In September, after nearly eight and a half hours of racing, Spencer Johnson saw the finish line of the Logan To Jackson bike race and poured on the speed. He narrowly beat two others for the win, clocking a personal best time of 8 hours, 18:29 minutes.
Then something happened that had never been done before at the LoToJa race: Johnson was pulled aside and shadowed by a representative of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) until he was able to be tested for banned substances.
Usually reserved for Olympic and professional athletes, anti-doping testing has been coming into the amateur ranks of a variety of sporting events in a big way.
With cycling, testing is requested by USA Cycling, the main governing arm of professional and amateur cycling in America. All events conducted with USA Cycling-licensed riders can be subjected to testing under the organization’s RaceClean Program. Part of the program in recent years has been to randomly select amateur events for testing. That’s how the LoToJa race was selected.
“The RaceClean Program has grown each year since 2014, and 2018 was our largest testing year-to-date with 222 tests conducted on amateur cyclists nationwide, exceeding our 2018 goals of 215 tests,” said Guillermo Rojas, director of marketing and communications at USA Cycling, via email.
Brent Chambers, director of the LoToJa race, said USA Cycling randomly selected LoToJa as one of its amateur events to test and contracted with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to administer 12 tests at the finish line. It was basically the top finishers of the licensed race heats.
Johnson, who grew up in Idaho Falls and now lives in Riverton, Utah, described the testing as low key.
“You have to do a urine sample but you just got done biking for eight and a half hours so there’s not a lot of liquid left in you,” Johnson said. After he watched friends cross the finish line and drank plenty of fluids, he answered questions and stepped into a large portable toilet with a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency official who watched him urinate into a sample collection bottle. Several weeks later, Johnson received a letter from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency telling him no banned substances were found in his system.
“What I think started the RaceClean was the popularity of these amateur events and there were positive tests,” said Danielle Eurich, media relations specialist for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “USA Cycling wanted to make the races clean across all levels of competition, so they made an effort to put in more testing across the board to make it a more level playing field for all the athletes, whether they are elite or amateur cycling athletes.”
Eurich said cycling is not the only amateur sports stepping up its anti-doping testing in recent years.
“We’ve tested marathons and any type of running events that wants to contract with us,” she said. “We’ve done swimming events. It’s dependent on the organization, whether it’s a local race, regional and if they want testing, they can contract with us and we can do that for them. I know we’ve done a few triathlon events this year.”
The type of banned substances the agency is looking for depends on the sporting event. Endurance-type events might tempt athletes to use banned substances and techniques. Skiers, snowboarders, runners and cyclists can benefit from substances that increase red blood cells or boost the blood’s ability to retain oxygen. Steroids, testosterone and epitestosterone also improve muscle strength, endurance and recovery — helpful in a wide variety of sports.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s website posts a listing of people recently caught testing positive for banned substances. The frequency is roughly one every other week. Athletes come from Ironman competitions, cycling races and weightlifting events, but also from skiing, swimming and other sports. Eurich said because some of the amateur events offer prizes, her agency wants to make sure the right person wins.
“People caring about clean sport and wanting a level playing field is kind of growing in my opinion,” she said. “A lot of it depends on if we received a tip on somebody in that race. So we would go and test. We have a play clean tip line. So athletes or anyone who might suspect doping in their sport can submit a tip and we will investigate those to make sure they are legit.”
Johnson said it is important for athletes to pay attention to what goes into their body. Some over-the-counter supplement manufacturers may put things into their product to give them more of a kick than the next brand and athletes can unknowingly take banned substances. Athletes also have to be careful about the medications doctors prescribe.
“You have to be careful, you never know exactly what’s in those supplements,” he said. “I do take an Endurance 360 supplement and BeetRootPro before races … it came back as being OK.”
Eurich said that while most people want to compete and enjoy the sport cleanly, some view it differently.
“It’s the win-at-all-cost mentality and someone wants that prize whether they are amateur or elite they are going to do what they can to get that,” she said.
But what lures people who participate in amateur events to spend the time and money to use illegal substances?
“At a certain level you have money to spend on your hobby, you might be spending $13,000 on a really fast, light bike, then you’ll say well I’ve spent all this money on that and I’m not any faster, then you might say well I can take all these supplements to get faster. You have money, you have time, maybe that’s how they justify it,” Johnson said.