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Doping Controls for Amateur Cyclists is Ineffective, Costly and More Common Than You Think

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Anti-doping is not just something that exists in professional racing, it’s increasingly being applied to amateur cyclists.

While most countries focus on prevention and education, a handful have taken the drastic step of introducing doping controls for amateur cyclists. For example, in 2003, Belgium became the first country to introduce such measures. Sweden, Denmark and Norway soon followed their lead.

Since the early 2000s, recreational cyclists in Belgium – especially in Flanders – have been forbidden from using substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which governs all elite athletes – including professional cyclists. And, if caught, amateur cyclist face the same sanctions as professional cyclists do. 

Under law, police are able to conduct a home search based on a positive test, and a cyclist may be subject to both a doping and a drug investigation for the same offense. These individuals face criminal prosecution for the use or possession of illegal substances and they also face sanctions from the Flemish national anti-doping organization (NADO). If an individual tests positive, and it’s a first offense, he or she may be banned by NADO Flanders for two years from organized events in the region. They may also receive a fine of, on average, €1,000-2,000, although fines can be as high as €25,000.

In Denmark, any cyclist who formally trains with a coach or at a commercial facility, must enter into an agreement with Anti-Doping Denmark (the country’s national anti-doping organization) and avail themselves to doping controls. Moreover, training facilities in Denmark must indicate on their website whether or not a cyclist has agreed to the stipulation by means of a happy or frowning icon alongside the his or her profile. 

Sweden also has doping controls at training facilities and Norway’s anti-doping strategies have an element of monitoring and policing. For instance, training centers that adopt the anti-doping program in Norway receive a license to carry out tests on cyclists who are suspected of doping.

While there is no legal obligation for a facility to sign up to be a “Clean Center”, those that don’t can suffer damage to their reputation. About half of Norway’s training centers now have a “Clean Center” certificate.

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Not a deterrent

The goal of these doping controls is to deter cyclists from using substances that may be detrimental to their health. But, aside from privacy and human rights issues, such as undressing in front of a doping officer and targeting certain groups, recent research shows that doping tests in training facilities may be ineffective anyway at preventing or reducing doping use. Rather, there are possible unintended negative outcomes that may increase health risks. For instance, in order to avoid detection, a cyclist may choose to train in his or her home or a private cycling club, or relocate to a country where there are no doping controls, or undertake more dangerous doping practices in order to avoid a positive test.

Drug testing in schools – including for doping – has proven to be ineffective in preventing students from trying drugs or doping substances. Not only do doping tests appear to have little effect in the way of deterring the individual, but it’s also an exceptionally expensive process.

While it is true that some data suggests that amateur cyclists are increasingly turning to performance-enhancing drugs, testing in training facilities does not seem to be the answer. 

In addition, studies have shown that criminalizing both amateur and professional cyclists not only leads to increased stigmatization and marginalization, but it maximizes the risks associated with use (unsafe products) and hinders the implementation of harm-reduction initiatives.

As it becomes clear that doping use among amateur cyclists is a growing concern, the use of performance-enhancing drugs must be addressed not just as a sporting issue nor as a criminal one, but rather as a matter of public health as well.

We should focus attention on methods that have proven to be successful in addressing the use of performance-enhancing drugs on all levels of cycling, with prevention and education, while seeking to reduce the harm associated with their use. 

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