We’ve looked at the version of the 1996 Tour de France as it was reported at the time (part 1 and part 2). We’ve looked at the sensible justifications offered by some for Miguel Induráin’s loss and Bjarne Riis’s victory (part 3). Now let’s take a peek at the alternative explanations.
“I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed people.
And for those for whom I was a hero, I’m sorry.
They’ll have to find new heroes now.”
~ Bjarne Riis, May 2007
What had really happened to Miguel Induráin in the 1996 Tour de France? All sorts of things, few of which will ever be told. But one important thing that is known is the change in personnel in his Banesto squad. The team’s doctor, Sabino Padilla, walked out at the end of 1995. Early in his career Induráin had worked with the Italian doctors Francesco Conconi and Luigi Cecchini. And it was to Italy that José Miguel Echávarri, Induráin’s directeur sportif, turned after Padilla left. Surprisingly, Echávarri was perfectly open about this:
I am seeking collaboration with [Ilario] Casoni, [Nicola] Alfieri and [Marcello] Lodi [three of Conconi’s protégés at the University of Ferrara] at least for a team get together which will be held in Palma di Majorca in February . There will hopefully be some tests in Milan followed by a week at Pamplona. At the present time the Italians lead the world in sports medicine and training techniques.
A void has been left by Sabino Padilla, the medic who has left Banesto after so many years to take a position with the football club Atletico Bilbao. Sabino, who was Induráin’s personal trainer, left without even mapping out the  season. So we have to find a new medic, either in Spain or in Italy, but probably from the University of Ferrara. As of now Casoni, Alfieri and Lodi are being considered as our consultants.”
Most all of the big name riders of the time had specialists like Sabino Padilla available to them. ONCE’s Laurent Jalabert and Alex Zülle used the in-house services of Nicolas Terrados and also had the Spanish gynaecologist Eufemiano Fuentes on speed-dial. Fuentes had once been ONCE’s in-house specialist, having earned his sporting spurs blood-boosting Spanish athletes to glory at the Los Angeles Olympics, where the Americans and the Italians were also among the nations tainting their gold medals with blood. After the LA Games, Fuentes had played a role in Pedro Delgado’s victory at the 1985 Vuelta a España, as a staff member on the Spaniard’s Orbea outfit. Fuentes was also a member of Delgado’s entourage during the 1987 Tour de France that the Spaniard lost to Stephen Roche. He missed out on Delgado’s 1988 Tour victory, having switched to Manolo Sáiz’s ONCE squad. After a couple of seasons in-house with ONCE, Fuentes moved on to Amaya and then Kelme, where he finally came unstuck after Jesús Manzano’s revelations in September 2003 which eventually led to Operación Puerto.
Mapei’s Toni Rominger was a client of Michele Ferrari’s, as were his teammate Abraham Olano, his Gewiss rival Evgeni Berzin, and Saeco’s Mario Cipollini. Ferrari had learned his trade alongside Aldo Sassi when they were part of Francesco Conconi’s team that blood-boosted Francesco Moser to the Hour record twice in the space of five days in 1984. In 1994 Ferrari had compared EPO to orange juice following the one-two-three at the Flèche Wallonne achieved by Gewiss riders Moreno Argentin, Giorgio Furlan, and Evgeni Berzin. That podium lockout alone merited raised eyebrows but it had come on the back of a season which had already seen Gewiss riders winning Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-Sanremo, and the Critérium International. Even though Aldo Sassi banned his Mapei riders from working with Ferrari in 1996 the Italian doctor continued to work with Rominger, having helped him set two new Hour records over a fifteen day period in 1994 (and, in the process, taking the record from Induráin – one of the few times Rominger actually managed to beat his Spanish rival).
The Festina boys, Richard Virenque and company, they had the in-house services of Willy Voet, an old school soigneur who changed with changing times. During his career Voet had worked with riders like Joaquim Agosthino, Hennie Kuiper, and Sean Kelly before helping Festina become one of the power-houses of 1990’s cycling. Voet finally came unstuck at a Franco-Belgian border crossing just days before the 1998 Tour de France rolled off from Dublin. The drugs found in his possession led to him becoming the scapegoat for all the excesses of Gen-EPO.
