Óscar Sevilla — the Spanish rider once hailed as a grand tour contender before being implicated in the Operación Puerto doping ring — has found new legs in a move to Colombia. Known as “El Niño” for his youthful looks, Sevilla won last week’s Tour of Mexico racing for a Mexican amateur team called Emepacadora San Marcos.
Speaking to the Spanish daily MARCA, Sevilla said he still loves racing his bike even though he is far away from the high-flying days of racing the Tour de France and challenging for the Vuelta a España.
“They let me race here (in Colombia); the bike is my therapy, it’s a liberation,” Sevilla said. “A lot of bad things have happened, but thanks to that, I came to Colombia and how I have a wife and two wonderful children.”
Now 35, Sevilla is among several pros who were implicated in Puerto, but never sanctioned nor formally charged with anything, yet who have been unable to land back with a major team.
He was kicked out of the 2006 Tour de France and fired, along with then-T-Mobile teammate Jan Ullrich, and has not raced at a top-level team since then.
While the likes of Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi and Alejandro Valverde all served bans and at least partially admitted to their nefarious practices, they have landed back at top teams and are earning million-dollar contracts.
Sevilla, meanwhile, has landed in a sort of cycling purgatory.
He raced in Spain with second-division Relax-Gam in 2007 and had three tumultuous seasons with Rock Racing from 2008-2010. Throughout that time, he would consistently post strong results in the races where he could gain entry.
In 2007, he won Route du Sud. In 2009, he won the Cascade Cycling Classic and was second overall and won two stages at the 2010 Vuelta a Colombia.
That’s things went black again for Sevilla just when it appeared he had turned the corner. He was leading the 2010 Colombian tour, but crashed and went to a local hospital for x-rays, stitches and treatment. He said that’s how tested positive for traces of hydroxyethyl starch, or HES, in what some say is a blood expander to keep blood levels within check.
“It’s simple. I was 13 days the leader of the 2010 Vuelta a Colombia and I passed controls every day. But on the last day, I crashed and I lost the lead. With the crash, I would have abandoned, but I am stubborn, I started the next day and won the stage,” he recounted to MARCA.
“I didn’t even know (hydroxyethyl starch) existed. When I arrived at the hospital, with the team doctor always at my wide, they put in a serum. They gave me stitches on the knee and the hip, they took X-rays and ultrasound,” he said. “Even though I was pretty banged up, I said that night I wanted to race. Later, apparently, in the anti-doping control they discovered some molecules of hydroxyethyl. The only thing I ask for is this to be over as soon as possible.”
Sevilla was initially sanctioned six months by the Spanish cycling federation for the case, but the UCI has appealed the case to CAS.
In a similar case, CAS handed down a two-year ban to Ezequiel Mosquera earlier this year.
While waiting for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to consider his future, Sevilla decided to return to racing. He signed on with the amateur Mexican team just to be able to start the week-long Tour of Mexico.
In fact, he skipped a CAS hearing so he could race the Mexican tour.
“Worried? More than anything, I am tired, because I have withstood this for years. But I am optimistic because I have things clear,” he told MARCA. “I was eight months without racing, due to the problem from the 2010 Vuelta a Colombia. My head was in a bad place due to so much agony, so many problems. Finally I told myself that I had to keep pushing forward and I started to train and enjoy the bike. That’s what I did over the winter.
“Now I am waiting on CAS, so I cannot make plans nor do I have a team,” he continued. “I will continue to race on my own when I can.”
Sevilla said he still believes he can be competitive in Europe and cited the success of 40-year-old Chris Horner as something that keeps his hopes up.
“I know it’s complicated (to return to Europe), but Horner is winning at 40, so maybe someday things will change. But I have been kicked so many times, I don’t know what to think,” Sevilla said.
“I train with an SRM and I know that physically I am stronger, perhaps even better than when I was second in the Vuelta,” he said. “I’ve been careful, I am healthy and I have trained well. I am more experienced and race smarter than I did before. I often train with the Colombians Urán and Henao from Team Sky, and when they hit the hammer, I am up for it.”