For the first time in 20 years Willy Voet will not be inside the beast that is the Tour de France, cycling's premier race, when it begins on Saturday under its deceptive cloak of pomp and pageantry. A Belgian by birth and a masseur by training, the 54-year-old Voet will be home in Veynes, a picturesque town in the south of France, where once a week he must register at the local gendarmerie. Charged with illegally trafficking in performance-enhancing drugs just days before last year's Tour, he is awaiting a December trial that could result, if he is convicted, in a sentence of up to five years in prison.
It has been a year of metamorphosis for Voet since he was arrested by French customs officials and briefly jailed last July. He lost his job as masseur for the powerful French-based Festina cycling team but then wrote an exposé on the cycling culture, Massacre á la Chaîne: Révélations sur 30 ans de trickeries (Chain Massacre: Revelations of 30 Years of Cheating), which became a bestseller in Europe after its publication in May. He was abandoned by almost all his friends in the cycling world yet regained his self-respect. He was threatened by strangers and vilified by the men he worked for but has cleansed his conscience and, for the first time in 10 years, rid his body of drugs—except for the sleeping pills he needs at night. The memories of jail, and a fear of being sent back, haunt him.
After Voet was caught transporting recreational and performance-enhancing drugs into France, he eventually admitted that the latter were for use by Festina cyclists in the Tour de France, setting off a chair of events that has radically altered the public's perception of the cycling world. As a masseur for eight teams in 20 years, he did much more than massage sore muscles. He was part trainer, part dietician, part doctor and part pharmacist. Voet estimates that during the course of his career he spent at least half his time making sure cyclists had access to whatever their bodies required to perform at the highest level—fluids, vitamins, food, caffeine, cortisone, steroids, amphetamines, blood thinner growth hormones and masking agents to beat drug tests. Voet worked with some of the greatest cyclists in the world, including Ireland's Sean Kelly and France's Richard Virenque. He also saw firsthand just how pervasive drug use is at the sport's highest level. Masseurs, like people in most any profession, share information, so Voet has reason to believe that the teams he worked for were not unique. According to Voet, the overwhelming majority of the cyclists in the peloton (the lead group of riders) used illegal drugs. Those who didn't use them? "The back of the pack," he told SI in interviews at his home last month.
Asked about such stars as five-time Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain of Spain (1991 through '95), and Americans Greg LeMond, a three-time Tour winner (1986, '89, '90), and Lance Armstrong, the '93 road race world champion, Voet chose his words carefully. "In my book I only wrote about things I saw with my own eyes," he said. "I never worked with LeMond or those other great champions, so I cannot say for certain they were doing that. But virtually all the good racers I worked with were taking drugs. And that was also true in the '80s." Of the estimated 500 cyclists he treated in his career, how many did not take drugs to enhance their performance? "I can count them on two hands, maybe two hands and two feet if I'm generous," Voet said.
In the '70s, according to Voet, the most widely used performance-enhancing drugs were amphetamines; in the '80s, anabolic steroids and cortisone; and in the '90s, growth hormones and EPO (erythropoietin), a drug that stimulates the body's production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. If a doctor wasn't around, it was Voet who often injected the dosages. Once he leaned out the window of his car and gave a cyclist a shot in the middle of a race. Another time he used himself as a guinea pig to test how long a particular steroid, Clenbuterol, stayed in the system.
Voet knew any number of tricks to get his riders through doping control. In the '80s, for instance, he would often fill a condom with "clean" urine, then attach a rubber tube to it. He would plug the tube and glue small hairs onto it for camouflage. After a race, before heading to doping control, a cyclist would come to the team car and insert the condom of clean urine into his anus. The tube would be glued into his crotch, the fake hair blending into the real hair of his nether regions should a doctor be so bold as to inspect. When it came time for the sample, the rider would unplug the tube and fill his sample cup with warm, drug-free urine.
As drug testers became more sophisticated in the '90s, so did Voet and the cyclists. Voet learned how to use a handheld centrifuge to test a cyclist's blood for an elevated volume of red cells, a sign of EPO usage, and taught the cyclists how to use the centrifuge themselves. To avoid detection of EPO in the event of a surprise test during a race, Voet would prepare IV bags of saline solution, wrap them in towels and hide them under the cyclists' beds. If hit with an unexpected test, a cyclist had just enough time to suspend the IV bag from a bicycle spoke bent into the shape of an S and hooked over a door, attach a tube to the bag and put the IV needle into a vein in his arm. In 20 minutes the saline solution would bring his hematocrit value (the ratio of red blood cell volume to total blood volume) below the legal limit of 50%.
"A racer who gets caught by doping control is dumb as a mule," Voet said. Before the '98 Tour de France, only two of Voet's 500 charges had failed a drug test. In 1984 Sean Kelly was suspended for one month, but was quickly reinstated, by the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport's governing body, after turning in a urine sample that he had secreted under his jersey during the Paris-Brussels Classic. According to Voet, Kelly assumed the sample was clean, but it had been contributed by an acquaintance who had been popping pills to stay awake during an all-night drive. The amphetamines showed up in the test.
During his 20-year career Voet developed a reputation as one of the best in the business at the variety of tasks he performed. Cyclists, team doctors and team directors trusted him implicitly. Employed by Festina since 1993, Voet was going through his usual prerace preparations before last summer's Tour, which for the first time would begin in Dublin. On July 7, 1998, he left his Veynes apartment carrying two coolers containing 234 doses of EPO, 24 vials of growth hormones and testosterone, and 60 capsules of Asaflow, an aspirin-based product that thins the blood. All are substances banned by the UCI. According to Voet the drugs had been obtained by a team connection in Portugal, where they can be purchased over the counter. For a month before the Tour, Voet stored them in the vegetable drawer of his refrigerator at home, much to the annoyance of his wife, Sylvie. She was happy to see them go.
Voet would later tell French authorities that his first stop was Paris, where he transferred the coolers from his car to Festina's team car. He drove that car to Ghent, Belgium, the home of Festina's doctor, Eric Rijckaert, who, according to Voet, had asked him to come by to pick up more doses of EPO and some bags of sterile water for intravenous drips. Then Voet continued to Brussels, where he would spend the night with a friend. By the time he arrived he had been on the road more than 12 hours.