Drugs in downhill?


Just an observation I’d like to share.

Perhaps downhilling will be the salvation of cycling in the eyes of sponsors and the general viewing public as it is the only cycling discipline that the use of drugs is not an advantage. Or not so much of an advantage.

Every other discipline needs either explosive power or endurance, but in DH the most talented guy that gets the most luck is going to win (especially if you take the chain off like they often do in Cairns, Australia, home of Mick Hannah and Chris Kovarik).

Maybe you could throw the question out to readers: Anyone ever take drugs to DH faster? Know of anyone that did? Did it make a difference?


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Hey Chris,

Whoa there! Downhill does require explosive power and endurance — as well as skill, focus and discipline. Luck has very little to do with winning a downhill race.

Some riders do use drugs to enhance their performance.

Some riders smoke pot to mellow themelves. Some use stimulants to amp themselves. Some of these stimulants are legal, some aren’t. I use caffeine all the time.

Some riders use steroids to get stronger. Back in the late ’90s, a bunch of the top riders got suspiciously muscular. Their faces got puffy, acne broke out and one I knew personally seemed even more aggro than usual. But after a couple seasons, everyone went back to their normal sizes. Downhill rewards overall strength, power, endurance, agility, etc. So using steroids to pack on major muscle wasn’t worth the risks. But rumor has it some 4X racers still use the juice.

Question: If the pros of a substance (feeling strong, winning races, feeling like a worthwhile person) outweighed its cons (bad health, official sanction, jail), would you use it?

23 replies
  1. Wayne says:

    I certainly have no proof, but I believe there is quite a bit of Vicodeine that is used, but I don’t think that counts the same.

    I can’t/won’t race for several reasons: no strength, no handling skills, intense fear of pain, not necessarily in that order.

    I’m a pretty good spectator though.

  2. scott says:

    It’s a really interesting question, and on I doubt you’ll ever get clear answers about. I had a couple of thoughts:
    )steroids and human growth hormone can both increase lean muscle mass, and obviously have a big following in professional sports, even some that aren’t traditionally though of as strength limited disciplines (i.e baseball pitchers). They can definitely help you recover faster which would be great for pinning a qualifier and then recovering for a race run. Major problem (aside from the health risks) many thousands a month in costs, not possible with all but a few pro gravity contacts.
    )stimulants like amphetamines or cocaine, less perceived exertion, greater preceived energy. Potential problem of your mind writing checks for a particular physical problem that your body is not capable of fulfilling. Significant increased cardiac risk, particularly when you go anaerobic, and there is going to be hell to pay in recovery with significant increased temperature and lactate issues.
    ) stimulants like caffeine, probably the least threatening and widely used. has shown clear benefits in short duration intense anaerobic exercises. Major problem, does the course require you to be calm and collected or amped up. difficult to change between the two states once you medicate yourself. The other major problem is caffeine is a relatively good diuretic, you will lose body water, and how many people stay well hydrated enough for optimum performance at colorado altitudes and temperatures anyway?
    )Marijuana, good for mellowing out as above, and several generations of bump skiers have used this a lot. My take is that anything that you smoke is an unacceptable health risk in terms of your lungs. Cancer risks aside, who can affored to have their aerobic system function at 10-15% less effectiveness for a mixed aerobic/anaerobic effort like downhilling, maybe a little less of a question for a short durtion event like 4X.

    The question of using any performance inhancing drug is personal, but from the medical side, all of these type drugs have significant costs. This doesn’t even start to get going on WADA or USA cycling regulations.

    Sorry to give my very long 2 cents worth, Scott

  3. Chris says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I know what it takes to race. My heart once hurt so much at the end of a DH race that I wanted to cut it out with a knife…

    My point is that in COMPARISON to, say, BMX and road cycling, I think its use would make less of a difference. Apart from the fact that the extra prize money wouldn’t pay for the drugs.

