It began early in the morning of (...) July 8, (1998), after Willy Voet, a trainer for the Festina road-racing team—of which Virenque was the star rider—loaded a logo-plastered team car with the usual tools of his trade: 250 doses of erythropoietin, or EPO, 100 doses of anabolic steroids, and an assortment of other illicit performance-enhancing substances. Then he set out from Belgium for Ireland, where the 1998 Tour de France would begin. He left the main highway a few miles east of Lille, deciding to cross the French border on a secondary road. Unfortunately for Voet, authorities keep close watch on the smaller road, which is often used by international drug smugglers. Customs agents were there waiting.
Voet's arrest touched off a dizzying, disastrous series of drug-related revelations and detainments, and weeks of international headlines. The scandal brought the mighty Tour to its knees, embroiling dozens of top riders, warping the competition, and decimating the field. Festina, named for the Spanish watchmaking company that sponsors the French team, was disqualified for doping, and all its members were taken into police custody for questioning. Six other top teams voluntarily withdrew after staging chaotic slowdown protests in support of their castigated fellow riders. Of the 21 teams that started the race on July 11, only 14 finished at Paris's Arc de Triomphe 22 days later.
"In the beginning the officials were friendly, but then the horror show began," Festina rider Alex Zülle said after his arrest. "I was put in an isolation cell and had to strip naked. They inspected every body cavity. The next morning they confronted me with compromising documents they had found. They said they were used to seeing hardened criminals in the chair I was sitting on. I wanted out of that hellhole, so I confessed."
Voet also confessed. The team director and team doctor confessed. One by one the other Festina riders confessed. They confessed to shooting up EPO and blood thinners that shielded EPO's presence; steroids and steroid-masking agents; amphetamines, testosterone, and human growth hormone. Voet confessed to infusing a sodium solution into the riders' bloodstreams to reduce red blood cell density and beat the tests, and to administering pot belge, a ballistic compound of cocaine, caffeine, heroin, and cortisone.
They all confessed that the illegal substances were procured through sophisticated black-market networks involving physicians, attorneys, and team officials in league with drug traffickers. They confessed to contributing portions of their salaries and prize winnings to dope funds and to observing major sums of money changing hands. They confessed, finally, that virtually every other team relied on doping as heavily as they did. Festina merely had the bad luck of getting caught.
One rider, however, confessed nothing: Richard Virenque, Festina's team leader and the darling of French cycling fans. He was one of the sport's premier hill-climbers, four-time "King of the Mountains" in the Tour de France and overall runner-up in the '97 race. At age 29, Virenque, a darkly handsome Frenchman who grew up in Casablanca, was at the height of his powers, poised to finally win the Tour and thus claim a place in the French sports pantheon. "Richard the Lionhearted" was adored for his competitiveness, panache, and dash. He was a heartthrob for teenagers from Calais to Marseilles.
Virenque denied everything. At first his resistance seemed brave, as if he were keeping faith with the riders' traditional solidarity and code of silence. But then, as the scandal widened and hardball police tactics shattered the riders' formerly inviolate code, his repeated denials began to seem disingenuous, then disloyal, and finally ludicrously self-serving.
Festina's team doctor, Eric Ryckaert, admitted to presiding over a long-term doping regimen that involved the whole team. Voet enumerated in detail the times he'd administered drugs to Virenque. The trainer charged that besides being one of the team's heaviest dopers, Virenque was instrumental in supplying EPO to his teammates. When Virenque joined Festina in 1993, Voet said, the rider told him, "I will try anything."
"Virenque clearly knew what he was doing," Voet added in his book, Massacre à la Chaine, or Assembly-Line Massacre, a dope-and-tell exposé published in France this spring. "He was the leader. He was the chief and spokesman. Nothing could be decided without consulting him. In the period leading up to the Tour...he was the person who pushed the use of banned substances the most." Blood, urine, and hair analyses suggested that Virenque had been using steroids, steroid-masking agents, and human growth hormone as well as EPO during the Tour.
Confronted with this evidence, Virenque continued to deny, dissemble, and stonewall. He only took what his doctors gave him, he said. They told him they were injecting vitamins. He had never failed an International Cycling Union¬sanctioned doping test.
Nearly a year after Voet's bust, the criminal inquiry into the Festina affair grinds on. Today's court appearance in Lille will be Virenque's first since he was placed under formal investigation. If there is a court trial, however, it won't begin until September at the earliest, well after the '99 Tour de France.
Virenque's case has thus evolved into an excruciating dilemma for Jean-Marie Leblanc, the Tour's beleaguered director. Leblanc has vowed that no rider involved with drugs will compete in this month's race. While involved up to his eyeballs, Virenque has never admitted using any illegal substances, has never been found guilty of a crime, and, as he claims, has never failed any official doping tests. For all his difficulties, he remains France's most popular—and now most ridiculed—cyclist.
Through the winter the sport was shaken by repeated Festina-affair aftershocks. The court inquiry in Lille kept deepening and expanding. Thirteen people are now being formally investigated, including not only athletes such as Virenque or factotums such as Voet, but officials such as Daniel Baal, vice president of the ICU and head of the French cycling federation.
Virenque, meanwhile, battled on two fronts. Besides being criminally prosecuted, he lost his job when Festina fired all of its veteran, scandal-ridden athletes. Judged damaged marketing goods and a pariah on the circuit because of his betrayal of former teammates, he was passed over by every other elite professional team, even those from France.
Last December, a tearful Virenque, still claiming his innocence and petulantly threatening retaliatory lawsuits, retired from the sport.
The retirement lasted a month. In January, Virenque signed an estimated $1.5 million contract with the Italian team Polti, which decided that the French cyclist might be an OK investment after all. Franco Polti, an extremely wealthy manufacturer of home appliances, cheerfully acknowledged he was hiring Virenque to boost his company's exposure in the lucrative French market.
Then, in early May (1999), the French criminal justice system lobbed another bombshell, when police apprehended 15 members of the cycling community in a doping sting in Paris. Among the detained was 24-year-old Belgian Frank Vandenbroucke, the most talented young rider in the sport.
The alleged doping ring was led by Bernard Sainz, a horse breeder with longtime ties to the cycling world, and a prominent sports lawyer, Bertrand Lavelot. Police raided Lavelot's house and his office and found doping paraphernalia and $60,000 in cash. Agents tapped Lavelot's phone, recording damaging conversations with many of his rider-clients, including Richard Virenque.
Yet again, Virenque spent a day under interrogation, this time in a Paris police station. Initial reports had the cyclist caving in and admitting everything. But then Virenque's attorney in the Festina case, Gilbert Collard, arrived on the scene and the story changed. Collard insisted that Virenque had only acknowledged receiving "vitamin injections" and "homeopathic substances" from Sainz. "He did not admit to having ever been doped," Collard said.
"I've been in this business for a long time," Festina's Alex Zülle told reporters after his arrest last summer. "I know what goes on. Everyone knows. The riders, the team leaders, the organizers, the officials, the journalists. As a rider you feel tied into the system. It's like being on the highway. The law says there's a speed limit of 65, but everyone is driving 70 or faster. Why should I be the one who obeys the limit?"