Lance Armstrong on a 2009 tour of CaliforniaFlickr: Anita Ritenour

When people think of cycling, one name inevitably pops up: Lance Armstrong – arguably the greatest cheat in the history of professional sport. His name, along with many other cheating cyclists over the past two decades, has left cycling with a tainted image. Think blood transfusions, drug injections and pill popping. But cycling is changing. In time, we will reach a point when we refer to this period as the ‘Doping Era’.

The first ever documented cycling race took place in May 1868 in a quaint little park in Paris. From then it quickly took off across most of Europe and cycling became an integral part of culture in France, Italy, Spain and Belgium. Cycling was an accessible and attractive sport. The costs to enter the sport were minimal, once a child had a bike, which they often borrowed from their parents, they could ride for free. It was this success that led to the first Tour De France in 1903, Giro D’Italia (Tour of Italy) in 1909 and Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) in 1935.

As professional cycling gained popularity, prize money and wages in teams increased to the point where road cycling became a viable career option rather than just a hobby. However, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the first signs of drug use appeared. The most prevalent of these was EPO (Erythropoietin); this drug would increase the oxygen levels in the blood and thereby increase maximum lung capacity, enabling these athletes to push themselves further. EPO became widely used during the 1990s but without any test for them, cycling’s governing body the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale – French, naturally) had no way to regulate it. It also posed many risks to the human body – the blood could thicken sufficiently during a period of rest, such as overnight, so much so that lack of blood circulation could lead to death. After a few tragic fatalities, it wasn’t uncommon to find professionals waking up in the middle of the night for a quick set of jumping jacks to get the blood pumping again.

The use of other performance-enhancing drugs continued under the radar until it all came to the fore during the 1998 Festina Affair. Festina, the watch company, had sponsored a professional team which in 1998 had a team car checked at a roadblock. Officers were shocked to discover an entire trunk filled with hundreds of vials and syringes for EPO and steroids. Under the police investigation that ensued, all nine riders confessed to doping and the team was forced to leave the Tour De France prior to starting.

Sadly in professional cycling, doping wasn’t restricted to this one team. A famous cycling doctor, Gérard Gremion, declared that in 1998, 99 per cent of the peloton used doping. It was clear that the Festina Affair was only the tip of the iceberg. To detail the history of doping and name its athletes would, unfortunately, require more than a newspaper’s worth of pages. However, in the years since 1998, prominent names in cycling like Lance Armstrong, David Millar and Alberto Contador have all been banned for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The climax of the doping image was during the late 2000s with Armstrong’s fall from grace. He had pulled off the biggest scam in sporting history by getting away with doping for over a decade and winning the sport’s biggest event seven years in a row. Unsurprisingly, followers of the sport had lost trust in riders and now cast a doubtful eye on any performance. Riders became ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and the sad irony is they couldn’t prove they had never taken a performance-enhancing drug; they were trapped. When Chris Froome won a stage of the Tour De France in 2013 on Mont Ventoux, people doubted such an incredible performance. When he struggled earlier in the year, people questioned why he was now underperforming and suggested past doping explained his fluctuations. When he was consistent, consistency was challenged.

However, the likes of Froome, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali should be believed. Over the past five years, the sport has changed and a new generation are coming up. The testing procedure for doping has intensified with the victor of a stage, the leader of the general classification and several random riders selected on a daily basis for testing. During the ‘off season’, the whereabouts of riders is constantly monitored by ‘doping control officers’ who can make surprise visits at 6am on your doorstep. Failing twice to appear at the address listed in your journey itinerary is punished with an immediate suspension, even if an adequate explanation can be given. The UCI, international cycling governing body, have introduced a ‘blood’ passport, which records the levels of oxygen and certain other chemicals in your blood over the course of your professional career. This enables monitors to identify any fluctuation in chemical levels and thus identify doping.

These changes have been met with praise by experts in the anti-doping field. Teams, in fear of the shame doping brings, now conduct their own internal testing and Team Sky have famously implemented a zero-tolerance policy. This prohibits any rider or staff member with a connection to doping from joining; a harsh but necessary measure. The penalties for doping have also increased, with calls for lifetime bans for any athlete caught cheating. Germany is considering making the use of performance-enhancing drugs a jailable offence.

All these new shifts dissuade a rider from resorting to cheating. Within the peloton there has been a shift towards an anti-doping consensus, with most riders openly criticising those caught. This is a stark contrast from the 1990s when one rider, Christopher Bassons, was brave enough to speak out against doping, and subsequently had to retire the next year when no teams would hire him.

Finally, we have empirical evidence to suggest doping has decreased. A good measure of performance in cycling is the time taken for professionals to complete the hardest climbs in cycling like the Col du Galibier, Alpe D’Huez and Col du Tourmalet. The fastest times set in the 1990s are still better than those set now. Mythical climber Marco Pantani still holds the best time up Alpe D’Huez at 37:35, which he set in 1997.

However, he, along with the next best 15 riders, were all later caught for substance usage and it’s only at the 25th best that we reach a ‘clean’ time set in 2010 onwards. This is despite the fact that bikes now weigh literally half what they did in the 1990s and our training and dietary programs have improved dramatically. average speed set by the peloton for same distance stages has also fallen over the last 10 years which also suggests that the prevalence of doping has decreased. The history of doping has marred the image of cycling for years, and led many to question whether it can ever truly divorce itself from performance-enhancing drugs. The improvements in testing, paradigm shifts from within cycling culture and empirical evidence, however, all suggest that this is happening.

It seems that finally, the Doping Era might really be over.