At 62, David LeDuc was the aging – but often still invincible – king of bicycle racing in North Carolina.
The lean, 21-time national champion and 2001 age-group world champion could still humiliate entire packs of top-level amateurs who were decades younger. And he did it so often and so convincingly that rumors he was using performance-enhancing drugs had become commonplace.
This week, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that LeDuc, a longtime Triangle resident who goes by the nickname “The Ol’ Man” in local racing circles, had failed a urine test at the U.S. Masters National Road Championships in Oregon this summer.
LeDuc, who lives in Willow Spring, admitted to using an array of performance-enhancing drugs: amphetamines; synthetic testosterone; and EPO, a particularly dangerous drug that has been a mainstay of some of the most sophisticated cheaters in professional cycling, including Lance Armstrong.
In a news release the USADA said LeDuc had accepted a two-year ban from competition. Unlike Armstrong’s case, though, the national testing agency had allowed him to keep all his wins prior to the test.
“I told them don’t even waste your time testing the ‘B’ sample, I’m guilty,” said LeDuc in a telephone interview. “They said, ‘Well, since you’re not going to contest it, we’ll give you the minimum penalty of two years.’ ”
Doctors, he said, had given him legitimate prescriptions for the amphetamines and testosterone to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and low testosterone, respectively, but that he had no excuse for the EPO.
LeDuc said that he had been riding clean when he won the national championships. He declined to say how long he had been using the amphetamines, but that he had been using the testosterone and EPO only a short period before he got caught.
“The irony is that it didn’t help, because this year I had the worst results of my life,” he said.
There are, of course, significant differences between the likes of Armstrong, who was making tens of millions of dollars from the sport, and aging athletes like LeDuc, who owns a small roofing company and races for prizes little greater than his entry fees.
Social media storm
LeDuc’s suspension had generated a blizzard of I-told-you-so crowing, gossip and speculation on cycling social media sites such as the Google groups Raleigh Rides and Chapel Hill Cycling. And race officials across the state said that they had been bombarded with calls and emails about the case.
A common question is why someone old enough to be a grandfather would use such drugs to win obscure races with tiny prizes, said Judy Rhyne of Southern Pines, a long-time national racing judge and president of the Carolinas Cycling Association, an umbrella group that works with the national sanctioning body to promote racing in both states.
“Facebook has been lit up for the past 24 hours about this, and there are people out there who say why would a 62-year-old man do this,” she said. “Clearly they don’t understand masters racing, because you have folks who want to stay relevant.
“It’s not all of them, of course, but there are some who just can’t let go,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that they’re racing for 50 bucks, and in some cases you’ve got former pros who have raced in Europe and are aging and aren’t as competitive, and they can’t compete against some 17-year old phenom and they are doing whatever it takes to remain competitive and relevant. Their ego won’t let them just ride off into the sunset.
“We’ve had other racers test positive, and I’ve been approached by racers who are, let’s just say, enraged,” she said. “You look at them, and you know when people are throwing bicycles at you, or you start to worry that they might whip out a gun and shoot you, you start to wonder if there is more to it than anger management, if it may in fact be some sort of chemical fueling that rage.”
She also said there has been what seems to be an unusual amount of fist fights in recent years, particularly among masters racers. At one race last year, one middle-aged rider got into a fight with a 15-year-old boy.
All that leads her to think there should be more local drug testing.
Doping has long been a problem not just in the professional ranks but also in amateur bike racing, and has gotten more scrutiny lately. A masters racer from California in 2012 failed a drug test at the same race as LeDuc, and in 2010 a racer named Pete Cannell, who lives in Mebane, was suspended two years for using an anabolic steroid. He forfeited three masters national championships.
Testing, though, is so expensive that it has been rare at amateur events other than national championships. That’s beginning to change, though. Rhyne said her organization is planning to partner with the national sanctioning body, USA Cycling, in a program to share the cost for USADA testing at some events this year.
“The CCA board, we really want it to be fair competition, fair and clean, so it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
LeDuc’s use of testosterone reflects overlapping trends, said several local cyclists and race officials: a suspected rise in doping among aging amateur racers and a well-documented jump in the use of the hormone by baby boomers who are trying to fight the effects of aging.
Anti-aging clinics can be quick to prescribe it to older for older men who complain of “symptoms” such as fatigue and lower interest in sex, even if test results show they’re simply at the low end of the normal range for testosterone.
A study published last year in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine of nearly 11 million men found that the number who had been prescribed testosterone had tripled since 2001 and that many showed no evidence of a real deficiency.
Many racers and race officials widely believe than a significant number of masters racers have taken advantage of the trend not only to boost their energy, but also their race results.
