Doping in Cycling Since the 1800’s

By Jen Benepe

You might not see your favorite rider on this list, but that’s probably because they were never caught doping.

Henri Pelissier, one of three brothers who admitted to taking drugs in 1924.

Here are some other names: Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx,  Jacques Anquetil, Marco Pantani, Levi Leipheimer, Bjarne Riis, Alberto Contador. They were caught doping. And many are still either on the record books as winners (like Coppi and Merckx,) or are still competing (like Contador.)

Yup, all of the above big names took enough drugs to actually get caught with banned substances in their blood.

And they’re just the famous ones out of thousands.

And that’s also after the authorities started testing for known substances, forget about unknown substances.

The first known cyclist to have drugged to keep up actually died doing it, which is how it was originally discovered that he was doping.

“In 1886 a Welsh cyclist is popularly reputed to have died after drinking a blend of cocainecaffeine and strychnine, supposedly in the Bordeaux–Paris race,” writes Wikipedia.

In 1886 cheating wasn’t illegal in competition— just like kids taking Adderall to test well is not illegal now. 

Take the Pelissier brothers back in 1924, Henri PélissierFrancis Pélissier, and Charles Pélissier of France, all three of whom were found to be drugging–by their own admission.

In 1924, following their abandon of the Tour de France, the first real drug scandal arose when they gave an interview to journalist Albert Londres. “They said that they used strychninecocainechloroformaspirin, “horse ointment” and others drugs to keep going,” writes Wikipedia.

Any big mouth who goes around calling everyone a cheater could very well be a cheat themselves, because if they aren’t, they would have been shed off the back of the peloton at the first stage of the Tour de France.

Here is an excerpt from the “incomplete” list of cycling dopers since the 1800’s compiled by Wikipedia:

“The acceptance of drug taking in the Tour de France was so complete by 1930 that the rule book, distributed by Henri Desgrange, reminded riders that drugs would not be provided by the organizers.”

Some of your favorite riders of all times were dopers, and they weren’t banned for life from bike racers, among them the great Eddy Merckx:

“1969: Eddy Merckx of Belgium tested positive for the stimulant Reactivan at Savona during the 1969 Giro d’Italia, after leading the race through 16 stages. Merckx was found positive at doping control and expelled from the Giro. Merckx steadfastly denied the charges.”

Eddy Merckx of Belgium tested positive for the stimulant Reactivan at Savona during the 1969 Giro d’Italia, after leading the race through 16 stages.The list of dopers, by the way, is relevantly heavily weighted in modern years, not because there are more people doping, but because there are more tests to detect the doping.

In 1964, drugs were banned from the Tour de France. But if anything, drug use continued and increased.

Merckx is often held up as the greatest cyclist of all time, and recently was one of the honorees handing the Yellow Jersey to the winner of the 2013 Tour de France this year in Paris, Chris Froome.

It’s no wonder that after becoming the presumptive winner of the 2013 Tour after the stage to Le Semnoz, France, when asked if he considers himself to be like the great Merckx, Froome tried to deflect the association by saying that Merckx was a great cyclist, but since he was not “part of my generation,” the Kenyan-born Brit did not spend a lot of time thinking about him.

In 1996 alone there were so many incidents of drug abuse–detected that is, that’s it almost hard to keep track.

This was long before Lance Armstrong is said to have started doping in earnest:


  • Udo Bölts of Germany confessed publicly on 23 May 2007 to having used EPO and growth hormones in preparation for the Tour de France in 1996 when he was with Team T-Mobile, and continued in 1997. Consequentially Bölts resigned as the sports director of Team Gerolsteiner on 24 May 2007.
  • Bert Dietz of Germany confessed publicly on 23 May 2007 to having used EPO in preparation for the Tour de France in 1996 when he was with Team T-Mobile, and continued in 1997.
  • Christian Henn of Germany used banned substances (including EPO) while riding for the T-Mobile team in the mid-1990s. He admitted this in May 2007.

    Fausto Coppi of Italy admitted in a television interview (date unknown) that he used ‘la Bomba’ as there was no alternative if you wanted to remain competitive. This referred to amphetamines, which had been developed for military use during World War II to keep aircrew, merchant seamen and submariners awake, alert and energetic
  • Brian Holm of Denmark admitted doping during the 1990s in his 2002 autobiography. This did not cost him his job as manager for the Danish national team, despite some concern about him being a role model for the young riders. In May 2007 he admitted having used erythropoietin (EPO) on two occasions in 1996 at Team Telekom.
  • Levi Leipheimer of the United States used a banned substance as an amateur during the 1996 U.S. National Criterium Championships, when he lapped the field. It was later reported by VeloNews that Leipheimer tested positive for a banned substance after the Championship, and a disciplinary panel recommended that he return his title. The Leipheimer family confirmed the violation, claiming that Levi had innocently used the allergy medicine Claritin-D to relieve hay fever symptoms.
  • The family claim that USA Cycling later relaxed its standards regarding the use of allergy medicines, however Ephedrine remains a banned substance. USA Cycling’s official records name Matt Johnson as the 1996 event’s champion.
  • Rita Razmaite of Lithuania tested positive for Bromantan. She was suspended, along with a Russian coach and a Belarussian doctor, by the International Olympic Committee.
  • Jacques_Anquetil_1963–admitted to taking drugs and was open about it.

    Filippo Simeoni of Italy admitted in 2002 that he was instructed by doctor Michele Ferrari in 1996 and 1997 on how to use the EPO and Human Growth Hormone that were prescribed. He also testified in court that he had doped since 1993.

    Dr. Ferrari was also Lance Armstrong’s doctor and this led to a public falling-out at the 2002 Tour de France.In 2001 and 2002 Simeoni was suspended for several months for doping use.

  • Erik Zabel of Germany, on 24 May 2007, admitted having used Erythropoietin (EPO) in preparation for the 1996 Tour de France.
  • In the press conference he said that he experimented with EPO for a week, but then stopped due to severe side effects. Zabel also publicly apologized for having lied about his use of EPO in the past.
  • The Telekom Affair – In May 2007, several former riders admitted to using banned substances (including EPO) while riding for the team in the mid-1990s, including Erik ZabelRolf AldagBrian HolmBjarne RiisBert DietzUdo Bölts and Christian Henn including the seasons in which Riis and Jan Ullrich won the Tour de France.

The list goes on and on. And yet, Eddy Merckx has been called to the podium over and over again as one of the greatest cyclists of all time, while Lance Armstrong’s name has been erased from the record books.

Here is the list from Wikipedia:

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