Cycling has had a reputation as a dirty sport for decades. But long before the world's top pros were using sophisticated blood-boosting PEDs to win races like the Tour de France, there was a harder, seedier and more dangerous drug running rampant through the professional and amateur ranks. Called pot belge, the drug was a homemade concoction of heroin, cocaine, caffeine, and amphetamines, and it was a favorite of European riders in the mid 1980s.
"The Pot Belge was just this nasty, nasty drug," recalls John Eustice, a two-time U.S. professional champion who quickly had his eyes opened when he made the switch to the cutthroat European scene—a world of hard-nosed factory workers and farmers who would rather run you into a barbed wire fence then let you cut in front of them in the pack. "It was so powerful it became an epidemic. Guys went totally junkie on the stuff."
The amphetamine part of the equation was nothing new. Cyclists had been abusing speed for decades, popping pills like Pervitin—a German stimulant originally developed for Luftwaffe pilots during World War II—to fuel a taxing schedule that saw them racing upward of 140 days a year. Bike racing has never been a rich man's sport, and in the mid-twentieth century most of the riders needed to chase paltry prize money and appearance fees just to earn a living, sometimes driving 1,000 kilometers through a single night to get from one small-town race to the next.
But by the 1980s, World War II-era stockpiles of methamphetamine were rapidly dwindling, and dead-on-their-feet cyclists began looking for a substitute. Enter pot belge, a dirty approximation of the original that was being cooked up in Belgian backwaters by would-be Walter Whites and distributed through a sketchy network of riders looking to supplement their meager wages.
"Nobody knew what [pot belge] was, but being the dumb bike riders that they were they just took it because they needed something. Who knows where it came from," remembers Eustice, who says he never dabbled with the drug, before adding that even if he had, he'd never admit it.
If riders began as novice users, however, they quickly became experts.
"It was almost like being around people who are really into weed — they'd brag about [pot belge]," explains Joe Parkin, another American neophyte who chronicled his jump into the down and dirty word of Belgian bike racing in his memoir, A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer's Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium. "I had this one teammate who was always trying to deal it, and he would twirl [the ampoule], like someone does with wine, watching it come off the glass. He would do that, he would twirl it around and watch the clear liquid come off the glass and I guess how perfectly it came off the glass was somehow representative [laughs] of how amazing the dope was."
Though he shied away from pot belge, Parkin developed a habit of racing on amphetamines—an experience he describes as "magical" due to the sheer strength and euphoria the drug summoned—while cutting his teeth on the frenetic Kermesse circuit, a season-long series of races held in small Belgian towns. Designed to attract tourists and sell beer—spectators can drink about a pint per lap—Kermesses are fast, dangerous races held on a 10-kilometer loop and are typically contested by two types of riders: jaded journeymen looking to make a buck, and hopeful young amateurs eager to blossom into full-fledged professionals. Parkin belonged to the latter, racing up to four times per week as the only American on a small Belgian team, many times against blatant pot belge abusers.
"They would do one or two subcutaneous injections just into the fat below the top layer of skin so that it makes a little bubble they called a bolleketten, or a rocket ball," Parkin says, recalling many riders' pre-race rituals. "That acts as sort of a time release. You've got time-release speed going into you over the course of a four-hour race. Then, usually right before they were leaving the changing room, they'd shoot one directly into the vein."
But the main-lining didn't stop there, with many riders topping off on pot belge through the race and sometimes well into the night. Midway through an average Kermesse race in the mid-'80s and '90s, many cyclists would inject pot belge directly into their thighs, a practice that was so commonplace that riders joked about getting flat tires due to all the discarded needles littering the road. Once the race wrapped up, some of Parkin's less career-minded teammates would inject another dose and head directly to the bar, where they'd drink and fight all night only to race again the following day for the sole purpose of getting high again.
"That became the dangerous part of the whole thing," recalls Parkin, who developed such a bad post-race valium habit that he once didn't sleep for a week when his supply ran out. "A lot of the riders got to a point where it wasn't doping for racing but racing for doping. It became like an addiction. They didn't have to go race the next day, but they would so they could feel good again."
This would sometimes lead to dust ups with local law enforcement. Instead of heading to Spain's Balearic Islands for winter training miles (as most cyclists do), it wasn't uncommon for the worst pot belge-heads to spend the off season locked up in prison following a particularly bloody, bolleketten-fueled night on the town.
Such antics weren't limited to the amateurs. In his tell-all Prisonnier du Dopage, former French professional and larger-than-life classics specialist Philippe Gaumont chronicles his pot belge habit, claiming to have used the drug to race and party alongside his friend Frank Vandenbroucke, one of the biggest and brightest stars of the 1990s. Both men died last decade, Gaumont from a heart attack at 40 years old and Vandenbroucke due to a pulmonary embolism at just 35, following a 12-day booze, drugs and prostitute bender in Senegal.
Elsewhere, French climber and former Giro d'Italia stage winner Laurent Roux was found guilty of operating a pot belge ring within the professional peloton. In one of cycling's biggest non-Armstrong scandals, Team Festina's soigneur, cycling's equivalent of a sports trainer, Willy Voet was caught with the drug wrapped up in a dirty pair of underpants en route to the 1998 Tour de France.
Still, by the turn of the century pot belge's popularity began to wane. More sophisticated, blood-boosting doping regimens came into play as the sport became more professional, with cyclists targeting specific races instead of waging exhausting season-long campaigns. Additionally, pro riders began working with doping doctors who put them on specific programs with controlled doses.
Ironically, Eustice sees the advent of these doping doctors, many with PhDs, as a good thing, a necessary evil that's helped eradicate the amphetamine epidemic that plagued cycling for decades.
"One of the great successes in cycling is that they've eliminated the amphetamine problem. They're one of the few sports to do that in my opinion."
Parkin, on the other hand, isn't so easily convinced. With modern doping tests making EPO and blood transfusions harder to pull off undetected, Parkin believes the door has been reopened for a second wave of amphetamine, and possibly pot belge, use.
"Think about it: I got to race all the time. I didn't have to motivate myself to go hard, I had to go hard if I wanted to stay in the race. But they don't race 140 races a year anymore. These guys are doing these really, really specific training programs where they have to replicate racing efforts and yet they are only racing 50 or 60 races a year. [Doing amphetamines] sounds good to me, feeling totally euphoric and wanting to go hard. I don't have firsthand knowledge, but I'd say it's still fairly prevalent."