And the avalanche rolls on. Tuesday evening ‘Danmarks Radio’ presented the second of a 2-part investigative report on the (mis)use of doping in professional cycling. Monday’s broadcast included previously unseen video footage documenting the use of EPO and other banned substances by ONCE and Gewiss-Ballan in 1995. In Tuesday’s program, Team Deutsch Telekom and La Francais de Jeux were two of the primary recipients of uninvited attention. Willy Voet told of his arrest and explained how hematocrit levels can be manipulated with the help of saline solutions, and the broadcast also included a bizarre anecdote about an unnamed RMO rider shooting up with amphetamines while in the saddle on the way to the Champs Elyssées during the Tour in 1986.
According to the Danish daily Politiken, it turns out that one of the two journalists who have produced the program, Niels Christian Jung, was himself employed as a soigneur by Gewiss-Ballan in 1995. It was while working for them that he made the video tapes that are the basis for many of the revelations made in their broadcast. Since making the tapes three years ago, Jung has had reservations as to what to do with them, and it was first in the wake of the scandals of last year’s Tour that he embarked on the project which has now been sent over the Danish airwaves.
Concerning Telekom, the focus of the Danish journalists’ attention was Belgian soigneur Jef D’Hont during the Vuelta in 1995. Jung’s modus operandi was the same as previously - snooping around in recently vacated hotel rooms. On September 8, 1995, moments after D’Hont had checked out of his hotel room, the Dane made a find that was a little less spectacular but no less damning than was the case with the finds reported in yesterday’s program - D’Hont had left behind three used and bloody syringes and two empty ampules, one of which had contained Synacthen, a hormone which helps alleviate a rider’s sense of fatigue. The label of the other ampule had been removed, but subsequent testing indicated that it had contained Eritropoitean, a product-name for EPO.
The next year Riis joined up with Telekom for his victory in the Tour. When confronted with D’Hont’s alleged involvement with the use of doping in Telekom the previous year, Riis maintained his strategy of categoric denial, "I don’t have anything to say about that - I don’t know what he’s doing in his own time."
In 1998, D’Hont was employed by La Francais des Jeux, and the Danish journalists again picked up his trail, peeking into whatever D’Hont might leave in his wake, particularly whatever he might happen to deposit in garbage cans or leave behind in hotel rooms. This time they caught up with him during Gent-Wevelgem, at which time the FDJ team was staying at the Holiday Inn in Gent. D’Hont himself was in room #200. The morning of the race D’Hont left behind two bags of garbage (the bags themselves bearing the FDJ logo) which were retrieved by the journalists. The bags were again emptied in front of a rolling camera, and were revealed to again contain syringes and ampules which apparently had been used to administer Synacthen and EPO. In other words, D’Hont had left behind the same two banned substances in hotel rooms in separate incidents three years apart while working for different teams.
In addition to the Synacthen and EPO, the FDJ garbage bags also included packaging from Fragmin, a blood-thinning medication that is strictly reserved for medicinal purposes. D’Hont also left behind hand-scrawled notes which would appear to detail his use of other banned substances, including I.G.F., a growth hormone which contributes to the building of muscle.
D’Hont refused to answer the journalists' questions at that time, and charges have since been raised against him in Lille stemming from a separate incident concerning doping. Upon release from prison for that incident, D’Hont denied having ever had anything to do with doping, maintaining that his only acquaintance with doping is via television.
Two months after the find made by the Danish journalists in Gent, Mauro Gianetti crashed out of The Tour of Romandie. He was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit in a hospital in Lausanne in his native Switzerland. Gérard Gremion, a Swiss doctor who participated in Gianetti’s treatment, stated the following to the Danish journalists, "He was almost dead. He had presumably consumed a new drug, PFC (perfluocarbon). It is a new molecule that strengthens the rejuvenation of one’s blood supply."
When the Danes confronted Gianetti in an interview with Dr. Gremion’s testimony concerning PFC he replied, "No comment. I have hired a lawyer who is taking care of this situation. I do not wish to say anything about this case. I have already expressed myself many times in the past and do not wish to make further comment on this matter."
Willy Voet had also attempted to deny having ever had anything to do with doping until breaking down after his now-infamous arrest. Voet tells of the experience of his arrest for possession of 400 ampules of banned substances at the border-crossing, "We arrived at 6.30 am and there were seven customs officers in a car who stopped me and asked if I had anything to declare. I replied that I had nothing to declare. In my car I had two insulated bags with drugs inside. They asked what they were, and I told them that I did not know. But of course I did. I said that they were drugs that were meant to assist the riders’ rejuvenation."
