Analysis: How Spain became center of operations in Armstrong’s doping ring
MADRID (VN) — Spain’s reputation as a dopers’ haven is not getting any help from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation against Lance Armstrong. Three Spaniards were key players in the long-running doping ring and Spain became the haven for the U.S. Postal Service’s efforts to acquire illicit doping products and avoid controls.
According to documents in the USADA dossier, published last week, the reach of the doping program was global, stretching from Texas to California to across Switzerland, Italy and the Canary islands to wherever the team was racing, but Spain served as an important base of operations, critical for the success of the entire system.
It wasn’t the mild weather and good training roads that prompted Armstrong to move his European base from Nice, France, to Girona, Spain, in 2000. Instead, Spain’s lax attitude and porous borders made Girona the ideal choice from which to operate in Europe for Armstrong.
The majority of his American teammates already lived there, creating a U.S.-European hub starting in 1997, but the move also meant that Armstrong was closer to the team’s doping doctors and further away from the prying eyes of French authorities.
Most of the key players in the Armstrong doping ring — with the exception of Italian doctor Michele Ferrari — all lived within a few hours’ drive from Girona. That allowed for easier transportation and application of the ever-more-elaborate cocktail of banned performance enhancing products.
Another strong connection to Spain came via team manager Johan Bruyneel, who is now facing a lifetime ban for his role in the doping ring.
Bruyneel and Spain were synonymous. A polyglot Belgian fluent in Spanish, Bruyneel was comfortable in Spain. Some of his biggest successes as a pro came on Spanish roads, he purchased a home in the posh seaside resort at Denia and married a Spanish woman.
After riding the final years of his career at ONCE, he developed strong connections within the Spanish cycling establishment that would prove invaluable when he took over U.S. Postal Service at the end of 1998.
Three of the most important players in the doping conspiracy — Spanish doctors Pedro Celaya and Luís del Moral and trainer Pepe Martí — all lived and worked along the Mediterranean Coast just a few hours’ drive from Girona.
By the 2000, France and Italy had both enacted strict anti-doping laws that gave police and prosecutors sweeping powers. Spain had no such law until 2006.
The USADA dossier paints an vivid, detailed portrait of how the Spanish doctors, with the assistance of Martí, procured, distributed and administered doping products, all from their operational base in Spain. Based on excerpts from the USADA “Reasoned Decision,” VeloNews has been able to reconstruct a narrative of how the Spanish connection was a vital ingredient to the ring’s success.
Sweet home Girona
When U.S. Postal Service was born in 1996, its aim was to be an American team, but based in Europe. Management wanted a full-time presence in Europe and that meant riders were encouraged to live there for the entire racing season.
While previous Americans racing in Europe had settled in northern Italy or around Nice, the new wave of young Americans settled in Girona, a mid-sized historic city in the heart of Spain’s Catalunya region.
The narrow streets, vibrant café life, mild weather, excellent network of low-traffic roads and its close proximity to airports made it an ideal hub for a new generation of American riders trying to break into the European peloton.
Among the first to arrive were George Hincapie and Jonathan Vaughters. Hincapie later described himself as one of the “OGs,” the “original gangsters,” of the new, flourishing Girona base while Vaughters settled into an apartment in the city’s medieval Jewish quarter.
The community quickly grew, as Christian Vande Velde and Tyler Hamilton, and later Michael Barry, Dave Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson and Floyd Landis would settle there.
Each would eventually provide intimate details of his doping practices to USADA investigators.
Many would buy homes, some making more money off Spain’s booming real estate market than they would on their rider salaries. Armstrong later purchased a flat in a restored, 17-century palace in central Girona where his neighbors were Hamilton and Freddy Rodriguez.
Girlfriends and wives would soon follow their racing counterparts across the pond, and many would become willing accomplices in the ever-expanding doping ring.
Riders would meet each morning on Girona’s ancient stone bridge over the Onyra River for training rides. It was often on these training rides, far away from nosey journalists and curious wives and girlfriends that riders would begin to share information and express their misgivings about their doping experiences.
