New York Times
May 26, 2007
Danish Cyclist Admits Doping in Tour Victory
By EDWARD WYATT and IAN AUSTEN

Bjarne Riis, a former Danish cyclist who won the 1996 Tour de France, admitted yesterday that he used several banned drugs, including EPO, steroids and human growth hormone, while competing in the 1990s, becoming the first champion of the sport’s most prestigious competition to confess to doping.

Last year’s champion, Floyd Landis, tested positive during the Tour but has repeatedly denied using banned substances and is fighting to keep his title. But recently, the floodgates have opened in cycling, with several riders stepping forward to confess to doping.

Frankie Andreu, one of Lance Armstrong’s teammates who helped him win the first of his record seven Tour titles in 1999, admitted in September that he used the banned endurance-boosting drug erythropoietin, known as EPO, in preparing for that race.

Riis’s admission, at a news conference in Copenhagen, came a day after two of his teammates on the Deutsche Telekom team, now known as T-Mobile, revealed their transgressions. Erik Zabel, who won the title of top sprinter in the Tour de France for six consecutive years, from 1996 to 2001, admitted that he used EPO during the 1996 Tour. So did Rolf Aldag, who rode for Telekom in support of Riis and Jan Ullrich, who won the Tour de France in 1997.

Even for a sport that has been repeatedly damaged by doping scandals, professional cycling has never experienced a raft of confessions of illegal activity the way it has in the past week. And there is no indication that the wave of admissions will end anytime soon.

“This is a culture that has been driven by fear for some amount of time — fear of being found out — and there was a willingness to tell lies about the reality of doping,” Bob Stapleton, the American businessman who took over the management of the T-Mobile team this year, said in a telephone interview from Italy. Stapleton has installed a rigorous program of athlete testing and medical profiling in an attempt to create a drug-free squad.

“Now the fear is that someone else will expose them,” he added. “So I think we’ll see an avalanche of confessions.”

It is unclear what compelled Riis, who is now the manager of the highly ranked CSC team, and the others to come forward this week. They may have been influenced by the release of a book last month by Jef D’Hont, a former soigneur, or support provider, for the Telekom team. D’Hont claimed that the team had an organized system for doping.

On Monday, Bert Dietz, a former low-level member of the Telekom team, admitted on German television that he had used EPO and accused two team doctors of providing the drug.

The continuing investigation into a doping scandal in Spain, known as Operation Puerto, could also be a factor. The investigation implicated more than 50 cyclists and led to nine riders being excluded from last year’s Tour de France, including the prerace favorites, Ullrich and Ivan Basso.

Basso recently admitted his involvement last year with a Spanish doctor who has been accused of providing doping regimens for cyclists. Ullrich was fired from T-Mobile last year after being linked with the same Spanish doctor. Ullrich retired from the sport in February.

“The pressure has been coming on from the likes of the U.C.I. and Operation Puerto,” Pat McQuaid, the president of the international cycling union, known by its French initials U.C.I., said in a telephone interview from Venezuela, where he was attending the Pan-American Cycling Championships.

“There’s no hiding place anymore, and their conscience has been at them.”

Riis said that he used the banned drugs from 1993 to 1998. He offered to give back the iconic yellow jersey that goes to the winner of the Tour de France; he said it was “at home in a cardboard box.”

“They are welcome to come and get it,” he said. “I have my memories for myself.”

Officially, Riis cannot be stripped of his title, because according to the sport’s antidoping rules, a rider can be stripped of a title because of doping admissions only within eight years of a race.

“Bjarne Riis said himself that he did not deserve to have won the Tour in 1996 because he cheated,” Christian Prudhomme, the race director of the Tour de France, told The Associated Press. “I think the same thing, because he has soiled the yellow jersey.”

If Riis were to turn in his yellow jersey, the recognized winner normally would be the next highest finisher. But that was Ullrich, who was implicated in Operation Puerto. The third-place finisher in 1996 was Richard Virenque, who was the leader of a team that was kicked out of the 1998 Tour de France after a team car was found to contain large amounts of banned drugs.

McQuaid said that no winner would be recorded for the 1996 Tour if Riis returned his jersey.

It may not be the last tainted yellow jersey. Landis, who finished first in last year’s Tour but tested positive for artificial testosterone during the race, is awaiting a ruling on the doping allegation and will not compete this year. If an arbitration panel rules against him, Landis could be stripped of his title and barred from the sport for two years.

What could be as damaging to the sport as the admissions is that many of the confessors have repeatedly denied using performance-enhancing drugs — some of them as recently as this week. Some of the recent confessors have said they believe that the sport will ultimately benefit from their revelations, because the recent scandals have forced new attitudes about doping in cycling.

But it is not clear that sponsors will stick around long enough for the current generation of riders and team managers to find out. The riders who have confessed are risking little, because they are retired or have admitted using drugs so long ago that the sport’s governing body is unlikely to take action.

In February, the Discovery Channel said it was dropping its sponsorship of the team that Armstrong led to seven consecutive Tour de France victories, a decision that was driven in part, according to people close to the cable television company, by concerns over doping in the sport. The team, which is co-owned by Armstrong, is looking for a new sponsor.

CSC, the American technology company that sponsors the cycling team that is owned by Riis, issued a statement yesterday that left unclear whether it would reassess its sponsorship following Riis’s confession.

“While we are deeply concerned by the revelations from today’s Team CSC press conference, we will have no further public comment until we have fully assessed this information,” the company said.

Asked if T-Mobile was reconsidering its commitment to the sport, Stapleton said he was confident that the company would continue its role, but he added, “I feel the heat every day.”