Taylor Phinney Interview: Getting the pill culture out of the sport
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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Taylor Phinney Interview: Getting the pill culture out of the sport

by Shane Stokes at 6:52 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews, Doping
Young American says that he too was a USPS fan growing up, is also demoralised by USADA findings

Taylor PhinneyIt’s a tough time for cycling after the USADA revelations, and no more so than for the American scene; Lance Armstrong, the US Postal Service team and many of his former team-mates come from there.

However Taylor Phinney underlined today that many of the younger generation have a different stance on things, insisting that many are approaching the sport in the right way and saying he’d like to see controls get even tougher and more restrictive.

Phinney drew attention to the subject on Saturday when he tweeted shortly after BMC Racing Team-mate Steve Cummings raced to victory on the final stage of the race. “I love to see @StevoCummings win,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “He, like me, follows his own personal policy of no caffeine pills and no painkillers. Purest of the pure!”

VeloNation contacted Phinney in relation to that Tweet, as it was unusual that a rider would talk about what are essentially non-banned medications. In response, the second year pro said that he had no problem in speaking further about his approach to the sport. He said that he is concerned by the extent of riders using products in order to dull the edge of racing in a very difficult sport, and while the WADA Code is not necessarily being broken in such cases, said he feels that it goes against the spirit of competition. He also explained why he believes the practice is dangerous and could be contributing to crashes.

“Some people find it surprising that riders would take pain killers or caffeine pills in races, but it is actually really, really common,” he explained, speaking by phone from Italy. “In my first year I tried pain killers a couple of times in races, stuff like Tylenol, but I didn't really get it. Yet there are a lot of guys who do it regularly.

“I’ve always been someone who likes to rely on my own body to solve any sort of sickness, a cold or fever, as opposed to just jumping into taking Tylenol or whatever. So I wasn’t really comfortable with the whole painkiller/caffeine type of thing. In addition to that, it just felt uncomfortable that I would be fooling my body into feeling something that it wasn’t supposed to be feeling.

“Particularly with everything that has gone on in the past, I think that if we move away from taking anything, we have a great opportunity to become pretty much the cleanest professional sport out there.

“I feel comfortable talking about this right now, in light of recent events.”

Phinney explained that there are number of painkillers in use, ranging from legal substances such as Tylenol and Tramadol to other, stronger medications which are on the banned list. However even if things stay on the right side of the rules, he explains why he believes their use should be restricted or eliminated.

The American’s concerns are on a range of areas; safety is one, a philosophical perspective is another, and psychological dependency and a possible gateway effect is a third.

Bidons packed with pills:

Taylor PhinneyAs regards the first of those, he explains how he believes races are potentially affected by riders being, for want of a better word, off their boxes with what is in their system. “You see so many late-race stupid crashes that I almost wouldn’t be surprised if some or most of those crashes are caused by people taking these hard-hitting painkillers at the end of races,” he said.

“There is widespread use of finish bottles, which are just bottles of crushed up caffeine pills and painkillers. That stuff can make you pretty loopy, and that is why I have never tried it. I don’t even want to try it as I feel it dangerous.

“Another issue is taking something for an improvement, getting into that mentality. You have to ask why are you taking a painkiller? You are doing that to mask effects that riding a bike is going to have on your body…essentially, you are taking a painkiller to enhance your performance.

“But the whole reason we get into sport in the first place is to test our bodies, to test our limits. If you are taking something that is going to boost your performance, that is not exactly being true to yourself, not exactly being true to your sport.”

As regards the gateway effect, there is a parallel with the argument put forward by those who are opposed to cannabis. It’s hotly debated, but some allege that using that recreational drug can lead others to experiment with other, harder substances. Similarly, the accounts of Tyler Hamilton and other US Postal Service riders show a gradual slide into using more serious products, with the ice initially being broken with something such as a testosterone pill or the use of cortisone, then EPO and blood transfusions following later.

Phinney agrees that once a rider starts relying on one type of product, it’s easier to progress on to stronger substances and to eventually cross the Maginot line of doping.

“I do think in a way that painkillers could either be a stepping stone to something bigger, or perhaps a step down for maybe an older pro who has had a sketchy past, who has got used to racing with something and has to have something,” he said.

“From there, there is a whole argument about things like cortisone; people can invent a knee injury and get a TUE for that substance. Using that would definitely enhance your performance.

