Doping and climbing: an introduction

The implications of doping in the pro peloton for climbing and climbers have been profound and le grimpeur will be covering this theme in a series of posts. But for now, a brief history of doping as an introduction.

The recent past as prologue

Operacion Puerto in Spain last year was another chapter to the long-running and increasingly depressing saga of doping in the pro peloton. Although no single rider has been officially sanctioned as an outcome, suspicions remain and have only reinforced perceptions that doping has been widespread since the early 1990s.

Of particular implication has been the use of the blood booster EPO and the practice of blood doping, both used to maintain or to boost the red blood cell capacity of blood and enhance a rider’s ability to maintain higher tempos for longer.

Sources suggest that the use of EPO started around 1993, perhaps peaking in the mid-1990s before the UCI introduced the 50% haematocrit cut-off measure in 1997, in advance of an actual test for EPO not being developed until 2001. EPO use became more difficult to hide, although not impossible, given that it can only be detected for a few days after use but its effects can last for weeks. Haematocrit levels for riders had to be closely monitored and suspicions continued that riders were using EPO to boost their haematocrit levels up to just below 50%.

Still, users were caught – Roberto Heras in the Vuelta in 2005 and Raimondo Rumsas in the Giro in 2003 being two examples – while others, such as David Millar escaped detection but later admitted to using EPO.

At the centre of Operacion Puerto was blood doping, an athlete storing healthy blood for later transfusion, and nearly 100 bags of stored blood were found in the raid on the clinic of Eufemiano Fuentes. Blood doping was perhaps mostly famously used by Francesco Moser to break Eddy Merckx’s hour record, twice, in 1984.

Prior to the raid, Tyler Hamilton was a high-profile blood doping case when he was suspended in 2004 with tests having apparently shown a mixed blood population. An appeal by Hamilton questioning the test methodology was rejected and he was banned from racing for 2 years. Fellow Phonak team member Santiago Perez was also suspended at the same time for blood doping, which may not have surprised some observers who had questioned his climbing performance in that year’s Vuelta, where he placed second.

Following the bread crumbs

What is interesting about the history of EPO and blood doping is the recurrence of certain individuals and teams associated with these practices.

For example, in the Festina Affair in 1998, rider Alex Zulle admitted to using EPO and claimed that its use was widespread, including in his previous team, ONCE, managed by Manolo Saiz. ONCE withdrew from the Tour in 1998 in protest at police tactics, but a team doctor, Nicolas Terrados, was charged with illegally importing doping products (although no team members were implicated).

Saiz was arrested as part of Operacion Puerto and his team, Liberty Seguros-Würth, for which Roberto Heras rode for in 2005, was denied a place in the 2006 Tour de France.

It was not the first time that the Tour organization had banned a whole team. The Kelme squad was banned in 2004 following accusations by team rider Jesus Manzano of systematic doping. The doctor for the team was, of course, Eufemiano Fuentes. Suspended Phonak rider Santiago Perez rode for Kelme in 2002 and was named in the Puerto investigation. Two more former Phonak riders, José Enrique Gutierrez (2nd place in the Giro in 2006) and Santiago Botero were also implicated – both having ridden for Kelme.

Botero was allegedly filmed entering Fuentes’ clinic, but was cleared by the Colombian cycling federation to resume racing. Interestingly, he was suspended early in his career for high testosterone levels.

Another former Kelme alumni, Oscar Sevilla, riding for T-Mobile last year, was also implicated but, in the absence of a suspension, is still racing. Roberto Heras also rode for Kelme from 1995-2000 before joining US Postal from 2001-2003 to support Lance Armstrong. Javier Pascual Llorente was the only rider to fail a drug test in the 2003 Tour, blaming French detection methods for his positive test for EPO. In a further historical twist, Kelme also withdrew from the 1998 Tour following the police crack-down.