LeDuc said he suffered from symptoms such as lethargy and depression, and his doctor diagnosed him with low testosterone.
A blood test, he said, showed that his levels of the hormone were unusually low. After he started using it, his levels weren’t above the normal range.
The USADA can issue waivers for competitors who have a legitimate medical need for drugs that are otherwise banned. LeDuc said after he was caught that a lawyer with the doping agency told him he probably could have received one for the amphetamines, though one for the testosterone would be more difficult, as the agency doesn’t consider simply a low level of the hormone to be a medical problem.
Testosterone levels normally drop as men age.
He also said he had been given bad advice by various people on how quickly the drugs would leave his system and be undetectable in a test. In the case of testosterone, he believed the test would only catch him if his levels were unusual. Instead, it was able to determine the hormone wasn’t produced by his body.
Decades ago, amphetamines were a popular choice in the pro ranks, and some racers died after using them.
EPO, though, which came along later, is an entirely differently realm. It’s normally used for treating anemia, but endurance athletes abuse it to raise their red blood cell count. That lets their blood carry significantly more oxygen to their muscles.
If it’s not closely monitored by a medical professional, though, it’s easy to overdose, making the blood so thick your heart can’t pump it anymore. Several professional cyclists are believed to have died that way.
LeDuc said he was unaware of the specific dangers of the drug, and that a friend who competes in a different sport had given him a small amount shortly before the nationals this year, after learning that LeDuc was having a poor season.
LeDuc said that he has been struggling in recent years, feeling physically ill after every race.
He agreed that it probably was age-related.
“The feeling right after I get off the bike, it’s like having the flu without the congestion and fever, it’s that bad, it’s just this malaise,” he said. “And for five years I keep saying why do I keep doing this? And if I didn’t get good results once in awhile I wouldn’t, I promise you.”
LeDuc, who is from Canada, starting racing in 1980 when he was as a graduate student in English at N.C. State University after seeing the iconic cycling movie “Breaking Away.”
He had been a gifted runner in high school and ran in graduate school, so he was able to quickly move up in the cycling ranks.
In recent years LeDuc, astride one of his sleek, Italian carbon-fiber race bikes, was a respected and often feared presence at some of the tougher race-training rides, setting a pace that lesser riders could find torturous. And at the starting line of races, even the best riders in the region would shudder when they looked beside them and see LeDuc.
He has long been something of a litmus test for local riders. Many firmly believed he was doping and shunned him for that reason alone. Others simply didn’t like his style, which can be brusque. But he also attracted a group of admirers, many of whom joined him on regular weekly training rides and found him generous with help and advice.
Ronnie Hinson of Raleigh, who raced professionally and then in masters events until in 2008, said that he was among those who thought LeDuc should be more pleasant on the bike rather than, say, berating those who aren’t up to his standards, but that he was obviously talented.
“It’s a sad day for cycling,” Hinson said. “A lot of people looked up to him, but a lot were suspicious, and this will follow him the rest of this life, especially around here.
“The bottom line though is that he had been doing this long enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said.
Often a fixture
For years other riders would ask Hinson how someone LeDuc’s age could ride so well. He said that without proof he didn’t feel right about giving his opinion. Privately, though, he had long been troubled.
“Dave was doing things that no other human beings of that age had done yet,” he said.
LeDuc is almost a fixture at the 39-year-old Tour de Moore in Southern Pines, which one of the largest races in the Southeast.
Race director Mac Canon had raced with LeDuc on the same team in the 1980s and had sometimes done training rides with him.
“He’s an excellent racer, an excellent rider, and he’s safe to be around,” Canon said. “I’m shocked, but he has had a lot of wins, and won a lot of races convincingly.”
“Nobody trains harder them him, though,” Canon said. “Most of us have jobs and family, and he has few concerns but his job. He doesn’t have children or anything, and he’s definitely full on. Some people take time off in the winter, but he doesn’t. He just goes and goes.”
At the Tour de Moore in 2013, LeDuc won the 27-mile race for over-60 racers in the morning, then lined up for the 55-mile race for 50-plus rider at 12:15 p.m. He won that one, too.
Canon said that the race officials already had been considering a drug testing program for 2014 simply to protect the reputation of the event. The announcement about LeDuc underlined the importance of that.
A general hatred among many cyclists for dopers was reflected in harsh postings on local cycling forums this week.
LeDuc, though, said that many of his friends had made a point of calling or emailing to express sympathy.
“This has made me understand what’s really important in life, and it’s those people,” he said.
He said he would continue his local training rides.
“I’d have to be put in a rubber room if I couldn’t ride my bike,” he said.
LeDuc said that he plans to race again when his sanction is over. For his first full season back he’ll be 65.