“If it was up to me, I would say if you need cortisone, you shouldn’t be racing. You should get that injury fixed and then you can come back, but you are not racing any more in the meantime.

“It is the same thing with painkillers or something like Sudafed. If you wake up with a fever and you need to take some sort of painkillers to be racing, then you probably shouldn’t be racing in the first place and your team doctor should be worried about your health and send you home.”

He said that in his talks with Cummings on the subject, that they have spoken about why the use of such products is tolerated at all. “The way I see it, if we are going to turn the page, then why don’t we write a whole new book? We can turn this sport into the absolute cleanest sport there is, if we do things right. So that is what I am trying to do.”

Phinney emphasises that he and Cummings are not the only riders who feel this way. He names team-mates Adam Blythe and Tim Roe as two who he says also have the same stance, and adds that it is ‘pretty prevalent’ in the younger riders in the bunch.

So what does his see as being acceptable? Phinney states that he’ll take drinks of coke in races and also gels with some caffeine in them, particularly before a time trial. However he rules out pills, particularly the aforementioned finish bottles with a their jumble of tablets dissolving in liquid.

The picture he paints is one of a general dependency, saying that on the start line of a major classic many riders will have pills tucked into their shorts. “They are just painkillers or anti-cramping pills or caffeine, but they are still pills…it is still a grey area in my mind,” he states. “I feel like if you train with proper nutrition and proper hydration and if you race with proper nutrition and proper hydration, why do you need that stuff for anyway?”

Upbringing and pro debut:

Taylor PhinneyPhinney speaks about his youth, saying that he used to get sick a lot when he was growing up and had to take many antibiotics. He said that turned him off the idea of swallowing pills but, even so, he said that on a few occasions in the past he has taken some.

“Last year at the Vuelta when I was really suffering every day, and in the last couple of days I started to take a Tylenol here and there in a race. But I never felt it helped me,” he said. “It was kind of like a crutch…something I had that made me say, ‘maybe this will make me feel better.’

“The sport is so hard, I think a lot of people are in that mentality where they think they need something to dull that pain. But really all you need to do is to be professional and work hard, and then you arrive to races in the right place and don’t even need any sort of crutch.”

The issue of relying on legal medications is something which hasn’t been spoken about much in the sport. It doesn’t break the rules, as such, but the notion of riders gulping painkillers and caffeine tablets in the finale of races or having a sleeping pill dependency is still a troubling one. He says that many riders use products such as muscle relaxants, Stilnox or Ambien in order to rest at night. “When you are in the middle of a Grand Tour, you want to make sure you are sleeping, particularly when you have to share a room with a team-mate.”

So why hasn’t the subject been spoken about more? Phinney suggests that there was a certain reluctance amongst riders to highlight the issue, but believes that the USADA case has cleared the way for riders to talk more openly. The same was seen after previous scandals, although Omerta returned; hopefully this time the aftershocks will be sufficient to both effect a more lasting change and also to keep the subject in the open.

“I‘ve always been anti-pills, but with the recent stuff coming out, I felt like now was okay to mention that. It feels like you won’t be shunned by anybody at this point in time for saying you don’t like pills,” he said. “I also like to talk about it as it is the reality about the way I race…if I can get second place in the worlds time time trial and two fourth places in the Olympics, and given that I consider myself 100 percent bread and water, then that shows where the sport is now. If we can do something even more on the pills side of things, I would be totally for that and comfortable with that.”

Phinney appreciates that many fans are demoralised with the extent of the bad news that the USADA investigation into Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service team has brought. He’s a rider who seemed previously to be on good terms with the Texan, and indeed competed on his Livestrong youth team prior to moving to BMC Racing.

However he stresses that like the fans, he is also disappointed by the extent of the deceit which has been uncovered. “There are a lot of people who have lost the faith and I completely understand that,” he said, “but the main thing that I like to remind people is that guys who are my age [are in a similar position]. I was a fan of the sport during that whole era, and so I feel the same sense of betrayal as well. I have gone through the same emotions as the fans have.”

Because of that, he said that he feels a sense of responsibility to show that things don’t have to continue along the same path. “I am happy I am in the position I am in now, to be able to talk about how I ride the bike and the way I approach the races. I am confident in this sport’s ability to turn itself around.”


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