Are They All Dirty?
On the eve of the 2007 Tour, new revelations about doping in cycling, including a book that implicates Lance Armstrong, have removed the last vestiges of the sport's credibility
Posted: Wednesday June 27, 2007 9:30AM; Updated: Wednesday June 27, 2007 9:30AM
What a grand spectacle it will be! On July 7 the first rider will roll down the ramp for the prologue of the Tour de France. This year's Grand Boucle, or Big Loop, begins in London. Cycling fans are advised to focus on the pageantry of the brightly costumed athletes or on the Gothic grandeur of the Palace of Westminster, not far from the starting line.
Better that, of course, than to dwell on the grim reality that on the eve of its Super Bowl, this sport finds itself at its nadir -- lower, even, than it sank in 1998, when a masseur for the Festina team was caught driving a car that contained a dispensary's worth of doping products. The Tour de Dopage, as the '98 race came to be called, pulled back the curtain on a sport gone horrifically awry, with riders pooling their earnings for black-market purchases of EPO, amphetamines and human growth hormone, to name just a few performance-enhancing drugs.
Nearly a decade later cycling has yet to heal itself. "The current situation is worse than in '98," says three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, "for the simple reason that '98 happened and nothing has changed."
That's not entirely true. Whereas the red-blood-cell booster EPO was all the rage in the '90s, advances in testing have limited its use. Now, leading riders have turned to good old-fashioned blood doping: storing their own blood, spinning it in a centrifuge to rid it of plasma, then reinjecting the "packed" red blood cells to dramatically increase stamina. In May, Ivan Basso of Italy, the runner-up in the 2005 Tour, allowed that, yes, his was among the estimated 200 bags of blood found a year earlier in the offices of Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the center of the Spanish doping investigation called Operación Puerto. Basso was suspended for two years by the Italian cycling federation.
But let's not forget synthetic testosterone, a pharmacological staple of many riders -- including, apparently, Floyd Landis, who tested positive for that banned hormone during his unbelievable (as in not believable) victory in the 2006 Tour. Basso's confession came one week before the start of Landis's arbitration hearing, which came to resemble a lost episode of One Life to Live. The night before LeMond was to testify about a phone conversation he'd had with Landis after the positive test, he got a call from Landis's business manager, Will Geoghegan, who impersonated a pedophile and threatened to discuss LeMond's childhood sexual abuse, which LeMond had earlier admitted, privately, to Landis. The next day LeMond recounted the conversation in his testimony, and only then did Landis, who had been present when Geoghegan made the phone call, fire him. (The arbitrators have yet to rule on whether to uphold the positive test and strip Landis -- who has vehemently proclaimed his innocence -- of his Tour title.)
A week after that surreal scene, Danish hero Bjarne Riis admitted that he'd doped to win the 1996 Tour de France. Riis, now the director of Team CSC, won that Tour riding for Team Telekom, which in 2004 became T-Mobile. His confession capped a week in which a half-dozen former Telekom and T-Mobile riders conceded that they'd doped during their careers. Not fessing up was that team's best-known rider, the now retired Jan Ullrich, whose protestations of innocence were undercut by a former Telekom trainer who told reporters in May that he'd injected Ullrich with EPO.
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