Coeur de grimpeur – part 3 – ‘Allez Richard’

So far, le grimpeur has looked at the early career of Richard Virenque, and his two seasons with Polti before the Festina trial in Lille – with Virenque’s doping confession and suspension.

On hand at the trial was cycling’s perhaps most famous soigneur, Willy Voet, who had personally attended to Virenque throughout his career.

An easy going Belgian living in France, Voet had dedicated himself to his craft and was close to his riders. His habit of using the informal ‘tu’ conjugations when speaking French, no matter the occasion, raised the ire of Virenque’s lawyer, who dressed him down for such impertinence.

Voet shot to fame of the worst kind when he was arrested on the Belgian-French border in a Festina team car with a load full of doping products in 1998, on his way to meet the team in the opening days of the Tour de France.

His arrest tore the scab of doping off cycling and set in train a fundamental re-evaluation of sports doping in France, which can be seen today with its tough, criminal laws against doping.

But it was Voet’s book Massacre à la Chaîne, translated as Breaking the Chain, that purported to lift the veil of secrecy around doping in cycling and the role of soigneurs in aiding and abetting it.

The original French version, published in France, was more incendiary that its English counterpart. Voet named names aplenty, including accusations levied at Sean Kelly, who Voet had worked for. The story involved a switched urine sample, which Kelly denied had ever happened.

Although potential libel cases required careful editing of the English version, it still contained revelations – at least according to Voet – about the extent of the doping on Festina. He named names, drugs, races, and schedules.

Much of Voet’s story was collaborated at the Lille trial by Richard Virenque’s confession. Voet had called Virenque’s denials ‘scandalous’, but with the relief of telling the truth lifted there was a reconciliation after the trial, with a sobbing Virenque reportedly collapsing into Voet’s arms.

A difficult story, then, for Voet to tell but one worth dwelling on in some detail.

Voet described their close relationship, which started when Virenque joined the RMO team where Voet was a soigneur.

“The ties between us were stronger than between friends,” he wrote, “more like between father and son.”

Voet recounted the young Virenque’s swagger, but also his enthusiasm to learn the tools of the trade of cycling and gain experience from the older riders.

Voet recounts Marc Madiot giving Virenque a warning in 1991 at an early-season training camp. “You, my lad, will end up a chaudière,” a rider who cannot stay off drugs, Madiot apparently said.

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For some, Virenque wore his heart on his sleeve; for others, it was all for the cameras and his adoring fans.

Voet said that Virenque’s first drug use was at the Critérium International two-day three-stage race in 1993. In fourth place on the Saturday, Virenque apparently wanted something to get him through the two stages on Sunday. Voet was cautious, not knowing how Virenque would react to new drugs. He tried a fast-acting cortisone, Synacten Immediate.

There was no concern about a possible doping control, as Synacten could not be detected in urine samples.

But Virenque reacted badly to the drug, and finished outside the time limit. According to Voet, the drug was then dropped from the medicine chest.

Festina was essentially the merging of the French RMO team and the Dutch PDM team. RMO contributed Bruno Roussel, and PDM brought Erik Rijckaert.

In September 1993, Pascal Hervé, a former amateur champion, joined the team, and, according to Voet, knew what he wanted straight away: “Listen, I’m 29-years old and I’ve four or five years to earn some money with the professionals,” he apparently said. “I’ve said this to the doctor and I’ll say it to you: don’t worry about the odd injection. I know how it all works, I understand the system. There’s no need to ask any questions with me.”

Laurent Dufaux, when he joined the team, was – according to Voet – not surprised by the doping, nor were several other riders.

“They could not teach us anything that we didn’t know already,” Voet said. “All that varied was the system of funding [paying for the drugs].”

“What’s more,” he said, “the soigneurs of the different teams often ended up helping each other out when we were short.”

On Festina, growth hormone and EPO were the primary drugs of choice, although cortisone continued to be used – the drug that was the downfall of Alex Zulle in the 1998 Giro when he used too much. Rijckaert apparently made many of the riders that came onto the team reduce their cortisone usage, concerned about the wasting impact it had on muscles and the riders’ bodies (we have also seen how he tried to keep haematocrit levels under control).

In 1997, Clenbuterol, the anabolic steroid, was added to build muscle mass. Voet explains that it was expensive, and not much was known about it. He tested it on himself to see how long it would take to pass through his system to be undetectable. With the tests done at the lab in Ghent, Voet reported that it took eight days. Virenque, Hervé, Brochard and Magnien were started on it in 1997.

Voet said that the effect lasted for months: “I had the impression that my lungs were swelling, that I had a new battery somewhere in the system,” he said. “I felt confident, full of energy, strong as a bull.”

In 1996, Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) was trialled, brought in to the team, according to Voet, by the Spanish doctor Fernando Jimenez. It was used on a number of riders, but the only one that found its effects useful was Hervé. The team subsequently discontinued its use.

But even the drugs that worked were not always enough. Laurent Dufaux, according to Voet, used a Swiss doctor for special preparations starting in 1996. With all the talk of Michele Ferrari, and what he could do, Virenque apparently paid him a visit in early 1996.

Voet said that Virenque came back concerned about the cost of Ferrari’s assistance, but also “teaming up with Ferrari was like putting a saucepan up your backside: it was immediately obvious what you were doing.”

Virenque did not want it to be obvious and, in Voet’s words, wanted to “keep his family out of what he had to do”.

In the 1997 Tour, on the stage to Montbeliard, Virenque failed to follow the attack of Didier Rous and Hervé, which would have put a tired Jan Ullrich, in yellow, in difficulty – much to the consternation of commentators David Duffield and Stephen Roche at the time.

In the time trial at St. Etienne, Virenque apparently wanted something special, a mystery drug, Voet said, recommended by a client of Ferrari’s and a Spanish soigneur.

Voet relented, and Virenque placed second in the time trial, despite being caught by Ullrich.

“That stuff’s amazing,” Virenque apparently said. “We must get hold of it.”

But unknown to Virenque, Voet had refused to give him the mysterious drug, concerned about its effects. Voet had just given him a glucose injection.

“There is no substitute for self-belief,” Voet said. “The bottom line was that there was no more effective drug for Richard than the public. A few injections of ‘Allez Richard’ going around his veins, a big hit of adoration to raise his pain threshold, a course of worship to make him feel invincible.

“That was the sort of gear Richard needed, and that’s how it is even today.”

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‘Allez Richard’ and some mad love was his “big hit”.

Voet’s story is at once shocking, for – if it is all accurate – it reveals widespread, systematic doping on Festina (Voet does say that there were two camps on the team, though, those that were in the programme and those that were outside it) and suggests that their schedules were similar to those of other teams.

But, according to Voet, given his timeline, Festina was responding to the initiative of the Spanish and Italian teams who were already charging up – which is how Rolf Aldag described the beginnings of Telekom’s programme. The drugs were available, mostly undetectable or the tests easily circumvented, and highly effective. It is easy to see how doping spiralled out of control.

But at the same time, his story is less shocking given how much we have learned about doping in the 1990s from various confessions and revelations.

Still, for Virenque, his two years of denials, his claims of à son insu, his book, was all swept aside and he was a confessed doping cheat.

But, by current standards, his suspension was a light one – effectively a year away from competition, one Tour de France missed, a slap on the wrist from a country that was clamping down seriously on doping in sports.

We might consider it a lucky escape.

Part 4, Virenque’s rides of redemption, coming soon…

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