Lance Armstrong on wonder drug? Hmmmmm.

Vince Coglianese Contributor
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PARIS — The notion that Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times because he was on some kind of secret wonder-drug somehow unavailable to others riders has long floated around the froth-osphere where sports fans trade rumor, fiction and the occasional fact.

Now, Sports Illustrated gives a possible name for such a potion – HemAssist. The magazine reports “the FDA has information that Armstrong gained access” in the late 1990s to the experimental drug that was never commercialized. A doctor who oversaw the clinical studies spoke enthusiastically to SI about how HemAssist, theoretically at least, could help riders scale French mountain passes by delivering oxygen to tired muscles.

“Better than EPO” – long a performance-enhancer of choice in cycling – but without its potential nasty side-effects like making blood gooey, Robert Przybelski was quoted as saying.

Mmmmmm. Really?

If Armstrong doped, which he has always vociferously insisted was not the case, then it’s difficult to believe that a drug like HemAssist would have been his magic bullet, or that he had a magic bullet at all. There are plenty of other products and methods out there, unlike drugs in HemAssist’s family, that are known to truly give the boost that cheats seek.

Horrific but now depressingly mundane practices like transfusing blood. Cocktails of growth hormone, steroids, EPO, testosterone. The list of things riders took to try to beat Armstrong runs on and on. Either Armstrong was monk-like in resisting the temptations so many others succumbed to or he’s lying. SI’s claims add to the pile of allegations against Armstrong that has grown too large and too explosive to easily dismiss.

Instead, let Jeff Novitzky get to the bottom of it. The taxpayer dollars that Armstrong’s lawyers grumble are being wasted on the federal investigator’s hunt of Armstrong will have been money well spent if he unmasks the Tour’s biggest champion as a cheat or, alternatively, determines that there’s really nothing or not much there.

The current limbo of allegation vs. denial, of mounting anecdotal evidence but no smoking-gun proof that Armstrong doped, is good for nobody, with the exception of journalists to whom this offers a rich vein of stories.

Bad for Armstrong and the cancer survivors he fills with hope. Bad for cycling, which combats doping more convincingly now than during Armstrong’s winning era. And bad for all of us who want to believe in champions and be inspired by the human body’s capacity to achieve incredible things.

Now back to SI’s HemAssist claim.

Just the idea that a sports star could use his wealth, clout and connections to access experimental drugs meant to be strictly controlled is alarming. It is way beyond the sports world’s remit or powers to probe such organized fraud alone. More reason to think that snooping by gumshoes like Novitzky is entirely valid.

Still, the HemAssist allegation doesn’t appear to make much scientific sense.

Scientists from Europe and Australia tried out another HemAssist-like drug a few years back on sports students in the southern French city of Montpellier, infusing them with Hemopure and having them pedal exercise bikes. They were surprised to discover that, contrary to their expectations, the drug did not seem to boost athletic performance or endurance. Those findings make them doubt that HemAssist would have done huge good for Armstrong if, indeed, he was cynical enough to have used it.

Armstrong spokesman Mark Fabiani says the cyclist never took HemAssist. He also says that because its developer, Baxter International, abandoned trials of the drug in 1998, it was “impossible” that Armstrong could have gotten hold of it.

“It would have been a big story, ‘Now we know why Armstrong was so strong – because he took HemAssist,'” says one of the researchers who took part in the study of Hemopure, Yorck Olaf Schumacher of Freiburg University in Germany. “But, pffff, I think that would be oversimplifying things.”

Of this type of drug, called hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers or HBOCs, Schumacher adds: “There’s nothing up to now that shows or proves that it improves performance.”

“I’m very skeptical,” says another of the scientists, Michel Audran at the University of Montpellier. The drug they tested, Hemopure, was “better than HemAssist and it didn’t improve performance, so it would surprise me that he (Armstrong) took this for nothing.”

He adds that a side-effect of Hemopure was that it gave the students stomach gas.

“Either you burp or break wind. It’s very uncomfortable. I tried it out on people and I can guarantee that they were all ill,” he says.

Hardly ideal for an elite cyclist. But some of them still gave this stuff a whirl, risking their health. Spanish rider Jesus Manzano keeled over at the 2003 Tour after, he says, he was injected with an HBOC used to treat anemic dogs. Audran believes Manzano’s experience scared off other riders.

“Some of them used it, a few of them,” he says. “But after the Manzano story … they abandoned it.”

An anti-doping blood test for HBOCs has been in force since 2004 but, as far as the World Anti-Doping Agency knows, no athlete has yet tested positive. Armstrong’s seven consecutive Tour wins ran through to 2005.

Przybelski, who oversaw HemAssist’s early development for Baxter, maintained in a subsequent phone interview with The Associated Press that the drug could have improved sports performance, although he added that no direct studies were done to prove that theory.

“I could not imagine a cyclist using HemAssist or any HBOC day after day … I would imagine that such a product would be used selectively for a most difficult mountain stage,” Przybelski wrote in a follow-up e-mail to the AP.

“But of course,” he added, “I don’t believe these products were ever used.”