I want to ride my bicycle…

This Sunday, 140 elite cyclists will start the Tour of California, one of the biggest cycling events in the world. They’ll be watched by thousands of enthusiastic amateur cyclists keen to see how the best athletes in the sport get it done.

And those competitors and spectators will be exposed to one name consistently and continually throughout the event: Amgen, the title sponsor of the event since 2006.

So what?

Well…Amgen is a biotech company that markets, among other products, a drug called Epogen (epoetin alfa) – a form of hormone erythropoietin (EPO) made using recombinant DNA. EPO boosts production of red blood cells, which makes it great for treating patients with anaemia. It also makes it extremely attractive to the less principled cyclist looking to steal an edge on his or her peers. More red blood cells means more oxygen for making energy. In the 1990s, EPO became the performance-enhancing drug of choice for cyclists, in part because of the difficulty of detecting illicit use of a compound that occurs naturally in the body, and cycling has been plagued by high profile doping scandals involving EPO ever since.

Amgen is clear about its role. ‘Our sponsorship of the Amgen Tour of California provides a platform for us to speak out against abuse of the therapies we make,’ says Mary Klem, director for corporate communications.

Indeed, as the company that developed EPO as a drug, Amgen undoubtedly has valuable technical knowledge and experience to bring to bear on the doping issue. It could help develop tests for illicit use, for example. And who better to warn cyclists about the dangers? (Here’s the leaflet the company issues to the competitors.) Sponsorship offers ‘the opportunity to deliver a potentially lifesaving message’ to athletes who may have heard about EPO as a performance enhancing drug but not the dangers of its misuse, says Klem.

Furthermore, the event is in some ways a very obvious choice. Amgen is based in California and, according to Klem, boasts one of the largest corporate cycling clubs in the US.

But if cyclists are using EPO, they must be getting it from somewhere. (It’s a glycoprotein – not the sort of thing you can just cook up in your basement.) Are the companies making it the best organisations to warn against such use? ‘You are not the first to ask if it is a conflict of interest,’ Klem told me.

With that in mind, wouldn’t it have been easier for Amgen to simply stay away from cycling entirely? There are a lot of sports out there, and most of them have far less notorious doping histories. It’s hard to imagine anyone posing awkward questions about Amgen sponsorship of the ferret legging world championships, for example. (Amgen doesn’t make any blockbuster topical analgesics…)

Andrew Turley

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