Voet continued to tell of his 16-day experience in prison, "It was worst for my family. They knew that I was in prison but not why." Like D’Hont, Voet attempted to maintain his innocence. "The police said, ‘Now we have to stop. We know what is going in the world of sport. We know that there are people taking drugs. It isn’t our problem if you stick to your story, but you will be the one who is sentenced to five years in jail while the others get off with it. So think again.’ That got me thinking and I broke down. One thinks about one’s children, one’s family. I couldn’t do anything else."
One of the many ironies of the broadcast is the fact that Voet, the culprit of the Tour, was capable of producing genuine feelings of sympathy with viewers because of the fact that he was plainly bearing his soul concerning something that has obviously burdened him greatly, while so many of the others involved in the broadcast continued to pathetically stick to their categorical denials despite the mounting evidence.
Amongst those clinging desperately to such claims of innocence is Lars Michaelsen, who rode for Festina in 1995. Michaelsen was interviewed in the program, and his denials amounted to little more than a shrug of the shoulders and a "No comment." Obviously uncomfortable with the line of questioning, Michaelsen tried to explain, "I can’t expose any of the others, now can I? If I know that they have done something which they perhaps ought not to have done, then I can’t just sit here and say it."
Footage was shown from Michaelsen’s break through in professional cycling, his victory at Gent-Wevelgem in 1995 while riding for Festina. Images were shown of a jubiliant Willy Voet sharing in Michaelsen’s victory at the finish line. In response to Michaelsen’s denials Voet said, "Yes of course he was using banned substances while riding for Festina - just like the others. It’s a pity for Lars. I really care about him. He is a good professional and a ‘champion.’ He really is. But if we don’t tell the truth, then we will never be able to put an end to doping."
The program also included images of a more historic nature, such as Tom Simpson’s death on the way up Mt. Ventoux in the Tour de France in 1966. Amphetamines were found in his pockets and tests indicated that they were also in his body at the time of death.
Further testimony concerning the use of amphetamines in cycling was presented by the former Irish pro, Paul Kimmage. Kimmage told that he was resolved to avoid doping when he turned pro, "You enter the professional game and you are going to do as much as you can on your own steam, and if that’s not good enough, then that’s not good enough." Kimmage rode the Tour for RMO in 1986, and was close to dropping out because of fatigue. He indicated that the pressure was it its worse on the last day of racing to Paris, "I think that was the most difficult day of the whole season for me, because again, I had been so tired the whole last week, and the last day of the Tour comes into Paris, and you’ve got the Champs Elysées, and my father had told me a week before that he would be coming over for the last stage. At that time, in 1986, there was no control on the last day of the Tour. The race winner was tested and the stage winner was tested, but otherwise there was no random control, so it was almost a tradition in the peloton for everybody - or anybody that wanted to - to take amphetamines for the last day to be able to go really fast around the Champs Elysées. I was riding so badly, I suppose, the last week that I was afraid that when we got to the Champs Elysées I’d get left behind. A couple of the guys on the team said, ‘You know I’ll give you something - you can have an amphetamine.’ I was tempted - really, really tempted to take the amphetamine. But I decided, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ As it happened, by the time we got to the Champs Elysées, with the crowd and my father there I just flew around anyway."
The interviewing journalist inquired, "You say that your teammates offered you amphetamines - does that mean that the rest of the team took them?" To which Kimmage replied, "Oh yes, I mean I saw it." Kimmage proceeded to provide a rather bizarre and chilling anecdote: "One of the guys came up to me - we had about an 1½ hours to go to the end of the stage. He said, ‘Paul, I want to show you something.’ He had one of these little tubes," and Kimmage picks up a tube resembling the type one would pull a good cigar out of. "We would have vitamin tablets in it normally. So he takes this out of his back pocket, pulls off the top, and there’s a little syringe inside. He had cut it down - cut down the syringe just so that there was room for the barrel with the stuff in it. He takes it out - there was cotton wool inside so that it didn’t rattle when it was in his pocket. So he takes out his syringe, pulls up the sleeve of his jersey over his shoulder and injects himself in his shoulder. Then he takes the syringe back out, puts it back into the tube, closes up the tube and puts it back in his pocket. An hour-and-a-half later he’s doing 40 miles an hour around the Champs Elysées and nobody could follow him!"
Kimmage proceeded to confess that the following season, in 1987, he succumbed to the pressure to take amphetamines in a race without doping control. "The day I took the amphetamine - I just couldn’t believe the difference it made to me. You know, I was just a different person, just aggressive: agressive, sure, positive, confident..."
Alex Pedersen, currently sports director for the Danish Team home Jack and Jones was also allowed a moment in the hot seat. In 1988, Pedersen was teammate with Kimmage riding for RMO, and none other than Willy Voet was soigneur for the team at that time. Pedersen was allowed to respond to questions concerning the use of cortisone at that time. Voet had already said, "That was the age of cortisone. The boys used it to prepare themselves for all of the big races." Pedersen explained that he had taken cortisone in 1988 in conjunction with rehabilitation from a knee injury, but otherwise denied taking the drug in order to improve his performance.