Zulle Giro
Alex Zulle at the Giro in 1998 for Festina, 3 stage wins and 11 days in the Maglia Rosa

Twists and turns

Operacion Puerto did not just appear out-of-the-blue. Recall, of course, the lengthy legal process in Italy from 2000 to 2004 with the trials of Professor Francesco Conconi and his former assistant Dr. Michele Ferrari. Files seized in the process revealed a list of 22 cyclists that had their blood data recorded during Conconi’s research, including many high-profile Italian riders from the 1990s such as Ivan Gotti, Claudio Chiappucci, Gianni Bugno (to name only three from the list) as well as other international riders such as Pavel Tonkov. (Bugno was caught up in another scandal in 1999 when a Mapei soigneur Tiziano Morassut, who was later charged, sent amphetamines to team member Bugno in Italy).

The judge in the case concluded that systematic EPO doping had taken place, which threw the varying haematocrit levels of riders such as Bjarne Riis and Marco Pantani during that time right into the public spotlight. For other riders, reports at the time said that Conconi’s files showed that Tonkov’s haematocrit fluctuated from 40.9% to 51.5% in June 1996 (when he won the Giro); Gotti’s between 35.2% in January 1997 to 50.7% in June 1998 (he won the Giro in 1997); Chiappucci was at 35% in January 1994 and 60% in June of that year, when he placed 5th in the Giro.

Later, Ivan Gotti (who also won the Giro in 1999 after race leader Marco Pantani failed a haematocrit test and was ejected) was investigated in the 2001 Giro after doping products were found in a family campervan that was following the race. It was also the year that Dario Frigo was ejected from the race when in second place behind Gilberto Simoni – who withdrew from the 2002 edition after a postive cocaine test – and after having worn the maglia rosa for eight days, when a massive police raid, the San Remo Blitz, netted literally ‘buckets’ of doping products but yielded few actual charges against riders, Frigo excepted. 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. Frigo was arrested in 2005 whilst competing in the Tour de France after EPO was found in his wife’s car. His 2001 Giro case was resolved in 2005 and he, along with Alberto Elli and Giuseppe Di Grande, received suspended sentences.

Gotti Giro
Ivan Gotti in great form, winning the Giro in 1999

None of riders in the Conconi files tested positive for doping during that time, not that the test for EPO had been developed. It was the fluctuations in the riders’ haematocrit levels, generally expected to be no more than 10% under natural conditions, that led the judge to conclude that doping had taken place. Broader conclusions remain difficult, however, with reports suggesting that Stephen Roche, for example, might have been inadvertently caught up in the scandal when the results of his blood tests were passed on to Conconi in 1993.

Riis’ high haematocrit levels were cited in Conconi’s files for 1994 and 1995. By 1996, Riis was being coached by Dr. Luigi Cecchini, a disciple of Conconi. Cecchini was cleared in 2001 of any involvement in Conconi’s doping ring and went on to have a coaching role with many well-known riders including Tyler Hamilton and Jan Ullrich (with Ullrich later implicated as allegedly at the centre of Fuentes’ doping ring).

Riis brought Cecchini into Team CSC, in a consultative role, but that role was apparently terminated in early 2006. Riis reportedly said that some of his riders maintained a private relationship with Cecchini in a coaching capacity but told Velo News in 2004 that: “None of my riders are allowed to work with a doctor outside of my team.” Riis went on to say that: “He’s a trainer that works with our team, that’s the only thing that he does. He has nothing to do with medicine. He only works with training programs and nothing else.”

Ivan Basso was one of the CSC riders that had a relationship with Cecchini, although Basso was at pains to explain that it was terminated in the middle of 2005. It may not be the end of the story, however, as Italian authorities are reportedly investigating a ‘patient exchange’ relationship between Cecchini and Fuentes. Reports have also said that Basso visited Conconi prior to last year’s Giro for power testing. Basso, of course, did not rejoin CSC (and moved to Discovery) and the content of the conversation between Riis and Basso on the Operacion Puerto allegations must surely be one of the most tantalising mysteries of the whole affair.

