All images: ©Cor Vos
It was 23 May 2006. The inner circle of our team was training in Cantabria close to the hometown of Manolo Saiz. We were expecting to leave the next morning to check the new climbs of the Tour. We just finished a 90 kilometre ride spinning the legs after the flight and were heading back to the hotel. The hotel was a Spanish mineral spa retreat. Manolo wanted a remote hotel with senior guests. This time it had nothing to do with hiding from the WADA, it was due to the fact that he thought, the less distractions, the better the performance. At this place distractions were not part of the vocabulary.
I got to my room and saw a missed call from Alejandro, our bus driver. I called him back. He was very nervous and told me, “Can’t really talk, check the news in 10 minutes, the boss was arrested!” My answer was, “For what? Speeding? Tax?” Alejandro replied, “No, it is a bloody story!” I went straight to the shower. I didn’t know if this was a joke. I couldn’t believe what I heard as I thought that there is no legal basis in Spain to ever arrest a person for doping activities. I was so sure about this fact as I once had a conversation with Eufemiano Fuentes about his work ethics. I asked him if his treatments were legal. He replied: “It is legally ok, I am a doctor and if my clients accept my treatment and sometimes demand this treatment, no one in Spain can say anything. It is doping of course but that’s another story.” He was quite wrong.
The news spread. I became increasingly nervous. My blood was in Fuentes’ fridge. Spain was the paradise of professional cyclists for the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Now Spain was my personal minefield and I felt unsafe. I went to lunch and everyone in the team was stressed.
I couldn’t tell if it was because other riders felt like me, knowing that they had three litres of DNA in Calle Zurbana 61 in Madrid or just because they were frightened to lose their job with the whole team collapsing on the back of the scandal. After lunch, I spoke to the team’s sports director and told him that I will not stay a second longer in Spain. Suddenly, this country had become an unpredictable danger for me.
I left Santander the next morning on the first plane, had a stopover in Paris and finally arrived in Munich. As a cyclist using PEDs it was part of the job to always live with the danger of being caught, to have a positive test and be exposed to the media, friends and the peloton. This was a reality that you knew might come and it would either lead to a suspension and resumption of your career or end it prematurely. However, the reality that I could be arrested was out of my contemplation. On the plane, I became quite paranoid and started having thoughts that the police could be waiting for me in Paris or Munich and that I would be arrested the moment we arrived at the terminal. Fortunately, I was spared this fate but my time would come.
After the plane landed in Munich, I switched on my phone. The mailbox for my phone was full. There were a lot of messages from journalists requesting interviews and asking if I have something to fear and admit to them and the public. At this moment, I understood that this story was much too big to be forgotten in a week’s time. I started to inform myself about the legal situation concerning PEDs in Spain and in Germany. My main concern was whether I had committed or been involved in the commitment of a crime where I could be subject to a penal sanction. Did I do something illegal? Are they allowed to take my DNA? Is there a chance that I could get arrested? From a sporting point of view, I knew that taking PEDs was an offence and that discovery of this fact would mean that I would be subject to a sporting sanction. I was not concerned about receiving a sporting sanction, I just did not want to be locked up. This possibility had never crossed my mind because, after all, we were just sportsman. PEDs were a part of the sport at the time and we pushed the limits not contemplating for one second that we were involved in any illegal operations.
In the days following my arrival in Munich, i got a call from Manolo Saiz’s lawyer. He said that Manolo had been released from detention. I had a chat with him about Manolo’s and my personal position regarding doping in Spain. He confirmed that he was very surprised that Manolo had been arrested for the charge of committing a crime against the public health. He felt that there was no legal basis for an arrest based on this charge.
Over the next days, it became clear why Manolo and Fuentes were arrested. A former rider, Jesus Manzano, of the professional cycling team Kelme was seeking revenge. Manzano was angry about being dismissed by the team and felt that Fuentes had not treated him properly. In fact, Manzano claimed that he had almost died twice from medical treatments performed by Fuentes. Manzano told the Spanish police everything about Fuentes and his activities with the team. As a result of Manzano’s statement to the police, Fuentes was observed for several months. The statements made by the former Kelme rider were true.
