Tour de Testosterone

4 minute read
Sean Gregory

This one hurt. A sudden, fall-off-the-bike at 40 m.p.h., road rash, legs mangled in the wheel hurt. After Marion Jones, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, aren’t we immune to the fact that our beloved athletes might not have achieved immortality on talent alone? Hell, no. Last week came word that Floyd Landis–the fun-loving Mennonite from Pennsylvania, the guy whose Alpine comeback in the Tour de France was dubbed, properly, “The Ride of the Century” (and he did it with a bum hip to boot)–that guy might have cheated.

Landis tested positive for abnormal testosterone levels, a result confounding and dumbfounding, given that a number of prerace favorites were tossed from the Tour under a cloud of doping suspicion. Could he have been so brazen–or stupid? “I hoped there was a genuine hero in the making,” says Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), who is quick to add that people shouldn’t convict Landis right away. Still, it’s painful. “Oh God,” he says, “another nosebleed for the sport.”

There’s hope for Landis lovers inspired by his back-from-the brink tale: his guilt is far from established, and the case has other twists ahead. “It’s going to be more complicated and longer than anybody thinks,” says Gérard Dine, president of the Biotechnological Institute in Troyes, France, and an antidoping consultant to French and international sporting authorities. Phonak, the Swiss sponsor of Landis’ cycling team, revealed last week that on the day of Landis’ miraculous comeback, an abnormally high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone was found in his urine. (Testosterone is a muscle-building anabolic steroid; epitestosterone, a related substance, has no performance-enhancing effects.) Specifically, Landis’ testosterone-to-epitestosterone (T/E) ratio was above the 4-to-1 limit set by WADA; the ratio for most people is between 1 to 1 and 2 to 1. The team suspended him immediately.

So did Landis put synthetic testosterone into his body? He has denied using any illegal substances. One possibility is that there was an error in the testing. That will be known when the French national antidoping laboratory in Chatenay-Malabry examines a second, B sample, to confirm its initial findings. If the B sample matches the A sample, Landis could lose his Tour title. Landis has promised to fight any adverse findings and would likely appeal them to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Even if the B-sample ratio is also high, some antidoping experts say that could mean that Landis’ body produced excess testosterone on its own. “We know there is a small percentage of the population who are going to have a natural production of testosterone that is above the norm,” says Dine. Another possible explanation lies in what Landis consumed the night before his 125-mile comeback: he has admitted to trying to erase the worst performance of his career by downing some whiskey. Medical research has linked alcohol with an elevated T/E ratio.

The most vexing mystery is why Landis would suddenly take testosterone as the Tour wound down, since it might not have been of much help. “It doesn’t add up,” says WADA member Dr. Gary Wadler. “If you’re going to get any benefit out of steroids, you would have to have been on the steroids before the Tour de France ever started.” Landis notes that he had passed seven other drug tests on the Tour. Plus, testosterone may not be an ideal drug for a quick endurance boost. “It clearly has an effect on power–for throwing a shot put, hitting a baseball,” says John Amory, a University of Washington Medical Center endocrinologist. “It wouldn’t be my first choice.”

What’s unknown–and crucial–for Landis is the result of another test on his urine samples, the one that measures the carbon-isotope ratio. This examines the atomic makeup of the testosterone in Landis’ body. If the ratio of carbon isotopes matches those found in synthetic testosterone, Landis will be in trouble. But even then, the debate might go on because some scientists say this particular test is not infallible. Says Dine: “With testosterone, there is no scientific consensus.”

Landis seems prepared for an ugly ride. “Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away, no matter what happens next,” he said of the allegations. Landis has fallen off his bike before. Let’s see if he can get back on this time.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com