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An extract from ...
Breaking the Chain
Drugs and Cycling - The True Story by Willy Voet

Introduction by Gerard Knapp

Cyclingnews has obtained online rights to publish extracts from the recently-released English language translation of "Breaking the Chain", Willy Voet's explosive book about drugs and cheating in cycling. The book was written as a result of the well-documented "Festina affair", which rocked the 1998 Tour de France and continues to reverberate through cycling and sport as a whole.
Willy Voet on his way into the Festina trial
Photo: © AFP

It was sparked by one incident: French police and customs officials discovered a substantial cache of drugs in the car being driven by Festina soigneur Willy Voet. Voet, along with Festina manager Bruno Roussel, was subsequently tried for administering and transporting drugs. Voet was given a 10 month suspended sentence and a 30,000 franc fine ($US 4,200). Roussel was given a suspended sentence of one year and a fine of 50,000 francs ($US 7,000).

The book started as Voet sat in a French gaol, seemingly abandoned by his team. It is based on his experiences of over 20 years as a soigneur. In that time, he played a critical role in administering doping products, fooling drug detection regimes and helping riders "prepare for the race".

The book was released in French under the title 'Massacre a la chaine' (Chain Massacre) and became a best-seller in France and Belgium. The extract we have chosen is by no means the most explosive chapter - the Festina Affair, the infamous "tube up the bum" and "Belgian pot" sections have already been covered in previous stories on Cyclingnews. Rather, in this extract Voet describes his experiences in the '70s and '80s, from cheating on climbs to using amphetamines. It helps reveal one important point: doping with Festina was not an isolated incident. In fact, the only unique thing about the Festina Affair is that someone from team management was actually caught with a serious stash of drugs. The same thing could have happened 10, 20 or even 30 years earlier - the only difference being the kind of drugs that were administered.

The book also raises the question of how widespread the practice really is. Voet only writes about his experiences, not what he believed other teams were doing. However, there is no question that the Festina team began its use of EPO in response to what team management believed was standard practice among their competitors, and as Voet points out: "We still didn't win the Tour".

During their investigations on the 1998 Tour de France, the French police were criticised for their heavy-handed approach and insensitivity towards exhausted riders; they were seemingly oblivious to the negative impact on one of France's sporting monuments. There was no reputation or event which was going to stand in their way of catching their suspects and securing the evidence they needed for a conviction.

That they got their prey and changed world cycling forever is now history. In 2001, the UCI recorded the first-ever rider to be actually caught for using EPO. That it took this long for a test to be introduced also says something about the difficulty of introducing regulations which prevent doping.

"Massacre à la chaîne" was originally published by Calmann-Lévy, and at the time Voet insisted that Frenchman Richard Virenque played "an active role in the distribution of the doping products", something which the Festina rider denied for two years but finally admitted to Judge Delegove in the Festina trial late last year. The book is also subtitled "Révélations sur trente ans de tricheries" (Revelations about 30 years of Cheating) and above all, it may provide an insight for Western readers into the morality of doping in European cycling.

As Virenque himself said at the Festina trial: "We don't say doping. We say we are preparing for the race. To take drugs is to cheat. As long as the person doesn't test positive, they're not taking drugs."

A sample of the 100 or so related stories on Cyclingnews:
October 25, 2000, Festina trial - the mud begins to fly, Festina case timeline
October 24, 2000, Festina trial - Virenque cracks
May 20, 1999, Willy Voet goes for the jugular

To read previous stories on Cyclingnews on this subject please enter "Voet" into the Search window and take your pick.

To purchase 'Breaking the Chain' see our order page

Cheating — the early years

From the chapter: 'Fancy a Fruit Bar With Eyes?'

By Willy Voet

During my first years as a full-time soigneur, with the Belgian teams Flandria, Marc Zeep Centrale and Daf-Trucks, from 1979 to 1981, I found out that for the majority of riders cheating could become a way of life. It just depended on the situation. I can remember the Tour of Germany in the spring of 1979, the year it came back on the international calendar after not being run for several years.

Before the race finish in Dortmund, where everyone expected the great German rider Dietrich Thurau to take overall victory, there was one really hard stage, with a hill six miles long just after the start. One of the Flandria riders, Albert Van Vlierberghe, a decent Belgian racer but with no taste for the hills, decided that he wasn't going up it.

'Take me in the car. The guys will set off flat out, I know what they're like, and I'll be chasing my backside off all day.'

I was still new to the job and didn't really dare to say no to one of the cyclists. But I was nervous, on his account as well as mine.

'Don't worry, Willy. If anyone catches sight of me we can say that I pulled out, it's easy enough.'

