A report by the French Senate published today has laid bare the extent of doping in the 1998 Tour de France, with race winner Marco Pantani among those revealed to have tested positive for EPO when samples were analysed six years later.
It has also resulted in two riders, Stuart O’Grady and Jacky Durand, stepping forward to confess to doping, as well as provoking differing reactions from cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, and the man who is aiming to become its president, Brian Cookson.
The Senate’s report listed 18 riders whose samples from the 1998 race were found to have tested positive.
Those are Manuel Beltran, Jeroen Blijlevens, Mario Cipollini, Laurent Desbiens, Jacky Durand, Bo Hamburger, Jens Heppner, Laurent Jalabert, Kevin Livingston, Eddy Mazzoleni, Nicola Minali, Abraham Olano, Marco Pantani, Fabio Sacchi, Marcos Serrano, Andrea Tafi, Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel.
It also listed 12 riders whose retested samples were described as “suspicious”: Stephane Barthe, Ermanno Brignoli, Giuseppe Calcaterra, Pascal Chanteur, Bobby Julich, Eddy Mazzoleni, Roland Meier, Axel Merckx, Frederic Moncassin, Stuart O'Grady, Alain Turicchia, and Stefano Zanini.
The report (available here in French) follows an inquiry held by a committee of the French parliament’s upper house earlier this year at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris.
Witnesses who provided testimony included UCI president Pat McQuaid and former ONCE and CSC rider, and more recently French national coach, Laurent Jalabert - the latter is one of those named today as having tested positive.
It seems unlikely any action will be taken against the riders named. The Senate says that seeking to impose sanctions is beyond its remit. Moreover, since the samples were taken 15 years ago, they fall well beyond the World Anti-Doping Code’s eight-year statute of limitations.
While the inquiry was aimed at addressing doping across a range of sports, attention has focused on cycling and, in particular, the 1998 edition of the Tour de France which began in Dublin.
That’s chiefly because the Senate’s report for the first time details the results of retests in 2004 for the red blood cell boosting agent EPO of samples taken from riders during the 1998 Tour, and names the riders who tested positive.
That year’s edition of the race achieved notoriety as the ‘Festina Tour’ after a soigneur from that team, Willy Voet, was arrested while travelling into France with a large quantity of doping products in his car.
Only 96 of the 189 riders who began the race finished it, with the Festina team kicked off the race and several others, including ONCE, pulling out in protest at their treatment following a series of police raids.
Pantani, who died in 2004 of a cocaine overdose, won the race, and is the last rider to have won the Tour and the Giro d’Italia in the same season.
While he never tested positive during his career – he was briefly suspended for having a haematocrit level above the permitted threshold of 50 per cent – will come as little surprise, nor will the identity of most of those named as having provided positive or suspicious tests when their samples were retested.
Earlier this month, Pantani's family warned that they would take legal action if it were proposed to take his 1998 Tour win away from him in light of the Senate's report.
In a statement released in reaction to today's report, the UCI, criticised for its handling of the case of Lance Armstrong, who would win the seven editions of the Tour de France after 1998, underlined that it believed cycling is a cleaner sport now and highlighted efforts it has made to combat doping, including the introduction of the biological passport.
It stated: “In view of the revelations that were made over the past year it has become clear that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many riders made bad choices during a very bad period for cycling.”
Acknowledging that no test existed for EPO in 1998, the UCI added: “The retroactive testing of the 1998 Tour riders’ samples was carried out by the French laboratory as scientific research and not according to technical standards for anti-doping analyses.
“In addition, the principles of anonymity and prior consent from the riders for scientific analyses were not respected. The results therefore could not be accepted as valid proof in an anti-doping context – and the UCI could not open retrospective disciplinary proceedings.
“As it was not possible to prove that the riders concerned had doped and no B-analysis was available as a defense, the UCI considered it was not appropriate to disclose their names.”
British Cycling president Cookson, who has challenged UCI president Pat McQuaid in September’s elections to lead the governing body for the next four years, said the latest revelations demonstrated that the latest revelations demonstrated the urgent need for reform of the anti-doping process.
“Today's news shows just how out of control professional road cycling was allowed to get in the late 1990s,” he said.
“The fact that it appears so many riders tested positive in the 1998 and 1999 Tour de France for EPO is a terrible indictment of the people responsible, and those with the most responsibility for the culture within the sport are the UCI.
“What I believe is absolutely essential on our road back to credibility is that we get to the bottom of how this happened. Most importantly we need to know whether the UCI was complicit, colluded with riders or was itself corrupt.
“That is why I will implement a fully independent investigation into doping in cycling so we can deal once and for all with the past, with amnesties or reductions in sanctions to encourage all those involved to come forward. The brief of the investigation will centre on the uncovering of any UCI corruption and collusion, and understanding what factors led to the culture of doping.”
He concluded: “We owe it to those who chose to ride dope-free and to the fans to understand the mistakes of the past and make sure they are not repeated.”
O’Grady, aged 39, announced his retirement on Monday after completing his 16th Tour de France, a move that surprised many given that the Orica GreenEdge rider had recently revealed he aimed to continue riding until after next year’s race.
He spent three days in the race leader’s yellow jersey in 1998, when he was with the GAN team. Earlier today, however, he admitted he had used EPO on the race, insisting he had sourced it himself.
Durand, winner of three career Tour de France stages, one of them in 1998, as well as Paris-Tours and the Tour of Flanders, is now a pundit for Eurosport France.
The 46-year-old went public on his doping prior to the Senate publishing its findings today, although some details of the report had already been leaked to daily newspaper Le Monde.
He said that a distinction should be drawn between the era he was riding in and the sport as it currently is, maintaining that it is cleaner nowadays.
“I don’t think anybody is fooled by the revelations that most of the peloton doped in 1998,” he said in a statement reported by Eurosport UK.
“The press, supporters, spectators and racers know the difference between current and traditional practices regarding EPO.
“But of course, I can understand why the general public may be confused between what happened in 1998 and what is happening now.
“The next generation must not pay the price for our crap. Today I am not thinking of myself, but of them. My career is in the past.
“Now I'm thinking of the kid that could be a breakout star during the Tour who has to listen to people say: 'You're drugged up like all the others.'
“I think of somebody like Thibaut Pinot, who finished 10th in the Tour at age 22, or a Romain Bardet who finished 15th at the same age.
“I don't want these cyclists to be discredited just because everyone from my generation was full of bullshit.
“Our sport is much cleaner now, I want people to understand that,” he added.
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.