    Vis BMX: Getting the best snap out of a gate is crucial in being the first to the corner which is crucial in being the first to the finish line. There is no moment in DH like that. There are many moments that require power, but none have so much riding on it. A gate snap is like a shot put: in half a second it’s all over. You’ve lost or won.

    I knew someone would bring up marijuana, and I remember when the UCI banned it for DH “..because it could make a rider do things they wouldn’t normally do”. Personally, I want full mental control when I’m riding. AND when I’m not riding!

    Luck has a lot to do with winning a DH race, just ask anyone that qualified first and flatted in the race run. Or maybe someone who was cleaning a pair of spectacles at the start line only to have one of the lenses pop out!!!

  4. scott says:

    Chris, your points are well taken. My take on the physical requirements of DH, is that it requires intermittent severe anaerobic stress, separated by significant aerobic efforts. You’re right, that it is not as explosive as a gate start, but increased strength will help you cope with high speed impacts, g-outs, etc. Not everybody who is successful has to be built like Peat, Rennie, or Mattie Thompson, but there is a large subset of riders who are (It’s also cool that many other successful riders are not built in this mold). Any of the bigger guns of performance inhancing drugs will make you stronger, and just as importantly will allow to recover quicker (more like recovery in the many hours to day or two setting). There is certainly a role in high-output aerobic efforts as well, just look at the rumours following the Tour and other major road races. Scott

  5. zach says:

    If you are winning races on luck you should go play power ball bro. The last time I checked you needed some skills to win even if the chain does pop you still need to know how to pump your ass off to cross that there finish line. Drugs or no drugs people will do what it takes to win and the last time I checked the fastest rider is the smoothest rider and that has nothing to do with Drugs and everything to do with SKILL. Build up your bike skills first and worry about the gym and power shakes afterwards because the last time I checked Arnold hasn’t won any bike races although he did win an election.

  6. Chris says:

    I forgot about steroids and decreased recovery time.

    It was the recent huge increase in professions of guilt by ProTour riders that made me think that DHers were above all that drug tragedy. We shall see if anyone admits to taking drugs to race DH.

  7. matt says:

    ive seen the pot, not on big pros but smaller guys that ride more for the fun not the fame, and thats just what they do

  8. Matt Fisher says:

    There is not enough money in the sport to make it worth the long term risks for most people. If there was money out there the people who would use steroids to get the upper hand would start to come out of the woodwork.

  9. leelikesbikes says:

    Chris said:

    > Luck has a lot to do with winning a DH race, just ask anyone that qualified first and flatted > in the race run. Or maybe someone who was cleaning a pair of spectacles at the start line > only to have one of the lenses pop out!!!

    Touché! 🙂

  10. leelikesbikes says:

    A few years ago Outside Magazine ran a story in which a recreational 38-year-old cyclist got on the full illegal supplement program for six months. They phased human grown hormone, EPO and steriods. The results were astounding — increased capacity, more muscle and instant recovery. Human growth hormone turned back the clock on this guy; his skin got better, his eyes got better — he got younger!

    No question these drugs would help any kind of athlete. But at what price?

    Like Matt says, the financial rewards of pro DH don’t justify this sort of thing. A lot of guys race because it’s all they know, or because at deep level that’s all they have. It’s those guys I worry about. But the good news: None of those guys can afford the good stuff.

  11. Nick says:

    A few years back there was a hormone called androstien that was sold over the counter at stores such as walmart and GND. I am going to have to, regretably admit to taking androstien back in 1999 and 2000(was not cycling at the time). From my own experiences I can say that this drug can have serious consequences. I did see athletic gains from using it, but the hormones messed with my head something fierce. I can still vividly remember calling my best freind at the time and balling my head off for no good reason what so ever. After I stopped taking androstien I had significant wieght gains, hair loss, and suffered through a bought of depression. After suffering from the effects of this seemingly innocuose over the counter hormone, it pains me to think about how a full blown stereriod could effect the body and the mind.

