By Andrew Hood
Erik Zabel’s tearful confession that he doped in the 1990s won’t end his career as a professional racer.
Milram announced Tuesday that the German sprinter will keep his place on the ProTour team for the remainder of the 2007 season despite his admission last week that he used the banned blood-booster EPO in the 1990s.
“Team Milram’s management and its main sponsor, Nordmilch AG, have decided that Erik Zabel is allowed to continue riding for Team Milram,” the team said in a statement released Tuesday. “Last week Erik Zabel admitted that he once tried performance-enhancing substances in 1996 during his time at Telekom. This offense was singular in his whole career.”
The 36-year-old Zabel is the only active racer among an avalanche of doping confessions last week from some of the biggest stars of the 1990s Telekom heyday, admissions that rocked the German cycling community.
Zabel was among seven riders from the 1996-97 Telekom team to admit using the banned blood booster EPO, capped by Friday’s stunning admission by 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis that he used EPO, human growth hormones and corticoids during his career.
Riis, now the owner and manager of Team CSC, became the first Tour winner to admit to using banned performance-enhancing products.
Zabel, however, insisted he only used EPO for one week during the 1996 Tour and stopped because he didn’t like its potentially dangerous side effects. Otherwise, the six-time Tour green jersey winner says he has raced clean throughout his career.
That seemed to help persuade Milram officials to allow Zabel to continue with his 15-year racing career. In fact, Milram released its roster for the upcoming Bayern race with Zabel listed as the team leader.
Team officials had a heart-to-heart discussion with the German sprinter before deciding to allow him to continue racing.
“The decision wasn’t easy for us. Milram takes the ProTour Ethics Code very seriously, but Zabel’s offenses date back 11 years and the UCI’s anti-doping rules (are) time-barred,” said Milram team manager Gianluigi Stanga. “We also received positive signals from the UCI, the IPTC and ASO. Had this offense occurred during his time at Milram, no conversation would have taken place.”
Zabel will be allowed to complete the 2007 season and team officials will consider later whether they will respect his final year of his contract for the 2008 season.
The Milram decision underscores the complicated circumstances facing many of the sponsors and teams who employ the German EPO confessors.
Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm and Christian Henn will continue in their respective positions as sport directors at T-Mobile and Gerolsteiner while Udo Bölts resigned from his position as sport director at Gerolsteiner.
Riis, meanwhile, owns the holding company of Team CSC, but the title sponsor has so far said it is reserving judgment on the future of its multi-million-dollar sponsorship until further notice.
On Tuesday, Riis posted a note thanking support and encouragement from fans sending messages to the team’s official web page.
“Thank you so much for all your support both for me personally and for the team. I’m happy that our fans come together in support of our team in a tough time such as this,” Riis wrote. “All your e-mails (and there are a lot) have been forwarded to me and I’ve read each one. Unfortunately it’s not possible for me to write all of you personally, but I want you to know that your kind words and support mean the world to me.”
All the riders said it was their decision alone to take EPO and other banned substances, but said pressures from the increasing speeds of a high-octane peloton made it nearly impossible to compete without resorting to doping.
Milram officials say Zabel’s admissions and the confessions of other riders should serve as an example of how cycling can come to terms with its doping past and move forward into a cleaner future.
Milram officials said they contacted UCI president Pat McQuaid, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme and IPTC president Patrick Lefevere to gauge their reactions.
“All three supported us in the decision that Erik Zabel continue with Milram,” said Gerry Van Gerwin, Milram’s commercial manager. “Zabel’s openness should be a role model for the peloton. Everyone who loves cycling wants clean performances.”
Milram officials also said they are considering some sort of penalty for Zabel, which will be announced in the coming weeks.
The admissions have shaken the credibility of cycling within Germany, where the sport flowered in the wake of successes of the Telekom team and a generation of successful German riders.
Zabel said he is hopeful the admissions will help create a cleaner future for cycling.
“It was very important for me to reveal my past. After I apologized to the public on Thursday, I explicitly want to apologize to the management and to my colleagues at Milram,” Zabel said. “I am thankful that the persons responsible appreciate my openness and that they have decided that I am allowed to continue riding for Milram.”
Zabel must now wait to see whether the German Cycling Federation (BDR) will allow him to race in this September’s UCI Road World Championships in Stuttgart.
The BDR have said cyclists even suspected of doping, let alone those who have confessed to it, cannot be chosen for major championships.