HGH

Operation Puerto still hangs over cycling ten years later

June 29th 2006. As the cycling world prepares for the centre piece Tour de France, their biggest race returned to the dark days of it’s recent past. Operation Puerto would prove to be a scandal which brought huge change to the sport, and it’s impact is still being felt today, ten years later.

The world was looking forward to the most open Tour de France since 1998, yet sadly the race would be mired in the same controversy that dogged the notorious 1998 edition of the great race. Just as the words ‘Festina affair’ became as much a part of the cycling lexicon as ‘peloton’, so too would ‘Operation Puerto’.

After years of speculation throughout professional cycling as to widespread doping, the ball would finally be set rolling several years before. Spanish rider Jesus Manzano had detailed to the media the intricate doping practices on his previous Kelme team. This kick started a Spanish police investigation into the allegations made by Manzano.

Their investigation made the headlines two years later in May 2006, when police raided the offices of former Kelme team doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, arresting him and several other key members from two of Spain’s professional teams, Liberty-Seguros and Comunidad Valenciana.  What would be found would shock the professional peloton and have wide reaching consequences.

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Eufemiano Fuentes arriving for his Operation Puerto trial. He was originally found guilty of public health laws violations but this was later overturned. Photo copyright Associated Press.

Police found 186 blood bags with code names, along with the equipment needed to freeze and ultimately transfuse the blood. They also found huge quantities of performance enhancing drugs such as EPO,HGH and steroids along with race schedules and information for payments from a large client list of professional athletes. Whilst athletes from other sports were linked to Fuentes, it was cycling that was the most damaged by the scandal.

Almost immediately Liberty Seguros withdrew their sponsorship, leaving the team struggling to find a new sponsor so they could carry on competing past 2006. Very quickly information trickled through to the media concerning the cyclists involved. The big name riders began to fall very quickly, with the Phonak team quickly suspending Santiago Botero, a former world time trial champion and Jose Enrique Gutierrez, who had finished 2nd in the 2006 Giro D’Italia.

The Spanish national road race championship was abandoned after only 500 meters when the riders boycotted the race in protest of the media information detailing the riders who were working with Fuentes. With the sport in the midst of another major doping scandal, the real hammer blow would be delivered only two days before the start of the Tour de France.

The Spanish authorities released their summary into the investigation, formally detailing all 56 professional cyclists known to be linked with Fuentes. The unofficial total was said to be much higher, as it increasingly became clear that Fuentes and his employees were working with seemingly over half of the professional peloton, once again exposing how doping in cycling was pervasive and widespread to the extreme.

The implications were both widespread and immediate. Top riders such as superstar 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich and promising climber Oscar Sevilla were immediately suspended by their T-Mobile team. Other riders soon followed. 2006 Giro D’Italia winner Ivan Basso was suspended by Team CSC, whilst GC contender Francisco Mancebo was also dropped by his AG2R team. A large portion of other riders were removed from the race, especially from the former Liberty Seguros team.

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Jan Ullrich riding at the 2006 Giro D’Italia. A few months later his illustrious career was effectively ended by Operation Puerto. Photo sourced from cyclingweekly.co.uk.

The timing could not have been worse for the sport, with their greatest race marred with yet another doping scandal which cast a shadow over the entirety of the 2006 edition. The race was suddenly blown open as none of the top five from the 2005 Tour de France were competing a year later, therefore it was a relatively new cast that took on the mantle of competing to win the race.

The 2006 edition would prove a compelling race with an intense battle for the maillot jaune(yellow jersey) right up until the final stages. Whilst the fans and organisers would have wanted the attention switched to the exciting fight for the lead, yet again the 2006 race would find itself a victim of a doping scandal. American Floyd Landis emerged from the shadow of Lance Armstrong to win the 2006 race, only to be stripped of victory in disgrace a few days later after testing positive for testosterone after his remarkable victory in Stage 17.

The reputation of the sport was once again taking a battering, as Landis became embroiled in a court battle to claim back his victory. After the dust had settled Landis admitted to micro-dosing EPO and taking blood transfusions during the race, but always denied taking testosterone. After the initial denials the riders soon changed their tune. Over the next year the likes of Basso, Jorg Jaksche and Michele Scarponi all admitted to working with with Fuentes, whilst Ullrich was also strongly linked to him.

Fast forward to 2016 and this case is still hanging over professional cycling. Riders linked with Fuentes such as Alberto Contador(cleared),Basso and Scarponi they are still involved with sport as they reach the final stages of their careers. Fuentes himself was originally found guilty, although he has since has his conviction and suspended one year prison sentence overruled.

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Floyd Landis celebrating on the podium after winning the 2006 Tour de France. A few days later and he would be stripped of his victory in shame after testing positive for testosterone. Photo sourced from velonews.com .