Willy Voet also revealed how he used saline injections to control hematocrit levels while he was yet employed with Festina in order to keep the riders below the magic 50%. "If there was a rider who was around 50-51 - right on the limit - we would thin his blood with a liter of saline solution. It took 20 minutes. At 6.30AM we knew who was going to be called to doping control. If he had 51%, and he was given 1 liter of water in his blood, his hematocrit levels would fall to 48-49. But 2-3 hours later - it is like putting juice in a glass of water - the amount of juice is the same."
The program has now been broadcast in its entirety. It will now be interesting to witness its aftermath. Politiken writes that Danmarks Radio provided Riis lawyer, Karoly Nemeth, with the documents which were the basis of the previous day’s reports of Riis’ dramatically improved hematocrit levels in 1996 (from 41% to over 56% in the space of six months). Nemeth has ridiculed the evidence, which is a piece of paper from an anonymous source, "Anybody could have written this. I don’t buy it, even if Danmarks Radio says that they trust their source 100%."
Nemeth demands that Danmarks Radio names their source. Jan Rosendal, the sports editor at Danmarks Radio replies, "We would never reveal our source without first receiving their consent. We have made a promise and it is a principle which we will not violate, even in the event that we are to lose a lawsuit over it." It is reported that the source is Italian.
Riis’ lawyer, Karoly Nemeth, has gone so far as to suggest that the background for the production of the program is to be found in the fact that Danmarks Radio’s competitor, Danish TV2, has been transmitting Tour de France with great success since Riis’ began doing well in the race in the early 90’s.
The bigger they are the harder they fall, and in Denmark there aren’t too many people who are bigger than Bjarne Riis. He was celebrated by the entire nation following his triumphant Tour in 1996, which the Danish Prime Minister declared to be the greatest achievement ever made by a single Danish athlete.
As such, it is the portions of the Danish broadcast which have concerned Riis that have received the most attention. He is now more-or-less assumed to be guilty by large numbers of the population, and public calls are being made to him to come forth and admit his doping as an example for other riders. But Bjarne is sticking to his guns and continuing to deny having had anything to do with EPO or any other form of doping, though he now admits, "I have heard about doping in the peloton."
The Danish Minister of Culture (who is also responsible for sport) has even involved herself in the melee, and somewhat intelligently appealed for reason and requested that less attention be focused on Riis, and used instead to try to achieve a broader solution to the problem of doping in professional cycling.
Politiken reached Riis at Telekom’s training camp on Mallorca for an interview. Riis’ response to the affair is as such, "This is as hard as Hell. But I still want to ride my bike. My bike is my life. I still think that I can ride fast, so I can’t see why I should stop."
The decision seems to have been taken in the last few days but Stanga has told the press that there are still some details to be finalised. A meeting yesterday (Wednesday) between Stanga and Franco Polti aimed to finalise all the outstanding matters. It appears that a meeting in Monaco last week between Franco Polti and Virenque's brother, Lionel sealed the deal in principle.
The household electrical firm was not at all phased by the demands of Virenque. He wanted a two-year contract and certain sporting guarantees. The money also was not a sticking point. It seems that Polti is keen on Virenque for personal reasons - he likes his flair and popularity - and is prepared to pay for that.
So the retirement announcement on December 6 seems to have been a ploy to get some attention and some active negotiations going. At that time, Virenque said there was no interest in him. A month later there is a contract, but not without risks.
The Spanish team, Kelme wanted Virenque but could not raise enough money. The Italian Lampre-Daikin team also was keen but decided to strengthen the support for World Champion Oskar Camenzind by the signing of two lesser riders, Gianluca Pianegonda and Marco Della Vedova. There was nothing left in their bank for Virenque.
Polti have already been interested in getting a profile in the French market. In 1995, they recruited Luc Leblanc who was then the World Champion. But relations between the rider from the Limousin and the team management were never good and this season they refused to resign him. So they can maintain their exposure in France by signing Virenque. Virenque now has a major task ahead of him to rebuild his career. In 1998, he had only one success, a stage victory in the Dauphiné. At 29 years, he says he now sees a clear horizon. He feels the drug taint will fade. He always denied the charges despite strong presumptions and direct charges from his former soigneur, Willy Voët.
The French Cycling Federation is unlikely to take any action against him because they feel impotent in the absence of firm judicial conclusions against Virenque. Virenque can also bypass the French Federation in obtaining his licence because he has a residence in Switzerland (close to Geneva).
Polti seems intent on being very strong this season. As well as Virenque, they have signed the 1997 Giro winner, Ivan Gotti.