The riders were urged to move to Girona by Johnny Weltz, the former U.S. Postal Service director in the pre-Armstrong era.
The affable Dane, who still lives in nearby Olot, realized that it was harder for the Americans to feel comfortable into Europe and thought it would make sense to have them based in one area, where the team could set up its service course and riders could have some friends to train and race with far away from home.
It was in the narrow streets of Girona’s old city center, famous for its raucous nightlife and Gothic cathedral that U.S. Postal Service’s doping program began to take shape.
Celaya arrives, first touch with doping
In 1997, in its second full season, U.S. Postal Service was just finding its legs as a team, trying to survive in the cutthroat peloton in Europe.
According to previous reports in the Danish media, Hamilton and other team members approached U.S. Postal Service management in 1997 about the lack of a doping program. The riders argued they could barely keep up, let alone win anything, without competing on a level playing field against a peloton fueled by EPO.
Testimony from former riders confirms that in 1997, one year before Armstrong joined the team, Dr. Pedro Celaya, a Spanish doctor with strong ties to the Spanish cycling community, replaced Dr. Prentice Steffen, the American doctor who now works with Garmin-Sharp.
USADA’s investigations did not reveal who made that initial decision to fire Prentice and hire Celaya, but the statement was loud and clear. According to the USADA report, that is when the team’s doping program took root: “It is acknowledged by those who were on the team at this time that the organized team doping program for the U.S. Postal Service Cycling team began at this point.”
Celaya would come and go throughout the team’s history, but riders remembered him fondly, and later described him as a doctor who “actually cared about our health.”
Celaya is still active in cycling and was working with RadioShack-Trek this season. He is currently facing a lifetime ban as a result of the USADA investigation and the team removed his profile from its website recently.
“One of the first things that Celaya did upon meeting the riders was to measure their hematocrit,” USADA quoted one of the riders.
That meant, of course, creating a baseline to determine how much EPO they could inject without surpassing the UCI’s recently imposed 50-percent hematocrit level.
Before the arrival of Armstrong, U.S. Postal Service was still seen as a small-time team. When they received an invite to the 1997 Tour, their stated goal was to have all nine riders simply arrive to Paris. No one dared to dream of winning the Tour. A stage win would have beyond their wildest dreams.
But it was clear, even before Armstrong’s arrival in 1998, the “Posties” were already starting their own doping program, not to try and dominate the sport’s biggest race, but to simply survive.
Things changed dramatically with the arrival of Armstrong for the 1998 season. Long before his superstar status would take root, the former world champion was a shell of his former self and his future far from secure.
His treatments for testicular cancer in 1996 had emaciated his body, but not his spirit. Armstrong was determined to return as a pro and bent on making up for lost time.
Several teams snubbed their noses at Armstrong, who was viewed as damaged goods by the European cycling establishment. Cofidis had terminated his contract in 1997. Others laughed at the notion that Armstrong could race again at the top level, let alone dare to win the Tour.
Patrick Lefevere, then the team manager at mighty Mapei, recalls what he says is his lone conversation with Armstrong. It occurred in 1998, after Mapei team owner, Dr. Giorgio Squinzi, had refused to sign Armstrong.
“The only time I spoke with Armstrong was in 1998, when he came up to me and said, ‘Squinzi will be sorry because I am going to win the Tour de France,'” Lefevere recalled to VeloNews.
Early in the 1998 season, Armstrong floundered, pulling out of Paris-Nice in his major comeback race that left many wondering if they had seen the last of the hard-nosed Texan.
Armstrong came back better than ever, however, fueled by EPO and other drugs, says USADA, and finished fourth in both the 1998 Vuelta a España and the world championship road race.
But Armstrong didn’t like or trust the sometimes nervous and distracted Weltz.
By season’s end, the Dane was quickly jettisoned in favor of Bruyneel, a recently retired Belgian pro that hardly knew Armstrong. The pair hit it off, however, and the duo quickly took control of the team.
