Organizers of the Gran Fondo New York bike race don’t want an amateur Lance Armstrong among the 6,000 cyclists competing in the 105-mile event next weekend.
So they are spending $15,000 on drug tests sanctioned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the same organization whose investigation led Armstrong to confess that he cheated to win seven Tour de France championships by using performance-enhancing drugs.
With cycling participation in the U.S. up 66 percent -- there were 70,829 USA Cycling licenses issued in 2011, an increase from 42,724 in 2002 -- organizers of top U.S. amateur events are spending more on drug testing to maintain legitimacy.
“Cycling sort of carries that burden with it,” Gary Wadler, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List and Methods Subcommittee and author of “Drugs and the Athlete” said in a telephone interview. “When you test, it’s the deed that counts, not just words. It’s measurable and there is no deniability.”
Gran fondo loosely translates from Italian to “big ride,” and Uli Fluhme, a former UBS hedge-fund attorney and co-founder of the New York race, describes it as a “marathon on bikes.”
First held in 2011, the Gran Fondo New York had two doping cases last year, its first for drug tests. This year, winners will collect a total of $50,000 in prizes, including an $8,000 bicycle, and the continued drug tests are drawing support from participants. It costs $190-$300 to enter.
“This is a competitive race from start to finish and if you’re going for the prize, you should fully expect to be tested,” said Brian Lee, a 40-year-old Morgan Stanley high-yield bond salesman, who is training for July’s Ironman triathlon in Lake Placid, New York. “Integrity is important.”
Last year, David Anthony of the U.S. and Gabriele Guarini of Italy tested positive for banned substances. Anthony had won the 45-49 age division before a test revealed his use of blood-boosting erythropoietin, or EPO. Guarini won the 50-54 men’s category and tested positive for oxygen-enhancing peptide hormone use, according to USADA’s website. Both got two-year bans and had their results erased. Neither responded to e-mail requests for comment.
Anthony and Guarini joined a growing list of amateur athletes to test positive for doping. Since 2011, at least 10 amateur cyclists have been cited for doping infractions in the U.S., according to USADA. Anthony’s name appears three spots below Armstrong’s on USADA’s banned list.
The gran fondo, which this year has attracted cyclists from 48 U.S. states and 70 countries, was founded by Fluhme, 38, and his wife, Lidia Fluhme, 32, a former Wall Street investment banker with firms including Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank AG. The couple said they used their own savings to fund the race in its first year and spend about $500,000 for permits to secure the route. The Fluhmes said they didn’t test for doping in the inaugural race due to the high costs. Testing began last year.
He wouldn’t disclose how much he has spent on the race or whether it will be profitable.
Doping tests at the gran fondo help the Fluhmes protect their investment, Uli Fluhme said in a telephone interview. They wouldn’t disclose the number of tests that will be done.
“If you put on a race, make it a competition, put up prizes and people come from all over the world to compete and you don’t do testing, it’s like you are allowing doping,” he said. “It’s just part of what you have to do to provide fair racing. Of course it’s sad. But it’s the reality. It’s better than just ignoring it.”
While professional cycling has been plagued by doping scandals since the 1960s, a surge in recreational riders is increasing drug use among amateurs, said Andrew Tilin, who was banned for two years by USADA in 2011 for testosterone use as part of research for his book, “The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year on Performance-Enhancing Drugs.”
“The culture has just trickled down,” Tilin, 47, said in a telephone interview. “It’s pathetic, frankly. Who are we really impressing? We’re racing for PowerBars, tires and passes to amusement parks.”
Fresh off his ban, Tilin finished 10th in the Masters B class at the Tour of the Gila four-day stage race in New Mexico on May 5.
“I’m staring at a check for $13,” Tilin said of his prize.
The U.S. bicycle industry had sales of $6 billion in 2011, up 13 percent from $5.3 billion in 2002, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.
During a gran fondo, riders can choose to race for a fastest time or just enjoy the scenery and spend time with friends as part of an endurance challenge.
After a 7 a.m. mass start for the May 19 race on the lower level of the George Washington Bridge, riders head north to Bear Mountain, New York, and back. The ride finishes in Weehawken, New Jersey, with a 10-hour time limit. Top riders will finish in less than six hours.
“The star is New York City,” said Uli Fluhme, who moved to New York from Ireland in 2008. The ride has a total of about 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) of climbing. It’s that elevation that the German-born Fluhme said will probably surprise non-New Yorkers in the race.
“People think of Manhattan and say, ‘How great can the riding be here?’” he said. “When you get across the bridge into Rockland County (New York), it’s beautiful. It’s a hard course. When I moved here, I had no idea.”
Last year’s men’s winner, which was determined by combined times on the course’s four biggest climbs, was Wladimiro D’Ascenzo, a former professional cyclist from Italy. Anthony Fatuzzo of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, was second.
While the field is limited to amateurs, many compete as members of organized teams. Like professional races, amateur riders work together in groups in an attempt to set their top riders up for victory. At the New York event, winning teams are also awarded prizes based on the times of their four fastest finishers.
For some first-time participants, drug testers at the finish line will be a welcome sight.
“I don’t expect to win prize money, but let’s try to keep the playing field honest,” Solomon Rosenzweig, a 38-year-old structural engineer from Brooklyn, said in a telephone interview. “I kind of hope I get picked just for the novelty of it.”