In a sport numbed and battered by a never-ending string of doping scandals, the decade-old Operación Puerto was a game-changer.
In May 2006, agents from Spain’s Guardia Civil uncovered what became cycling’s biggest doping ring ever. It had tentacles extending across Europe, and implicated nearly 60 riders from a half-dozen teams. Salacious details of hotel-room blood transfusions involving some of the biggest names in the sport, including 2004 Olympic time trial gold medalist Tyler Hamilton, left the peloton in tatters.
Nine riders from four teams were ejected before the 2006 Tour de France, including pre-race favorites Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, and Alberto Contador. And, of course, that race ended three weeks later with the devastating doping positive of Floyd Landis.
“Operación Puerto was a watershed moment in cycling,”says Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters. “Puerto showed that there was a deep-rooted, systematic problem, and no one could deny it anymore. Puerto was the catalyst for a lot of teams to clean up their act.”
To appreciate the enormity of Puerto and just how depraved things had become, one must travel back to the 1990s. With only a 50-percent hematocrit limit to hold it back, the peloton was drunk on performance-enhancing drugs. Enter Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes: Tall, flashy, and born to a wealthy family on Spain’s Canary Islands, the Spanish doctor openly bragged about the athletes, cyclists, and other sports figures he claimed he had treated (including soccer’s Real Madrid, which he later had to publicly recant).
By the 2000s, Fuentes’s services were in high demand. Lance Armstrong had almost exclusive rights to cycling’s elite doping doctor, Michele Ferrari, so Fuentes was peddling his skills on the open market. Blood doping was back in fashion after a detection method for EPO was introduced in 2001, and Fuentes offered one-stop shopping for PEDs, training programs, and full-service blood transfusions, with medical expertise and doping calendars, all with the idea of avoiding detection.
“When I joined Liberty Seguros, they told me Fuentes would be my doctor, and he would take care of me,” recounts ex-pro Jörg Jaksche, who confessed to having been a Fuentes client. “It was easy to avoid detection. When I confessed to the UCI, they were surprised, because they said to me, ‘Oh, we thought you were one of the clean ones!’”
Fuentes built up a network of handlers and doctors, including the former head of the hematology department at one of Madrid’s biggest hospitals. Times were good, but then Spanish journeyman pro Jesús Manzano collapsed during the 2003 Tour, right in the middle of the stage to Morzine. (Manzano had near fatal dehydration which he believed was due to an injection of Oxyglobin before the stage.) A few weeks later, he received what he claims was a botched blood transfusion ahead of the Vuelta a España that nearly killed him. By 2004, Manzano had had enough, and he went to Spanish authorities.
“Manzano came to us, and told us about what he was doing,” says Enrique Gomez Bastida, the lead investigator who blew open the Puerto case. “He was very important to our investigation. He pointed us directly to Fuentes.”
Armed with Manzano’s testimony, Bastida and his team of six agents went to a Spanish court to get phone taps. Fuentes used a system of primitive code names, but it didn’t take long for Bastida to figure out what was going on. Jaksche was “bello,” (“handsome” in Italian), Ullrich was “hijo de Prudencio” (“son” of T-Mobile sport director Rudy Pevenage), and Alejandro Valverde went by “Piti,” the name of his dog. The “blues” were Liberty Seguros, and the “greens” were Kelme.
Fuentes was arrested along with former Liberty Seguros boss Manolo Saíz and three others. Police confiscated buckets of PEDs, doping diaries, a client list that made headlines around the world, and 200 bags of blood, which remained frozen in a Barcelona lab waiting for appeals to be settled. The 2006 Tour limped to Paris only to implode after the shock of Landis.
If the Festina Affaire of 1998 peeled back the curtain on systematic doping within the ranks of the peloton, the Puerto scandal of 2006 made it painfully clear that the peloton was rotten to its very core. “I think that event changed the way people thought about cycling,” Vaughters says.
Stunned by the depth of depravity, sponsors like T-Mobile and Liberty Seguros excommunicated themselves from cycling. And the International Olympic Committee told the UCI to clean up its act, or cycling would lose its Olympic status. That prompted the UCI to adopt a series of groundbreaking measures, including becoming the first international governing body to adopt the biological passport. Behind that came expanded out-of-competition controls, stiffened penalties, the no-needle policy, and the whereabouts program.
There were also signs of change within the peloton. In 2007, Bob Stapleton, now president of USA Cycling, took the reins of T-Mobile, a team shattered by Ullrich’s links to Fuentes, and built High Road, a franchise dedicated to clean racing. Vaughters also entered the fray with his Slipstream squad, dubbed the “clean team” in 2008, something he says would have been unimaginable before Puerto. Team Sky and its policy of “marginal gains” entered in 2010 and won the 2012 Tour with Bradley Wiggins, whom most consider clean and credible. The tone of the conversation, and the rhythm of racing, had irrevocably changed. It was partly generational — most of the old dopers have retired — but it was also institutional. Today, teams are begging riders not to dope.
Puerto lives on. It’s a tangled legal mess that is still working its way through the Spanish justice system (by late March, there were still pending appeals) and that could yet have an impact on other sports. Officials are still hoping to have access to the 200 blood bags frozen since 2006, and match them to their respective owners, perhaps finally ending the mystery of who worked with Fuentes once and for all. But cycling is now well into a post-Puerto era.
“The investigation and trial were part of a major transformation of cycling into a cleaner sport,” says Bastida, who became head of Spain’s anti-doping agency in 2014. “If you add Festina, Puerto, and the USADA case, all these different operations, with others, worked as a force of change within cycling.”
Have things changed since Puerto? The evidence would suggest they have. Just look at how mountain stages are climbed. During the EPO era, riders would open up big-ring attacks over first category climbs with 50 kilometers to go. Today, no one budges until the final climb, and then it’s a race of attrition rather than aggression.
There’s also some telling data. Average speeds for climbing Alpe d’Huez, a bench-mark mountain in cycling, have dramatically declined. Marco Pantani’s record of 36:50, set in 1997, still stands. Of the top-15 fastest times, Nairo Quintana’s 39:22 climb last summer, which ranks 14th, is the only one that wasn’t set during the EPO era. The average speed of the Tour de France also surged in the 1990s and early 2000s, peaking in 2005, at 41.654 kilometers per hour, the fastest in Tour history. Last year, Sky’s Chris Froome won his second yellow jersey in an average 39.64 kilometers per hour.