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In August, 2009, Mitch Comardo, a 22-year-old category 1 bike racer from Houston, Texas, lined up beside me at Austin's popular training race, the Driveway Series. The criterium, held on a twisty car racetrack, is an institution in my hometown and draws riders from across the state, but it's not exactly a marquee event: For college kids like Comardo, entry is only $15. Prizes include socks and coffee. Spectators range from family members to fixed-gear-riding hipsters to the occasional city council member. The low-key, communal atmosphere and packed field represent everything that's right about amateur bike racing. We're out there only because we love the sport.
Comardo attacked from the gun and rode the first four 2-mile laps off the front before the group finally brought him back. Then he attacked again. We struggled to hold his wheel as he flew down the long, flat straightaways at 35 mph. Comardo didn't win, but by the end of the hour-long race he'd asserted himself as the strongest rider. Afterward, as my teammates and I rode home, one of us joked, "Man, what's Mitch on?"
None of us thought that Comardo, a senior at the University of Houston whom we all liked as a person and respected as a competitor, would actually cheat. But a few days later, an official from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) showed up at Comardo's home and asked him to pee into a cup. The sample tested positive for five different banned substances—all of them known to affect the production of testosterone. Comardo accepted a two-year suspension from USA Cycling without appeal.
Comardo, reached by Bicycling, denied taking anything other than a commercially available testosterone enhancing supplement. But some experts say the large amount and specific type of drugs found in Comardo's body suggest a calculated doping regimen. "The presence of multiple substances in a test sample is infrequent but not surprising," says Larry Bowers, PhD, USADA's chief scientist. "It's consistent with someone trying to restart their system after a steroid cycle." Furthermore, says Bowers, the hormone hCG, for which Comardo tested positive, enhances performance only when injected into the body via a syringe. If ingested orally, hCG is both ineffective and undetectable via a urine test.
As news of Comardo's positive test and subsequent suspension hit racing-related websites, reactions ranged from bewilderment to resignation. Many wondered why a well-rounded amateur racer with no apparent immediate aspirations of grandeur would take on the physical and emotional risks of doping. For others, Comardo's positive bolstered a long-held belief that professionals weren't the only dopers.
Of the thousands of cyclists tested by USADA over the last decade, nine amateurs have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Most were top-level racers just below the professional ranks--the category Comardo fit into—and older competitors. Kenny Williams, a Seattle racing fixture who tested positive for the testosterone-enhancing drug DHEA at age 42 after winning a master's national championship in August 2009, is the latest age-group racer busted. He says he juiced only to regain fitness after breaking a collarbone.
Nine positives in a decade sounds insignificant--but consider the infrequency of testing among the unpaid ranks. Cycling's doping agencies rarely test amateurs for one obvious reason: They're amateurs. They compete for hundreds of dollars, not millions. National media outlets don't cover them, leaving them to celebrate their feats on blogs commented on by their moms. The rewards don't come close to justifying the risks. Every USA Cycling member is subject to testing under regulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency, but almost all tests occur at national events or are administered to pros enrolled in the out-of-competition testing pool. It's highly unusual for an amateur racer such as Comardo to be tested at home—but it does happen. "Where there is an effective use of USADA's limited resources for testing athletes, we will use them," says agency spokesperson Erin Hanan. There's even an anonymous hotline for racers who suspect a competitor of cheating: 877-PLAY-CLEAN. The more incriminating the evidence, the more likely USADA is to act on a tip.
And statistics, as usual, don't tell the whole story. According to former journeyman pro and admitted doper Joe Papp, who recently pleaded guilty to dealing human growth hormone and EPO acquired from China to an estimated 187 customers, older athletes comprise the bulk of amateur drug use. "Based on my experiences, in the U.S. the majority of athletes seeking doping products on the black market are amateurs, and believe it or not, they're masters athletes," says Papp. "I think that's in part because older athletes can afford these products, but it's because of ego as well. People don't want to let go of their youth. Say you're 41 years old and you want 10 percent of your threshold power back. If you can get by the ethics of doping, and don't think it's going to kill you, it's a no-brainer."
In his past dealings with the media and other public forums, Papp has proven to be someone whose statements must be carefully considered rather than accepted outright: For instance, he testified at the Floyd Landis trial about the dangers of doping at the same time that he was selling drugs. But if he's in any way correct about the ubiquity of amateur doping, the sport seems to have taken an insidious turn: It means that the heart of cycling, which is epitomized by those of us who participate in such a grueling sport not for monetary reward, but purely because we love it, is becoming corrupt. Imagine boisterous, beer-bellied factory guys morphing into hair-trigger monsters jacked up on HGH so they can swat homers in their Sunday softball league, or a bingo grandmas dosing on Adderall so they can cover more cards down at the church. If there are cyclists willing to dope to win a pair of socks, then our sport may already have become such a caricature.
And that stigma of a wildly lost perspective--let alone of being a cheat--will begin to stain us all. Suddenly turn your season around or pull off the greatest race of your life, and instead of unreservedly hailing you, people might legitimately wonder if you're a doper. Jared Bunde, 33, an amateur racer from Brooklyn, New York, suspended for the steroid clomiphene in 2007 (which he says he inadvertently ingested as part of a supplement) has seen this phenomenon from the inside. Shortly after receiving the news of his positive A sample, but still awaiting the confirmation of the B sample, Bunde was at a race when one of his teammates accused an entire rival team of taking drugs because one of its riders got popped during the event. Knowing his own suspension was imminent, Bunde says he thought to himself, Wait, dude, by your own logic you're calling yourself a doper.
At this point we can only hope that amateurs are simply repeating a trend set by the pros before them. Today's amateurs can hire coaches, attend training camps, undergo advanced physiological testing and buy the same bikes as the professionals. It shouldn't come as a shock that some riders want their drugs, too. If this is the case, perhaps amateur cycling is now in its doping phase and will soon follow the direction the pros seem to be taking toward a cleaner future.