And Riis? He – and his Telekom team-mate, Ullrich – used the services of Luigi Cecchini, whose orbit Riis had come into after he joined Ariosta in 1992, where Cecchini worked alongside Michele Ferrari. After Ariosta folded at the end of 1993 Moreno Argentin had enticed Riis to join Gewiss, where Ferrari was installed as the in-house specialist until his injudicious comments about orange juice saw him (officially, anyway) become persona non grata. Riis, having had to choose between Ferrari and Cecchini at Ariosta, retained the services of Cecchini throughout the rest of his career. As well as working with Riis in 1996, Cecchini was also working with Pascal Richard (Switzerland/MG), Rolf Sørensen (Denmark/Rabobank), and Max Sciandri (UK/Motorola) – who pulled off a gold, silver and bronze triple in the road race at the Atlanta Olympics.
The Telekom team also had access to the facilities of the Department of Sports Medicine at the Freiburg University Hospital. Dr Andreas Schmid was their on-call specialist from their days as the Stuttgart squad (1989/90) until his suspension in May 2007. From 1995 onwards the team also had access to Dr Lothar Heinrich. In 1996 Schmid and Heinrich were also working for the German cycling federation, Schmid a member of their medical commission and both doctors responsible for German riders at the Worlds and the Olympics.
In 1992 Schmid had begun working with the Jef D’hont. Since the mid-seventies D’hont – like Voet, an old school soigneur – had been administering cyclists with his own home-brewed ‘special potion.’ But D’hont’s homebrew was became ever less effective as EPO took hold of the peloton. As early as the 1992 Tour de France the Telekoms realised they were getting nowhere without the use of EPO, which was being heavily used by Italian and Spanish teams in particular. Initially, individual riders sourced EPO themselves and their use of the drug was supervised by Schmid. Later in 1993 Schmid was able to source EPO for the team, with D’hont responsible for passing it on to the riders.
Once the use of EPO commenced, Schmid and Heinrich assumed a greater role within the team and, from the 1995 season onward – when Telekom’s systematic usage of doping products commenced – identified which riders were to peak for which races. In addition to EPO the Freiburg doctors were also administering glucocorticoids, growth hormone, and testosterone. Despite their improved doping regime the Telekom team was still not producing the wins and had to negotiate hard in order to secure a place in the 1995 Tour, eventually padding out the squad with a number of riders from the Italian ZG team. Drugs alone, it seemed, weren’t the answer.
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Echávarri’s openness on the subject of doctors and the importance of Sabino Padilla in the Banesto set-up seems surprising today, and even in 1996 it was somewhat unusual. In the early 1990’s journalists like David Walsh and Paul Kimmage had spoken positively of the new role being played in cycling by men like ONCE’s Nicolas Terrados (profiled in Walsh’s Inside The Tour de France), and expressed the hope that their arrival would see the end of cycling’s reliance on doping. But even though the UCI’s big boss, Hein Verbruggen, had leapt to Ferrari’s defence in 1994, slamming the media for miss-quoting the Italian, the outcry over Ferrari’s comments – which had been reported accurately – saw a veil fall over the role he and men like him were playing in the sport.
EPO, even before Ferrari’s 1994 comments, was no secret; people had been writing about it – and the unusually high number of cyclists dying in their sleep – since the early nineties. The IOC were funding research into a test for the drug (and actually supplying EPO for research purposes), a test which was being developed by Francesco Conconi at the University of Ferrara. As one year passed into the next and no EPO test appeared (despite repeated promises that he was on the verge of a breakthrough) Conconi wrote to Hein Verbruggen suggesting the implementation of a haematocrit test, with his proposed limit being 54%. That happened in June of 1996, a month before Riis galloped up the Hautacam on his Pinarello. Verbruggen, though, was opposed in principle to blood testing. It was – and continues to be – considerably more expensive than urine tests. And, in 1996, the UCI had other ideas on where money needed to be spent in cycling: they were dreaming of new headquarters in Aigle.
