CHANTILLY, France — The world's top professional cyclists are riding toward the Tour de France finish line this weekend, and they'll get there safer and cleaner than in previous years. Tramadol, a performance-enhancing opioid, has been banned from cycling at the request of riders themselves — an unlikely move in a sport marred by doping scandals.
Tramadol is a common opioid painkiller used in the U.S. and across the world, and linked to peloton crashes in cycling. Since it isn't banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), athletes in high-intensity sports frequently abuse the drug to push past their pain threshold. But as the head doctor of the International Cycling Federation puts it, the evidence against the drug has been piling up for years.
"We know that it affects your perception of your environment, it's linked to vertigo and slows reaction time, meaning that the risk of falling is significantly increased," says Xavier Bigard. But that's not all. "We also observed something for a long time, which is that Tramadol causes addiction," Bigard explains, "which makes the riders dependent on the use of that substance."
Tramadol was marketed for years as a milder and safer alternative to OxyContin and Hydrocontin. But what cyclists discovered is that it is just as addictive — which a study published by the Mayo Clinic last May confirmed. It's bad news for Americans who are prescribed Tramadol by unknowing doctors.
"You definitely see some people, some clinicians who think it's not an opioid," says Molly Jeffery. the researcher who spearheaded the Mayo Clinic study. "Physicians are just not aware of the drug. They were taught in medical school or wherever that it wasn't an opioid, and so that's what they tell their patients."