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For all the light straining to reach cycling’s shadows, the portrait of its doping past remains a murky approximation of the truth. A few faces lit, in focus, while just as many hide behind plausible deniability and omerta. The shadows of secrets well kept continue to obscure those who wish to keep the past in its place. Many of those perceptible but not definitively identifiable individuals remain in the sport to this day.
On Thursday, the past of one of those individuals, Dr. Geert Leinders, former Rabobank and Team Sky doctor, was brought into sharp focus.
Testimony from former Rabobank riders Michael Rasmussen and Levi Leipheimer described systematic, authorized doping within the Rabobank team in the mid-2000s. The two riders implicated and ended the career of Dr. Leinders. He is now banned for life from working with athletes.
Leinders, responding to the accusations in NOS, brushed aside the testimony. “As a physician, I consider myself as innocent in this matter,” he said. “I already decided three years ago to never be active in cycling as team doctor.”
The testimony also implicates the UCI’s chief medical officer, Mario Zorzoli; the same Zorzoli that expedited a therapeutic-use exemption (TUE) for Chris Froome in 2014, bypassing the TUE committee set up to handle controversial cases.
With each investigation, each grain of testimony, each story told by rider or doctor or soigneur or governing body official willing to come forward, the full portrait of cycling’s past comes closer to completion.
The following is a summary of the testimony of Rasmussen and Leipheimer, taken under oath by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Some of the details have been released before, some confirm rumors, some are brand new.
Systematic, accepted doping
Dr. Leinders worked with Rabobank from 1996 to 2009, primarily in the role of team doctor, but also as a member of the team’s board from 2004 to 2009. He was “the linchpin in terms of doping on team Rabobank,” according to testimony from Steven Teitler, manager of legal affairs at Dutch anti-doping agency NAD.
“He advised riders what to use, when to use, how to use, and he advised riders on how to avoid getting caught. He would assist in setting up a way to engage in blood doping or even assist them to engage in blood doping,” Teitler said.
Provided as proof of a team-wide doping system, Teitler pointed to testimony from an unnamed rider, Rider 2, that recalled a meeting with all Rabobank riders held for the purpose of discussing the new EPO test.
“Rider 2 further stated that Dr. Leinders told the riders that they needed to keep their hematocrit levels below 50, and that he understood Dr. Leinders’ purpose as instructing riders how to avoid getting caught for using EPO. Rider 2 believed his contract with Rabobank was not renewed because he refused to take EPO,” Teitler’s statement reads.
For the purposes of this particular investigation, the statute of limitations reaches back only to 2004, eight years prior to Levi Leipheimer’s initial testimony, in 2012 during the U.S. Postal Service team investigation, on the role of Leinders with Rabobank.
Rasmussen’s testimony begins with the 2002 season, when he was first approached by Rabobank to join the team. Doping was part of the initial discussion, he claims, describing a conversation in which he discussed his withdrawal from a race because of high hematocrit caused by EPO use.
That wouldn’t have happened if Rasmussen rode for Rabobank, said team representative Theo De Rooij. “As a team they would make sure that it would not happen and Dr. Leinders … would have been the one taking care of that problem,” Rasmussen’s testimony reads.
Rasmussen joined the team the following year. He discussed the use of EPO and other products with Dr. Leinders after his arrival. In his time at Rabobank, he would use EPO, homologous blood transfusions, insulin, DHEA, cortisol, and testosterone, according to his testimony.
Rasmussen’s testimony is corroborated by that of Levi Leipheimer, who rode for Rabobank from 2002 to 2004. Much of his doping has already been detailed in USADA’s exhaustive investigation into doping practices related to the U.S. Postal Service team. Leipehimer first informed USADA of Dr. Leinders’ involvement in doping during an interview for that investigation.
Blood transfusions and EPO
Blood transfusions, either from family members or from stored blood bags, and EPO were both an important part of Rabobank’s doping arsenal, particularly in the early 2000s.
In 2004, Leipheimer bought EPO from Dr. Leinders, and used it up until five days before the Tour de France, according to his testimony.
Rabobank teammate Michael Boogerd received a blood transfusion from his brother during the 2003 Tour de France. Rasmussen discussed the possibility of doing the same, and Rasmussen’s father was tested to see if they could do a transfusion, but he wasn’t compatible.
