Cycling – When doping was allowed

By Vegard Lilleas

We know doping as a remedy used by cheaters to achieve things they otherwise couldn’t. With the disclosure of Lance Armstrong’s highly sophisticated doping network in mind; doping has probably never been more prevalent than it is now, not to mention difficult to detect.
Nonetheless, doping has, in retrospect, a rather amusing history in the Tour de France: It was allowed from the very start in 1903 and up until the 1940’s.

The Tour de France was so strenuous for the riders that they only saw doping as a way to get through the race.
But it wasn’t blood doping, anabolic steroids or EPO riders took; it was in fact strychnine, nitro-glycerine, cocaine and alcohol.
Nitro-glycerine, which commonly is used to stimulate the heart after cardiac attack, was used to improve blood flow to and from the heart, thus improving the riders breathing.

Strychnine is a deadly plant venom that kills you within hours if you take a too great a dose, but in small amounts, strychnine affects the nervous system so that they constantly activates the muscles. It was actually considered a necessary drug to survive the extreme rigors of tough races.

Alcoholic beverages like cognac were commonly used to prevent dehydration. For a long period the organisers only allowed riders to drink two litres of water per stage, thus making alcoholic beverages an important aid for thirsty cyclists. Whether the effects were positive or not is an entirely different matter. An Algerian cyclist drank two bottles of wine during a stage and fell asleep under a tree. When he woke up he got back on his bike but managed to ride in the wrong direction. Not exactly performance enhancing in other words.

Furthermore, the use of cocaine based drugs was both common and effective. Taken in small amounts cocaine makes the user feel euphoric, energetic and mentally alert. In other words perfect for a tired cyclist; for example Henri Pelissier (picture). The Frenchman often consumed a delicious mixture of chloroform and cocaine to fight pain.


Moreover, riders didn’t only cheat by taking drugs; they also took the train and hitchhiked with carriages and cars. It was also common to sabotage the competition by for example stealing their tools and puncturing their tires.

My guess is that cyclists with the best imagination also performed the best.

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