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Under fire, defiant McQuaid reflects on career, anti-doping efforts

  • By Brian Canty
  • Published Jan. 3, 2013
  • Updated Jan. 3, 2013 at 2:46 PM EDT
Pat McQuaid says he first encountered EPO when a young rider died in his sleep more than two decades ago. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini | AFP

First look at EPO

McQuaid must often wonder whether someone has put some cruel curse on him. Here’s a man who has been utterly besotted by cycling since he was a nipper winning races back in the early 1970s, but all the while, it’s been very much a tale of unrequited romance.

Picture the scene: the 1986 Nissan Classic took years of planning and persuasion. McQuaid was in the hot seat as race director. In the height of a recession he had the drive and desire to source sponsors, teams, riders, a route, media coverage — and do it all on the cheap. (He subsequently needed a dig-out of 30 grand to balance the books, but such was the success of the race, the sponsor willingly provided it.)

There were 16 teams in that edition of the race: 12 professional teams from Europe as well as amateur teams from Ireland, England, France and the Netherlands. LeMond, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Eric Vanderaerden and Steve Bauer were all on the start-line in Dublin; the who’s who of world cycling, all in Ireland, all because of McQuaid. This was going to look very good on his CV in years to come. But all was not well inside the sport’s poisonous underbelly and the toxic “D” word entered his domain for the first time, he explains.

“Stage 1 was a 135-mile trek straight across the country, finishing in Eyre Square,” he said. “A young Dutch rider, Johannes Draaijer, took off out of the bunch coming out of Lucan, in an orange jersey, on his own and built up a lead of 12, 13 and then 14 minutes by Athlone. He was in my rearview mirror the whole day because I was driving the car on front and I was delighted for him, to see an amateur beating all the pros — some of the best in the world. I was thrilled for him. As a sports fan you love the underdog. He didn’t win the stage, but he got a pro contract out of it. But a year or so later, he was found dead in his bed, at 23 years of age. That’s EPO.”

Draaijer had injected himself with so much of the then-legal substance that his blood thickened to mud, put huge strain on his young heart to pump it around his body and just days after a doctor declared him fit and ready to race in Italy, his wife found him cold as a stone. There would be plenty more like him. The pursuit of success resulted in an increasing mortality rate. Stories of junior riders in Europe going to bed at night but having to wake up at all hours to exercise on stationary trainers to keep the heart working and prevent a clot weren’t conjecture.

“I knew how Draaijer died; he died because of EPO,” said McQuaid. “That had a huge effect on me, the fact that drugs will do that. This guy I had watched that day perform so well — I was so thrilled for an amateur starting his career. Out of that result he got a pro contract. It’s just not acceptable and I didn’t find it acceptable. That, plus the (lack of) fairness of it and all that has conditioned my attitude towards doping and my attitude is as strong, if not stronger than a lot of these critics telling the UCI how it should be done. And when I became president in 2005, I laid out two objectives: the fight against doping and the globalization of the sport.”

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