With Bruyneel came an even stronger Spanish link that would shape the direction of the doping practices all the way through Armstrong’s second comeback in 2009. Many staffers, soigneurs and mechanics that Bruyneel knew from his racing days would land jobs at the upstart American team.
Weltz was gone, and so, too, was Celaya. By the end of the 1998, Armstrong was complaining that Celaya was not providing enough doping products.
Bruyneel, who raced at ONCE under the guidance of notorious Spanish director Manolo Saiz, knew just the man for the job.
Here’s what USADA wrote about the arrival of Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral:
One of Bruyneel’s first acts was to replace Dr. Celaya, the U.S. Postal team physician in 1997 and 1998, with Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral who had provided services to the ONCE team. At the end of the 1998 season Lance had complained to Jonathan Vaughters that Celaya was too conservative in the way he dispensed doping products. Armstrong’s comment about Dr. Celaya was along the lines of, the team “might as well race clean, he wants to take your temperature to give you even a caffeine pill. Dr. del Moral was far more aggressive than Dr. Celaya in providing doping products to riders.”
Del Moral provides the gas
Things quickly accelerated with Bruyneel behind the wheel and Armstrong firmly established as the team’s outright leader. The 1999 Tour was the goal and the road to the Champs-Élysées was going to be paved in dope.
USADA said everything changed with the arrival of Del Moral: “Bruyneel brought Dr. del Moral with him from the ONCE operation, and del Moral and Bruyneel worked hand-in-hand in implementing the team-wide doping program on the U.S. Postal Service team during the period from 1999 through 2003.”
Riders who waivered on their commitment to sticking needles in their arm in order to win bike races were quickly jettisoned. Armstrong began pressuring other riders on the team to “get with the program” or face exclusion.
Under del Moral, the team ramped up its use of EPO injections and other banned substances such as testosterone, human growth hormone, cortisone and steroids, along with blood transfusions.
USADA said del Moral “formalized” the Postal Service doping program and quickly set about getting the team up to speed. Riders, however, were finding that they were missing the friendlier, more humane Celaya.
According to USADA, “Christian Vande Velde recalled Dr. del Moral as ‘gruff, aggressive and always seemed in a hurry.’ Vande Velde said, del Moral ‘would run into the room and you would quickly find a needle in your arm.’”
Another new face to show up was Pepe Martí, a self-professed trainer who soon became an integral part of the nuts and bolts operation and known within the team as the “courier.” According to USADA, Martí and Del Moral soon worked as a tandem.
Lurking in the background was Dr. Michele Ferrari, who, from his base in Italy, worked on training schedules and prescribing EPO doses. According to the USADA report, it was the Spanish pair on the ground in Spain that carried out the physical act of acquiring and administering the doping products:
In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service team had a well-developed system for delivering EPO to its riders during the season. Pepe Martí and Dr. del Moral were the riders’ principal sources of EPO and testosterone. Andreu got injections of EPO from Dr. del Moral at races. George Hincapie and Tyler Hamilton confirmed that “EPO was provided by Pepe Martí who lived about three hours from where [Hincapie and Hamilton] lived in Girona, Spain”.
Del Moral also proved an invaluable and trustworthy accomplice.
According to USADA, when Armstrong tested positive for cortisone in the early going of the 1999 Tour, it was Del Moral that cooked up the backdated, fake Therapeutic Use Exemption to bypass a doping sanction.
USADA on the incident:
Tyler Hamilton remembers, “a great deal of swearing from Lance and Johan, and Dr. del Moral repeating, ‘¡Qué lío!’” Tyler said, the “general understanding was that they were scrambling to come up with something because Lance had used cortisone without medical authorization… Armstrong and the team officials agreed to have Dr. del Moral backdate a prescription for cortisone cream for Armstrong which they would claim had been prescribed in advance of the Tour to treat a saddle sore.”
The Spanish connections were clearly paying off. Against all odds, Armstrong beat the positive test and won the first of seven Tours in 1999.
