Valverde with gift box of Rogaine
While compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez received a more traditional award from the UCI, Alejandro Valverde was given a more thoughtful gift: a 42 ounce bottle of Rogaine, the popular hair regrowth product.
UCI President Brian Cookson made the presentation at an awards dinner in Madrid and by all accounts, Valverde was pleased with the personal touch. “It’s true that my hair loss in the last few seasons has been pronounced. My legs are good but my hair retention is not,” said Valverde. “I will shower tonight and give the Rogaine a try.”
Cookson warned Valverde to check the ingredients label first to make sure there was nothing on the banned substance list like traces of clenbuterol or minute amounts of steroidal compounds. The popular product is a antihypertensive vasodilator medication that slows or stops stops hair loss and promotes hair regrowth. However, the treatment of androgenic alopecia may pose as much danger for professional cyclist as a Chinese chicken dinner in Beijing.
“He apologized to me for not checking the label first but it was the holidays and even getting it gift wrapped at the last second was difficult,” said Valverde. “I appreciate the thought and if I can have thicker, healthier hair for the 2014 season, then I expect great sensations.”
The Rogaine gift was another clear indication that Cookson plans a course far different from his predecessor Patrick McQuaid. In the past McQuaid was known to hand out bottles of Irish Whisky at UCI awards ceremonies. “What am I to do with whiskey? It would just compromise my training,” said Valverde. “The Rogaine gift shows that Cookson is really thinking about about each and every rider and exactly what we need.”
While the Rogaine was a nice gesture, it sparked conjecture that perhaps the years of testosterone patches and alleged use of doping products had led to Valverde’s precipitous hair loss. “Look at Pantani or Rasmussen or Horner– take your pick. Baldness is a physiological marker for bad behavior,” said French sports physiologist Marc Pasvrai. “Eating pasta promotes a healthy scalp while EPO does not. This is hard science.”
According to Pasvrai, the fact that former Tour winner Bradley Wiggins and Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali both have a full head of hair is a sign of clean cycling. However, Pasvrai issued a caution about the dominant performance of this year’s Tour winner Chris Froome. “His hair is very, very short and I understand that is also a weight issue — a full head of hair must be carried up the mountains,” said Pasvrai. “However, I suspect there is thinning and that is, for me, a red flag.”
However, Pasvrai theory on hair loss and its relationship to doping is open to critique. There is currently little data to support that hair falling out is connected to rising performance levels due to the use of banned substances. “I would be wary of that kind of causality,” said Michael Abserd, a former anti-doping official at WADA. “These guys want to look mean and lean. A buzz cut or shaved head is a macho response to competition, it’s a sign to rivals — ‘look out, I mean business.’ And remember, Di Luca was doped to the gills and still had fabulous hair.”
In any case, the UCI evening celebration in Madrid was not the proper venue to discuss hair loss and performance enhancing drugs. The mood was festive, there was plenty of champagne and, in Valverde’s case, a well-earned bottle of Rogaine.