that terrible stage with the Gardecchia…”

So says Eddy Merckx in an interview with L’Equipe, the words have been translated by It feels like I’m doubting a god but I can’t help feel he wrong on the subject of recovery methods.

David Millar’s book Racing Through the Dark sets out how he was first persuaded to take “recovery” injections, initially resisting but in time becoming so used to things he learned how to perform the injections himself. He is now against the use of needles and infusions claiming riders can indeed compete in a grand tour without these methods. It’s an anecdote, not data, but the final stage of the Giro was won by Millar.

Millar also makes the point that team doctors can be superfluous at times, the presence of a qualified medic with a team can have its uses but they spend most of their time doing paramedical activities like cleaning up wounds, in essence they are glorified nurses. Except when it comes to recovery products administered intravenously or intramuscularly… here they must know dosages, methods and more. Today nutrition is pretty advanced, pills do not have to harm the intestines, especially when coupled with a healthy diet.

Merckx degree
Presumably not in sports science

So when Merckx says “if a doctor says that they need recovery products, then they do” then I am less sure. I can’t help think doctors say riders need these products because just as every problem looks like a nail if all you have is a hammer and I wonder if every answer for a team doctor involves a syringe?

Quid pro quo
My view is that riders can compete clean and without intravenous recovery products but I’d also like to see the sporting authorities match the “no needle” policy with a promise to reduce the distances involved, whether during the stage or the transfers. Extra kilometres don’t promote doping but they can push a rider into poor health. A 250km mountain stage is rarely better than a 200km one.

Still a champ
Clearly Merckx is famed for his fast riding and we should not hang on his every word. I’ll add too that he doesn’t always trade on his fame, he can be modest and does a lot of behind-the-scenes charity work, pulling people together for good causes but often without name-dropping. But when he does a big interview with L’Equipe, it can be an awkward read. He also told L’Equipe:

this story of steak au clenbutérol never convinced me. If he’d eaten it, his team mates would also certainly have been contaminated

Note if other Astana riders did eat the steak, they simply were not tested because they weren’t winning or in the yellow jersey. Plus not every rider sample from the race went to the Cologne laboratory with its hyper-sensitive measuring capabilities. So the rogue steak hypothesis might well have contaminated other riders only nobody checked this. No big deal but all the same his opinion carries weight and he needs to be careful, casting doubt on Contador’s defence is one thing but he needs to be careful before giving an opinion.

A great rider and rightly his opinions count. Not everything he says is wrong of course but some teams can and do complete grand tours without resorting to syringes and infusions. This isn’t easy but modern sports science and nutrition helps, as does old-fashioned good cooking. Perhaps, just perhaps, Merckx should be getting behind these guys instead of saying injections are needed?

31 thoughts on “Is Eddy Merckx wrong?”

  1. Eddy, for all his greatness, is wrong in this case, banning needles is a huge step forward both in terms of recuperation and preparetory doping in the peloton. Taking away the needles removes some of the ease with which doping takes place. As a great champion he needs to get behind efforts to restore the faith in the sport, a clean sport

  2. I think if ‘contaminated meat’ is a very large part of Contador’s defense then I would expect that his defense team would have sent every single sample from every teammate tested at the same time as Contador to the lab to be tested. If even a single other sample from another rider tested positive it would be ammunition for the defense. Maybe this has been done, maybe it hasn’t. I’m guessing we would have heard about it if it had.

    I personally don’t think Eddy should watch what he says. He has his opinions and is entitled to them. Contador’s case should be decided by facts, not what the great Merckx thinks.

    What I don’t understand about the needles vs pills thing is why pick and chose? Either ban the recovery methods or don’t. I’m guessing just as many illicit remedies can be had through pills as needles. The public has this idea that needles are bad. If you see an athlete getting an injection you automatically think they are doping. The UCI thinks they can fix this by simply banning needles. Maybe they’ll get less reports. Maybe you’ll get less Hamiltons and Landis’ claiming to see others doping. Who knows. But banning needles seems more like a “Hey!!! See, we’re doing something!” than an actually attempt to prevent doping.

  3. SlapshotJC: I agree but suspect he’s used to more old-fashioned ideas.

    Ancker: yes to his ideas… but when someone says “I don’t believe Contador”, it does sway the public, many of whom won’t have time for the facts in court. As for the needle ban, yes it is very symbolic and not that effective but if it starts from an early age, it can help mentalities. The “you need a vitamin B injection” mentality response to a rider saying they’re a bit tired isn’t healthy.