In June of this year Spanish authorities ruled they would hand over the blood bags found in Fuentes possession to anti-doping authorities for evaluation. It’s unclear at this present moment whether these authorities will make public their findings, but with roughly 200 bags to sort through, it’s clear the sport of cycling may well be rocked again if the full influence of Fuentes and his doping practices on the sport are revealed to the public.

In the last ten years the sport of cycling has appeared to have worked very hard to eliminate doping from it’s realm. There have been widespread changes to improve anti-doping testing, and since then there have not been any further major doping scandals within the sport. How much of this can be attributed to Operation Puerto and it’s impact cannot be quantified, but for sure it will have had an effect on enforcing change in the sport.

Cycling is still in the process of recovering from it’s past demons, and for some people they will never again be able to trust the athletes and the sport after years of lies and denials. It’s debateable whether Operation Puerto was the metaphorical straw which broke the camel’s back, but the fact this was the last major scandal before significant change was implemented would seem to support this argument. It was ten years ago, but the sport and the characters involved are still struggling to recover from it’s impact. For American Floyd Landis, it took until this year’s race to return to Paris to watch it in person. It ended the careers of high profiles names in the sport both in terms of riders and team principals. Who knows whether the true impact will only become known in the coming years, if the anti-doping authorities decide to publish their findings. For the sport of cycling, it will undoubtedly open some very old and raw wounds should that happen.

By Jordan Wilkins

Feel free to comment on this article with your thoughts and a huge thank you for reading. If you want to find me I’m on Twitter @brfcjordan95.

 

 

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Cycling’s dark era

Professional cycling and performance enhancing drugs. For almost two decades these went hand in hand as the sport was ravaged by a wild west era of professional doping programmes, in which the sport lost almost all it’s credibility and those who cheated prospered whilst those who chose to remain clean rotted on the outer reaches of success in the sport they loved.

Doping has always been a problem in professional cycling, as athletes faced with three weeks of immense physical pain have always looked for ways to numb or dull the pain. In the early days cyclists would use alcohol to numb the pain, however from the 1950’s onwards recreational drugs such as amphetamines become the latest technology in doping. Amphetamines were common place during the peloton for the next 30 years, although whilst they would give riders extra energy they would also alter their thinking and often led to ridiculous breaks which were never successful.

During the 1980’s amphetamines were prevalent in the pro peloton, although not every one was using performance enhancing drugs. One of those include ex-pro rider Theo de Rooij, who states in an interview with http://www.theouterline.com his own experiences with amphetamines ” That stuff made me do crazy things; it made me feel strong, but I also realized that the stuff was very addictive, so I decided to stay away from it.” (ed: For more information on doping check out their amazing article series called Perspectives on doping!)

De Rooij in action during his pro career in the 1980’s.

The game changer in performance enhancing drugs was the development and abuse of EPO. This drug which boosted red blood cells in blood and designed for people with anaemia (low blood count), it was tailor made for endurance athletes such as professional cyclists. Pioneered by Italian riders during the early 1990’s it’s use quickly became widespread, with a sworn secrecy over it’s use leading to increasing doses as riders became paranoid of other riders using more doping products to enhance their performance and gain an advantage on the peloton.

During the 1990’s it truly was the wild west in terms of doping as huge quantities of EPO were used and abused to enhance performance. EPO was a game changer not only because of it’s ability to greatly enhance your own performance, but because it was impossible to be caught using it as throughout the 1990’s there was no test available to detect EPO. EPO quickly became the holy grail of doping as a large majority of professional team set up an organised doping programme using highly sophisticated and knowledgable doctors, alongisde high tech equipment to give them an edge over the rest.

At the time the UCI, cycling’s governing body, both seemed to have little resources and interest in properly investigating systematic doping in cycling. By the mid-1990’s the first obvious signs of doping distorting race results became clear, with examples being the “miracle” three man break from the Italian Gewiss-Ballan team, that simply powered away from everyone else on the final portion of the race to claim a 1-2-3 at Fleche Wallone in 1994. After the race team doctor Dr Michele Ferrari made his infamous quote about EPO “EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink 10 liters of orange juice.” It’s probably no coincidence that Dr Michele Ferrari later became synonymous with EPO and doping, as he was a major factor behind the dominance of Lance Armstrong and the United States Postal Service team as they won 7 straight Tour de France title between 1999 and 2005.

Youtube Footage of the infamous Stage 16 Hautacam climb made famous by Bjarne Riis in 1996.

