I never thought the next breakthrough in doping would be fishing worms, they don’t even go very quickly

The performance-enhancing properties of the humble lugworm get the Doc wondering whether cyclists are going to dig for victory

Hutch digging for sandworms
(Image credit: Alamy)
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Michael Hutchinson

Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine. 

It’s lugworms, apparently. We’ve been waiting a long time for the next big breakthrough in doping, and I’d be lying if I said I was expecting it to be lugworms (as reported here, if context is needed - ed). They don’t even go very quickly. 

But lugworm haemoglobin is, it turns out, amazing. That’s part of the reason they can survive both in water and in air. Their haemoglobin can transport 40 times more oxygen than human haemoglobin, and is 250 times smaller. It can be stored at room temperature, or even freeze dried so you can pop it in the post. Its effects kick in almost immediately. And a short half-life means it’s only present in the system for about 4-8 hours, making it long-lasting enough for a race, but very hard to detect thereafter.

This is essentially everything ticked off on the wish-list of a shady athlete looking for the perfect doping product. It’s so good that actually my first thought was that it was a honey-pot hoax – you start a rumour about this amazing doping product, publicise the company that provides it, and see who puts on a fake Texan accent and picks up the phone. Also, I can’t be the only one who noticed that the product is literally bait.

It harks back to an age that’s almost bygone. When I started this column, about every fourth issue was about doping, and I reckon that was representative of the overall content of the magazine’s news section. You could pass a medical haematology course armed with not much more than Cycling Weekly 2006-2009.

Some of the stories were rather glorious. Italian pro Dario Frigo ordered synthetic haemoglobin on the internet, and received in return the world’s most expensive bottle of slightly salty water. Fellow Italian Riccardo Riccó was admitted to hospital after he’d re-infused some of his own blood that he’d extracted on a DIY basis, and kept in a bag in his fridge beside the salami for a month.

There were any number of other bits of sub-three-dimensional-chess type work by the teams. Disposing of all the syringes in a public bin in a layby in full view of several journalists, for example.

Ironically, it’s stuff like this that makes me think modern racing is, if not totally squeaky clean, at least a lot better than it was. I simply don’t believe that current riders and teams are that much cleverer than their predecessors. For sure there are things to be suspicious of, among big riders and big teams. But we don’t have quite the same persuasive incidence of pure pratfall.

And this is not the moment for the worms to start the whole show up again. I can’t tell you how little I want to go back to writing the old columns, but now I fear stories about smash and grab raids on bait and tackle shops. “I don’t know who they were. It was a bunch of very skinny fellas with shaved legs and Rolexes,” said the owner. (And of course, “Police Flounder in Search for Clues,” said Cycling Weekly.)

Will angling mysteriously replace making coffee as the pro hobby of choice? Will lugworms get smuggled over borders? Will cyclists stop clustering in Girona and move to more lugworm friendly spots like Whitstable? In a few years’ time will the Kent Police uncover a vast doping ring in Operation Chest Waders?

Shimano will finally be able to unite the marketing departments for their two main product lines of bike components and angling reels, but it’s not going to help anyone else.

We are, though, a long way from any of this. It’s not even the first new doping technology touted in the last few years, and we’re not back in 2004 quite yet. I still hope it’s a hoax. And if it is a hoax, I really hope it works, because it will be the sort of laugh we haven’t had in years.

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