  4. He is an old man that simply can’t stay away from the crime scene, like so many others who got away with it. Times have changed and I agree that his opinion is much too powerful in certain ways not to have things run through a spokesman. Sometimes you can’t help wondering how naive former bike riders sounds without race numbers on their backs – or maybe they are just challenged by more intellectual questions than the endless series of standard post-race issues in they prime time – now suddenly finding them self in a permanent situation of coming up short 9/10.

  5. I can entirely see the entire no needles debate, is it not possible that some cases an IV drip or an injection would allow a better degree of efficacy of treatment.

    If this is the case and these methods improve efficacy then to ban them could be seen to encourage other forms of doping ?

    I think the no needles approach is pretty much a red herring and people will take products if they want let’s not remove efficacy of some products just because.

    What we do have to accept is that doping is the crossing of a line, the other side of it is good rider preparation, see the point where teams were jettisoning hypobaric chambers as they crossed into Italy. I see no reason why a rider shouldn’t have the best preparation available after all they’re professionals at the top of their game.

  6. As I said elsewhere, if a rider *must* have a recovery product after a stage then perhaps that rider should be withdrawn on health grounds?

    As for his ‘they should be allowed drugs because otherwise they’ll take drugs’ argument (I paraphrase, but not by much) well really, how daft is that?

  7. Studid question : Is it possible to imagine Merckx interview as the first stage of a rebellion against and UCI new policy on saturday ?

  8. Eddy is a great rider and human being, but allowing needles and IVs is a step backwards. At the very least, teams should have to notify doping control of ANY use of needles or IVs plus pills or powders consumed by individual riders. The UCI/WADA also need to establish “background” levels of clenbuterol in the general population to determine the extent that the drug appears outside of sport, i.e., inadvertent consumption of tainted meats.

  9. @dsb: I am afraid it is more complicated. Bidons are made of plastic. As a lot of other product used in food industry. We all have plasticizers in our body.

  10. Ever since this ban went into place, I have been concerned about the “fine print”. If I recall correctly: yes, a doctor has to immediately notify someone or other that an injection has taken place. With all the whys and the what, where, when. But also, if a team or team doctor merely has injection materials in their possession, this will constitute proof of wrong-doing. Even if nothing has been used. It would seem that it is thus impossible to have any emergency supplies of any kind at the ready, as this will constitute wrong-doing. It seems like a catch-22 situation. It was explained this way on one of the web news-sites. I hope they were explaining it wrong, because it seemed like it would cripple a doctor’s ability to respond to an emergency situation where transport to a hospital would introduce an unnecessary delay. I think a team doctor ought to be able to have this kind of stuff on hand, even if it is never used.

  11. I too think he’s got this one wrong, just because some doctor inside the sport says something doesn’t make it can’t be done otherwise. Let’s see what happens

  12. I remember some years ago, our local Australian Rules football team (Brisbane Lions) ended up creating a rule change for needles…

    In the early season games, when it was still very hot, some of the key players took the field with “shunts” (hope that’s right) already placed in their arms and tightly covered over with bandages. At half-time (10 minute break), this meant the team medical staff could quickly & easily hook them up to an intravenous bag to facilitate super-quick rehydration.

    The team said they were ‘trialling new methodology’, but the resultant outcry meant a quick ban was placed on the procedure by the ruling AFL body…

  13. Sorry Eddie, you’re wrong. Whats more, methinks you doth protest too much….
    Except for the bit about organisers making things reasonable when they set stages. That makes sense.

  14. Fantastic blog as always – very insightful & thought provoking.
    I think the concept of reducing stage lengths needs to be explored further. The need to recover & be competitive during a gruelling & long stage race must without a doubt contribute to the temptation to dope. Long brutal race does not necessarily always equal great racing – shorter stages can be just as compelling racing.

  15. Why should a rider have to be withdrawn on health grounds, we all know that realistically that if a rider went into visit a GP after ten days of racing they’d be prescribed all sorts of banned medication just to fix their bodies, a three week tour is placing an incredibly abnormal load on the human body. If a recovery method that’s not banned has more effective efficacy administered into the blood stream then that should be encouraged to allow recovery to take place as quickly as possible.

    Surely by not promoting the best efficacy of recovery you’re opening the door for riders to take doping products.

    David Millar’s argument about the normalisation of needles encouraging doping is nonsense it was an incentive in his case perhaps, but societies where controlled drugs are allowed to be taken responsibly have the lowest numbers of addicts by and large.

  16. Raouligan: if only pro cycling was a “controlled society”. In some teams the problem is that it’s out of control, the team doctor is ready to earn a nice commission from referring riders to a suspicious pharmacist etc.

