Published 2012-08-29

My pals Thom and Chris have some thoughts about Lance Armstrong. I started to reply via Facebook but it got unwieldy.

I am also of two minds, and they are, briefly:

  1. if Lance were doping, prolly safe to assume everyone is doping
  2. the retroactive and totalizing penalty system might actually encourage doping as a valid strategy to win, if you assume everyone else is doping. Dope and get caught = lose 100%. Dope and get away with it = win 100%. Don’t dope = also lose 100%. Sure, doping might ruin your career, but not-doping would likely mean never having one. I haven’t thought this through really well but it’s an extension of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Given 1) and 2) I kind of wonder if a proactive and non-totalizing penalty might actually tamp down on doping. For example, test everyone and issue handicaps to anyone caught doping — before the race. Then the calculation to dope/not-dope becomes much more subtle. If a drug gives a 1% boost to your finish time but the handicap is 2%, maybe not worth it. (Especially if the margins become wider, more on this below) Maybe you won’t get caught (yay!) but the calculation is no longer binary: dope and risk total loss vs. don’t dope and be almost assured of it.

Again, thinking this through would require Logic™ and Math™ and I haven’t done that stuff. This is kind of a hunch.

FWIW this is the line of reasoning that more enlightened nations use toward recreational drug use and the real-world result is that usage decreases.

I have a third mind and that is: road racing, and the big stage races in particular are so structured as to ensure very narrow margins of victory. 2 minutes over 160 hours! The decision to cheat becomes a lot more rational given margins like that: anything that gives even the slightest edge is worth considering.

Adding more X factors (examples: looser equipment restrictions; fewer (T)TT stages; routes with more environmental variability e.g. cobbles, gravel, barriers) would expand victory margins and give clean racers a fighting chance. Imagine if in any given race someone might bring an HPV, ultralight material frame or new aero technology: that competitor might utterly dominate the race, even if they don’t have the strongest legs. Or imagine knowing that on any given stage, many (essentially random) racers would be thrown out of contention crashing on a technically challenging section.

This would change the sport substatially, it would become a lot more like mountain bike racing with an emphasis on technology, skills and early race position; and less on tactics and raw wattage. It would also be bloodier: more X factors means more (and worse) crashes. Fans of the sport’s history, in particular, would be outraged. Guys like me, who are more enchanted by technologies and interesting stories, would love it.