Two-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador will testify in a trial of five people accused of arranging a doping ring as a letter shows how the Spanish cycling federation pushed to clear his name in the 2006 scandal.
Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and Contador’s former team manager Manolo Saiz are among those charged with a “crime against public health” in the trial, which is scheduled to start today in Madrid and last for six weeks, according to a court statement. The Spanish cyclist’s testimony was moved forward to Feb. 5 today. Prosecutors are seeking a two-year prison sentence for each of the accused, the statement says.
The World Anti-Doping Agency, which can make a presentation as part of the prosecution by Spanish authorities, is trying to piece together details about the affair known as “Operacion Puerto,” or Operation Mountain Pass, the Montreal-based agency’s former president Dick Pound said. Police initially linked as many as 58 riders to the ring, although fewer than half that number have faced disciplinary proceedings.
“There have been nothing but roadblocks put in front of this case,” Pound said by phone from Montreal. “I don’t know why: That’s the $64 million question.”
Fuentes lawyer Julian Perez Templado didn’t return a call and e-mail seeking comment and the court couldn’t provide details of Saiz’s lawyer. Fuentes is scheduled to testify tomorrow, according to a court statement.
Two weeks after Lance Armstrong ended 13 years of denials and confessed to doping in winning seven Tour de France titles through 2005, the trial will renew focus on a culture of cheating in cycling that prompted Nissan Motor Co. and Rabobank Groep to withdraw as sponsors since October. At the time Armstrong was racing, all riders faced the dilemma of whether to dope, according to Chris Horner, a 41-year-old American now on the RadioShack-Trek team.
In May 2006, police uncovered more than 200 blood bags, transfusion equipment and drugs in raids on apartments in Madrid. Riders have been known to collect and later transfuse their own blood to increase their body’s volume of oxygen- carrying red blood cells that boost stamina. Saiz, then manager of the Liberty Seguros team, was carrying 42,000 euros ($56,000) in cash in a briefcase and corticoid drugs for hospital use when he was arrested, the court statement said.
Six weeks later, the Spanish cycling federation’s general secretary Eugenio Bermudez wrote to the government asking that police corroborate any evidence against Contador or drop him from the investigation to avoid “irreparable” damage to his image. The letter said Fuentes had “exonerated” the cyclist after telling the Cadena Ser radio station a week earlier he didn’t know the athlete. Contador was at the time an up-and- coming rider without a major race win.
The letter, whose contents haven’t been reported before, was among documents released by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency last October to support evidence Armstrong doped.
Contador, whose initials A.C. were found on a training schedule by police, resumed racing three weeks later. Pat McQuaid, the president of cycling ruling body Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, said Contador had received a letter saying he wasn’t part of the judicial investigation, allowing him to return to competition, according to an Aug. 17, 2006 report on the cyclingnews.com website.
Contador said in July 2007 he had been mistakenly implicated because he was on the Liberty Seguros team led by Saiz. He went on to win the Tour in 2007 and 2009, and was stripped of his 2010 title for failing a drugs test. He blamed the failed test on contaminated steak. A Spanish federation panel had cleared Contador of wrongdoing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the ruling.
Contador’s spokesman Jacinto Vidarte said the Spaniard “had nothing to do” with the 2006 doping ring. He said he wasn’t aware of and couldn’t comment on the sequence of events that led to Contador being cleared.
Bermudez’s letter also asked that police consider dropping Vicente Ballester, a rider on the Comunidad Valencia team, and track cyclist Jose Antonio Escuredo from its investigation. Bermudez, who left his role as general secretary in 2008, said in a phone interview he didn’t remember asking that police clear Contador or Ballester.
“I don’t remember the letter, this was seven years ago,” Bermudez said. “I would have to go back through the archives, it would be almost like mission impossible.”
Bermudez said he remembered the case of Escuredo because the training schedule linking him to the scandal didn’t correspond to track cycling. Bermudez, who no longer works in cycling, said he would never have tried to put pressure on police to clear Contador.
“I would only have asked for the police to check the evidence,” Bermudez said. “Who am I to tell the police or a judge what to do?”
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