  17. This is not as Black & White as this ‘needle’ issue is portrayed.
    The medicine to keep an athlete healthy vs use to aid doping.

    Needles can be applied to many substances, as most know and understand.
    It does not infer doping – diabetics anyone? Of course someone will jump up and state TUE or such, but the point is that, banning of needles will make little impact for the riders-teams with skilled preparation programs.

    Do i condone doping in sport ?
    No, of course not, but neither am I naive enough to believe for one nano second,
    that the elimination of needles will eliminate or reduce the suggested implication of this conduct.

  18. Well said!
    I agree with the no needle policy.
    It would be nice if they could check the arms/legs for needle spots as part of a doping test, but I’m sure dopers would inject in the strangest places. 😐

  19. It is my understanding that the “no-needles” policy is pertaining to the autologous blood transfusion issue, as a needle is the only way to introduce this form of doping into the system for any effect. Thus, if a team is caught dumping some IVs and tubing into a garbage bin (re: Astana circa 2009), they will be in violation of the code. No need to determine if the bags contained blood or saline, since blood can always be rinsed out.

  20. I’m all for the no-needles policy, but it’s wrong to think that shortening the stages will reduce the need for doping. As stages are shortened, more riders will think they might have a chance of winning, and hence the pressure increases to perform well. And when, other than to mourn a rider, was the last time the field took a day off, and biked at a snail’s pace?

  21. I’ll return to the subject of shorter stages some day but I’m not saying shorter stages stop doping, after all many have been caught doping for the 100m in athletics – which is one of the shortest sporting contests in the world. And flat too.

    My point is that the body begins to break down during a long race, especially in the third week. Blood levels, hormones, they all take a real dip. Now a three week race should be a test of who can survive all of this but it often feels like a 250km stage is no better than a 200km stage for the viewers because the racers leave their attacks until late anyway.

  22. lets imagine a major tour ridden by athletes that do not have drugs incorporated into their seasonal training program. One could use 30’s/40’s vintage bike technology, unpaved roads and longer stages, ridden long ago, as the equalizer.
    I’m OK w/this picture/scenario: the riders come trickling into the finish, after spending 10-14 hours in the saddle, arriving at dusk or in the night, no bunch sprints, in fact, sprints of any measure at the end of a stage are rare. This to me is captivating. we’d see, (from photos/images) posted on the internet a very different picture of the race. lots of long suffer sessions.
    However TV & and the UCI could not sell this to any big $$ sponsors. the race becomes too “long & tedious” for the”average viewer”. less money is spent by sponsors & w/the exception of U-Tube the sport evolves back to it’s roots. smaller budgets/lower salaries, smaller prizes.
    I like it.

  23. Hi, just want to say thanks for your posts. It is extraordinary how much interesting material you put together each day, always prodding folks to think. Inspires great conversations.

  24. I’m also for the “back to the roots” approach. Much longer stages, especially in the mountains, extreme endurance, old technology bikes, riders obliged to change their own tyres. I don’t think it would change anything much concerning doping, and I don’t think it would be long and tedious to watch. Just like the Belgian classics are never boring. On TV, if I’m only going to watch the last 30 kms. or so, I don’t care how many kms. they have already covered, but at that point I want to see the race shattered into pieces, with little groups chasing one another. What we want is more frequent changes in GC: more TT, more mileage, more climbs, more occasions to attack, more attacks and much further from the finish (Andy, can you hear me?), and above all more “fringales” and “défaillances” (how do you say that in English??), especially in the last week. Nowadays, the GC stays blocked for many stages, and that’s the bore.
    The Gardeccia stage in this year’s Giro was superbly designed, with a great crescendo of ever more difficult climbs, except for the last climb, thus inviting an all-out attack in the Marmolada. It was a little disappointing to see the big names stay together until the last climb.
    I think Merckx is provoking Contador to make the Spaniard play in the Belgian’s big league, to go for as many stages and jerseys as possible, and not letting it go to Tiralongos, Garzellis, Chavanels or Charteaux. Or else he is afraid that AC might achieve something Eddy meved did, which is to win all 3 grand tours this year, and that’s why he is attacking him. At any rate, it’s good for the race if the Gran’ Ole Man adds some spice to it.
    As for the no-needle policy, does anyone know how it will be enforced?

  25. Anyone reading this actually know what the benefits are to injecting recovery agents versus slicking pills? Maybe Millar went from B12 to Epo in a syringe but really, is banning needles going to help prevent doping? Its awfully similar to the kids and violent video games argument. These are not the issues and in fact if really just goes to show how far away we still are from understanding the divide between the public perception and the real world of professional cycling.

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