Former CSC rider Jorg Jaksche was also implicated in Operacion Puerto last year, then riding for Liberty Seguros-Würth, and was another cyclist apparently filmed entering Fuentes’ clinic. Jaksche has gone so far as to write to the UCI to offer to be DNA tested to clear up any questions over his involvement.

Team mate Joseba Beloki was also initally named in the investigation. Beloki rode for ONCE from 2000-2003, with three Tour podium finishes and testing Lance Armstrong in the mountains. Following his terrifying crash on the Tour stage into Gap in 2003, he struggled to return to form. He was to ride for Brioches La Boulangère in 2004, but reportedly left the team after they denied that he had asthma and refused his medication, which was a product banned in France (a high proportion of pro riders are asthmatic, which has prompted questions from some but which is often attributed to the strain of competitive cycling). He found his way (back) to Liberty Seguros-Würth in 2005. In July 2006, however, Beloki (along with Isidro Nozal, Sergio Paulinho, Allan Davis and Alberto Contador from the team) were cleared by Spanish authorities of any involvement in the ongoing Puerto investigation.

Confessions and coming clean

Confessions about past indiscretions are more concrete, though, such as the three riders from The Netherlands who unburdened themselves in 2000. Dutch star climber Peter Winnen (two-time stage winner on Alpe d’Huez, 4th in the 1982 Tour de France, and 3rd in 1983 – apparently without doping) told reporters in 2000 about his Tour de France in 1986: “I was very bad and had the choice – go back to home or to provide me with testosterone.” He also said he used testosterone, amphetamines and corticosteroids during other phases of his career.

Gert-Jan Theunisse, who won the KOM prize in 1989 including the Alpe d’Huez stage, also confessed at the same time to using “a great deal” of corticosteroids as well, although denied using testosterone, which he was penalized for after an abnormally high count in 1988 and in two other tests. Theunisse succeeded Steven Rooks as KOM winner. Rooks won the title in 1988, also taking the Alpe d’Huez stage. Seemingly determined to clear the (mountain) air in one fell swoop, Rooks revealed that he used testosterone and amphetamines throughout his career.

Interestingly, Rooks was working for TVM in 1998, the year when the team was hounded out of the Tour de France (following Festina’s expulsion) after authorities finally linked together all the pieces of the puzzle that started – much like the Festina Affair – with the interception of a team car loaded with doping products (reportedly 104 EPO ampules) earlier in the year. After a search of a team truck during the Tour (described as “a truck of pharmaceuticals, and some bikes”), charges were later brought against team members and the team’s manager, doctor, and a soigneur received fines and suspended sentences.

After being implicated in a police investigation in France into the Cofidis team in 2004, David Millar confessed to using EPO on three occasions, once in 2001 and twice in 2003, as well as testosterone during training. Empty syringes had been discovered in his apartment following a police search. The investigation had started in January when police intercepted team member Marek Rutkiewicz carrying illegal drugs. A fellow rider, Philippe Gaumont (who had previously been suspended for drug use), made accusations against Millar and other Cofidis riders. Millar first denied any involvement in doping, then later confessed after the syringes were found. Reports said he claimed that team mate Massililiano Lelli and Euskaltel team doctor Jesus Losa supplied him with the EPO. When the French court finally agreed on a verdict, Millar and Lelli were both acquitted, but former team physiotherapist Bogdan Medejak received a one-year jail sentence and others charged in the case received suspended sentences.

Then there were the confessions last year from Frankie Andreu, and an unnamed team mate, that they took EPO in 1999 while riding for US Postal. “I took EPO to help myself, not to help anyone else,” Andreu said in a statement. “When I took EPO, the peloton was flying. I was surviving.” Andreu’s wife Betsy blamed Lance Armstrong for pressure placed on his riders and told the NY Times: “He didn’t use EPO for himself, because as a domestique, he was never going to win that race; it was for Lance.”

