Until the recent series of doping scandals have made it passé to dope in cycling, then lie about it, then stage a dramatic public confession seeking redemption, Richard Virenque was the poster boy. The history books, though, continue to list his seven KOM titles in the Tour de France – a record. To the extent that these titles represent the pinnacle of climbing achievement, Virenque ranks as one of the best grimpeurs in history.
But, of course, such a judgement is not without controversy. And, as we know, for good reason. In a series of posts, le grimpeur will review this most enigmatic of riders.
Born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1969, the French rider turned professional with RMO in 1991 (directed by Bruno Roussel, later to become the Festina team) and secured a 2nd place result at the Trophée des Grimpeurs one-day race. He soon established himself as a climbing specialist, taking second place in the mountains competition in the 1992 Tour de France behind Claudio Chiappucci. In that edition, which started in San Sebastian, Spain, Virenque placed 2nd in the stage into Pau after a three-man breakaway, which was enough to secure the yellow jersey. Quite the result for his first Tour.
Virenque was undoubtedly a huge climbing talent, but also a specialist at the long breakaway. In his KOM victories in the Tour in 1994, and in the Tour and the Dauphine Libéré in 1995, he would use long attacks in the mountains to take a stage victory and a fistful of climbing points, then defend his position on the other climbs.
In the top ten of the Tour in 1995, by 1996 he was a podium contender, placing third behind Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich, as well as winning the KOM overall title. In 1997, he was second, 9 minutes adrift of the all-conquering Ullrich but ahead of Marco Pantani. Virenque was again the KOM winner, and was lauded for his courageous riding by some, but derided for his tactics by others.
Of course, as the Festina scandal in 1998 revealed, his success was built on a solid foundation of doping. As is well known, the majority of the riders on the team confessed to the widespread doping, and acknowledged that they knew they were receiving EPO.
“I knew very well that [team doctor Erik] Rijckaert gave me EPO,” said Christophe Moreau.
“In today’s cycling races, every rider knows that if they don’t use EPO they’ll be left behind,” said Alex Zulle.
But Virenque refused to admit guilt before a judge in 1998, claiming that if he had doped then it was without his knowledge – à son insu. “I never asked for drugs,” he said. “Moreover, I didn’t need them.” He even wrote a book to buttress his claims – Ma Vérité, or My Truth.
The Festina trial
But the truth came out at the trial in Lille at the end of 2000. Soigneur Willy Voet, who had been caught with the team’s doping supplies, said that Virenque was right at the centre of the team’s doping programme.
“Virenque clearly knew what he was doing,” he said. “In the period leading up to the Tour, he was the person who pushed the use of banned substances the most.”
According to Voet, Virenque’s EPO schedule was 22 doses from June to December 1995, 60 January-December 1996, 37 January-July 1997, and 14 January-June 1998. As well, tests in 1998 revealed that he was using steroids and growth hormones as well.
Team manager Bruno Roussel said that on hearing of Voet’s arrest, Virenque said: “Comment vais-je faire pour mes produits?”, concerned as to how he would get his drugs. Roussel himself was remorseful, and was reportedly choked-up at the hearing, telling Virenque: “Mon petit, tu es mort, ta carrière est terminée.”
Roussel said that the team’s doping programme was put in place in 1993, when products were rushed to the Tour from Spain but too late to make a difference. The goal was to win races, but his motivation was to protect his riders and to ensure their well-being, despite the doping taking place, ensuring strict medical supervision through the team’s doctor, Erik Rijckaert. Roussel testified that he kept his riders’s haematocrit levels to 54%, lower than some Spanish, Italian or other riders.
Indeed, as files from Conconi’s programme in Italy revealed, Claudio Chiappucci’s level was boosted to 60.7% in June 1994; Marco Pantani’s was 58% in July 1995; Bjarne Riis’s hit 56.3% the same year.
But Roussel and Voet were not always successful in keeping the doping under control. In 1996, Voet said that he had to intervene in the middle of the night to save a Festina rider whose haematocrit had hit 66%.
