By Andrew Hood
In an emotional press conference Friday, Bjarne Riis became the first racer to admit he took banned performance-enhancing products on his way to winning the Tour de France.
Riis ended Miguel Indurain’s five-year streak in 1996 and admitted Friday he used the banned blood booster EPO, steroids and human growth hormones from 1993 to 1998.
Riis, now owner and manager of Team CSC, verged on tears as he publicly recanted his drug use. The 43-year-old Dane said he always regretted using the banned substances.
“It’s possible that I’m not a hero anymore,” he said. “I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed people. And for those for whom I was a hero, I’m sorry. They’ll have to find new heroes now.”
The declarations came on the heels of a flood of confessions coming from German riders who rode for the Telekom team during the mid-1990s.
Others coming forward to admit they used EPO and other banned substances include Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Udo Bölts, Rolf Aldag and Erik Zabel. All are retired except Zabel, who races with the German team Milram.
Reactions were varied from various players in the cycling community. Here’s a sampling of some of the latest:
Can Riis lose his Tour title?
Officially no. According to World Anti-Doping Agency rules, there is an eight-year statute of limitations on stripping titles for doping confessions. Riis won his Tour title 12 years ago and will be allowed to officially keep the victory.
“The eight-year statute of limitations has expired,” UCI president Pat McQuaid told the German wire service SID. “We’re not going to rewrite history now.”
That didn’t stop the UCI from urging Riis to publicly, and symbolically, surrender his victory.
“Despite the rules of the world anti-doping code, the UCI calls on the former racer to hand back the maillot jaune, the symbol of victory,” the UCI said in a press statement Friday.
Even if Riis does symbolically concede his victory, passing it along to the second and third place finishers will put it in the hands of riders already linked to other doping scandals.
Riis’s runnerup was then-Telekom teammate Jan Ullrich, who retired in February after being linked to the Operación Puerto doping scandal currently erupting in Spain. Third place finisher Richard Virenque was kicked out of the 1998 Tour after he was a key player in the Festina scandal that blew the lid open on organized doping within the sport.
The UCI also portrayed the confessions as something “extremely positive” for the sport and insisted that “the law of silence must be broken.”
“Cycling today has reached a turning point … because now there is a strong will among the majority of players to change things,” McQuaid said in the statement. “Cycling is undergoing a fundamental phase of self-criticism that’s necessary to arrive to a healthier situation. We must create a new cycling, one that the racers, managers, sport directors and team doctors share a new spirit, where the lessons of the past can be learned. I am optimistic and exhort all actors of our sport to collaborate.”
Riis, meanwhile, said he made peace with himself a long time ago.
“My jersey is at home in a cardboard box,” Riis said. “They are welcome to come and get it. I have my memories for myself.”
Prudhomme slams Riis
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme slammed Bjarne Riis in the wake of his admissions that he cheated to win the 1996 Tour and said he doesn’t deserve to be called a Tour champion.
“Bjarne Riis himself has said that he is not worth to have won the Tour 1996, because he cheated,” Prudhomme told AFP. “I agree with him, because he has damaged the Tour de France and the maillot jaune.”
Prudhomme also questioned Riis’s suitability to continue as manager of Team CSC, one of the 20 ProTour teams already secured of an invitation for the 2007 Tour.
“I have two questions. The first one, since he is not worthy to have won, is he worthy to direct an important cycling group? The second one: he was the manager of Ivan Basso last year, and Basso has recognized that he wanted to dope for the preparation of the Tour last year,” he continued. “That makes me question a lot. I would like to know more and that the team and the sponsor of CSC will have to explain the issue.”
Prudhomme tried to find something positive from the avalanche of doping confessions. With the 2007 Tour set to start just six weeks away, the Frenchman is worried that more doping scandals will taint the Tour yet again.
“What happens right now is going in the direction of what we wish,” he said. “We are calling for a change of mentalities to defend this sport that does not need doping to be spectacular. Doping is the enemy of the Tour de France. It is necessary that people start talking.”
Sponsor wants more time
CSC – the giant software company that underwrites Riis’s Team CSC as its main sponsor – said it wants more time to consider the latest revelations before making any public declarations about the future of the team.
The California-based company posted this message on its web-site Friday:“CSC remains steadfast in its opposition to doping in sport. This is why we have been, and continue to be, very much in support of the comprehensive and independent anti-doping program implemented by Team CSC at the beginning of this season. While we are deeply concerned by the revelations from today’s Team CSC press conference, we will have no further public comment until we have fully assessed this information and further discuss the matter with Team CSC.”
Will Ullrich speak?
There seems to be some confusion whether Jan Ullrich will confront allegations that he too was involved with drug-taking as part of the Telekom team in 1996 and 1997. Ullrich finished second to Riis in 1996 and then won in 1997 at just 23 years old.
Initial reports out of Germany on Friday said Ullrich would address the issue, but the latest reports indicate that Ullrich will not make any public comments.Ullrich retired in February after he was linked to the Operación Puerto doping scandal in Spain. In late April, nine bags of blood found in police raids matched DNA samples taken from Ullrich.
Ullrich – who finished five times runner-up at the Tour – has denied taking banned performance-enhancing products.
Sastre supports Riis
Team CSC rider Carlos Sastre publicly declared his support for his beleaguered boss. In a posting on his personal web page, the Spanish rider said Riis deserves the support of the team.
“I can only say that Bjarne has my total respect and support. He is a person that’s committed an error in the past and for a long time now has worked to teach the young riders on the team the paths of struggle, training and sacrifice – values that have a very special stamp on this team. Before this news, so difficult and hard for Bjarne, I only want to say that this team, far from what the rest of the world might think, has a lot to do with who Bjarne is as a person.”