Pharmacies on Wheels

Reader Cal asks:

I’d always heard that Paris-Brest is what the early cyclists ate to give them energy for the long ride. Do you know if that’s true? Because it seems to me like an unhealthy thing for an athlete to eat!

I can’t say I know, Cal, but if it’s true that riders ate Paris-Brest to keep them going, it would have been by far the healthiest thing that most of them were putting in their bodies. For the sad truth about early cycling competitions is that they were rife with drugs of all kinds.

From what I know about the subject, the abuse began as a way for riders to dull the pain of the physical stress. Alcohol was obviously of some help there, especially brandy which was frequently administered with strong black coffee as a bracer. Other common pain killers included ether and chloroform.

But why stop there, the teams ultimately concluded, when there were so many drugs out there with performance-enhancing properties? And thus entered substances like nitroglycerine (which dilates blood vessels and increases blood and oxygen flow to the heart) and the poison strychnine (which tightens muscles that have slackened with fatigue). It’s said that some riders claimed they had become so accustomed to taking strychnine that they could withstand doses that would kill ordinary people. Stimulants ran the gamut from peppermint to caffeine pills to amphetamines to cocaine. All administered without medical supervision, of course. Even heroin became commonplace at the big races in the early 20th Century.

Did race organizers try to stop all this? Indeed not. Drugs of virtually any type were completely legal in European professional cycling right up until 1965, though it’s said that the rule book for the Tour De France stipulated that the race organizers wouldn’t actually provide any (so quit asking!). Since then, professional cycling has mostly been a game of trying not to get caught. Oh, and winning the race of course.

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