Benedetto Roberti, the Italian magistrate leading the Padua investigation into doping, tax evasion and money laundering within professional cycling centred around the banned doctor Michele Ferrari, says that the use of performance enhancing drugs within the peloton is still rampant, including new undetectable versions of EPO.
In an extensive interview with the Italian cycling magazine Tuttobici, published in its January issue under the headline ‘Nulla è cambiato’ – ‘Nothing has changed’ – and also made available on its website, the magistrate paints a squalid picture of the sport running from amateur riders talking part in Gran Fondo rides right up to the top levels.
Roberti recounted how cyclists interviewed as part of his investigation revealed that a type of EPO called EPO Z, for which there is currently no test, was being widely used, while in 2012 a Chinese variant of EPO had been launched which he described as the “Queen of the Games” at London 2012.
The drug AICAR, also undetectable under the current regime and which rebuilds muscle fibres after stress, was also a concern, as was the use of human growth hormone, as well as human haemoglobin, used to reduce for high haemocratic levels.
According to Roberti, anyone insisting that cycling had turned a corner and that the sport was now drug free did not have its interests at heart, as proved by the use of the products he outlined which he added were often of doubtful provenance, carrying increased risks for the athlete’s health as a result.
Rather than organised doping, he said, dopers are increasingly taking the initiative themselves. “There are wizards,” he explained, a reference to Michele Ferrari-style figures, “but riders are often doing everything alone.”
Roberti called for more money to be put into the battle against doping, including at youth level where he believes aspiring riders needed more protection, and said that tighter checks needed to be carried out on people involved in the sport at that level in roles such as coaching who had themselves ridden during the 1980s and 1990s to ensure that the sport could make a clean break with the past.
The magistrate revealed that he had started riding road bikes in his mid-30s and had been shocked by the open culture of drug taking there, which he said was in some ways worse than what happened in the professional ranks.
“I’ve seen so many people who take cortisone suppositories shortly before the ride gets under way, on the start line, in front of everyone. And participants who inject themselves with every kind of natural substance," he revealed.
He described seeing riders “of a certain age” managing to maintain speeds of 60 kilometres an hour for two hours straight, something he said “leaves you open-mouthed.”
He added: “The problem is that in cycling, it’s not ignorance that rules, but the most absolute stupidity. And stupidity is much worse than ignorance. It’s more difficult to educate people, to make them understand,” he went on, citing the case of people who use Ventolin as though it was a honey-flavoured cough sweet, not looking after their health, doing everything they could to reach the finish before their friends – a situation he described as “bizarre.”
With the results of the Padua investigation due to be published in the coming weeks, Roberti declined to be drawn on the specifics of the inquiry. However, it’s clear that when the findings are made public, cycling is in line for another series of scandalous headlines.
“Look, I’ve seen things during these past few years that you couldn’t even imagine,” Roberti said in conclusion.
“I’m not excluding anything. I don’t put my hand in the fire, but I don’t overlook anything. And I’ve learnt to never trust certain people. Anything but poor darlings – the riders are the true culprits. First the riders, then DSs or team managers. But it’s always them. That’s where everything starts and finishes. The rest is just words. Believe me.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.