Some argue that legalizing performance-enhancing drugs could make the sport of cycling safer.
The Tour de France begins on Saturday and, as usual, drug scandals have surfaced.
There is a constant struggle between officials to keep the sport clean and athletes trying to evade detection.
Some argue that legalizing such drugs is the only realistic and safe solution to the issue.
As nearly 200 Tour de France cyclists rev up for their opening stage on Saturday, there are two races underway. One for the yellow jersey which goes to the holder of the top podium spot when the 21-day, 2,131-mile race ends on the Champs-Elysees in Paris; and a second, underground competition between dopers and the authorities who would stop them.
As with most previous Tours in the past decade, last-minute drug scandals have surfaced during the past few days. A part-time "soigneur" or trainer for the American BMC team was arrested Thursday and charged in connection with a 2009 case in Belgium in which he allegedly received 200 doses of the blood-boosting drug EPO. A former rider for a Belgian team -- listed as a team chauffeur -- was arrested this week for receiving several packages of a new synthetic hormone developed for race horses.
Meanwhile, defending champ Alberto Contador of Spain is fighting charges that he doped during last year's race when traces of the muscle-building steroid clenbuterol were found during a urine test.
While anti-doping authorities vow to conduct hundreds of blood and urine tests during this month's brutal three-week suffer-fest, it seems that the ultra-fast, ultra-thin cyclists' appetite for destruction is limitless. So should the use of performance enhancing drugs be legalized and controlled, just like cigarettes, coffee and alcohol? Is it a defensible idea, medically or morally?
Dr. Norman Fost thinks so. For the past two decades, Fost has been arguing for a new look at performance enhancing drugs and the athletes who take them.
"The present policy of prohibiting drugs is morally incoherent and hypocritical," said Fost, professor of pediatrics, medical history and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin. "From a medical standpoint, it is counterproductive."
Fost argues that athletes already use forms of legal performance enhancement such as sleeping in oxygen-poor "altitude tents" to boost their red blood count that achieve the same results as taking EPO. He says the first step would be to conduct more medical studies about the effects of drugs on the human body in different doses.
While critics often cite the case of bulked-up pro wrestlers who have suffered heart attacks or the gender-bending East German women swim team of the early 1970s, Fost says that there hasn't been enough valid, controlled research to find out what levels are safe.
"Athletes continue to pursue drugs wherever they can get them," Fost said. "Using them without benefit of medical supervision, and without information about whatever their health risks exist will continue to get worse."
Fost also says that many athletes get their steroids or blood-boosters from shady sources -- something that legalization would prevent.
"If you are getting your drugs from Tijuana or from BALCO, you don't know what's in the bottle," said Fost, referring to the acronym for the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, the steroid supplier to former Giants' slugger Barry Bonds.
But all this talk of legalization is hogwash, says Travis Tygart, executive director of the U.S. Anti-Doping Association. Tygart said the U.S. public wants their athletes clean, and wants children playing sports with adult role models that are clean as well. He cites a new survey by the USADA and Discovery Education that interviewed more than 4,400 adults and children across the country who are involved in sports.
More than 75 percent of adults said that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is the most serious danger facing sports today, followed by the focus on money and the criminal behavior of well-known athletes.
Legalization of performance enhancing drugs "would change the nature of what sport is," Tygart said. "It would go from what is supposed to be the result of natural human talents to a circus act or some kind of freak show. Professional wrestling has gone down that path and you see freak-like people engaging in combat or competition for nothing more than entertainment purposes. It would rip the soul out of what sport is."
Tygart, the nation's top anti-drug cop for Olympic sports like cycling, swimming and track and field, says more athlete deaths would occur if steroids, EPO and new designer drugs were legalized. Tygart said that despite continuing doping scandals in some sports like cycling, he believes competitions are cleaner that they were 10 years ago.
Before that time, athletes who knew about doping activities could only report their info to officials from their own sport, and face retribution, rather than to an independent agency such as USADA. Tygart agreed that the race between authorities like him and dopers will continue for some time to come.
"In some sports there is a culture of cheating and it's going to take time to change that culture," Tygart said from his office in Colorado Springs.
If there's one guy who knows about the effects of performance-enhancing drugs, it's Andrew Tilin. A freelance writer and endurance athlete in his 40s, Tilin decided to do an experiment on himself. He took steroids for 10 months during a season of amateur races near his home of Oakland, Calif.
"There were days where I was the man, and there were days when I felt like a fraud," said Tilin, who's just written a book about his experiences: "The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year on Performance Enhancing Drugs."
Tilin admitted to taking steroids and is now serving a two-year suspension of his amateur racing license. Tilin said the drugs boosted his strength and libido, but also left him angry, agitated and scared.
"I had a swagger I didn't used to have," he said.
While Tilin never won a race on drugs, he consistently fared well above his natural athletic skills, recalling how he dropped much of the field of racers on a climb in the Berkeley hills. He says the experience led him to believe that the use of some level of testosterone is probably O.K. for aging guys to get their mojo back, but not for young, high-level athletes who are under financial and psychological pressures to succeed.
"Drugs are just technology, like better bike wheels or a faster swimsuit or a lighter pair of running shoes," Tilin said. "It's very tempting. The only problem with these drugs is that it doesn't make your swimsuit slipperier, it alters your body. If we let everybody do it, they would kill themselves."