Coeur de grimpeur – part 2 – the Polti years

Following the Festina trial in Lille in 2000, Richard Virenque was suspended until 15 August 2001 and his future was uncertain.

He had already been rescued once, by Franco Polti, owner of the team for which he rode the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

“He’s a great rider,” Polti reportedly said of Virenque. “He’s got character. That’s why I said let’s sign Virenque. I like riders like Virenque.”

The two years leading up to the Festina trial in 2000 were already mentioned in part 1. With the confessions from the majority of the other riders on the Festina team, Virenque remained isolated with his denials during this time.

His popularity, at least with his fans, seemed not to diminish. He also rode with some success in the Tour de France and, unusually for Virenque – who targeted key races – the Giro d’Italia. A brief pause, therefore, to look at these years in more detail.

The Polti years

Polti hired Virenque at the same time it fired his former teammate Luc Leblanc (Leblanc won the World Champion title for Festina in 1994 and admitted to doping with the team that year), who had joined Polti in 1996 but walked away from the Tour in 1998 as part of the riders’ protests.

Other teams had apparently been courting Virenque, including Kelme, ONCE, and Lampre. The signing with Polti was not a popular one with Gianluigi Stanga, Polti’s director, who had been reported saying that Franco Polti had “a passion for Virenque that borders on obssesion”.

Polti already had 1997 Giro winner Ivan Gotti as its leader and it was decided that Gotti would lead the team in the Giro in 1999 and Virenque would lead the team for the Tour de France.

Virenque paid back his sponsor’s faith in him with a well-earned win on stage 13 at the Giro in 1999. On the tough Cat.1 ascent of the Malanotte, the last climb of a four-climb stage, Virenque was fourth in a breakaway group over the top. When Roberto Heras in the group crashed, Kelme teammate José Gonzalez (the eventual KOM winner on the Giro that year) stopped to help, leaving Virenque and Santiago Blanco.

Holding off the chasing bunch, Virenque forced Blanco to lead out the sprint and was able to take him on the line, with the peloton only 34 seconds behind.

“This was not revenge. It was a victory. This is better than revenge,” Virenque was reported saying by CyclingNews.

“After all I have been through I cannot smile now… perhaps tomorrow,” he went on. “For some time my heart has been empty, but now I am full of emotion. It’s a big victory for me and for my sponsor Franco Polti, because he could have said that I could not go to the Giro. My team director Gianluigi Stanga believes in me, and he made the team believe in me. It’s good for cycling, my family, and my fans too.”

Even race leader Laurent Jalabert was supportive: “Vireneque has had some difficult times but he has coped well physically and mentally. I was pleased with his victory and told him so after the finish.”

After Marco Pantani was ejected from the race with an elevated haematocrit reading ahead of stage 21 on June 5, with victory almost certain, Polti’s Ivan Gotti claimed the overall victory, securing an important result for Virenque’s new team.

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Gotti wins the Giro for Polti with Virenque’s help

But for the 1999 Tour, organizers were determined to keep those with suspected links to doping out of the race. In Virenque’s case, the UCI intervened in his favour.

“We are beaten,” Jean-Marie Leblanc was reported saying just prior to the start of the Tour, who had also tried to keep Manolo Saiz from ONCE away. “It’s a blow by the International Cycling Union. We have been prevented from completing our attempt to restore the image of the Tour. It is a failure.”

Following the scandal of 1998, in an attempt to clean up the sport, French cycling had introduced new internal checks and controls on French riders.

Daniel Baal, the President of the French Cycling Federation, told France Soir, prior to Virenque’s signing with Polti, that, “All riders will be submitted to tests, before the start of the season. All except those riding in foreign countries, amongst them Laurent Jalabert and Richard Virenque, if he signs with an Italian team.”

And Virenque’s return to the peloton was controversial even amongst French riders. Having just pipped Virenque for third place in the French Championship race, with Virenque apparently slowing to salute his fans close to the line, Cedric Vasseur was scathing.

“Yeah, Virenque has a lot of fans cheering for him,” Vasseur was reported saying by the IHT. “And their IQ is no bigger than his.”