Celaya back after 2003 disaster
The well-oiled system was working beyond imagination. Armstrong continued to reel off one Tour victory after another. He moved to Girona in 2000 to be closer to his teammates and the team’s doping operations as well as avoid the French, who discovered that team staffers had thrown away vials of used Actovegin in the 2000 Tour.
Armstrong became a worldwide sensation, a rock star-dating anti-cancer crusader that hung out with the likes of Robin Williams and even went mountain biking with presidents. Millions wore the yellow LiveStrong wristband and there seemed to be no stopping Armstrong. There was even talk that Armstrong some day could enter politics.
With Ferrari orchestrating things from Italy, and Del Moral and Martí on the ground in Spain, Armstrong and his entourage had created the perfect system. They could literally dope at will and easily evade detection. Spain came in handy for that as well.
Well before the UCI created its out-of-competition testing system (ADAMS), Armstrong would literally disappear into the Spanish Pyrénées when he needed to avoid authorities.
Johan Bruyneel told Tom Danielson that when Lance Armstrong needed to avoid drug testing he would simply go stay at the Hotel Fontanals Golf in Puigcerdà, Spain, where Armstrong was virtually certain not to be tested.”
The 2003 Tour, however, was a near-disaster for Armstrong.
Rivals were nipping at his heels. Joseba Beloki, riding for Bruyneel’s former tutor Saíz at ONCE, looked better than ever. Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion, was on his best form in years.
Hamilton wrote in his book, “The Secret Race,” that it was a case of the Joneses finally catching up and that rivals had figured out what Armstrong was up to. Rival doping networks — later revealed at the Freiburg Clinic in Germany and with Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes in Spain — were developing doping programs that matched those of Ferrari and Del Moral.
By 2003, blood doping had firmly become an established piece of the doping arsenal. It was complicated business: an extraction of up 500cc would have to be refrigerated, labeled properly, transported safely and later re-injected.
Botching it could prove deadly. Jesus Manzano, the Spanish whistle-blower from Kelme who was largely ignored by the Spanish cycling community when he went public with doping claims in 2004, nearly died in the 2003 Tour when he said the team re-injected contaminated blood.
Re-injecting one’s own blood, known as a homologous transfusion, remains undetectable even today. Riders said it was like giving them a new set of legs.
In describing how the elaborate blood-doping process would work, the USADA report states: “Ferrari and del Moral supervised the extraction process. The riders were told that Martí and del Moral would be responsible for re-infusing the blood during the Tour. The whole process took about an hour…”
After suffering through his most challenging Tour victory yet in 2003 — that year’s winning margin of 1:01 would be the narrowest of his seven yellow jerseys — Armstrong decided to shake things up. Del Moral got the boot and team management brought Celaya back in.
After getting fired the first time for being too conservative, USADA testimony reveals that the Spanish doctor was not going to make the same mistake twice:
Five years after his departure from the U.S. Postal Service team, Dr. Celaya returned to the U.S. Postal Service team for the 2004 season after Dr. del Moral fell out of favor with Armstrong, apparently due in part to Armstrong feeling like del Moral had some blame for Armstrong’s weaker performance in the 2003 Tour than in his previous Tour winning performances. After returning to the team in 2004 , Dr. Celaya picked up where he had left off, continuing his involvement in providing banned drugs to riders and his participation in the team blood doping program. Also, like Dr. del Moral before him, Celaya continued the practice of injecting the riders with substances he would not identify even when asked.
The scope of the Spanish activities went beyond Bruyneel’s orbit.
Martí, whom Landis later described as “nothing more than a pusher,” was actively procuring and supplying riders with doping products purchased in Spain.
USADA wrote that Martí “also surreptitiously sold banned performance enhancing drugs to athletes who were not at the time on the U.S. Postal Service or Discovery Channel Cycling teams. Beginning in 2003 Levi Leipheimer began purchasing EPO from Pepe Martí… When Leipheimer approached Martí about purchasing EPO in 2005, Martí asked Leipheimer ‘not to tell Johan that Pepe was providing drugs to a rider from a rival team.’”