  12. Chris says:

    Zach, I’m glad we both agree that SKILL is paramount in DH and therefore drugs have no real benefit. That’s my point: that DH will be the only competitive cycling discipline that won’t have a shadow cast on it by drugs. When Sam Hill became DH World Champ, I doubt anyone wondered if he was on drugs. But for the winner of the forthcoming Tour de France? I doubt anyone WON’T wonder if he was on drugs!

    My wording regarding luck was wrong, let me rephrase: Luck won’t win you races, but bad luck will lose them for you.

    Matt F, good point. Which is a pity. I guess the public can’t relate to the magic. But if all the top guys were on it, could they be beaten by someone who wasn’t. THAT is the litmus test.

  13. Carl says:

    Personally I think people will do what it takes to win, regardless of the consequences. Any mind of serious athlete takes some form of supplement, be it vitamins or whatever, everyone’s line is different.

    I’ve always wondered if you had 2 world championships (not just in mountain biking but any sport) – one for the druggies and one for the cleanies, how different it would be? I’m not into drugs for obvious reasons but I do believe in freedom of personal choice so if someone is prepared to suffer the consequences in the name of human progression it might be cool to see how far it can go in a masochistic kind of way 😀

  14. scott says:

    To Chris’ point: “But if all of the top guys were on it, could they be beaten by someone who wasn’t.” I still think there is enough variabilty in what constitutes a “ideal” dowhnhiller that it might be possible. When you look at tour riders, you can get a good feel for the potential finish order just on the basis of their power numbers just before the race.
    There are so many more variables in downhill, and so many that will change during the race (line selection, course changes, bike damage, etc), that the eventual winners tend to be a much less homogenous group of athletes then in many other sports. You’d have to assume that If everbody was doing it, then those who didn’t would be at a great disadvantage. It doesn’t mean somebody who wasn’t juicing couldn’t win, but they’d be a lot less likely to do so.
    While I’d like to see DH/4X get bigger, increased purses, endorsements, etc. all bring increasing pressure to win, as well as providing the resourses to cheat effectively. When it gets to be a big business, it’s tough to think that the gravity crowd would be above yielding to the temptation to cheat when it has happened in so many other professional sports.

  15. Curtis says:

    Does alcohol count as a drug, because I sure do like drinking a couple beers and pinning downhill runs.

  16. Dale says:

    Although on the fringe of competitive cycling, don’t forget slopestyle, freestyle, and dirt jump mountain biking is all about each riders bike handling skills and guts. That’s why I left the road racing scene and took to the dirt. One big point I noticed has gone unmentioned in this thread so far is the impact on our kids with all this juiced up crap that most of the pros are using. The whole sport of road riding is in the toilet thanks to the several riders who have tested positive; they ruined it and deserve a lifetime ban from the sport. My idea is to let the druggies have their EPO, etc, and run their events like the WWF. I would hate to see mountain biking die the same painful death the roadies did. I have to agree with whoever said it earlier about the money issue; it comes down to greed rather than looking out for the future of the sport. Vitamins, protein shakes, caffeine, whatever, is not in the same category as steroids, etc; if it’s on the banned list, don’t take it…it’s that simple. Although I was never a pro or even close to being one, I take this whole issue very personally and maybe I ranted too much.

  17. matt says:

    Quote lee >Like Matt says, the financial rewards of pro DH don’t justify this sort of thing. A lot of guys race because it’s all they know, or because at deep level that’s all they have. It’s those guys I worry about. But the good news:

    None of those guys can afford the good stuff.

    That there is the truth

  18. Geoff says:

    Drugs are bad, Mkay!

    I’ve been downhilling since 2001 and the only substances that I take to help are Glucosomine (vitamin that aides joints) and Beer (vitamin proven to make riders loose). I saw above that someone hinted that vicodin helps, I can state that it really doesn’t. I was finishing off the 2003 season with a broken ankle and had a perscription. Gave me the worst case of cotton mouth and felt like I was riding with a concussion. Downhill requires male riders to have big balls, don’t stereriods negate that?