Doping in 1999 and 2000

Virenque certainly did not return quietly to racing, nor did he become outspoken on the issue of drugs and doping. After all, at this time, he still maintained that any doping on Festina had been without his knowledge.

“Today we are in a Tour that is transparent,” he told L’Equipe in 1999 during the Tour. “There are drug checks.”

Christophe Bassons had been on Festina in 1997 and 1998 (and rode for FdJ in 1999) and had been one of a handful of riders kept on the outside of the doping programme due to his strong views against drug use. Bassons later became strongly outspoken on the issue, attracting the disapprobation of Lance Armstrong, who apparently tried to organize a team chase to prevent Bassons from his stage 7 Dauphiné win in 1999.

Writing in Le Parisien, Bassons said that Armstrong’s ride on the climb to Sestriere had “disgusted many riders”.

“For the moment, the riders have shut their mouths because they are fearful for their trade but sooner or later they are going to speak out,” Bassons wrote.

Armstrong had spoken to Bassons on the stage and said: “What he’s said is not good for him or his team, his sponsor and cycling. I understand his position, but if that’s what he thinks, maybe he’s better to go home. I don’t think declarations in newspapers are in his best interests. If he wants to ride professionally, he can’t speak like that, because sponsors will walk away from the sport.”

Virenque was largely sympathetic and told L’Equipe the following, after Bassons had withdrawn from the Tour: “I hope he will now be able to concentrate on his sports career. He became a professional to ride a bike. Before going and making declarations about others whom are in my profession, I would try first to get to the top of my field. If I thought certain things about riders who have more class than me, I would keep my comments to myself.”

And he was also supportive of Armstrong, and dismissed the criticisms of Armstrong’s performances in the press.

“For two years he fought his illness,” Virenque was reported saying. “Today he is fighting against human idiocy. He has become a target. Instead of tipping a hat to him, efforts were made to tarnish his accomplishment. That’s not right.”

Virenque’s words may not have been appreciated by the Postal squad, however. Writing in his Tour diary for Velo News, Frankie Andreu mentions how Kevin Livingston rode away from Virenque on the Tourmalet after a verbal altercation, and also notes how they delighted in seeing him struggle on other climbs.

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Hard riding with Polti

As for drug use during these years, Virenque told the Festina trial in late 2000 that he had not used EPO on the Polti team. But, as we have seen, he got a knowing laugh from the court audience when he talked of ‘preparing’ for the race.

Although the haematocrit limit of 50% had been introduced in 1997, there was still no urine test for EPO, which was not introduced until 2001. There were still no tests for homologous blood doping and, like today, no tests for growth hormones or autologous blood doping as well as a number of other products. Even when introduced, the EPO urine test was only effective for around 72 hours, although the effect of the product lasted much longer.

Virenque had already been under suspicion for his involvement with Bernard Sainz, and fined by Polti. But whether one thinks that Virenque continued to use doping products in 1999 and 2000 depends on one’s view of those years in cycling, particularly of the Tour de France.

In 1999, Virenque placed 8th in the Tour, over 17 minutes behind winner Lance Armstrong who averaged 40.3 km/h, the fastest Tour in history. Virenque won the KOM title again, but was far from dominant in the mountains and did not have any stage victories.

Was the 1999 Tour really a deux vitesses, at two speeds, as claimed by L’Equipe? If so, what sort of preparation was necessary for Virenque to place as he did?

For Virenque, 2000 was another fast Tour – although slower than 1999 at 39.6 km/h. Virenque placed 6th, 13 minutes and a half behind Armstrong. It was another solid ride and while he placed only third in the KOM competition behind the Kelme duo of Santiago Botero and Javier Otxoa, he did claim an exciting victory in the big alpine stage into Morzine.

Speculation about doping in these two years is easy, such as the EPO allegations against Armstrong in 1999 with the admissions by two teammates that they used the product, or that claims have been made of systematic doping on Kelme (Fernando Escartin placed 3rd in 1999, 10’26” down) under the guidance of the notorious Dr. Fuentes. But 2nd place finisher in the same year Alex Zulle (7’37” down) would surely not have returned to doping after his suspension on Festina (ditto Laurent Dufaux, in 4th, 14’43” back).

