The Bend resident launched his attack at the base of a steep climb and quickly distanced himself from the pack. As he turned off Archie Briggs Road onto Mt. Washington, Gray was alone and with only a few miles separating him from the finish line at Summit High School an amateur national championship title seemed within reach.
With one kilometer to go, however, five strong riders bridged the gap to Gray and passed him by en masse. One of those racers was Nick Brandt-Sorenson, an elite amateur who regularly competes against professionals. The So-Cal racer jumped from his group of five and won the 68-mile-long national title race. Gray finished sixth.
Or so it seemed at the time.
In January, the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced that immediately after Sorenson’s win in September that he had tested positive for Efaproxiral, a drug that boosts endurance by enhancing the delivery of oxygen to the tissues.
The USADA press release said that Sorenson had accepted a two-year ban from cycling. His first-place result was nullified and everyone who finished behind him got bumped up a spot. The ruling pushed Gray into fifth and onto the podium.
“Honestly I didn’t really care, ‘cause I wanted to win that race,” said Gray, the 2011 and 2012 Oregon Bike Race Association state champ. “Maybe that race would have played out differently without [Sorenson] there.”
Unfortunately, this case is not an isolated one. While many racers say professional cycling is actively working to polish its tarnished reputation, doping among amateurs has emerged as a very real problem.
Cycling is a sport beloved by Central Oregonians, but its racing culture is riddled with rumors and hearsay. Sorenson’s case has only fueled the fears of a number of area amateur racers who’ve come to question the fairness of the playing field and, if the national scene is any indication, they have just cause for concern.
Statistics from USADA show that in 2012 alone, seven of the nine riders sanctioned for doping violations were amateur racers. The other two were Lance Armstrong, who received a lifetime ban in August, and his former team doctors, who also received lifetime bans from cycling.
In fact, 20 of the last 22 racers to receive sanctions from USADA have been amateurs.
Because amateurs aren’t tested with the same sort of regularity as the pros, amateur racers have become more brazen, believing they can get away with taking a substance that’s on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substance list, according to cyclists in the Central Oregon community. Other racers may be unknowingly taking banned supplements, say some. Whatever their intent, doping among amateurs is happening with greater frequency.
Andrew Boone, the 2011 Pole Pedal Paddle champ and a successful category 1 racer, agrees.
“I think that [doping among amateurs] happens quite often,” Boone said. “If you think about it, it’s the amateurs that have more of a means to dope.”
Vanity and Drugs
In a sport as expensive as cycling, amateurs often have deep enough pockets to acquire things deemed advantageous, whether it’s lighter wheels or performance enhancing drugs.
Banned stimulants have proven popular for their race-day effects but other drugs like growth hormone and testosterone have also been used to help athletes speed their recovery and thus train harder in the following days. Some amateurs have even turned to Erythropoietin (EPO), an expensive drug that boosts endurance by increasing the number of red blood cells in the circulatory system.
Amateurs dope for a number of reasons. Some national-level amateurs may be hoping to get noticed and offered a contract by a pro team. Some are simply in search of a higher status within their own small cycling communities. Aging athletes, perhaps feeling not as sharp as they as they once did, may turn to prescription meds to regain their edge.
In July, David Anthony, a 45-year-old category 3 racer from New York was handed a two-year suspension after testing positive for EPO. The mid-level racer later said that after a couple of years of mediocre fitness, he started doping in an effort to become relevant in his cycling community.
Members of the Bend cycling community have their own theories.
Boone, the PPP champ, said certain personalities can be the driving force behind the decision to use PEDs.
“Having never been a doper, I can’t understand fully what it is, but cyclists are addicted to stuff. I think dopers probably view it [the use of PEDs] as a temporary solution, but then it becomes regular and it becomes really hard to go back and train without it once you’ve had that physical boost,” said Boone.
Roger Worthington, who is opening Worthy Brewing on the eastside, has a 22-year career in amateur racing and says a great deal of the problem boils down to vanity.
“It’s a very vain sport. It’s very narcissistic,” said Worthington.
Not all racers that test positive for doping are doing so knowingly. Some seemingly innocuous supplements, which can contain banned substances, can lead to a positive result in a doping test.
Boone said a number of amateur athletes may be ignorant of which supplements and chemical compounds are on USADA's banned list, though most area racers agree that it's the responsibility of each rider to familiarize himself with the list of banned substances, which can be found on USADA’s website.
“When you go to the doctor, it’s pretty common for them to runs tests and lots of 40-plus men will get prescribed testosterone,” Boone said.
Because testing of amateurs is infrequent and those who dope often remain mum, it can be nearly impossible to root out the cheaters.
Some experienced master racers, though, say that there are telltale signs.