Another example is the apparent ease with which Danish rider Bjarne Riis was able to tackle the infamous Hautacam climb in 1996. During the later stages of the 1996 Tour de France the riders approached the notoriously tricky Hautacam, known as one of the most challenging climbs in world cycling, yet TV footage showed Bjarne Riis riding it like a Sunday afternoon relaxing training ride. He repeatedly launched himself from the peloton before slowing and allowing the group to catch him again before repeating the process several times. Eventually Riis broke away for good and claimed the stage win comfortably, although his actions were peculiar to many cycling experts as his process of riding hautacam defied convention. 11 years later the public discovered his secret to victory that day as Riis announced he had used performance enhancing drugs including EPO during his career.

Bjarne Riis shows the pain of his 1996 Tour de France victory.
Sourced from https://leagueofbikes.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/bjarne-riis-hautacam-1996/3acdc4b4a3184a59956bbd432998c716_400/

By 1997 the UCI finally took action against rampant doping in cycling, by implementing a 50% limit for riders hematocrit, a.k.a the amount of red blood cells they have in their blood. Some counter however that infact the teams themselves came to the UCI pleading them to implement some measure as they deemed the riders doping to be getting out of control. Whoever implemented the measure it did have an affect in curbing doping slightly, as gone were the days of Bjarne Riis winning the Tour de France with a hematocrit of 60% and over.

Hematocrit is vital to cyclists and endurance athletes as the more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen you have being carried to the muscles. This means your less likely to fatigue or get lactic acid build up in your muscles. Therefore, if you can perform at your peak for longer than your rival it’s likely you’ll be able to beat them. For cyclists this became the holy grail in the 1990’s, with a normal persons hematocrit likely to be between 40-45%, however for cyclists before 1997 regular use of EPO and other performance enhancing drugs such as testosterone, Human Growth Hormone and Cortisone would boost their figures to between 55-65%.

The UCI implemented the 50% ruling as a “health measure”, therefore when riders were caught with a hematocrit over 50% they were simply suspended for two weeks before being reinstated. From here the status quo remained until July 1998. The Tour de France was eagerly anticipated like any other Tour, however in the days prior to the start in Ireland, a chain of events began which would lead to a complete change in the doping culture of professional cycling. The most successful team in the 1998 Tour de France was the Festina team. Packed with top line riders it was likely one of their riders would win the Tour de France. This would soon change however as team soigneur, effectively a team helper, Willy Voet was stopped by French customs in Belgium as he tried to enter France through a small border crossing by Lille.

A routine check of his Festina team car found an insane amount of doping products within, which included 234 capsules of EPO, 82 vials of Human Growth Hormone, 160 capsules of testosterone and various other doping products. After the team at first distanced themselves from Voet, it soon became clear everyone from the team would be questioned once they returned to France. Once it became clear French police had uncovered a systematic doping programme on the Festina team, directeur sportif Bruno Roussel and team doctor Eric Rijckaert were forced to end their denials and admit to a systematic doping programme on the team, which was later discovered to have been funded by the riders. From here all the key players from the Festina team were questioned by police, including star riders Alex Zulle, Richard Virenque and Laurent Dufaux.


Virenque clearly bewildered at the 1998 Tour de France.
Sourced from http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/virenque-hopes-french-senate-list-includes-festina-riders

The team would be subsequently thrown out of that year’s Tour de France and all riders apart from Virenque would admit to doping. From here French police searched other teams at the tour and found doping products at almost all the teams. In turn the riders protested about their harsh treatment by police and stage several protests during stages whereby the riders would deliberately ride slowly or even stop for several hours. In the end the incredible victory for the Italian Marco Pantani, who also won the Giro D’Italia that year also, was overshadowed by the ongoing Festina affair.

From here things settled down again, with the next major storm surrounding the Italian Marco Pantani. After winning two of cycling’s biggest races in the Giro D’Italia and Tour de France in 1998, Pantani looked for a repeat in 1999 as he dominated the Giro. Only days before the end however, he fell foul of the 50% limit of the UCI and was suspended for two weeks. Although this created many news headlines, the significance in the story was whether he had been set up and did center on doping like the Festina affair had.

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Pantani being led away by police after his expulsion from the 1999 Giro D’Italia.
Sourced from an AS blog http://blogs.as.com/pedaladas/2014/02/las-ense%C3%B1anzas-del-pantani-valiente-y-del-pantani-oscuro.html

After the Public Relations disaster that was the 1998 Tour de France over, the UCI and Tour organisers were eager to renew the public’s faith in the race for 1999. They both promised a slower race to show they were curbing doping in cycling. Little did they know however that their biggest problem around doping were just about to begin as Lance Armstrong was coming back to the Tour and was determined to claim victory, whichever way possible. For more on this story please view my second part to this blog entry which will be posted in the next few days. Hope you enjoyed it!