And so we set off in the car a quarter of an hour before the start, him with a soigneurs jacket on his shoulders and me with butterflies in my stomach. We got to the top, where the road flattened out, and parked by a barn at the roadside. I left him there — I had to see to the bidons for the riders — hidden behind the barn, waiting for the best moment to catch up with the race as if nothing had happened. Everything panned out exactly as he had expected: the bunch had split to pieces as soon as the flag had been dropped, and this made it easy for him. After the first race vehicles had passed through — mainly press cars — he slipped into no man's land between the breakaway of about ten riders and the front of the bunch. He caught up with the lead group without any problems, and — best of all — he was able to finish sixth on the stage.

There are many examples like this. Brute strength is often worth nothing compared to a little brain power. And brain power can be used in many ways, as I saw on the Tour of Flanders once around the same time. The 'Ronde' was really something, especially for Flandrians like me — a hard man's race over 250 kilometres of little hills, some cobbled. The course is so compact that by cutting across it and back again spectators can see the race go past several times.

On the quiet little road leading into the finish I remember meeting a good rider who wasn't one of my team. Clearly, to judge by the speed he was going, he had pulled out of the race. I asked him if he wanted me to take him to the finish in the car and he signed his thanks with one hand.

'No, no. I'll ride down there, thanks all the same. It'll just be a few more miles in my legs for the day.'

I left him to his training ride and went on my way again. An hour before the finish, I was talking to the other soigneurs on the finish line when the loudspeakers spat out a name — the name of the rider I had met a few hours before!

He obviously hadn't planned it that way. He had got mixed up with the race and had latched on as they went past. This might have been the case, but I still had my doubts — his brother raced as a professional as well. I thought they might have been mixed up.

At the finish it was the usual scrum and I forgot about this perplexing issue until I got to the dope control. Who was down on the list of riders who had to deliver a sample, having finished second? 'My' impostor, who had covered eighty kilometres less that day than the rest of the opposition. Out of sight, out of mind, as always.

We bumped into each other again a few weeks later. When I recalled his superb exploit and took the mickey, he pretended not to understand at first. Then, as I looked at him with a mixture of amusement and disbelief, he ended the conversation: 'Just keep your mouth shut, anyway.'

These tricks are as nothing compared to what can be achieved when a doctor and a rider work in tandem. One particular Liege-Bastogne-Liege at the end of the 1970s speaks volumes. 'Liege' is one of cycling's monuments, the oldest of the one-day Classics on one of the toughest courses; it is also one of the most sought after because it can be won only by a real all-rounder at the peak of his form.

The rider in question had prepared himself accordingly, using 'all available technology'. He had no fears because the doctor who was in charge of the drug testing was his own doctor! A doctor who oversaw the preparation of several top cyclists while also doing anti-doping work for the Federation. Another Rijckaert, in other words, because Eric worked for the Flemish authorities as well. These doctors were appointed by the Ministry of Sport to take care of drug testing, not only at bike races, but also at football matches and boxing tournaments. These Rijckaerts could be found everywhere — in Italy, in France — with a whole crowd of cyclists as 'patients'… And it's still the same today.

It's worth pointing out that most of the doctors who 'prepared' cyclists did not leave a trail of carnage in their wake. A doctor like Rijckaert would try to manage the ever-growing demands made on him by his clients. I remember as well that he refused to sign the licence of a Belgian rider in whom he had diagnosed a cardiac anomaly when he examined him at the start of the season. The kid went elsewhere. Nine months later he died of a heart attack on the bike.

In the 1980s everything was worth trying. A senior one-day specialist came to beef up the team where I was working. He arrived with a fine racing record and a well-stocked briefcase. Being kindly disposed towards me, he didn't hide anything about his medical preparation. He told me about the banned drugs he used, but also about the right way to use them and about his recuperation techniques. This guy really took me a long way up the ladder because it's not enough merely to know what drugs to use — you have to inject them at the right moment and know how to calculate the proportions if you're mixing them. The older soigneurs had not told me everything, but I don't hold it against them. That's how I've always behaved with new soigneurs. It's up to them to find out for themselves, just as I did.

One day, just after the Tour de France, this rider announced that he was going to win a big race in a few weeks. During the ten days before the race he put himself on a course of Synacten Retard — delayed-action cortisone — an injection every two days. The day of the race, half an hour before the start, he took an injection of Synacten Immediate — a drug still used widely today for the major one-day Classics because it is undetectable. He knew exactly what he needed at any given moment and the result was never in doubt.

But it didn't always work out that well. I remember a Tour of Lombardy in the 1980s. The morning of the start, the rider who went on to win the race eight hours later took an injection of Synacten Immediate in his backside, into the muscle, so that the effects would be felt gradually. At the first feeding zone, the field was all over the place, and he was two minutes behind a break that had formed early on. But although he had not started off well, at the second feed, two-thirds of the way through the race, he caught the leading riders. Then he came good and won on his own. Initially, the cold and the overdose of cortisone had produced the opposite result from the one expected and actually slowed him down. The rider hadn't been put off and had dug deep to go into overdrive towards the end. Being the strong man he was, he might well have won without any outside assistance. But just as money doesn't create happiness but goes a long way towards it, doping doesn't create a champion but doesn't do him any harm either.

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