With little or no enforcement from authorities to act as a deterrent, Spain was like an open market. Drugs were easily available in Spain and Martí was more than willing to deliver.
Familiar faces in Comeback 2.0
When Armstrong returned to racing in 2009, Bruyneel had established himself at Astana, where he had taken control of the embattled, Kazakh-backed squad. Following Bruyneel were some familiar faces, including Martí and Celaya. Many of the team’s soigneurs, mechanics and support staff also followed, many of them Spanish as well.
With Armstrong back, the band was ready to rock again.
USADA wrote: “In addition to Dr. Ferrari, during 2009 and 2010 Armstrong surrounded himself with many of the key pieces in the U.S. Postal Service blood doping program, including Johan Bruyneel, Pedro Celaya and in 2009 Pepe Martí. Each of these individuals had an extensive background in, and experience with, blood doping Armstrong and his teammates.”
USADA claims that Armstrong resumed his doping activities during this 2009-2011 comeback. Standing right by his side during much of that time were the loyal Spanish enablers.
Armstrong’s legacy in Spain
Spain remained an integral part of the Armstrong story for more than a decade and many of the same characters are still in play. Bruyneel no longer lives in Spain, but many of the former Spanish U.S. Postal contingent remain active in cycling.
Celaya was employed as a team doctor by RadioShack this season until news of his involvement in the USADA investigation was made public this summer. He is challenging USADA’s call for a lifetime ban and is awaiting arbitration.
After leaving U.S. Postal Service in 2003, Del Moral focused on the sports clinic he founded called Performa SportConsulting, based in Valencia, Spain.
Matt White, the Aussie sport director at Orica-GreenEdge, admitted last week that he doped during his years at U.S. Postal Service. Vaughters fired White in 2011 after White, then working as a sport director for Garmin, told former Garmin rider Trent Lowe to visit Del Moral for a health checkup to help determine why Lowe was performing poorly.
That breached Garmin’s strict team rules restricting riders to consulting with authorized doctors and Vaughters, who intimately knew of Del Moral’s toxic legacy, quickly dispatched the popular White.
Martí remains more elusive. He was allegedly employed by a team in 2012, but USADA did not reveal its name. When USADA sent out its initial finding in August, Martí’s mailing address was listed as the UCI headquarters. UCI officials did not answer queries from VeloNews about Martí’s current employer.
Martí also had close ties to Alberto Contador, but so far the Spanish superstar has remained mum on links to the now too-hot Martí.
Whether Spain remains an oasis for doping is hard to say.
In the wake of the disastrous Operación Puerto scandal — which implicated dozens of pros across the peloton — the Spanish government enacted a tough anti-doping law. The law gives police and investigators sweeping powers to go after doping rings and has made the use of doping products a federal crime that can result in hefty fines and even jail time.
So far, however, courts have been slow to act. A high-profile case involving Spanish track and field athletes, when Fuentes’ name showed up yet again, was unceremoniously dropped by Spanish courts this summer and many of the implicated athletes competed in the London 2012 Olympic Games.
And Spanish justice is notoriously slow to act. After several failed efforts to close the Puerto case, a Spanish judge is finally scheduled to hear the case in February, nearly seven years after the initial raids.
In the early 2000s, as Bruyneel and Armstrong gained control of the team, several Spanish riders became key members of the squad, replacing American riders with less European experience. Though USADA apparently did not interview any former Spanish teammates during its investigation, many were Armstrong’s most loyal sidekicks during his career.
There was a strong Spanish accent within the team, with riders such as José Luís “Chechu” Rubiera, Roberto Heras, Manuel Beltrán, Benjamín Noval and later Haimar Zubeldia and even Contador.
So far, none have spoken out against Armstrong and those queried by VeloNews have refused to comment.
Obviously, south of the Pyrénées, the rule of omerta is still respected.