Roussel was convinced that other major teams, ONCE, Mapei, and Telekom, had similar programmes. Alex Zulle, who rode with Festina in 1998 and confessed to doping following interrogation by French police, corroborated this notion.
“I acknowledge having made use of EPO for about four years,” Zulle said. “The first time I was riding for the Spanish team ONCE. This practice of using EPO operated in the same way and I can say that the twenty or so riders consumed EPO under the control of Drs [Nicholas] Terrados and another one called José [Aramendi].”
The truth, at last
Virenque finally confessed in court to his real role in the programme on the second day of the trial, shaky and tearful: “Oui, je me suis dopé…”
He explained that in 1998 he did not want, as France’s most popular cyclist, to be made an example of. He was just like all the other riders, he said, but was now confessing to ease his conscience.
“Yes, I took doping substances but I didn’t have any choice,” he reportedly said. “I was the sheep, if they threw me out of the flock I was finished. I live in a world where the rules are set up a long time in advance. In 1998, the black sheep refused to leave. He wanted to keep doing his job. I told myself I was in a system where everybody did the same.”
“Very early in life, I realized that I did not have good intellectual prospects, so I therefore worked very hard on the bicycle,” he explained. “The bicycle requires a permanent sacrifice. At some point the suffering becomes very hard.”
And his further comments revealed the dominant mindset on the team, perhaps even in cycling at the time. “We don’t say doping. We say we’re preparing for the race,” he said. “It’s also referred to as, taking care of yourself.”
“To take drugs is to cheat,” he noted. “As long as the person doesn’t test positive, they’re not taking drugs.”
The piecing together of the Festina team’s doping activities cast doubt over the veracity of all Virenque’s major victories. As more details of the 90s emerge, however, it seems increasingly likely that the majority of his major rivals were also doping – Riis has already confessed, as have a number of his (then) Telekom team, and revelations about Ullrich seem not too distant; Pantani almost certainly was also doping, as was likely Chiappucci when Virenque beat him in the mountains in 1994.
Was Virenque simply, as he himself said, following ‘the rules’ and, as Alex Zulle said, just making sure he was not ‘left behind’?
But even before his confession and suspension, scandal was not far away, again. Investigations by French authorities in 1999 linked Virenque to Bernard Sainz, officially a horse breeder but known in the cycling world as Dr. Mabuse (a sci-fi film villain) for his alleged doping activities. Philippe Gaumont (Cofidis), Yvon Ledanois (Francaise des Jeux) and Pascal Peyramaure (formerly of Team Z) were investigated for trafficking and Frank Vandenbrouke, arrested by police in possession of doping products, admitted to be another one of Sainz’s clients.
Virenque said he had used products from Sainz, but believed them to be “homeopathic products that are illegal in the sport but may be common otherwise, such as aspirin substitutes,” according to reports in the IHT. Sainz was imprisoned for 2 months then placed under judicial supervision. He even wrote a book with the tongue-in-cheek title, ‘Stupéfiantes Revelations of Dr. Mabuse’.
Ahead of his suspension for the 2001 season, Virenque again won the Tour’s KOM competition in 1999 riding for Polti (which had fined him after the Sainz revelations) and who rode the Tour against the wishes of the organizers, although without taking a stage win and looking far from dominant in the mountains. Overall, though, he placed a credible 8th – the highest placed French rider.
In 2000, he won a dramatic stage into Morzine. Although only third in the mountains competition, he looked strong throughout the race and was ably supported by Pascal Hervé, a former Festina teammate who would later also confess to doping at the Festina trial after repeated denials, and then go on to be caught again for using drugs in the 2001 Giro. Virenque finished 6th overall – two places behind Christophe Moreau, another former teammate on Festina who had confessed to doping and already served his time.
Virenque was asked at the Festina trial how he had prepared for his two seasons with Polti. He swore that he had not used EPO, but apparently drew a knowing laugh from the courthouse when he spoke the code words for doping: “I took care of myself.”
Virenque’s confession at the end of 2000 and suspension kept him out for most of the 2001 season. But despite Roussel’s warning, Virenque’s career was far from over. In fact, some measure of redemption, at least with his riding, was still to come.