For two months nothing happened. There was speculation in the press about the identities of riders involved in the doping practices of Fuentes but there was no confirmation by the Spanish authorities. I was still hoping to somehow escape from the chaos but was well aware that there was a big chance that our team will be busted. Just before the 2004 Tour de France, the Spanish police published findings from its investigation into doping based on the paperwork they found in Fuentes’ apartment and observations from the surveillance of Fuentes. The work was good but upon further review of the findings I was confused and concerned about the completeness of the report. Certain athletes that I expected to be named were not named as being on Fuentes’ client list. It seemed to me that there was a selection of names being released by the Spanish authorities. I felt something was not quite right because a rider from another team confessed to me that when I was seeing Fuentes, he had also seen him on the exact same day at the exact same hotel in Madrid for a blood transfusion. The investigators saw me at the hotel but they did not claim to see the other rider.
In the evening before the start of the Tour, right at dinnertime, I was provided with a list of riders implicated in the investigation. I was shocked. There were 50 riders on the list. During the course of the dinner, the list disappeared and a second list was published with the names of around 30 riders including Basso, Beloki and Ullrich. In my view, there was an obvious omission from the list. The list did not include the name of Valverde. I was so desperate. I had such a mixture of emotion that I just started laughing at the dinner table as we read the list. I knew the police must have done some selections. A rider like Valverde grew up as a cyclist under the wings of Fuentes. The whole situation started to get more and more strange. All the riders named on the list were sent home from the Tour, amongst them the favourites Basso and Ullrich. The Tour was marred by another scandal before it even started. Ultimately, in 2004 Carlos Sastre won the Tour as an outsider.
So my name was implicated in the Fuentes scandal that was enveloping cycling. I couldn’t do much more than wait, reject accusations, wait. All of the riders being suspicious of having worked and doped with Fuentes were not welcome anymore at races. We were suddenly suspended without being sanctioned. The basis for this cold suspension was that the team managers decided to install a ‘code of ethics’ for all teams. The cobbled-together ‘code’ stated that if a rider is suspected of having committed doping he was not allowed to race until the suspicion was eliminated or he was sanctioned by a sporting body. This code as well as the MPCC, the Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible, was implemented by team managers that delivered me personally with doping products or in the case of Manolo Saiz sent me personally to doctors like Fuentes to dope myself. It was a pure sham. They wanted to wash their hands of guilt. They waved the banner of ethical standards to wash away the problem and attract new sponsors.
The riders implicated in Operación Puerto came from a variety of countries. Some Germans, some Italians and many Spanish. Depending on which country you came from had a huge impact on the way each rider was treated by their national federation. At first, the national federations didn’t have a clue what to do with these riders. The problem was that Operación Puerto was a police operation. Criminal law and sports law and the prosecution of those laws have differing timelines and rights. The national federations were totally lost in the process that stalled any decision-making. The police were not allowed to take DNA from the riders as the riders were only providing testimonial evidence and not were ‘accused’ of a crime allowing the taking of any biological material. The riders were also allowed to refuse to give evidence. Given that there was no compulsion for the riders to do or say anything, all riders said to their national federations: the accusations are the opinion of the Spanish police, there is no confirmation of the truth of the accusations by a competent court, there is no criminal case against us and so you better let us race as you have no positive test and no proof of the accusations. It was as simple as that.
The Spanish were immediately allowed to race but for some of us in Italy and Germany, the legal process started. The Italians (Basso and Scarponi) were facing legal charges as doping was a crime in Italy and the Italian Olympic Committee (Coni) assisted the public prosecutors. Jan Ullrich and I were sued for fraud in Germany by a German law professor of the University of Bielefeld. Coni were trying hard to prove that Basso and Scarponi were blood doping. Coni made several requests to the Spanish judge handling Operación Puerto to provide Coni with DNA samples.
