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Operation Puerto and it’s Legacy Part 2

Before getting started I just wanted to say a massive thank you to anyone who read part one of this story I massively appreciate it! If anyone hasn’t yet read it yet they can find it here.

Last time we made it up to early 2006 and by this time not much had happened with Manzano’s allegations. A Spanish Sports Council investigation was dropped due to lack of evidence and the sport of cycling moved on denying any of his allegations. Things began changing  in early 2006 when the Spanish Guardia Civil opened a police investigation on these allegations based on endangering public health crimes.

The police began investigating Fuentes using wire taps of his phone and covert surveillance on his movements. What they were quickly able to establish was that Fuentes had become a major player in the doping of professional cyclists. Just in May alone they were able to place him with a wealth of Spanish connected riders.

Whether it was Santiago Botero and Constantino Gutierrez on the 4th May, Oscar Sevilla on the 13th May or Jorg Jaksche on the 14th May it was clear that Fuentes offices in Madrid had become a one-stop doping shop for most in the peloton. Multiple blood bags with dates matching their arrivals would later be found in medical freezers in Fuentes apartments. As well as cyclists flying in on an almost daily basis Fuentes was also orchestrating doping for many top name riders competing in the 2006 Giro D’Italia that month also.

Phone records from this time period show Fuentes talking with his assistants Alberto Leon Herranz and Jose Luis Merino Batres, along with Comunidad Valenciana DS Ignacio Labarta Barrera, who were organising the doping in Italy. After both stages seven and eight on the 13th and 14th of May Fuentes and Labarta Barrera comment on the days stage, talking about the contenders they have doping links with.

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Ivan Basso grimaces during his victorious 2006 Giro D’Italia win. Months later he would prove a key player in Operation Puerto, casting overwhelming doubt on his Giro win being clean. Photo: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com.

Those include dominant overall winner Ivan Basso, who is linked in the documents with having taken a blood bag two days before his first stage win on the 14th May, however this has never been confirmed. Second place Jose Enrique Gutierrez was also listed as a client of Fuentes, with his documents suggesting he took two bags, one days before the Giro and the second on the 12th the same as Basso. Michele Scarponi and Unai Oso Eizaguirre were also mentioned as having finished well with both later being implicated by documentation to using Fuentes for doping.

The first shocks of this investigation were felt on the 23rd May with Spanish police arresting Liberty-Seguros directeur sportif Manolo Saiz along with Fuentes and three others. Raids of Fuentes medical practices found a trove of performance enhancing drugs and documents linking him to professional cyclists. 

Between two medical practices in Madrid Spanish police uncovered 185 refrigerated blood bags along with plasma bags to maintain the blood and medical equipment for blood transfusions. Police also found Actovegin,Andriol (testosterone), Eposino (EPO),Jintropin (HGH),Synacthene, Vivarin (Caffeine tablets) and six different varieties of Insulin.  The majority of these medications were illegal in Spain and were bought from counterfeit labs across the world. Along with these were a trove of legal medical products such as Prozac and Diazepam. 

Police also found a jar of white pills with a hand-written known which they believed to be a steroid called Oxitosone. They uncovered a mysterious red powder which they believe was given to athletes to use to contaminate any doping tests to ensure they would not test positive.

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The man at the centre of this scandal, Eufemiano Fuentes leaves Spanish court during his trial for charges of endangering public health. The case has floundered in court since his initial arrest in May 2006. Photo:AP.

In police interviews on the 24th May Liberty-Seguros team director sportif Manolo Saiz noted star rider Roberto Heras requested working with Fuentes in early 2004. From here fellow former Kelme riders Marcos Serrano and Angel Vicioso made similar requests. After impressive 2nd and 7th places in the 2003 and 2004 Vuelta Saiz then requested that Isidro Nozal work with Fuentes from late 2004 onwards.

Barely six months later Nozal would be suspended for two weeks after registering a hematocrit of over 50% at the 2005 Dauphine Libere, a key Tour de France warm-up race. He would later admit to having done three blood transfusions with Fuentes in 2005.

What the documents would show was that Fuentes had extensive links with the doping of the two Spanish teams Liberty-Seguros and Comunidad Valenciana. He appeared to have a personal relationship with Liberty-Seguros DS Manolo Saiz and Comunidad DS Jose Ignacio Labarta along with his prior relationship to the team as their former doctor in their Kelme days as well as having his sister Yolanda Fuentes as the teams doctor from 2001-2006.

He was directly linked to the likes of Roberto Heras, Jorg Jaksche, Joseba Beloki, Isidro Nozal, Marcos Serrano, Michele Scarponi, Angel Vicioso and David Etxeberria at Liberty-Seguros to name just a select few of many. He had similar longstanding links at Comunidad Valenciana along with a wealth of foreign riders who used him for doping.

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Spanish climber Roberto Heras wearing the leaders jersey at the 2005 Vuelta a Espana. After a positive EPO test from the penultimate day Heras was stripped of victory but was later reinstated in 2012 after numerous court appeals. Heras had requested working with Fuentes 18 months prior to this race. Photo: Rodolfo Espinosa/Brand.

In this early stage however this information was not public with media speculation leaking slowly as more and more riders were speculated to have worked with Fuentes. Amid this hysteria the teams looked to protect themselves with T-Mobile asking riders to formally distance themselves from Fuentes whilst Phonak suspended star riders Santiago Botero and Jose Enrique Gutierrez.

On the 1st June Comunidad Valenciana DS Jose Ignacio Labarta resigned, as Liberty-Seguros ended their sponsorship of the old ONCE team. This left the team scrambling as they transitioned from Liberty-Seguros-Wurth to Astana-Wurth. The sport was descending into farce as Astana-Wurth were first banned and then allowed to compete in the 2006 Tour de France as the 2006 Spanish National Road Race was cancelled after 500 meters because of a mass rider protest.

The biggest drama from the case would come only two days before the start of the 2006 Tour de France. I’ll explain what happened and bring us to the modern day in the third and final installment of this thread which will be coming very soon!

Thank you for reading part two if you have any feedback or comment at all feel free to leave it below you can find me on Twitter @JWjournalism.

 

 

 

 

 

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.