Operation Puerto

Cycling Still Has A Way To Go

Professional cycling is the sport most keenly associated with the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Other sports such as athletics and baseball have similar problems which blighted their sport, however the story of Lance Armstrong was so captivating it brought the sport’s problem to the forefront of our minds.

In the last decade it has made a sizeable attempt to change the culture from one of doping to a cleaner, purer public image. Innovations such as the biological passport and greater out-of competition testing have made it much harder for cyclists to dope.

All of these testing measures and the attempts to change the culture within the sport have meant and end to the wild west era’s of the 1990’s and early 2000’s when riders were transfusing multiple blood bags, EPO, testosterone, cortisone and HGH to name just a few.  Despite all of these new preventative measures being put in place some within the peloton still give in to temptation and use doping products.

In recent months the sport has been hit with a setback from Operation Aderlass. Whilst this is not Operation Puerto where multiple top name riders were linked with doping, this German police investigation into blood doping has uncovered links with cyclists. So far the majority of named athletes have been cross country skiing, but so far two Austrian cyclists have confessed to blood doping during this investigation.

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Lance Armstrong is the most recognizable cyclist because of his comeback from cancer and subsequent downfall for doping. Here he celebrates his seventh and final Tour victory in 2005 alongside Italian Ivan Basso and German Jan Ullrich.  All three would later be implicated in doping scandal. Photo: Christophe Ena/AP.

The doctor at the centre of the scandal, Dr Mark Schmidt, has previous experience in cycling with links to the Gerolsteiner and Milram teams in the late 2000’s as team doctor. Disgraced Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl previous alleged that Schmidt organised doping within the Gerolsteiner team at the 2008 Tour de France. Kohl finished third in that race but was later busted for using EPO variant CERA at the 2008 Tour.

The police investigation is still ongoing, and so far Austrian cyclists Stefan Denifl and Georg Preidler have confessed to blood doping using Schmidt. The police have uncovered 40-60 blood bags from athletes from a diverse range of sports and more names are sure to be revealed as the investigation progresses.

Along with this news Trek-Segafredo climber Jarlinson Pantano was found last month to have failed an out-of competition test in late February for EPO. He was a previous winner of a stage at the Tour de France in 2016. The important thing with all of these cases is that none of these riders with respect is a superstar within the sport. These are not contenders for the major races and yet they have been busted for doping.

Whilst this is not an indictment that the top-level riders are doping, it does raise the question as to the sincerity of the results we see in recent years if riders who are not achieving massive results are doping would they not be better contenders than they have been if everybody else is not doping. This is a simplistic mindset not backed up by facts but this is how ordinary fans of cycling might think.

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Georg Preidler on the left and Stefan Denifl on the right were the two cyclists currently implicated in Operation Aderlass. Both admitted to blood doping and are currently suspended by the UCI. Photo: BBC 

It’s likely that these riders were doping merely to compete or to give themselves a better chance at success to earn a lucrative new contract in the future. Only they can explain their actions if they ever will.

The sport of cycling is making massive progress in it’s fight against doping, with all sides making proactive steps after years of burying their heads in the sand about the problem. All of these steps are helping make the future of the sport much healthier, however it is also very difficult to quickly change a doping culture that has existed in the sport dating back over 110 years to it’s origins. This will take time and a sustained effort from all involved to change this culture and ensure the public can have faith that the results they are seeing are credible.

Cycling is on the right path for the first time in a long while, and it needs to continue doing everything it can to combat doping. In all sport athletes will cheat because of the massive fame and fortune at stake if they can get away with it. Cycling is no different in this regard. The UCI and the national anti-doping bodies need to continue to punish those who do cheat to send a clear message to the peloton that doping will not be tolerated in any form. The UCI currently has 19 male and female riders under suspension for doping, showing they are taking the right steps to combat this problem.

Of course all of this talk might be a smokescreen as we do not know what exactly goes on within the world of professional cycling. Riders might have found a way around the testing measures although until we see major evidence indicating this we can’t assume this. Only time will tell if this era of results we are eagerly watching are credible or just another grand deceit.

A massive thank you for reading this article and if you have an opinion on this article feel free to leave a comment below or get in touch with me on Twitter @JWjournalism.

By Jordan Wilkins

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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.