By Henry Bodkin in London
When in 2012, cyclist Lance Armstrong finally confessed to the most "sophisticated, professionalised and successful" doping programme the world had ever seen, he became sport's ultimate bogeyman.
His admission that for years he took a suite of supposedly performance-enhancing drugs, most prominently erythropoietin (EPO), saw him stripped of his seven Tour de France titles; his career and reputation in tatters.
So it may be with a certain queasiness that he learns today about the results of ground-breaking new research which suggests his prolonged campaign of abuse was pointless - because EPO confers no advantage at all.
In the first study of its kind, scientists challenged a group of 48 cyclists to tackle a series of challenges, including the Mont Ventoux ascent, which often forms part of the Tour.
Half had been given eight weekly injections of EPO, a drug that promotes red blood cell production with the aim of increasing delivery of oxygen to the muscles, while the other half took a dummy.But after the gruelling 21.5 km climb - which was preceded by a 110 km cycle for good measure - the average results of the two groups showed no difference whatsoever.
The scientists behind the trial, which is published in The Lancet, say athletes are "naive" about the benefits of illicit substances such as EPO, but that myths about their effectiveness go unchallenged in the murky world of doping.
"It's just tragic to lose your career for something that doesn't work, to lose seven yellow jerseys for a drug that has no effect," said Jules Heuberger, who led the research at the Centre for Human Drug Research in the Netherlands.
Due to anti-doping rules, it would have been impossible to conduct the study among professional athletes, so the researchers selected the fittest amateur riders they could find.
While those who had been injected with EPO did show higher average concentrations of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule of red blood cells, this did not translate to better efficiency, heart rate or other respiratory indicators.
Adam Cohen, who was first author on the study, said the simple act of illegally taking drugs like EPO may give cheats an advantage as a psychological placebo.
"An important level of performance at this high intensity is the mental aspect," he said.
The Dutch team hope today's study will serve as a wake-up call to professional and amateur athletes who are tempted to cheat that there is "little to no evidence" justifying the use of many banned drugs.
As well as EPO, Armstrong, 45, admitted to using testosterone, human growth hormone and the steroid cortisone during his seven back-to-back Tour victories from 1999 to 2005. But Mr Cohen said: "Quite possibly all the stuff he was taking was useless. Even less is known about much of it than EPO."
In 2012 Armstrong was handed a life ban from all Olympic-sanctioned sports and stripped of his Tour de France titles. All of the Texan rider's results from August 1998 were also declared void.
The Daily Telegraph