Katusha avoided a suspension from the UCI based on the fact that cocaine, taken by Luca Paolini, was a recreational drug, not performance enhancing

Cocaine, also known as benzoylmethylecgonine or coke, is a strong stimulant mostly used as a recreational drug, or so says the first line of the Wikipedia entry for the substance.

The word recreational is the key word that cycling’s governing body, the UCI, picked out when deciding they could not suspend the Katusha team from competition over multiple failed drugs tests.

The UCI’s Disciplanary Commission judged that Luca Paolini’s use of the drug was recreational and not performance enhancing, thus leaving them unable to suspend the team under rule 7.12.1.

But for many cycling fans, this will be seen as yet another time that a team that fails multiple drugs tests has seemingly gotten away with their indiscretions.

The history

Cast your minds back to the end of the 2012 season, when Katusha were not granted a WorldTour licence for the following season, presumably as a result of having riders involved in the ongoing Padua investigation, as well as Denis Galimzyanov testing positive for EPO.

The reason for the licence withdrawal was never given, but the UCI had the right not to grant one on sporting, financial or ethical grounds, and the team’s performances and bank balances made it pretty clear it wasn’t one of the first two.

But the team appealed to the Court of Arbitration (CAS) for sport, which ruled in favour of the Russians, leaving the UCI a little red faced and forced to make Katusha the unprecedented 19th WorldTour team.

Since then, and under the presidency of Brian Cookson, the UCI seems to be a little more reluctant to make bold decisions against teams. Rather than making big statements by sanctioning a team, it’s been seen to try and remedy the situation.

One of Cookson’s go-to phrases when dealing with such situations is the need to come to a “legally defensible” decision. He knows that any team given a sanction will appeal to CAS, so the UCI’s case needs to be water tight.

Fast-forward to the 2014 offseason and Kazakh team Astana were in serious danger of losing their WorldTour licence over the doping positives of the Iglinskiy brothers as well as several others in its affiliated Continental team.

Indeed, the UCI recommended to its independent licensing committee that Astana should be stripped of their licence, but the committee applied leniency and ordered the team to work with the Institute of Sports Science at the University of Lausanne to remodel their internal structure and processes to ensure it didn’t happen again.

Now, under rules it imposed in January 2015, the UCI again finds itself unable to do anything about the latest Katusha situation.

Is cocaine purely a recreational drug?

As mentioned earlier, the reason why Katusha have not been suspended, for a period of between 15 to 45 days, is because cocaine is classed as a recreational drug, not a performance enhancing one.


But is it fair to say that cocaine is not performance enhancing in some way, shape or form? Granted, its obvious side effects – an intense high followed by an intense depression, lack of sleep and paranoia – won’t exactly have a positive effect on one’s athletic performances.

On the other hand, though, research from the University of Cambridge showed that the drug suppresses the body’s ability to store fat, even though users often have a fat and carbohydrate-heavy diet.

If you’ve read Tyler Hamilton’s exposé of doping in cycling, you’ll know of the struggle cyclists go through to reduce their body fat in order to become better climbers. The less you weigh, the higher your watts per kilo can be.

In a study of cocaine use in sport, ESPN reported that while athletes will notice few performance gains from taking the drug, it is used to distort a user’s perception of reality.

For example, the athlete may perceive an increased performance and feel less fatigued, despite the fact that their performance levels are actually falling.

The UCI’s new problem

Paolini admitted to taking cocaine at a pre-Tour de France training camp after finding himself addicted to sleeping drugs. Whether or not he took the drug during the Tour itself is unknown – it can apparently stay in your system for five days.

It also doesn’t really matter the reason why he was taking it, which by the sound of it wasn’t to improve his performance – Paolini’s a pretty chunky guy, who, aged 38, probably wasn’t as bothered about his watts per kilo as some of the Grand Tour contenders on his team.

More importantly, the UCI has itself themselves by including a blanket caveat in their suspension rules by saying that recreational drug usage is not a grounds to suspend a team.

But where do you draw the line on what is a recreational drug and what is a performance-enhancing one? Cocaine is on the same WADA banned substance list as other stimulants, including various drugs derived from amphetamines, which have a long history in cycling.

Meanwhile athletes are getting popped for taking medications for asthma or the common cold without permission – would these be classed as performance enhancing to satisfy rule 7.12.1?

Katusha will feel relieved that their season is not to be disrupted by a suspension, but again cycling fans are left wondering what a team has to do to be sanctioned for the actions of its rider.

  • Nomad

    I wouldn’t say everyone who is cynical is a conspiracy theorist or claims to be a doping expert. I’m somewhat skeptical of this “new, clean(er)” era of professional cycling. I’ve often wondered in this new era if athletes who want a career in pro cycling still have to use PEDs in some form or fashion. For example, last year was suspicious as several continental & pro-continental riders tested positive for EPO, HGH, steriods or the new “oxygen in a pill,” FG4592 (HIF). (FG4592 is not FDA approved and is still in clinical safety trials!). Also, several experts have indicated gene doping emerging with GW1516 & AICAR.

