"I believe it's my duty as a physician to do what I'm able to protect young athletes from a system that forces many into practices that are dangerous to their health; I believe that it would be negligent of me not to take that responsibility seriously and act accordingly," Steffen wrote in an e-mail distributed among friends. He sent the message last fall after he was compelled to resign from his part-time job as team doctor of Team TIAA-Cref, a bike racing team sponsored by the financial services company that is now contesting the Amgen Tour of California which began Sunday on the Embarcadero. "Also, I believe in the beauty and purity of sports and find doping offensive in every way," Steffen wrote.
Ordinarily a doctor taking a stand protecting patients' long-term health isn't controversial. But in the alternate universe of professional sports, where Steffen has been a team cycling doctor since 1993, it is different. There, Barry Bonds keeps his job after injecting "the clear." And in that ironic world, Amgen, manufacturer of cycling's most popular banned doping drugs, sponsors the Western Hemisphere's biggest-ever bicycle race. Amgen's main products are Epogen (commonly known as EPO) and Anaresp, forms of the hormone erythropoietin that are legitimate lifesavers for cancer and anemia patients and that also happen to have a blood-thickening, stamina-enhancing effect popular among cheating athletes.
There will be plenty of heroics during this week's seven-day, $20 million bike race from San Francisco to L.A. in the form of out-of-the-saddle attacks, 40-mph-plus sprints, and chesslike team strategy devised from inside team cars. But I'm going to be reserving some of my cheers for the St. Mary's Medical Center emergency room physician and moonlighting sports doctor Steffen. His own heroic behavior denouncing performance-enhancing drug use has earned him a roller-coaster ride from respected team doctor to outspoken pariah to top candidate for a job carrying out anti-drugs policy for international track and field. And I hope the ride leads back to a job as a pro cycling team doctor.
Along the way Steffen may have planted a seed in the international cycling community that has a narrow chance of blossoming into a full-blown purge of pro athletes who improperly use products such as those produced by Amgen. A year and a half ago Steffen sent out e-mails to cyclists he knew who had been members of Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service cycling team, for which Steffen was team doctor in the mid-1990s. Steffen advised them that they might be in a legal position to sue the team's S.F.-based owner over the subject of performance-enhancing drug use. If such a suit were to be filed and prevail, it could help sever the link between sports and dope. That's because, for the first time, a company could stand accused of financial fraud if it profited from knowingly hiring doped athletes and lying about it.
From a sports-business point of view, Steffen's outspoken anti-drug posture makes him a risk. He was compelled to resign from the TIAA-Cref cycling team last October after a French newspaper quoted him repeating published assertions that the now-retired Armstrong had used banned drugs. There's a chance the team may take him back to aid riders beginning with this week's race.
From a medical point of view, and from the perspective of sports fans wishing to believe they're watching drama more authentic than pro wrestling, Steffen's return to the cycling fold would be the best possible outcome. During the seven days that Tour of California cyclists make their way from San Francisco to L.A., I'll be shouting a cheer for Team TIAA-Cref that goes something like this: "Allez, allez: Keep Prentice Steffen in cycling!"
Until he was compelled to resign from TIAA-Cref last fall, Steffen worked a steady sideline as a team doctor ever since he was hired in 1993 by Subaru-Montgomery, an outfit launched by San Francisco financier Thom Weisel as a precursor to Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. Steffen was U.S. Postal's team doctor in the mid-1990s before moving on to work with other top U.S. professional teams.
Steffen says he became truly concerned about the issue of doping when Tyler Hamilton and another rider for the U.S. Postal Service team approached him a decade ago with what he believed was a request to medically administer banned performance-boosting drugs.
"My first big go-round with Lance was when I first wanted to tell that story," says Steffen.
In 2001 British anti-doping journalist David Walsh quoted Steffen saying, "Two of my riders approached me saying they wanted to talk about the medical program."
Walsh then wrote, "Steffen is sure he was being asked to help two riders to dope."
Steffen says Armstrong read the story and was furious.
"I did catch heat, and got a call from Lance saying he would make my life miserable."
Hamilton, for his part, wrote to a cycling magazine that "the claim that I, along with another teammate, approached a team doctor and asked him questions about doping products back in 1996 is absolutely false. I swear on my wife's life and the grave of my dog that I never asked that man about anything of the sort."
Earlier this month Hamilton exhausted the last of his appeals against a two-year suspension for using banned injections of another person's red blood cells to boost his own stamina while on the Phonak cycling team.
The agency representing Lance Armstrong responded to a list of questions by saying it had no comment for our story.
Another go-round came when Steffen got the idea of using this information to sue a company formed by S.F. financier Weisel to manage the U.S. Postal Service team. Steffen believed that the U.S. Postal Service's sponsorship contracts with Weisel's Tailwind Sports included an anti-doping clause permitting the government agency to cancel the agreements if team officials looked the other way as riders doped. Steffen believed this had indeed happened, and he consulted a lawyer specializing in the False Claims Act, a 19th-century federal law that permits common citizens to sue individuals or companies they believe have defrauded the government.