Coni received a negative response. The Spanish judge, Serrano, was of the opinion that there has been no crime committed by Basso and Scarponi in Spain, as doping was not a crime in that country. Coni, however, had the right to sanction Italian riders for doping offences even if the offence had taken place in another country. Finally, Coni was allowed to get DNA samples from Basso and Scarponi, but as this news reached Basso and Scarponi, the two decided to confess to having blood extracted but stated that they never used the blood bags for doping at a later occasion. For a national federation there is no difference if you want to dope or actually dope, as the mere intent is sanctionable.
For Basso and Scarponi it was important to only confess to the extraction of blood and not to the re-infusion during competition as they would have been stripped not only of race titles (in Basso’s case the Giro d’Italia), but the riders would also have to pay back prize money in the amount of 100,000 euros.
As Basso and Scarponi received sanctions, Valverde continued to race and win. My view at the time was that the Italian authorities felt slightly “pissed off” that they have to sanction their best riders while Valverde is allowed to race for Spain and accumulate UCI points for Spain. The fact that he was able to win races on Italian soil rubbed salt into the wound. Due to the fact that Valverde had raced in Italy prior to Operación Puerto, Coni was allowed to start an investigation into Valverde. In my opinion, this investigation was born out of revenge. The commonly held view was that the Spanish authorities sacrificed foreign riders to protect their own and now the tables were about to be turned.
Two Italian police officers of the NAS (the Italian drug squad in charge of doping related crimes) from Florence were in charge of proving that Valverde was a client of Fuentes having the code ‘Piti’, the actual name of his dog. Many riders had the name of their dog as a code name. Basso had Birillo, I had Bella. All requests by the Italian Police to receive the DNA of the blood bags assumed to be Valverde’s were rejected by the Spanish judge. Finally the two Italian police officers made a very clever move. They waited until Judge Serrano was on holiday.
The holiday replacement, a judge that had no idea of the whole matter, allowed the Italian application and ordered the alleged blood bags from Valverde to be sent to the Italian Criminal Institute in Rome. A DNA comparison between the alleged blood from Valverde and biological material collected from doping tests carried out in Italy finally proved that the blood bags in the fridge of Fuentes belonged to Valverde. In Italy, Valverde received a race ban of two years. He appealed against this verdict at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. CAS confirmed the sanction and increased the scope of the ban to be worldwide for two years. Other national federations dropped all accusations against their riders as they didn’t have the same resources and laws as the Italians had.
I decided to confess about my doping past to the Austrian federation and was given a one-year ban. In Germany, Jan Ullrich’s legal case was abandoned and ended in a settlement with a payment of 250,000 euros. My legal case was dismissed. The theory of the fraud case by the public prosecutor was that a cyclist that uses PEDs is gaining an advantage by deception by receiving better contracts from teams for results fuelled by doping. However, there was no fraud on the teams as it could be proven that the teams were intimately involved in the doping and with this knowledge could not be defrauded in the manner described by the public prosecutor.
Operación Puerto had no real legal consequences for any of the sports directors that were involved in it. Some team managers and Fuentes were finally impeached for crimes against the public health in Spain. After 7 years, the first hearing was held at the Madrid District Court.
Fuentes defended himself claiming that he was only supporting his riders’ health and that all riders voluntarily received his treatments. He also claimed that the success of his rider clients confirmed his theory that only a healthy rider can be successful in cycling.
Therefore, given that he worked only on the health of the rider, he had not endangered the public health. Unfortunately, much of the testimonial evidence from riders was driven by self-protection. After 40 days of the hearing, a final verdict was delivered.
Fuentes received a one-year suspended jail sentence, a fine of 4,500 euros and a four-year suspension of his sports medicine licence. Ex-cycling coach Ignacio Labarta was found to have carried out medical procedures in an unsafe environment. Labarta was given a four-month suspended sentence. Former cycling team directors, Manolo Saiz (Liberty Seguros-Würth) and Vicente Belda (Kelme) and Fuentes’ sister Yolanda, also a doctor, were acquitted, receiving absolution.