He’s back. Manolo Saiz, the corpulent Spanish team manager who was at the center of the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal in 2006, is making a tentative return to the peloton.
Saiz, who turns 55 next week, was introduced Wednesday as part of the team staff for the Basque amateur under-23 team Baqué-Campos. Saiz will be director of sport and help the team when it travels beyond the Pyrénées to France, Italy, and Belgium. The former ONCE boss will also lead the hunt for sponsors in Spain’s Basque Country to try to register the team for a continental license, before the December 1 deadline.
Saiz didn’t take long to let everyone know he’s back with ambitions, telling media that Spanish cycling needs to change.
“We would need a sponsor [for a continental license]. It’s not possible that the Basque Country, the most important base of national cycling, doesn’t have a team,” Saiz said Wednesday. “[Spanish cycling] is missing something, and we saw that in the world championships. I don’t like this cycling of the ‘last two kilometers,’ and now that’s how they race. Before, everything was done as a unit, and now, it’s about one rider. Before it was a question of quality, now it’s the esthetic, and it destroys the work of the team.”
The Spanish peloton is in ruins, with only Movistar at the WorldTour level, and Caja Rural at pro-continental, so a lot of familiar faces have joined Saiz on the team. They include ex-pro David Etxebarria as sport director, as well as other ex-pros Rubén Gorospe, Mikel Pradera, Roberto Laiseka, Marino Lejarreta, and Herminio Zabala.
His return to the sport was welcomed without much fanfare in the Spanish media, but he remains one of the most contentious figures in the peloton.
Saiz’s rise and fall is one of the most dramatic in cycling. He was one of cycling’s most powerful and controversial team managers during the EPO era’s heyday. He linked up with Spanish lottery ONCE in 1989 to create a new team, and soon became a lightning rod for controversy. His teams won a lot of bike races, yet he often locked horns with the Tour de France brass, especially in the scandal-ridden 1998 Tour marked by the Festina Affair.
The Operación Puerto doping scandal in 2006 revealed that not much had changed in the peloton since Festina peeled back the curtain on doping within the sport. The arrival of a test to detect EPO in the early 2000s, however, meant that teams and riders began using dangerous, but highly effective blood transfusions to avoid detection in anti-doping controls.
Following tip-offs from riders, including whistleblower Jesus Manzano, police detained Saiz in May 2006 after leaving a meeting with an associate of ringleader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes in Madrid. Saiz was released the next day, but the police investigation blew the lid open on an international doping ring that involved dozens of elite riders from Spain, Italy, Germany, and France, including Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi, Tyler Hamilton, and Jan Ullrich. Others later linked to Fuentes included Mario Cipollini, Marco Pantani, and Alejandro Valverde, who served a two-year ban for Puerto links.
The Puerto scandal proved disastrous for Spanish cycling, and Liberty Seguros immediately pulled its sponsorship. The team later morphed into Astana, which saw two of its riders recently test positive for EPO.
After a string of appeals, a Spanish court booked Saiz and others on charges of endangering public health. More serious charges could not be applied because a new, tougher anti-doping law introduced after the Puerto raids could not be retroactively applied to the case.
Under intense media scrutiny, Saiz receded from public view as Puerto slowly played out in the Spanish courts. He opened an upscale hotel in his native Cantabria, and worked with the board of directors for the Racing of Santander soccer club, but he yearned to return to cycling.
Last year, a Spanish judge cleared Saiz of legal wrongdoing as part of a high-profile Puerto trial that began in February. Such witnesses as Hamilton and Jörg Jaksche detailed how Fuentes would help them re-inject their own blood ahead of major races. None of Saiz’s former riders testified against him, and because charges were limited to relatively minor offenses, Saiz was cleared.
Even as the Puerto trial unfolded, Saiz quietly began working with the Basque amateur team as an advisor behind the scenes in 2012, but he will now step back into a much more public role in 2015.
Does he have ambitions of returning to the WorldTour level? Finding a sponsor to take the team to the continental level could be the first step. Saiz hinted he has larger plans.
“It’s a step I wanted to take,” Saiz said Wednesday. “I’ve been collaborating with the team, and now I am going to be involved a little more because I want to think about the future.”
Still popular in Spain, Saiz’s imminent return will surely prove divisive in some quarters.
The UCI is grappling with how to deal with unrepentant players such as Saiz. He has never spoken publicly about his role in the Puerto scandal or admitted to any wrongdoing.
Earlier this year, the UCI created an independent commission dubbed CIRC (Cycling Independent Reform Commission) to investigate cycling’s disastrous EPO era, during which Saiz played a central role.
CIRC has promised reduced bans for repentant riders who come forward, and a few riders have done so, including Mauro Santambrogio, who could see his four-year ban from his 2013 Giro positive reduced to 18 months for cooperation. Lance Armstrong, who received a life ban from USADA, has also reportedly met with CIRC investigators.
The commission is not only looking at individual riders, however, but also the support system that came with doping practices, such as doctors, soigneurs, couriers, team managers, and dealers that were needed to cheat and avoid detection.
The UCI and CIRC are also struggling with how to fairly deal with characters like Saiz, who managed and ran one of the biggest, most successful teams during the EPO era.
Last week, UCI president Brian Cookson said that he’s hoping to work with the CIRC commission to create a framework to determine who is “fit and proper” to work in the sport.
“One of the things I want to come out is some guidelines on who is ‘fit and proper,’ of what kind of person can be involved in the management of a team,” Cookson said. “We are hoping the commission gives some firm guidelines about how we can deal with this.”
Cookson’s comments suggested that anyone who has not cooperated with CIRC, which should produce a report in early 2015, could be left out in the cold if the panel comes up with some strict guidelines to keep ex-dopers and facilitators from having a place in team management.
Perhaps Saiz has already spoken to CIRC. The UCI will not publicly reveal who has cooperated, but if he hasn’t, he might want to before it closes down shop at the end of December.