There were other team performances that some might call suspicious in 2000, such as Kelme placing three riders in the top ten, but another suspended rider from Festina, Christophe Moreau, presumably riding on mineral water, placed 4th.

Pascal Hervé, who rode strongly in the mountains in 2000 – perhaps even better than Virenque – never confessed to doping until the Festina trial, but was apparently not deterred and tested positive for EPO in 2001 at the Giro. In 2000, Frankie Andreu ranked Hervé as “a real force in the mountains” in the 2000 Tour. Andreu was later impressed by Hervé’s ability to push a 41×23 on the tough final climb of stage 2 of the Vuelta a Burgos (Hervé was 2nd on the stage and finished the race in 3rd) when most everyone else used a 39×25: “If you saw how steep this climb was you would have a hard time believing this also.”

Jorg Jaksche alleged that there was organized doping on the Telekom team in these years, when Ullrich placed 2nd in 2000, (a charge which then manager Walter Godefroot denied) and Rolf Aldag was one rider who has admitted to EPO use during this time.

Ivan Gotti, Polti’s star in 1999 and 2000 and Virenque’s team leader, had a chequered past. As as been noted already, Conconi’s seized files in Italy showed Gotti’s haematocrit fluctuating between 35.2% in January 1997 to 50.7% in June 1998 (he won the Giro in 1997, riding for Saeco). He was scandal free at Polti, and won the Giro in 1999. But Gotti was investigated at the 2001 Giro (riding for Alessio) after doping products were found in a family campervan that was following the race. In 2003, Gotti agreed to an out-of-court settlement of a five-month suspended prison sentence to avoid facing a trial for charges of possessing banned doping products.

Speculation is easy, therefore, as to who might have been doping and who might have not in 1999 and 2000, but conclusions are next to impossible.

As an aside, Gianluigi Stanga was forced to defend himself this year from the accusations from Jorg Jaksche.

“I have read, with bitterness and incredulity, the serious affirmations of Jorg Jaksche,” Stanga said in a statement. “Those who know me – and I refer to those hundreds of riders who, in the course of my long career, have known me perfectly well, know that it is not my custom to interfere, for any reason, in medical issues. And it is not a matter of principle, but effectively a necessity, in as much as my training in medicine and drugs, is obviously null.”

Director of Milram at the time of the statement, the sponsors subsequently sought to wrestle the team from his control.

Jaksche’s explanation to Der Spiegel as to when he started doping, with Polti, was detailed: “Right before the Tour of Switzerland in June 1997. We were in a hotel at Lake Constance. Stanga said he wanted to start earnest treatments with me. He wanted to experiment to see what worked on me. What he meant was: We’re going to teach you how the pros do it. It was a crash course for me. A physio would give me EPO shots evenings in my room. And, Synachten was tested, it is a cortisone, it works quickly and you can take it for a day’s race or for important stages. You feel bad during the first part of a race, a bit bloated like you’d had too much water, but after about 80 km it suddenly clicks. The problem was that I developed blisters/hives on my upper body. After the Tour de Suisse I went to a local doctor in Nuernberg, the doctors there were mystified. I couldn’t tell them what I was on, after all. Finally I was treated in Italy with a round of anti biotics. As a joke, Stanga said ‘Gee, hopefully you’re not allergic to EPO!'”

We may never know enough to answer questions about the 1999 and 2000 Tours, despite a voluminous amount of anecdotal evidence. Still, we do have a detailed account of doping practices on Festina, from Willy Voet’s book ‘Massacre à la Chaîne’.

As we know, Voet had a long-standing and close relationship with Virenque throughout his early career. Before moving forward, onto Virenque’s career post-suspension and his spectacular return to racing, it seems worth stepping back in time and dwelling with some detail on Voet’s side of the story.

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By the end of 2000, there would be few smiles from Virenque

Follow this link to continue the story in Part 3…

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