September 22, 2005 – The news earlier this month that long-time Canadian mountain bike star Chris Sheppard tested positive for the blood-booster recombinant erythropoietin (rEPO) came as a shock to everyone in the cycling community. Pedal caught up with Sheppard and his lawyer (and fellow cyclist) Robert Cameron.
Chris, you must have known when the CCES (Canadian Centre For Ethics In Sport) came to your door on May 29th at 7am for the out-of-competition test that you would most likely end up testing positive. What did you think then, and what did you do? You continued racing, right?
Sheppard: The long and the short of it, is that after some reflection, it was a relief that they showed up that day. At the time, when I did it, it seemed logical, but I’m glad that they finally came that day. It was a good thing that I got caught early – for some reason thought I needed to do it.
And you kept racing. Why?
Sheppard: I know where you’re going with this, but there’s a good reason why. In fact, there’s been a delay in the last few weeks with my statement and speaking to the press, because I wanted the time to contact my fellow racers and to apologize as best I could.
Cameron: And if I can butt in here for a second, it’s also part of due process. As an athlete, whether positive or negative, the clear onus is on the CCES to prove its allegations. It’s imperative to all athletes that they have this right to ensure fairness. So it made sense for Chris to carry on racing until the test was finalized. Had he not, then due process might have been compromised.
If I understand correctly, Chris has not, and will not appeal the CCES’s findings, eventhough he does have the right to.
Cameron: Correct. It’s just part of Chris’ character – he knows what he has done and he is doing his best to move on and make amends for the mistake.
Sheppard: And not taking anything away from what I did – look at the false positives we have learned of recently. Those people were crucified, so it is part of the rights we have as athletes.
Where did you get the idea to do EPO – was there anyone else involved?
Sheppard: No one ever gave me a book or a tutorial – nothing. I never saw EPO until May 28th – just pictures on the internet like anyone else. For those who have followed the Jesus Manzano affair which is on most major cycling sites, it’s well known that EPO can be purchased via the internet – and that’s what I did.
So there was no doctor or nurse involved?
Sheppard: Right. In fact a few doctors I know have since contacted me and told me that I was taking my life into my own hands and that it was a foolish and a risky thing to do. So that’s another reason I’m relieved that the CCES came to my door. We all hear about some young athlete who has a heart attack because of something like this, and of course there have been those in the past who have died. So at least it’s beneficial for me to pass on this hard-learned lesson to any aspiring racers, of just how wrong this sort of thing is.
So you purchased it over the internet and they just shipped it to you?
Sheppard: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – I read about it on line like everyone else. After my accident last year (Sheppard was hit by a truck that didn’t stop at a stop sign which resulted in a severe back injury) I was also taken to a place where they help you deal with loss. I’m not in any way trying to justify what I did – I spent 24/7 trying to fix my back and deal with post concussion syndrome. I lived with it every day and every time my heart rate went over 145 my veterbrae hurt. It was very difficult for me as an athlete.
When did you start taking EPO and how much did you take?
Sheppard: I was fortunate in that sense. I only began taking it the day before the test. Saturday, May 29, was the first day I ever did it – and the next morning at 7am I was tested for it. So I’m glad it got nipped in the bud, so to speak.
So you only took one EPO injection and then you were caught by the random drug test the next day?
Sheppard: Correct. It’s simply a road that people shouldn’t take. I was having my best season last year, and then I had the accident. Everything I have been passionate about for 17 years…you sort of take things for granted until they are taken away and I was blinded by my situation. I’ve been clean the entire time I’ve been racing for all of my results, and those who doubt this can check all of my past tests, my hematocrit consistency, and so on. It can be difficult as an athlete, especially these days with all the stuff on the ‘net, because no one sees when you ride seven hours in the pouring rain. You train so hard but that’s not what the fans see.
When did you get the idea to start taking EPO?
Sheppard: I was having such a hard time struggling to deal with my back injury. It seemed almost logical back in April, which was probably when I started thinking about it. My girlfriend and I were almost breaking up as a result of my difficulty with my back and my racing was in limbo – like I said, I was sort of blinded by it all. I had been seeing a rebound therapist in Bend, Oregon, trying to figure out ways that I could rehabilitate my back and help improve my breathing.
What is your hematocrit range?
Sheppard: It’s been in the 44-47 range for the past 10 years. We’ve done altitude training and a couple years ago it was up to 49 as a result of altitude training. It is a very viable and natural way of raising your hematocrit level and I did camps at Silverstar, B.C. for three weeks, up to a month, in the mid 1990s.
What will you do now?
Sheppard: It’s a two-year suspension and right now I’m taking time away from everything. I’m down on a beach reflecting. I wanted to confront my teammates and friends, which is why there’s been a delay in speaking to the press. I felt terrible for other cyclists – they’re my family on the road, so I talked to my old sponsors, since I was released from contract, and the NORBA organizers, etc. who helped me and supplied me with products and so on during my career, and the opportunity to race.
Has there been any ill-will from fellow racers?
Sheppard: Yes, there has been and I expected that. There was so much disappointment from people that I would do this so late in my career. I hate the fact that I was put in the situation of losing something that I am so passionate about due to the accident – the ability to train and ride like before. But I don’t fault anyone who feels ill will. I was pushed into a decision and I dug my grave – now I’m paying for it. There are espoirs and juniors who have pics of me on their wall from the 90s so it’s hard to face it, but I have to.
Cameron: One thing I should add, moving forward in the future, is a quick character reference about Chris. In any profession a good reputation is harder to lose than a bad one, and Chris has spent 17 years building a good one. I think those who know him will have no difficulty separating this incident from the good person that Chris is.
Thanks for your time, and good luck Chris.
Sheppard: Thank you.