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Lance Armstrong was only the leader in the doping peloton: cycling doping doctor explosive confessions

Peter Janssen was a doctor in the cycling peloton for more than two decades. At the age of 75, from his home in Thailand, he seems to seek salvation for his sins. In an explosive exposé, he fully discloses his systematic experimenting and provision of epo and blood transfusions in particular, and of his sophisticated scientific dodging of doping controls. Riders under his guidance have been extraordinarily successful, and only if they neglected his advice on dose and timing of doping were they found out. He reveals everything in a tell all 7-page spread in Dutch national newspaper ‘De Volkskrant’ (9 September). The dramatic interview names Olympic gold medallist Leontine van Moorsel and Tour the France (stage) winning riders Lance Armstrong, Steven Rooks and Gert Jan Theunisse. The article is the culmination of almost a decade of work of investigative journalists Thomas Blom and Misha Wessel.

The interview is riveting reading, when I dig deeper into the article it feels like being in an exciting Hollywood thriller. I am on edge of my seat and can’t wait to read the next paragraph. Ironically, progressing through the piece, it feels almost like Lance Armstrong being pulled back into the peloton. Janssen comments that Armstrong is ‘credited with having his doping regime well organised, nonsense, there were so many more riders who had it all well figured out’. The movie that should be made of Janssen’s story will develop the character of a man not overly troubled by deep consideration of ‘right and wrong’ during his early years as a doctor. Rather, the end of improving performance justifies the means. Medical science practiced within the boundaries set by controlling agencies makes this legal and as such acceptable practice – is what you can derive from Janssen’s story. In 1986 he became one of the first medical staff members in the professional cycling circuit, where the real power firmly lay with the ‘soigneurs’, the massage and recovery specialists that every team had. Janssen comments on how he found it hard to be accepted as the medical support professional and that he found ‘enormous amounts of steroids, vitamins… testosterone and cortisones in particular’ in the medicine cabinets of the soigneurs. ‘Andriol was the routine supplement’.

Janssen became very interested in exploring the boundaries that were set by developing doping testing schemes. He worked with a professional anti-doping testing lab in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, to determine how much Andriol his riders could take without being detected, and started administering such amounts to his team.

Janssen becomes an expert in dodging the doping controls. He also is fascinated by finding new ways to improve performance. He learns from Francesco Conconi’s scientific article about blood transfusions administered to Francesco Moser when he beat the world hour record in 1986, that he is on to something. Dutch riders Steven Rooks and Gert Jan Theunisse destroy the competition in the mountain stages of the 1988 Tour de France. Theunisse however, tests positive for testosterone. ‘I told him not to use it’, Janssen explains in the article. ‘They were both administered their own blood and did not need the Andriol. We were on a better system’.

It is really interesting to see that for a period of about 15 years, Janssen is obsessed with trialling and testing various methods of performance enhancing drugs, and to see how they can be administered within the boundaries of doping controls. He states at one point that he never thought it was criminal what he was doing. ‘As a GP you also have to make a call if a 12 year old girl asks you a script for anticonception drugs’.

Epo was the next big thing in the 1990s and he made sure to have connections with clinical testing facilities in hospitals to get his blood tests done for his riders. They systematically used saline water infusion or Minrin (which retains water in the body) to keep the haematocrit (red blood cell) count below the threshold. One statement to me says it all… ‘I used epo myself and it is amazing. If my son was riding in the Tour I would tell him, take some epo, because you can’t convince me that finishing the Tour is a physiologically healthy thing to do’.

I think that the ethical mirror is held up to Janssen when he realises that the testing and as such, making positive tests go away is strongly influenced by senior administrators at the UCI, the world governing body of cycling. Former UCI President Hein Verbruggen told him once that the UCI was not there to declare all those riders who tested positive as cheaters, it was their task to protect the sport of cycling by managing the control and detection process. Both the UCI and the peloton’s doctors, according to Janssen, would inform each other about upcoming tests, and in some cases, make positive tests go away.

During his final years in the peloton Janssen completely changes track. He is now convinced that the systematic doping culture is destroying the sport, and he proposes to the UCI to use his knowledge to put together a testing system in his own team, to screen all riders, also before they join the team.  A zero-tolerance policy… However, when this late in life enlightened move from systematic doping use to its systematic detection and prevention of its use fails – teams simply use his system to prevent their riders from being caught – he leaves cycling in 2009. It took him another 8 years of reflection to bring up the courage to tell it all, and make peace with himself. What will the rest of the cycling world say?