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French Tour de France Cyclists Live Longer in Spite of Steroids and Amphetamines

French Tour de France Cyclists Live Longer in Spite of Steroids and Amphetamines

By Millard Baker, Senior Writer,

The Tour de France is one of the most grueling ultra-endurance sports in the world. It is also considered one of the most drug-soaked sports of the past fifty years. Amphetamines, anabolic steroids, human growth hormone (hGH), erythropoietin (EPO) and cocaine have been part of the drug cocktail used by many professional cyclists in this event. Furthermore, it is one of the riskiest sports given that cyclists spending so much of their time sharing the road with faster moving vehicles. But in spite of all of this, a new study suggests that Tour de France cyclists live significantly longer than their age-matched counterparts – at least if they are French.

Xavier Jouven and his colleagues from the Sudden Death Expertise Center in Paris recently completed a study of 786 French cyclists who competed in the Tour de France between 1947 and 2012. The researchers compared this group with their fellow non-cycling French compatriots of the same age. They used the Human Mortality Database to create what was called a standardized mortality ratio (SMR). The study compared the death rate of cyclists compared to the death rate of the control group.

The results revealed that the Tour de France cyclists had a mortality rate that was 41% lower than their counterparts. The main causes of death among the pro cyclists were cancer and cardiovascular disease. But the rate of these diseases were 44% and 33% lower than the control group, respectively.

The researchers were the ones who questioned the actual harm caused by steroids and doping. Perhaps steroids and the excessive physical activity didn't have the long-term negative health effects that many anti-steroid crusaders have hoped to see? Or perhaps the cyclists maintained a lifelong healthy lifestyle that canceled out any health risks of these behaviors?

"In the context of recent concerns regarding performance-enhancing techniques and the potential negative health effects of excessive high-level physical activity, data on the long-term outcomes and causes of death in elite endurance cyclists is of particular interest," said Jouven. "Although our results are reassuring to some extent, since no death has been observed since 1990, we have to remain careful since we cannot directly assess the potential harmfulness of doping through our analyses and results."

tour of france

Jouven looked specifically at different time periods where certain types of doping were thought to be more pervasive than other types. While doping was widespread throughout the 65-years examined by the study, the nature of the doping differed due to the available doping technology.

The period of 1947 to 1970 was dominated primarily by the suspected use of amphetamines and other stimulants. Anabolic steroids saw an increase in their use during the period of 1971 to 1990 while EPO and hGH use became more pervasive in the period since then (1991-2012). However, death rates among the pro cyclists were essentially they same over all three periods of participation.

The SMR was also consistent across all age groups except for the youngest group in the study. The Tour de France cyclists who were less than 30 years old had a higher death rate than the non-cycling controls. Yet, this was not statistically significant. And even while examining the cause of death among young cyclists, it turns out that doping didn't  have anything to do with it. It was explained by an unusually high frequency of death by “accident”. This included cycling-related accidents and rare non-cycling related accidents.

The study raises several questions about the long-term health impacts of doping in a high-performance, ultra-endurance sport such as doping. While it is too soon to dismiss any long-term dangers, the study results are reassuring at least to athletes (if not to anti-steroid crusaders).


JAMA Network Journals. (September 3, 2013). Study examines incidence of sports-related sudden death in France. Retrieved from //

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