In the SCA Promotions court case, former Motorola rider Steven Swart testified that Armstrong told the team in 1995 that there was only one route to take to stay competitive. He said that EPO, cortisone, and testosterone were commonly used in the pro peloton, and that cortisone was regarded as “sucking on a candy stick”. He told reporters last year that in the mid-1990s: “Everyone was walking around with their own thermos, and you could hear the sound, tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, coming from the thermoses because they were filled with ice and vials of EPO. You needed to keep the EPO cold, and every night at the hotel, the guys would be running around trying to find some ice to fill up their thermos.”

Armstrong never tested positive for doping in his illustrious Tour career, except for a minor incident in 1999 apparently involving trace amounts of cortisone from a saddle-sore cream. Allegations have continued, though. In 2005, L’Equipe matched UCI sample numbers against six postive results for EPO in a research project involving urine samples from 1999 and accused Armstrong of doping during that year (“Le mensonge Armstrong”, ran the headline). Armstrong responded, and said: “I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance enhancing drugs.”

The UCI appointed Dutch doping expert Emile Vrijman to investigate and he found that the research procedures did not allow a positive result to be concluded from the process. He stated that his report, “exonerates Lance Armstrong completely with respect to alleged use of doping in the 1999 Tour de France”. But suspicions have continued, deepened for many by the conspiratorial ‘instant message’ exchange that also came up during the SCA promotions court case.

The Armstrong Lie


After such a long introduction, the truth is that little has been proved from all these revelations, particularly Operacion Puerto, which remains frustratingly unresolved. That the same names keep cropping up, associated with riders who have won many major races over the last decade, offers nothing in the way of proof of doping. If organized doping on a massive scale was to be exposed as the fallout from Operacion Puerto, however, many observers would not necessarily be surprised by the individuals who were involved.

Also unresolved is Floyd Landis’ case, which has received little mention here. Latest reports suggest that his US hearing will not be held until May. Landis has, however, already taken his case public with a lengthy explanation to dismiss the tests that detected synthetic testosterone in his system following his (perhaps too) remarkable ride on stage 17 last year that secured him his Tour de France win. His positive test was the nail in the coffin for his Phonak team, plagued by drug scandal (see above).

Ultimately, the professional peloton has been plagued by drug scandals over the last decade, and perhaps even for many years previous – witness Coppi’s and Anquetil’s stances on amphetamines. As then Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc told a reporter in 1999: “In my day as a rider we had dope, sure; but it was nothing like today. Nothing like EPO. For the riders EPO is like kerosene.”

So perhaps the 90s and 2000s have been different. We still have much to learn about the effects of EPO and blood doping on rider competitiveness, and the extent to which is was – and is still – taking place. And in light of all the scandals, winning races and riding well seems to automatically attract doping suspicions – whether justified or not.

Conclusions remain difficult, but what I’ve sought to do is to set the scene (based entirely on existing media reports, there’s nothing new here), to introduce the recent history of doping as the context for further discussions in subsequent posts on its impact on climbing.

This post was modified on May 6 from the original.

3 thoughts on “Doping and climbing: an introduction

  1. AP Report – May 25, 2007
    Danish cyclist Bjarne Riis admitted Friday that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his 1996 Tour de France victory.
    “I have taken doping. I have taken EPO,” Riis said at a televised news conference. “I have made errors and I would like to apologize.”
    Riis said he used the substances from 1993 to 1998, including during his Tour victory.
    Riis said he no longer considered himself a worthy winner of the Tour, and indicated he would be willing to give back the title.
    “My jersey is at home in a cardboard box,” he said. “They are welcome to come and get it. I have my memories for myself.”
    His confession came a day after Eric Zabel and Rolf Aldag, two Germans who were support riders for Riis on the Telekom team, admitted using performance-enhancing drugs while riding for the team in the 1990s. They said they took EPO – or erythropoietin – a synthetic hormone that stimulates the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
    “Now time has come to put the cards on the table,” Riis said as he calmly read a statement before a packed news conference. “I have done things which I have regretted.”

  2. Pingback: Thought Patterns

Comments are closed.