  19. Roger says:

    Ask Chris Del Bosco.. He won the US championship a couple years ago only to have it taken away for smoking pot..Rumor had it he was getting high on the lift to the top.

  20. Pee-Who says:

    dude.. first off.. smoking pot and using steroids (HGH or the cream) are 2 completely different things. marijuana is not a performance enhancing drug, no way..! the ONLY thing it enhances is the taste of my campsite burrito…!

    an another american lost his World Cup win a few years back b/c of THC as well. i personally think THC listed as a banned substance b/c it’s considered a “Fear Inhibitor” is total BS.!

    UCI and Norba need to get there heads out of they’re A$$e$$.! a certain Australian 4Xer “really” got caught cheating (a few years ago) with some real performance enhancing drugs and you know what he got..? 6 months probabation during the off season…. nice job UCI.. way to be consistent. that freaking juiced up chode should have gotten a lifetime ban..!

    my 2 cents.. that being said.. i condone nothing, i admit to nothing and to each his own..


  21. Brian B. says:

    THC was only illegal for downhillers and not cross country racers back in 2004. Not sure if has changed since then.

  22. Steve says:

    There are some rumors flying around here that I think need to be clarified, from my perspective at least.
    Everybody seems to agree that skill is the most important thing in a DH race, which it is, but there are plenty of highly skilled riders out there. To be able to access your skills you have to have the fitness to keep your head straight the whole way down a race run. I would venture to say that from 1992 to 2002, when Nico Vouilloz won all but one World Championship races (3 in junior, 7 in senior), I doubt he was the most skilled rider all the times. Take guys like Cedric, Pascal, Palmer, they could never beat him at the World Champs, but I venture to say they are more skilled at just plain pinning it. There was just a lack of preparation on the fitness training end of it.
    I’ve trained under different coaches, (including Nico’s old coach) and I can tell you that fitness is probably the most important thing coming into a DH race, to have to confidence knowing you can race well and go hard with no doubt in your mind.
    Another thing, no race is won on luck. I also don’t think there is bad luck, aside from some spectator hitting you or something completely out of your control. Flats are within a rider’s control, mechanicals are as well (breaking a chain or derailer or pedal on a rock or something is a mistake, not bad luck) It all depends on line choice, preparation, and having the fitness and good state of mind to keep on your practiced lines at the end of a race and make corrections when something does come up.
    If you want to talk about the importance of explosive power and endurance wrapped up in an athlete, you should look at downhill specifically, that’s all it is. The explosive power to pin a run, and the endurance to do that week in and week out the entire season, the entire time of practice you choose to do, all these things.
    Being that this topic is about racing, and you want to look at successes, look at the all time winning male DH rider, Nicolas Vouilloz. Watch some of his race runs, particularily the finish. He is calm, collected, and perfect when others are out of breath and delirious. That’s why he has won what he has won, instead of messing up a corner at the end of a run (Sam Hill, 05 worlds) or crashing in a lower section of the course (Peat, 04 worlds).
    Nico definitely has the skills, but when he was purely focused on winning DH races, he had the FITNESS to allow him to use all his skills.

  23. EyeDfy says:

    I used to smoke up before/during/after every ride. That was when I was a CC fool who didn’t have to worry about dragging my broken ass off a deep woods trail due to missing the landing of a road gap. Since I got into freeride/dh riding, I find that weed definitely decreases my balance on skinnies and my judgement on drops and jumps. I still dig the toke and brew after the ride, but dh is way too intense and too quickly successive with the TTFs to bang a bong before the ride. The only “performance enhancing” drug that I do tend to take is ephedrine (in small doses) to keep me on my toes. However, if there’s a lot of uphill, then it can shake your heart outta yer chest, and that ain’t a good feeling.

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