“There are two ways to tell,” said Worthington. “An amazing difference between the prior year and the current year; and just by looking at people—if they’re a little bit too carved up, that’s the other red flag.”
“You look at all these guys and they are 50 and they're two-percent body fat,” Gray said. “That's weird.”
It’s difficult to decide whether an aging athlete who takes testosterone supplements is really a cheat or just maintaining his health. Most high-level amateurs agree, though, that the risk isn’t worth the reward—especially when the reward is a pair of socks.
Yet there are racers out there like Sorenson who are willing to risk their health, integrity and humiliation all to win a regional amateur bike race where the top prize is a $5 medal colored in cheap, gold paint.
“I think a lot of those masters dudes are doping,” said Gray. “I don’t really race for prize money, but it’d be nice to know that the guys you are racing are clean."
Profile of a Doper
Ironically, Sorenson kicked off his racing career in Oregon as a beginner in the category 5 ranks. After graduating from the University of Oregon in 2003 Sorenson moved to the Los Angeles area and, after numerous podium finishes primarily in criteriums, he was eventually upgraded to a category 1, where he often raced against America’s top pros.
The embattled rider competed in a number of national-caliber events, but often failed to crack the top 10. Then in 2011, the year he was found guilty, Sorenson wracked up at least 10 top-five finishes in competitive So-Cal criteriums.
Despite the guilty verdict, it’s not clear if Sorenson’s results were improving because of the Efapoxiral. It’s also not clear if Sorenson knowingly took the drug, which often requires an IV injection.
These were questions Sorenson wasn’t willing to answer in an interview with the Source last week.
“Ultimately it doesn’t matter,” Sorenson said of his doping suspension. “There’s nothing for me to comment about.”
Sorenson did say that the money being used to catch amateur dopers could be better spent elsewhere.
“Considering the safety of my friends and competitors in cycling, I'd say take a portion of the efforts [and] money and apply [it] to deterring motorists from driving under the influence of substances or smart phones,” wrote Sorenson in a recent follow-up message.
Sorenson’s recommendation to scale back testing aside, there are other solutions for managing the trend.
Many Oregon racers are advocating for increased testing of amateurs. Others in the state are calling for stricter penalties, such as life bans, rather than suspensions of six-months or two years.
In 2009, Worthington donated money to the Cascade Cycling Classic to offset the cost of doping controls at the storied race.
“There were a couple of racers that year who were doing extraordinary things and the CCC, to me, has impeccable credentials,” said Worthington. “I’d hate to see dirty racers stain that.”
Perhaps because of the doping controls, several racers failed to appear that year, Worthington said.
“I think [increased testing] would probably help the sport,” Worthington said, but he, like so many others, cited prohibitive costs as the biggest stumbling block to increased testing.
Some racers have said that they'd forego their prize money if it could be used to pay for the expensive tests, but it’s unclear whether any of the regional governing bodies would move in such a direction.
In Florida, the use of PEDs among amateurs became such a problem that activists formed the Florida Clean Ride Fund, an independent testing agency. The agency works in conjunction with USADA to ensure fair competition through random and discerning doping controls.
OBRA’s executive director Kenji Sugahara said, aside from the national races held in Central Oregon, doping hasn’t emerged as a problem worth spending the money to manage.
“If we could test we probably would, but it’s so cost prohibitive that the cost-benefit ratio isn’t really there,” said Sugahara.
Sugahara attributes the relative lack of PEDs in Oregon to OBRA’s sense of community and inclusion—a contrast to the elitist circles of other cycling communities.
“There are a few type-A personalities out there that are not racing for fun, but 97 percent are racing for fun. We’re just a bunch of folks who aren’t as tied up in how we do,” he said.
For a talent like Gray, the idea of doping has never crossed his mind. Ethics aside, Gray said he doesn't need PEDs.
“If I was to the point where I had to dope, it’d be like Paul Ryan lying about his marathon time—it’s not going to make you feel any better,” said Gray.
Not one to dwell on the past or become overly attached to his racing results, Gray has moved on, though he said that sometimes he wonders how that day in September would have played out without Sorenson in the mix.
“I had 15 seconds going over Archie Briggs and maybe with one less guy out there they wouldn’t have pulled me back,” said Gray. “Who knows?”
USADA Testing: By the Numbers
We hear about doping in track and field, cycling and swimming in part because these athletes are the most frequently tested. Here’s a breakdown of doping tests administered by sport from January through June 2012.
Track & field - 1564
Cycling - 544
Swimming - 544
Triathlon - 330
Skiing and snowboarding - 147
Wrestling - 236
Weightlifting - 179
Basketball - 74
Soccer - 28
Football - 25
United States Anti-Doping Agency
Photo: Dave Roth.