A month before Conconi wrote to Verbruggen, Italy’s Nucleo Antisofisticazione e Sanità (NAS), the branch of the Carabinieri dealing with health and hygiene matters, had planned on paying a visit to the Giro d’Italia, having become aware of unusually high sales of EPO in Tuscany in the weeks leading up to the race. The 1996 corsa rosa started in Greece – it was the centenary of the modern Olympics – with a prologue in Athens followed by two stages before the race returned to Italy. The plan was for everyone on the Giro to return to Italy by ferry, across the Aegean, landing at the port of Brindisi. NAS decided that this was where they would hit the race and search everyone. When checking the exact details, NAS enquired of CONI when the ferries were due to arrive in Brindisi. Somehow NAS’s plans leaked.
Everyone on the Giro was aware of the welcoming committee awaiting them in Brindisi, especially after La Gazzetta dello Sport (part of the RCS Group which organises the Giro and the race’s newspaper of record) published details of the proposed raid. For some unknown reason twelve unmarked team vehicles decided to return to Italy overland via Montenegro, Albania, and Croatia and then all the way down the Italian boot to Brindisi. They could have saved the petrol money – because of the leak the NAS officers decided to watch the Giro on telly instead and cancelled their raid.
Unknown at that time was that CONI were part of the problem when they should have been the solution to cleaning up Italian sport. Since February 1994 they had been sitting on a report by Sandro Donati, a survey into drug use in the Italian peloton. Donati’s report was based on interviews with a small number of riders, doctors and team bosses and in it the Italian didn’t mince his words:
The abuse has spiralled out of control. In some of the races, they are now climbing hills at speeds they used to reach on the flat! And why? Because the majority are pumped to the gills with shit like EPO, HGH and testosterone. For the good of sport, it is imperative we act immediately to stamp this out.”
For the good of sport, maybe, but not for the glory of Italians at the Olympics. CONI, conflicted by their dual role of bringing home the bangles and baubles every four years and stopping athletes from cheating, figured that the glory was more important than the catching of cheats. And so Donati’s report lay buried until French and Italian journalists forced CONI to acknowledge its existence toward the end of the 1997 season.
But there was more to just sitting on damaging reports going on in CONI. Months after the 1996 Giro ended, Ivano Fannini, direttore sportivo at the Vatican’s cycling team, Amore e Vita, claimed that an important CONI official had decamped to Greece shortly after the NAS phone call and personally informed a number of teams of the reception committee awaiting them in Brindisi. Like a lot of Fannini’s claims down the years, this has never been proven.
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Since the days of Fausto Coppi – and probably even before then – Italians had led the charge to turn cycling into a scientific sport. Coppi always gets the credit for dragging cycling out of the stone age and into the modern era. In the years after his reign it was to Italian teams that the best European pros tended to gravitate. Italian industrialists who’d grown up listening to the exploits of Coppi and Gino Bartali on the radio were splashing their money about in the sport of their youth and those industrialists expected value for money. Italian teams became the best prepared in the peloton.
Preparation doesn’t always mean doping. The simple fact is that the Italians took the sport more seriously than others. They trained properly. They targeted races and trained to peak for those targets. They used doctors who understood human physiology and didn’t rely on old wives’ tales passed from one generation of soigneurs to the next. Many of the doctors who worked with Italian teams would claim to have operated to high ethical standards. But the problem there is that one doctor’s version of high ethical standards varies from another’s. Left to individuals to decide, the limits of what is ethically acceptable will always be tested. And Italian doctors became world leaders when it came to testing the limits of what was ethically acceptable. So preparation often does mean doping.