    Of course there’s micro-dosing with EPO, where it can supposedly clear the system in several hrs and appears not to trigger any ABP abnormalities. In fact, Michael Ashenden co-authored a paper on this showing a “10% increase in total haemoglobin mass equivalent to approximately two bags of reinfused blood.” (“Current markers of the Athlete Blood Passport do not flag microdose EPO doping”/Ashenden et al./Eur J Appl Physiol).

    I wouldn’t think that everyone in the peleton is doping, but last year’s positives can’t be ignored. “New” PEDs and methods? Same old pressure for athletes to dope? Not just cycling though…same problems in distance running, triathlon, XC skiing.

  • Rupert the Super Bear

    Except I’ve been following the sport for 45 years and knew Lance was on the juice during his first TDF win. If and I mean IF other sports were to try even half as hard as cycling has to clean itself up, you might have a point. As it is, cycling looks more credible now than it has done for decades.

    The problem at present is that many fans were so gutted with the Legendary American’s activities – probably their hero – they now see it everywhere.

    Yes we still get doping positives – good. But look more closely, if you think the entire peleton is still doped, you are wrong my friend.

    Many online cycling forums have descended into something akin to “gang stalking” now – conspiracy theories abound, everybody a doping expert, cynicism is everywhere. Deeply deeply tedious.

  • DTaye

    coke/blow/zoosh has been used by many athletes to get “game-face” ready to compete. the depression and the downside only happens when you don’t use more blow to get back up.
    Coke gives users a MASSIVE surge. the UCI’s use of the term “recreational” as against “performance enhancing” is naive and misleading.

  • Samuel Clemens

    Dude, this is a cycling website and cycling has a major problem and always has. So it makes sense to talk about it. Indeed, NOT talking about it is the major problem. Go talk about tennis and athletics on tennisweekly.co.uk and athleticsweekly.co.uk, knock yourself out.

  • ummm…

    maybe he can host a race somewhere in the ME like Merckx!

  • Tim packer

    Give it 10 more years and he won’t look anywhere as near as bad as he did when they stripped his tours away.. ..

  • ummm…

    yeah the bullying part was deplorable, but I’ve even changed my views on that. If i was a doper I wouldnt be some passive guy whining and complaining about how people were coming after me, and protesting the harsh treatment. I’d be bitter at the culture and indignant at the collusion of all the parties from organizers to media. I cant say calling emma a wh0re was a gentlemanly thing to do, but watching guys play the victim and then show up glowing is really really low and cowardly. I really though Armstrong was far and above the worst, but you are right he is starting to appear more normal.

  • Tim packer

    Rupert the bear. You sound like another person who dosent like to hear the truth about cycling.. Well get used to it it’s not getting any better

  • Tim packer

    I bet Armstrong absolutely loves all these new positive drug tests. Tbh though the worse it gets now the more normal it makes Armstrong look .. ( apart from the bullying and threatening he was doing nothing any different than everyone else I think)

  • ummm…

    how can we balance our thirst for doping scandals and a sport that is financially viable?

  • ummm…

    oh we do so all the time. dont forget football, american football, swimming, hockey, baseball, basketball – ok just EVERY sport. list can go on.

  • ummm…

    I was frothing at the mouth to see LA go down. Cycling being as tone deaf as they are (or as tied by lawyers as they are) decided to spin another web of lies and open the door for LA to be the truth sayer. And he has done brilliantly. Wonderful to see all these guys pummel the poo out of each other.

  • Andrew Bairsto

    If you start banning teams for drug infringements then you will end up with no sport to watch.

  • Rupert the Super Bear

    When you lot have finished dissing cycling, perhaps you’d like to start on tennis and athletics? Or maybe disqus hasn’t the server capacity?

  • Tim packer

    Samuel Clemens .. Glad you pointed those out I forgot ulrich and the magic Es.. Perhaps Armstrong was right after all and nothing’s changed still

  • Tim packer

    Ha ha .. Good comment

  • ReturnOfTheWazz

    Coca Paolini, more like – right lads?

  • The writer seems to be stretching this ‘controversy’ a little and I understand that Cycling News needs controversial headlines to get people to click on the stories, but as far as I know there has never been any suggestion that Paolini was using cocaine to enhance performance. Becoming over-confident and arrogant don’t seem like performance benefits that most cyclists would want. So many straw dog arguments in the writing, falsely framing the argument as though amphetamines are connected to cocaine, as though all drugs are the same. The Katusha decision just seems like a sensible decision in light of the known facts. Not controversial, just the right decision.

  • Samuel Clemens

    And Jan Ulrich and the Es, VDB, Phillippe Gaumont, etc etc. And Pot Belge.Great sport, this cycling. As ummm… says, the dopage is the exciting part.

  • Tim packer

    Let’s not forget marco pantani was a Coke addict.. Along with Tom boonen who was caught taking cocaine as well.. Nothing’s really changed to be honest!!!

  • Chris Williams


  • ummm…

    who cares…too late now to take the morale high ground cycling. doping drama is now the most exciting part of the sport. I say kick the non dopers out of the sport – all 5