Most accept that our top cyclists are 'freaks" of one kind or another. But, writes Anthony Tan, we still want that freakishness to be natural, and not all freaks to be – and perform – alike.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

Is our obsession with drug-taking and drug-testing blinding us to the multitude other means of enhancing one's performance?

Although not specifically referring to cycling, that was an argument put forth by Andy Miah, professor of ethics and emerging technologies at the University of West Scotland, in an article in the Good Weekend lift-out of last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald, titled 'Higher, faster, freakier'.

A leading expert on artificial enhancement in sport, Miah proposes that sporting authorities are concerning themselves so much with the question of 'Who's on what', they're ignoring other relatively untested and lightly regulated – if at all – means of increasing an athlete's performance.

The volume of cutting-edge scientific research and the economic forces driving it mean artificial enhancement in sport is more or less beyond regulation, argues Miah. He proposes authorities should give up the fight as to what constitutes a fair and unfair advantage "wherever it comes from, so long as we are doing what we can to make it safe".

It made me think about an interview I did with Garmin-Transitions owner and general manager Jonathan Vaughters at the close of the 2007 season.

From humble beginnings as a junior development outfit, 2007 was the team's inaugural year in cycling's major league, taking on a ProTour licence two years later (from 2009 onwards).

Right from the get-go, Vaughters set about doing things differently, breaking old-school, mostly European models of training and racing. And "absolutely eliminating doping from the thought process", utilising an independent internal testing regime by an organisation known as the Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE).

The ACE model, however, turned out to have a number of flaws, not least its financial model, and two years after it was implemented with the imprimatur of Garmin-Chipotle, BMC and Columbia, ACE terminated said contracts and shut up shop.

Back then, as would still be the case now, Vaughters told me winning was not the number-one priority – it was about transparency – but at the same time, he said "we're probably doing more than any other team out there to make sure we do win races".

"We're exploring things I don't think anyone else is exploring," Vaughters said, "because we don't have any history as a team, we don't have any reason to say 'oh, that won't work' – we can try anything we want.

"The culture of the team from the bottom up is that [doping] is not part of the equation. Everything else is open game as far as I'm concerned. Believe me, there's no idea we're not looking at as far as training and aerodynamics and so on and so forth – everything is open game, no matter how goofy or off-the-wall it is."

Two years on from that telephone conversation with Vaughters, he produced two bona-fide Grand Tour contenders in Christian Vande Velde and Bradley Wiggins; in Tyler Farrar, a sprinter to challenge Mark Cavendish, a man said to be near-unbeatable at the end of last season; and a pack of other talented aspirants who the bespectacled entrepreneur allows to be individuals rather than acolytes, as is the case on numerous other teams.

In 2007, Vaughters' men clocked up more than 120 hours in the wind tunnel in both time trial and road race positions. He employed two full-time physiologists, one being Dr Allen Lim, arguably cycling's most revered sports scientist. 25 guys used PowerTap technology to measure power output against a host of other variables, designed to refine their training programs and improve performance. Riders' clothing was of a fabric that claimed to cool the body faster than those used elsewhere.

And for time trials, they developed an ice-pack that cooled one's core so suddenly, it provided an oxygen-carrying boost for the first 10-15 minutes of a TT. Asked Vaughters: "Who's super-cooling their riders before a time trial?"

It was a rhetorical question, but back then, the answer was no-one. At least I didn't see or hear anyone else do it.

Professor Miah says the greatest threat to the future of sport is not artificial enhancement but genetic testing. Instead of elite athletes gaining an unfair advantage through drugs or technology or science, genetic testing could result in making the best performers near-identical.

Already, relatively cheap tests are available – by means as simple as a mouth swab – to determine genetic predisposition towards a certain genre of athletic prowess. To pushy parents in the US who wish to live vicariously through their children, such products are marketed as the headstart to sporting success – and untold fame and wealth.

However regulating technology opens up a Pandora's box. The banning of the performance-enhancing swimsuit by governing body FINA was necessary and understandable – world records were being broken seemingly daily.

To date and from what we can see, no such advantage has been achieved by the skin suits Vaughters' men use in time trials, or the super-cooling of his riders preceding such an event. There are far more variables in cycling than a man or woman immersed in water and told to follow a six-inch-wide tiled black line as fast as their arms and legs allow them.

But in cycling, maybe there should be a test or set of rules.

If a clear advantage is gained and believed to be against the spirit of fair play, then the product or technique in question should go before a committee set up by the UCI and comprised of scientists, doctors, team managers, cyclists, and for good measure, a sports ethicist.

As for Miah's notion that what goes on in sports labs and training camps is of more concern than drugs and we should enjoy sporting excellence so long as the methods to achievement are "safe", I believe is fundamentally flawed.

Safe for whom? Safe from what? Safe for how long? And is there such a thing as a safe blood transfusion or a safe shot of testosterone or EPO, followed by a glass-and-a-half of water?

Hardly safe for the future of cycling, I would think.