By Andrew Hood
Spanish cycling is reeling following the confirmation that Roberto Heras tested positive for the banned blood-booster EPO in samples taken in the penultimate stage of the 2005 Vuelta a España.
After the results of a counter-analysis conducted Monday by Spain’s Consejo Superior de Deportes were announced Friday, Heras – who will likely be stripped of his 2005 Vuelta crown and faces a two-year racing ban – charged that the test is flawed and promised a lengthy legal battle to clear his name.
Heras is the most successful Spanish rider of his generation, winning the Vuelta a record four times and spending three years as a member of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France-winning team. The implications of this case could reach far beyond Heras himself as Spanish cycling struggles to retain its credibility with the media and fans following a string of doping scandals.
Here is a wrap-up of reactions from Spain:
Heras: ‘I will fight to the end’
Heras said he will fight “to the end” to prove his innocence of charges that he used EPO to win the 2005 Vuelta.
“I am not thinking of retirement, but to fight to the end to demonstrate my innocence,” Heras said in a Madrid press conference. “This result never entered my head. I am convinced that the testing method doesn’t provide the necessary guarantees. There have been a lot of previous errors and in my judgment, it’s not trustworthy.”
Heras’s legal team has already indicated they will fight the doping charge in the Spanish cycling federation as well as the Court of Arbitration of Sport. Heras’s lawyers also said they will consider defending their client in a civil suit, taking the case beyond the established sports appeals process.
Heras, who was accompanied by Liberty Seguros teammates Marcos Serrano and Angel Vicioso, insisted he has never doped in his racing career.
“I have never taken a doping substance, not in the Vuelta nor in my 14 years of racing bikes,” Heras said. “There have been so many errors in the past that for me the test is discredited.”
Liberty Seguros: ‘You’re fired’
Following the news of his positive EPO test, Heras is no long a member of the Liberty Seguros team. As expected, the team fired its star rider after the news that a counter-analysis confirmed the presence of EPO in Heras’s system. The team had suspended Heras after the A sample tested positive.
In a statement released Friday, Active Bay, the management company of Liberty Seguros, said:
“Active Bay – after receiving confirmation from the rider of his positive testing in the counter-analysis – regrets to inform that as a result of the commitments pledged through the ethical code endorsed by all UCI-ProTour teams, it will proceed to terminate the contract of Roberto Heras as soon as it receives an official confirmation from the (UCI), following which the rider will step down from the team.”
Menchov ‘shocked’ by news
Denis Menchov, the Russian rider on Rabobank who stands to be declared winner of the ’05 Vuelta, said he was “shocked” by Friday’s news.
“My first reaction was that it was a laboratory mistake,” Menchov told the Russian media. “Personally I would rather be crowned the Vuelta champion by winning on the road than in a court battle. In any case, it’s bad for the image of cycling.”
Menchov held the leader’s jersey for more than a week, won two stages and finished second at 4:36 back. Third-placed Carlos Sastre (CSC), who finished 18 seconds slower than Menchov, would move into second. Mancebo would bounce into third to give him his second consecutive Vuelta podium.
Vuelta director laments news
Victor Cordero, the general director of the Vuelta a España, said the word on Heras makes life more “complicated” for one of cycling’s three-week grand tours.
“With this news my soul falls to my feet that we have to put Roberto on the list of cheaters,” Cordero told the Spanish wires. “We can no longer confide in Roberto.”
Cordero said the news hurts the Vuelta, but insisted that in the long run, it shows that cheaters will eventually be caught if they are using banned performance-enhancing products.
“We put in place the methods to catch the cheaters and later we pay the price,” he said. “This has demonstrated that Spain is not a paradise for cheaters and (despite) the pain it causes me, we have the satisfaction that the methods work.”
Cordero said the race must await official word from the Spanish cycling federation and the UCI before moving forward with any sanction to strip Heras of the victory.
Saiz ‘destroyed’ by news
Manolo Saiz, sport director at Liberty Seguros, said he is “destroyed” by news that his star rider tested positive for EPO. The Spanish director insisted that Heras is innocent, and said the team will move on despite the controversy.
“He can always count on my support and I am confident that in the near future he can demonstrate his innocence,” Saiz told EFE radio. “This is the first time in 18 years that I am confronted with a situation like this. More than anything, I am very sad for the rider.”
Saiz said he will call a team meeting “as soon as possible” to discuss the implications of the Heras case as well as the future of the team. Saiz later criticized the viability of the EPO test and insisted that cycling is being unfairly attacked.
“When there’s bad news like this, it always seems to be cycling, but it’s not only here,” he said. “I don’t want to make an opinion about other sports, I have to look out for what’s best for cycling.”
Mancebo calls EPO positive ‘inexplicable’
Francisco Mancebo – who stands to move from fourth to third place on the final podium with Heras’s positive – said he was surprised that Heras had tested positive so late in the race.
“It seems inexplicable,” he told the news agency Europa Press. “I don’t know what could have happened. Maybe it was the pressure, his desire to win or greed, but it was strange that it happened when he had such an advantage.”
Indeed, it seems strange that Heras would test positive on the penultimate stage despite holding the yellow jersey for the final week of the Vuelta. As race leader, Heras was tested daily with routine anti-doping controls.
The Spanish daily El Pais reported earlier this month, however, that the urine EPO test isn’t necessarily conducted after every stage. Because of its fairly high cost – estimated to be around 400 euros per test – it’s often skipped in favor of less-costly doping tests, the paper reported.
Heras won’t be first to lose Vuelta after the fact
If he’s stripped of the Vuelta crown as expected, Heras will be the second rider in Vuelta a España history to have the overall title taken away due to a doping offense.
In 1982, Angel Arroyo was asssigned a 10-minute penalty days after officially winning the Vuelta, a sanction that gave Marino Lejarreta the win and dropped Arroyo to 13th place
Anti-doping controls were in their infancy in the early 1980s and outright racing bans were yet to be introduced. Instead, riders were issued time penalties for doping infractions.
Arroyo was among several riders who tested positive for Ritalin, a banned stimulant that was detected in stage 17 of that year’s Vuelta. Other riders caught en masse were Vicente Belda (now sport director at Comunidad Valenciana), Alberto Fernández and Pedro Muñoz. The results of the test weren’t released until several days after the Vuelta.
Then, the Vuelta was still held in the spring, and Arroyo, who denied the doping allegations, went on to win a stage and finish second overall in the 1983 Tour de France.