Sunday, 21 October 2012

Cycling And The Truth About 'Finish Bottles'

Last week I highlighted an article in which Taylor Phinney spoke out about widespread use of painkillers and caffeine supplements within the modern peloton (here) where he questioned the ethics behind using painkillers to 'enhance' cycling performance, but another phrase in that same article caught my eye and left me feeling a little horrified: 'Finish Bottle'. So what exactly is a finish bottle?...

Here is a brief explanation in Phinneys own words: "There is widespread use of finish bottles, which are just bottles of crushed up caffeine pills and painkillers. That stuff can make you pretty loopy, and that is why I have never tried it. I don’t even want to try it as I feel it dangerous." He also blamed bottles full of hard hitting painkillers like this for the rise in late race crashes, suggesting those using the drugs could be effected so badly that concentration would lapse. We are not talking paracetemol here, we are talking tramadol. Sounds horrific doesn't it?

Here is the list of 'common' side effects associated with Tramadol: Constipation; diarrhea; dizziness; drowsiness; dry mouth; headache; increased sweating; indigestion; mild itching; nausea; trouble sleeping; vomiting; weakness. This list already reads like a nightmare especially in a race day situation - drowsiness and dizziness are not two things you would like whilst in close proximity to 100 riders churning the pedals at 50kmph, but if you have taken Tramadol as I have then you will be familiar with the 'spaced out' feel often associated with such a strong painkiller. The list gets worse though, other side effects may include: disorientation; excessive sweating; fainting; fast or irregular heartbeat; fever; hallucinations; loss of coordination; mood or mental changes.

Finish bottles are not a new phenomenon though, in fact looking back in history there has been much worse. A 'Topette' was common in the 60's and amounted to little more than a bag full of drugs including the likes of amphetamines - indeed it was a 'topette' that contributed to the death of Tommy Simpson on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France.

On similar lines was the use of 'Pot Belge' in the 90's which was an altogether more dangerous affair, a 'Pot Belge' would commonly consist of Caffeine, Amphetamines, Cocaine and Heroin. This one isn't for the faint hearted but unbelievably ex-Cofidis pro Phillipe Gaumont describes using it as a 'winter training aid' - I thought a few hours on the Turbo Trainer was tough going! Even more unbelievably Pot Belge seems to be making a comeback in 'amateur' competition thanks to its status as a 'relatively' cheap performance enhancing drug. Worrying times to say the least...

Looking at those last two examples it would be easy to dismiss the current form of 'finish bottle' as tame. A former British pro described finishing bottles in his era as 'espresso, aspirin, and cognac or similar' and even that seems tame enough but these are heavy dose painkillers that can and will effect concentration and awareness - if not just personal safety, riders are putting the safety of their fellow competitors at risk as reiterated by Taylor Phinney and the 'late race crashes'. A crash at a sprint finish may result in a bit of lost skin, but at speeds exceeding 60kmph it could also result in much much worse, even death.

At worst the use of 'finish' bottles is extremely dangerous, at best it shows a relative disregard for the body and those around you. I must stress that there are genuine cases where riders may use painkillers for genuine reasons, though as Phinney himself questioned: Should riders still be competing if they are injured or unwell? That in itself creates risks. Besides the question of whether there are any real 'genuine' cases, we do have to ask just exactly what does constitute 'performance enhancing' and of course cheating - there is clearly a very fine line and whatever the rulebook currently says, Taylor Phinney suggests: "If you are taking something that is going to boost your performance, that is not exactly being true to yourself, not exactly being true to your sport". And I would have to agree with that.

Maybe it is time for the UCI and other sporting bodies to look at the use of prescription painkillers, especially during competition - if not to prevent enhanced performance then surely to prevent the possible dangers riders using 'finish bottles' pose to the rest of the peloton...


  1. i'm curious why tramadol was singled out? great site. thanks.

    1. There was no particular reason why I chose to highlight tramadol other than it was one of the ones Taylor Phinney mentioned and is a relatively common prescription drug, readily available, but also one of the more powerful painkillers.

      I'm glad you like the site - its always good to hear feedback from readers!

  2. Even paracetamol (aka acetaminphen) is toxic in high or chronic doses. It will take out your liver.

  3. Interesting post. Many thanks. Your coverage of this train wreck has been great.

  4. Pro Tour team riders use this.. Trama whatsit.... more to life... I'd rather keep my soul and be a simple UK 2nd Cat...

  5. I don't quite understand why this should be allowed out of competition? Seems like a clear performance enhancing drug.