By the time the nineties came around the Italians were rocking the sport of cycling. Go back to all those stats that bogged you down at the start of this series. The strength of the Italian peloton at the time is shown in the number of Italians who turned up at the 1996 Tour: sixty-two of their riders were in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for the race’s start, more than the combined number of French and Spanish riders. Go back and take a longer look at the results of the major races. In 1996 alone the only major races not won by Italian riders or Italian teams were the Flèche Wallonne (Motorola’s Lance Armstrong), the time trial at the Worlds (ONCE’s Alex Zülle), Paris-Nice (ONCE’s Laurent Jalabert), the GP du Midi Libre (Jalabert), the Dauphiné Libéré (Induráin), the Tour (Riis), and the Vuelta (Zülle). Armstrong was already working with Ferrari, Riis was with Cecchini, and Induráin was using the University of Ferrara. Meaning that only ONCE stopped Italians making it a clean sweep of the year. The Spanish may have been slow out of the blocks when it came to cycling but they were catching up fast. And they were playing by Italian rules.
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Other important issues were also at play in the lead up to the 1996 Tour. As if having the judicial authorities taking an interest in the use of EPO in the pro peloton wasn’t bad enough, Conconi had a rival in the search for an EPO test. In February 1996, Professor Guy Brisson, Director of the Montreal anti-doping laboratory, floated the idea of an EPO test to the UCI. Brisson proposed to the UCI that he should carry out research on the pro peloton during the Tour de Romandie in May. Key to Brisson’s research was proving that blood tests could easily be carried out on the peloton before competition. The UCI eventually gave Brisson the green light, but only if he worked with the Institut Universitaire de Medicine Légale, often erroneously referred to as the UCI’s Lausanne laboratory. But while the IUML was independent of the UCI, the doctors working there had a very close working relationship with the cycling authorities.
Unfortunately for Brisson the riders at the Tour de Romandie were unhappy with the idea of anyone looking at their blood and refused to cooperate with his tests. In the end it was agreed that samples would be collected purely for research purposes, and that anonymity would be guaranteed. Brisson was then able to carry out his research during the Tour de Suisse in June, where he proved that blood testing was feasible. And that the riders tested were showing surprisingly elevated haematocrit levels.
The UCI claimed that Brisson’s research came to naught, that it was ineffective at indentifying the use of EPO, which was good news for those worried by what the Canadian’s research might reveal. But, when the proverbial brown stuff hit the revolving air-conditioning unit during the Festina affaire, Brisson presented an alternative viewpoint: the longitudinal analysis he was working on was more than effective at identifying cheats. The UCI, fearing the fallout from riders with deep pockets who could drag them through the courts and bankrupt them, hadn’t wanted to know.
The attitude of the cycling authorities at the time is probably best exemplified by the fates of different riders who popped positives in the run up to the Tour. Consider these cases: MG’s Fabio Fontanelli, positive for testosterone at the Amstel Gold Race; Agrigel’s Jacky Durand and Thierry Laurent, positive for nandrolone at the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque and, in Durand’s case, the Côte Picardie; GAN’s Philippe Gaumont and Laurent Desbiens, positive for nandrolone at the Dunkerque and Picardie races as well as the Tour de l’Oise (and, in Desbiens’ case, the Vendée International Classic). Fontanelli’s positive didn’t become public until August. Durand and Laurent completed the Tour even after French media got wind of their positives before the Tour commenced. Roger Legeay, on the other hand, didn’t just drop Gaumont and Desbiens – he made sure the French media knew they had been dropped, and why. The cycling authorities had simply adopted the practice of not releasing any details of positives. No news is, after all, good news. And the 1996 Tour was full of good news for the cycling authorities: not a single rider returned a positive.
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Having confessed in 2007 to using EPO and other drugs during his cycling career, it’s no secret anymore that Riis was charged up on the blood booster during the 1996 Tour de France, as were many of his rivals. How high Riis was charged up when he galloped up the Hautacam on his pretty little Pinarello is where, after the Festina affaire broke and Willy Voet spat in the soup, Riis got one of his nicknames: Mr 60%. In Breaking the Chain (Yellow Jersey Press), Voet had this to say of the 1996 Tour:
Remember Bjarne Riis’s stunning win on the Hautacam climb in the 1996 Tour de France. The Dane, who was to win the race, literally played with his rivals before obliterating them. And the haematocrit levels of his rivals, certainly at Festina, had been blithely boosted to about 54%. His exploit was as perturbing for those in the know as it was spectacular to the uninitiated.”