Dr. Leinders told Rasmussen during the 2005 Tour that “he had a very busy night and had other clients to take care of,” leading Rasmussen to believe that other riders on the Rabobank team were also receiving blood transufions.
Prior to the 2005 Tour, Rasmussen had blood drawn and taken to Dr. Leinders’ facility in Germany for re-infusion during the Tour.
Rasmussen’s natural hematocrit was around 39 or 40, according to his testimony. His hematocrit in July of 2005 was 46, an increase caused by a blood transfusion.
Following the 2005 Tour, Dr. Leinders suggested that Rasmussen contact Boogerd about the Human Plasma clinic, which had the ability to extract multiple blood bags and store those bags for extended periods of time before re-infusion. Rasmussen visited the Human Plasma clinic four times from late 2005 to early 2006 to have blood extracted and stored.
Boogered, Bernard Kohl, Thomas Dekker, and Denis Menchov, among more than 30 other athletes, have all been linked to the Human Plasma clinic.
In 2007, Rasmussen and Dr. Leinders wanted to test the impact of using two blood bags during a stage race. The two used a Sysmex machine owned by Rabobank, the same machine used by the UCI for doping control tests, to test Rasmussen’s blood during the Giro.
The test apparently went well, because Rasmussen infused two blood bags at the 2007 Tour, under the supervision of another Rabobank doctor, Dr. Van Mantgem.
A homologous blood transfusion, the sort Rasmussen claims used by Boogerd, was performed on Leipheimer by Dr. Leinders at the 2003 Vuelta a España, according to Leipheimer’s testimony. The blood came from Leipheimer’s brother, following a blood test that had confirmed the blood types matched. Following that race, Leinders recommended that Leipheimer cease such blood transfusions, as WADA had developed at test for detecting them in 2004.
On Leinders’ recommendation, Rasmussen took 4,000 units of EPO take twice a day after the 2004 Tour to recover for the Olympic Games held in Athens.
The UCI, TUEs, Cortisol, Testosterone
Rasmussen’s testimony implies impropriety within the UCI, specifically within the chief of the UCI medical commission, Mario Zorzoli. Rasmussen claims that he was approached by the UCI at the start of the 2005 Tour de France because a doping control test had showed a very low reticulyte count, which would suggest blood manipulation.
According to Rasmussen’s testimony, Dr. Leinders met with Zorzoli, and, following the meeting, Rasmussen was assured by Dr. Leinders that “Rabobank was a team that had ‘butter on its head’ … meaning that all the problems, doping related problems the team had, would slide off. And he called me the most protected rider in the race.”
Rasmussen testified that later in the 2005 Tour, Dr. Leinders gave him a subcutaneous injection that increased his luteinizing hormone (LH) level. Rasmussen testified that a random doping control test reflected that his LH value after the injection was approximately 20 times higher than it had been one week earlier. There was no action from the UCI following this test.
The issue of Therapeutic Use Exemptions, or TUEs, was discussed as well. Rasmussen testified that he was provided with medical certificates for cortisone during his entire tenure with Rabobank. The cortisone was administered through intramuscular injection, though he had no legitimate need for cortisone.
Canisters kept by Leinders labeled A-Zinc, a common vitamin in Holland, in fact contained testosterone. Rasmussen testified that Rabobank doctors provided him with testosterone throughout his time at Rabobank.
In 2002 Tour, Leipheimer was provided with testosterone tablets labeled A-Zinc, as well as cortisone, neither of which were required by a legitimate medical problem.
Testimony in USADA’s case implicating Leinders only details the methods related directly to a single team, and a single doctor.
Leinders did not disappear following his tenure at Rabobank, however.
The controversy surrounding Team Sky’s hiring of Leinders was in large part responsible for the team’s decision in 2012 to require that all riders and staff sign a pledge swearing they had never participated in doping. Any rider or staff who refused to sign the pledge, which surfaced a week after Leinders’ was let go from the team, was terminated.
With the lifetime ban in place, Leinders can not work with any athlete, in any sport, for the rest of his life. The ban is not limited to cycling.