Pantani: 'This is serious'
Posted: Saturday July 18, 1998 12:15 PM
Special from L'Equipe, the French sports daily
PARIS (L'Equipe) -- Disillusioned by the Festina scandal, the winner of this years Giro di Italia, who's been very discreet so far, took a bitter look at the situation before the team's exclusion from the race.
You've been discreet, almost absent, since the tour started. Your result in the preliminary stage tends to show that you're not concerned by this tour.
"You shouldn't judge only from the prologue. It rained that morning. I didn't reconnoiter the route, I raced with my eyes closed. Also, I hesitated to compete in the tour for a long time. I didn't like the route at all. I thought it wouldn't allow me to express myself. After the Giro di Italia, I felt like giving up, but it would have been a mistake because anything can happen on the tour."
Do you think that a bad performance would decrease the value of your pink jersey?
"Not in my case, because I'll never accept the idea of coming on the tour just to be in it. I want to have an influence on the race, to be one of its main actors, but I'm afraid it may be impossible to get rid of the unhealthy air that's been surrounding us since the Festina case started."
Does this affair get to you?
"It gets to all of us! At dinner, we talk about it, of course. I don't make it a person problem, because I don't have anything against anybody, but I sincerely hope sanctions will be taken. If there was no sanction, it would mean we're not really fighting, that we're trying to protect ourselves in regard to the public. We shouldn't protect ourselves from something like that, because it's serious."
We should wait for the results of the investigation, though. And Festina's riders have not been proven guilty of taking any banned substances.
"I thought, at the beginning, that the whole Festina team should withdraw from the tour, even the riders. I told myself that by leaving the race, they would have assumed the responsibility of their insane actions. By staying, they let people think that we're all guilty. Out of respect for us, yes, I thought they should drop out, even more since if one of them wins the tour, be it Alex Zuelle or Richard Virenque, there will always be suspicions."
But they're not responsible for a trainer's actions. None of them broke his profession's rules. They're still cheered on by the public, and that's a form of justice.
"No matter what, if I'd been in their shoes, I would certainly have withdrawn. I don't think that for Virenque, Zuelle or Laurent Dufaux, who all are champions, this scandal will change anything. No matter what happens, no matter what they do, they will remain respected champions. One Tour more or less in their careers won't change their lives. On the other hand, what could harm them is the unhealthy atmosphere that roughs them up now. I'm like everybody else: I read the papers, the magazines, I watch the news on TV, that's all they talk about. I even read in a newspaper that we're all doped."
There have been doping cases, a lot of them in Italy.
"Yes, but not everybody is doped. And you can't talk of an Italian cycling. There are French or Spanish riders who see Italian doctors, there is a very close convergence between all these countries. I must be one of a few not to be followed by these figures. I'm not linked to scientific preparation, to a heart rate monitor. I wear it for advertising, not to practice. I came to compete in the tour after 10 days of complete rest, without a bike."
What shocks you the most in this case?
"That this case could give credit to the idea that team officials preoccupy themselves with one thing they shouldn't care about, providing the riders with doping products. It's a doctor's job, or a rider's, at his own risk."
Have you talked about this with Virenque?
"No, because I don't have any reason to, and because he's mad at me, because some journalists twisted some things I said. I can't blame Virenque, he's always stayed within his line of work's boundaries. You can't begrudge Festina riders anything. The best thing to do is to leave them alone. They must be preoccupied enough, we shouldn't say anymore."
Eddy Merckx said that the UCI should have thought before legalizing EPO, by imposing a reasonable limit for the hematocrit level.
"Doping, everybody talks about it. The <I>Gazzetta dello Sport</I> had [a major] crusades against that. And even if people don't come to me to talk directly about it, I can feel this plague surrounds us. To solve this problem, which concerns all sports, because other athletes mentioned it to me, we should try to join forces, because the small world of cycling can't do it on its own. The Italian Olympic Committee should do it, establish what its causes and effects are, in order to allow laboratories to detect EPO. We're about to achieve that, I was told. The UCI has a limit for the level of hematocrit, that's a good thing, because the injustices have been lessened. In the mean time, it's true, they grant us that freedom."
The problem with cycling is that it welcomes a lot of doctors who don't always respect their profession's ethics. In 1995, team managers should have reacted to doctor's Ferrari's encouragement to use EPO intake
"Ferrari said that 'everything that's not detected in a test for doping products is legal.' Maybe he should have been sanctioned, but it would have reinforced his image as a doctor who makes riders a little stronger. No, the problem is that doctors are not given the possibility to work, because a lot of drugs are forbidden. You have to have the UCI list. That's unbelievable! So everyone has his own recipes. One guy knows this person in Lausanne who'll give him a certificate for testosterone, another one finds the product, but it's risky, and so on. And that's how cases start."
You haven't evaded rumors after the Giro. We read that you'd benefited from certain protections, one of your teammates, Riccardo Forconi, having tested positive. Is it not possible anymore to win a tour without arousing suspicion?
"Yes, I'm afraid, but maybe it's because the press allow people to talk who don't deserve it. I could have hired a lawyer, sued, won trials, but I would have fed a controversy that I'm not interested in. Me, I know that I won the Giro in the most loyal way possible. The person who whispered that rumor in a journalist's ear, Mapei manager Giuseppe Saronni, had conflicting interests. His rider, Pavel Tonkov, wanted to win the Giro, so since he couldn't do it on the road, they tried the only sloppy back road they could attack me on."
Saronni doesn't seem so evil.
"Beware, he's a schemer, a businessman. He's lost his sponsor, because Mapei is going to get rid of him, of Tonkov and part of the team. He's launched himself in a frantic search for another sponsor, with Colgano, and it seems he'd do anything to secure it. For the rest, I don't think I've benefited from a particular privilege. I did all that was asked of me. The morning of the last time trial, I woke up at 6 a.m. for a blood test. But to come back to the matter at hand, I have the feeling that the tour is ruined a little, that this case has left a veil of bad mood."
You really believe that?
"The atmosphere is too bad, too heavy and negative for my sponsor, who maybe will ask me for an explanation when time comes to renew my contract, even if this case doesn't have anything to do with me. The tour is limping a bit. The rider who wins this tour will become the rider who's won 'that tour,' the tour of the Festina case."
You're not interested by it anymore?
"Of course I am interested, because the Tour still is the Tour. Tomorrow, the show will be so beautiful that everyone will forget most of what's been going on."
Copyright (c) 1998 L'Equipe
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