According to Jef D’hont – whom Riis refused to work with – the Dane was dosing up on 4,000-unit double-doses of EPO every other day during the 1996 Tour, pushing his haematocrit level to at least 60%, sometimes 64%. Such levels were contrary to the rules employed by Schmid and Lothar for the use of EPO within the Telekom squad, wherein they favoured a limit around 53%.
Others were similarly blithely boosting their haematocrit levels to the mid fifties. In one of their investigations into doping, reporters at L’Équipe managed to get hold of Evgeni Berzin’s blood values during the 1995 season. In January the Gewiss star had shown a haematocrit level of 41.7%. By July it had risen to 56.3%. In Gen-EPO the fastest and the fittest were more and more often those willing to push their haematocrit limits highest.
How many of Riis’s rivals on the Hautacam were doped is open to dispute. Go back to the table of the top twenty finishers in the ’96 Tour and consider what happened to them in the years after 1996. All three riders on the podium – Riis, Ullrich and Virenque – have confessed, to varying degrees, that they doped. Go through the rest of the list and the riders who haven’t since confessed or been caught all carry question marks against their names by virtue of the teams they rode for. And this is where the true crimes of Gen-EPO really become clear.
You would dearly love, for instance, to believe that Peter Luttenberger’s ride throughout that Tour – throughout the 1996 season – was talent shining through. But the twenty-three-year-old climber was on the Carrera squad that was home to the young Marco Pantani. And when the NAS raided the University of Ferrara in 1998, the files they seized showed that the EPO the IOC had bought for Professor Conconi’s research purposes was actually being administered to the Carrera team, among others. Luttenberger’s name doesn’t appear in the Ferrara files. But the damage is done to him nonetheless. The Austrian domestique rode for a dirty team in a dirty peloton and, rightly or wrongly, the mud sticks to him because of that.
When the 1996 season ended Luttenberger was surplus to requirements as the Carrera team rebuilt themselves as Mercatone Uno and around the new Italian climbing sensation Marco Pantani. The Austrian moved to Rabobank where, at the 1997 Tour, he again finished second in the best young rider category, once again to Ullrich. After two years with the Dutch squad Luttenberger moved to ONCE for two seasons, then Tacconi Sport for two seasons, before finally finding some form of stability: Bjarne Riis’s nascent CSC squad signed him. The Austrian, who was more than three minutes slower than Riis climbing the Hautacam that day in 1996, spent the last four years of his career with the Dane’s squad. Unlike Riis, Luttenberger never got the chance to be more than a domestique. Only a few paupers get to become princes. Though Luttenberger did get to end his career wearing the Austrian national champion’s jersey for the time trial. Maybe he did it all clean. Maybe he didn’t. Were he to tell you it was the former, would you believe him?
How could you? When asked if they had done it clean, men like Riis, Ullrich, Virenque and so many others lied in order to protect their own reputations. Through months and years of investigations and allegations they lied. These men didn’t just steal victory and glory through their doping, they robbed the reputations of others with their denials. Through their lies they rendered meaningless the claims of the few clean riders that their modest achievements were down to natural talent alone. Since their belated confessions, Riis and a few others may have been able to recast themselves as saviours of cycling. But until they find a way to restore the reputations of the few clean riders in Gen-EPO’s peloton they should not be allowed to consider themselves redeemed. They should not be allowed consider themselves to be heroes.
Tuesday, July 16, 1996. The sixteenth stage of the Tour de France. The salle de presse. The massed ranks of cycling’s media watch the scene unfolding before their eyes on the Hautacam. And they laugh. What they are seeing, they know, is impossible. What they are seeing, they know, is not right. What they are seeing, they know, is the result of that decade’s not-so-secret super weapon, EPO. These men know what has been going on in cycling over the last few years. They know about men like Ferrari and Cecchini. They know what had happened at the Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse. They know what had nearly happened at the Giro d’Italia. Watching a donkey like Riis gallop up the Hautacam on his Pinarello, well who wouldn’t laugh knowing what the massed ranks of cycling’s media know?
