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On Biking: an interview with The Doper Next Door

Posted by Your Town  October 11, 2011 02:13 PM

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Andrew Tilin is a longtime cyclist and self-described “decent, middle of the pack racer.” For years, Andrew raced for fun. But as hard as he trained and as fast as he pedaled, Andrew couldn’t keep up. Quite simply: “I got my butt kicked. Afterwards, I’d laugh. I figured there must be dopers.”

A few years ago, Andrew’s wife began hormone replacement therapy. That was when he really noticed the power of the pills: those medications had what Andrew described as, “A huge and positive effect” on his wife.

Which got him to thinking: what kind of effect would they have on the average rider?

Andrew decided to write about what he called “a citizen doper,” that is, a weekend warrior who wants to win so badly that he’ll sell his soul for a shiny medal or a bright blue ribbon.

Not surprisingly, no one would speak with Andrew on the record. Using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED’s) will get you banned from racing, which would kind of defeat the purpose of coming clean. And even if you weren’t banned for doping you’d be shunned by your fellow riders. Quite simply, cyclists hate dopers. Hate them.

No wonder no one returned Andrew’s calls.

As Andrew remembered it, “The harder it became to find a subject [who would talk about using PED’s] the sexier the hormones seemed. [That’s when] I looked in the mirror and decided maybe I should be the guy doing this experiment.”

Andrew began his experiment with testosterone in 2008. His provocative and engaging book, “The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year On Performance Enhancing Drugs” chronicles his adventures with chemicals. Here’s what he told me about his jacked up year.

Although professional athletes typically use more than one PED at a time, Andrew decided to stick to testosterone alone to replicate as best he could what a typical well heeled amateur cyclist could get. Rather than buy his drugs on line or in a gym parking lot, Andrew went to an internist who prescribed these medications. For Andrew, that choice was simple: “I was putting my health on the line and I wanted to do this as safely as possible.”

So how did they work? Andrew said that just taking the testosterone didn’t make him a better rider. What it did do was let him ride hard, recover fast, and then repeat the next day. This in turn allowed him to get stronger and faster and feel fresh when previously he would have been whipped.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of these drugs if you’re willing to overlook the fact that they’re against the rules. Not to mention that the long-term health effects are as yet unknown.

Andrew’s science experiment ended in 2008, though he acknowledges it wasn’t easy to become just another former doper: “Using the drugs was a thrill. Call it vanity or immaturity, but it’s fun to feel good. I miss that libido, too, and the swagger that went with the T. I felt more confident on this stuff.”

Still, Andrew was quick to point out the dark side of doping: “The long term health effects of these drugs are not known in a healthy population. Also, with the swagger came an added edge. Sometimes the T was like drinking 12 cups of coffee. Those were not my proudest moments.”

After his year of using PED’s Andrew contacted the US Cycling authority and outed himself. As best as I can tell, it was the first time someone voluntarily came clean, not to preempt being exposed but to do the right thing. Andrew said that at first US Cycling did not know how to respond, but eventually they banned him from competitive bike racing for two years.

It’s easy to think about doping in black and white terms: anyone who dopes is bad and just plain wrong. The problem is that framing the conversation in terms of good vs. evil doesn’t allow for a richer understanding of why someone would dope. Especially if they have so little to gain and so much to lose.

Andrew takes a more nuanced view on the subject: “People who dope don’t want to grow old. They don’t want to lose. They want to be what they were.”

So what’s wrong with trying to turn back the clock? As Andrew sees it, a lot: “Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to grow old and age. Maybe it’s not the worst thing to not be a competitive athlete as you age. If you take drugs you’re cheating and a fraud, but what are you really chasing? Maybe there can be meaning in an athlete slowing down.”

As much fun as it was to ride hard and get fast, Andrew was clear that, “At the end of the day I didn’t find a lot of soul and meaning in being young again.”

What Andrew ultimately learned from his science experiment goes against the conventional wisdom: it’s not that youth is wasted on the young, it’s that wanting to be young is a waste if you happen to be old.

Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist. His book, “Here For the Ride” will be published next spring by Cadence Press.

To read more, check out Andrew’s web page.

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