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Riding High

Simon Craig discovers that drug abuse in professional sport goes back more than a hundred years.

Professional cycling, like athletics, has been ravaged with accusations of drug abuse in recent years. The phenomenon is not a new one, and many historians identify the first case of death through drugs in sport as that of the cyclist Arthur Linton in 1886. But the truth is more complicated.

Linton, whose home was in the mining village of Aberaman in south Wales, was a racing cyclist of the 1890s. With the motor car still virtually unknown, this was cycling’s golden age. The solid-tyred penny-farthing (more correctly known as the ordinary) was so awkward, uncomfortable and dangerous that cycling had been bound to remain a minority interest as long as it held sway. But everything changed with the advent of the chain-driven safety bicycle, with its equal-sized wheels and pneumatic tyres. Cycling became accessible to all, and its popularity reached heights undreamt of before or since.

It became one of the great leisure pursuits, bringing to relatively poor people a freedom of movement they had never previously known. It also became big business: not only were there fortunes to be made out of manufacturing and selling bicycles, but professional racing became extremely lucrative. It had existed in the days of the ordinary – which had indeed been essentially a racing machine – but the safety bicycle was capable of much greater speed and could compete almost as easily on normal roads as on special tracks.

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