Then the media stop laughing and get back to duty, forgetting all that they know and hiding from their audience their own beliefs. This isn’t a day to spit in the soup they all drink from. This is a day to celebrate the rise of Riis, a new géant de la route, and the fall of Induráin, the deposed King. Yes, some of them will try to tell the truth, will drench their reports in euphemisms which the alert fan might notice and be able to interpret correctly. And a few of them will heed the wake-up calls and start piecing together stories which will appear over the winter and force the UCI’s hand on the issue of testing rider’s haematocrit levels, a Pyrrhic victory for the men of the press. But for most of them this is just another day in the office, and so they serve up more tales of heroism and athleticism.
The journalists themselves are, of course, only following orders. They all have editors and those editors are only too happy to tell the approved story. The story the teams and riders want them to tell, the story the race organisers and cycling authorities want to be told, the story the fans want to hear. The tale of a new era (Ullrich), a new champion (Riis), a page turned in the history of cycle sport (Induráin). The tale of an epic duel. The tale of one of the greatest Tours ever.
If only it had been true.
Fifth man home that day on the Hautacam in 1996 – fifty-six seconds down on Riis – was a man who would win there a dozen years later. Leonardo Piepoli, then with the Refin squad of the Tashkent Terror, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov.
In the 2008 Tour Piepoli and his Saunier Duval teammate José Cobo went off the front of the race on the climb of Hautacam, with Bjarne Riis’s Saxo Bank star Fränk Schleck tagging along for the ride. Piepoli crossed the line ahead of Cobo, with Schleck a couple of dozen seconds down the road. Piepoli savoured the taste of victory on this miraculous mountain.
Then, two days later, the news came through: Piepoli’s teammate Riccardo Riccò was positive for CERA, the new flavour of EPO all the cool kids bought. With the UCI and ASO at war over the Pro Tour, responsibility for dope testing at the 2008 race had been handed over to the AFLD and they proved to be more than capable of doing something the UCI seemed singularly unwilling to do: bust the cheats, no matter how big or small they were.
Riccò’s directeur sportif, Mauro Gianetti, immediately pulled the whole of the Saunier Duval team from the Tour. Christian Prudhomme, the Tour’s chief architect, made it clear that – as far as ASO were concerned – Riccò’s positive was not a case of one bad apple spoiling the lot. The tree it came from was rotten to the roots:
I was pretty disturbed when I saw the superiority of two riders from the same team on the stage to Hautacam, as the rest of you were, I’m sure. I have my opinion on the manager – a person who does not have good virtue – and that opinion will not change in two months, five months, six months, two years, three years … for the sponsor this is terrible news.”
Before the summer was out Saunier Duval pulled their sponsorship. Through the summer, as CONI investigated the Riccò case, Piepoli proclaimed his purity: what he did on the Hautacam he did clean. Then, as the leaves fell from the trees and the cycling year wound down, the results of re-tests of samples from the Tour came through: Piepoli was a double positive, from both the pre-Tour test and a test conducted on the rest day after his win on the Hautacam. Three months later Piepoli received a late Christmas present from CONI: a two-year ban.
One day the Tour will return to that hill above the Roman Catholic shrine in Lourdes, where miracles happen. That hill where Miguel Induráin had effortlessly chased down Marco Pantani in 1994, where Riis reigned supreme in 1996, where Lance Armstrong closed on Javier Otxoa in 2000 and where Piepoli had run rampant in 2008. One day, riders in the Tour de France will once again race up the Hautacam. When they do, let’s hope there are no more miracles on the Hautacam. Let’s hope for a hero fans can believe in.
Next: Riis – Stages of Light and Dark (Vision Sports Publishing) reviewed.