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Paul Kimmage: No escaping the shadow


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly

I never read the book (Rough Ride) from cover to cover but from the bits I read I knew it would go down badly in the peloton. There was a code in professional cycling and he went over the code big time. He certainly wasn't going to be welcome at the Tour de France after that.
Sean Kelly: The Autobiography

Seven weeks ago, at a Senate hearing in Paris, Laurent Jalabert raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his experience of doping in professional cycling. Jalabert (45) was no ordinary witness. A serial race winner and former World No 1, he was the most popular racer in France when he retired in 2002 and in the 11 years since, the spotlight has never dimmed.

They called him 'Jaja'. Now they're calling him a liar.

What Jalabert knew, when he stood before the Senators in May, was that he had a choice to make – he could tell the truth about his years with the Spanish team, Once, or he could obey the 'code' and retain the love of his fans. "Were we doping? I don't think so," he said.

What he did not know, was that at that very moment, at a laboratory just across the city, a sample of his urine from the 1998 Tour de France had just been defrosted and would test positive for EPO. The story was broken by L'Equipe five days before the Tour started in Corsica . . .


. . . and a day later, Jalabert announced that he would not be travelling to the race and was withdrawing from his role as the lead-analyst with France Television.

The problem he has now is facing his family and friends and the thousands of loyal supporters who believed what he swore in Paris. The problem the sport has now is that Jalabert's was not the only sample from the '98 Tour to be retested and there are more sensational headlines coming down the track.

Is it fair, at a time when the sport is trying to change, that it's still being held hostage by its past? "Most certainly is not," an incandescent Bernard Hinault and a large swathe of the peloton insisted last week. But not everyone concurred. Robert Millar, a contemporary of Hinault's and a former Tour King of the Mountains, made the following observation in a column for Cyclingnews:

"The high-profile withdrawal of Laurent Jalabert is just one step of a necessary process which is going to hang heavily over this year's event and it doesn't matter if guys like Bernard Hinault stand up and say things have changed or not. That's exactly the kind of attitude that allowed the deceptions to continue for as long as they have."

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Millar also acknowledged his role in those deceptions.

"I started writing my explanation (of my experience of doping) back in February and to my shame it has sat in a folder unfinished. I think I wanted it to be a story of sorts but I now know it doesn't need to be entertaining – facts, names and places will do.

"This latest affair has reminded me I really need to get on with it and send it to someone who I think will use it wisely. I'm not seeking to be a hero or a martyr for doing so . . . but if it helps understand why the culture got as bad as it did, or why Omerta dominated, then so be it."

It was a brave piece of writing and raised a question that Hinault, and many other gods in the sport have never addressed:

What has hurt cycling more? The doping or its denial?

That summer in '98, as the EPO-fuelled Jalabert was zooming around the Tour, a 54-year-old Belgian called Wily Voet was reflecting on his life in a French jail. A week earlier, he had been driving to Dublin in a Festina team car for the start of the race when he was stopped at a border checkpoint by a French customs official . . .

"Have you anything to declare?" the official inquired.

"Not really," Voet replied, "just some vitamins for the riders."

"Okay, pull over and we'll take a look."

. . . and so began "the Festina Affaire."

Life as a team soigneur (masseur) was pretty much all Voet had ever known, but he would never work in cycling again. A year later, after being cast out by the sport he had served so faithfully, he wrote a book: Massacre A La Chaine: Revelations sur 30 ans de tricheries (Breaking the Chain: revelations on 30 years of cheating).

The first extracts appeared in Paris Match and contained some fascinating insights into the doping at Festina and his relationship with the French hero Richard Virenque. They also contained three damning allegations about an Irish hero – Sean Kelly.

The first described Kelly's first classics win at the 1983 Tour of Lombardy. The second described his only day in yellow at the 1983 Tour de France. And the third described a bizarre twist at the 1984 Paris-Brussels, when Kelly tested positive for the first time in his career. On May 14, a few days after Paris Match was published, I drove to his home in Carrick-on-Suir.

He was sitting with his brother, Vincent, when I showed him the extract. Vincent was shocked; Kelly didn't blink: "I will not be making any comment until I get more information on the full contents of the book," he said.

Three days later, I sent him the book and asked him to get back to me as soon as he had read it. That was 14 years ago. I'm still waiting for the call.

So it was a surprise to see the silence finally broken with the publication of Hunger, Kelly's just-published autobiography.

This is how Voet described what happened in Paris-Brussels when Kelly tested positive in 1984. "Ten days before Paris-Brussels in 1984, a race that was made for him but one he had curiously never won, Kelly got sick. Bronchitis. He took ephedrine for a week – an excellent product for clearing the bronchial tubes – but carried the penalty of being detectable at (doping) control. Sean stopped the treatment three days before the race, because even though the tests weren't as good as they are today, he didn't want to take a chance.

"After the race – he had finished third behind Eric Vanderaerden and Charly Mottet – the Irishman was called to doping control. Not a problem. We hid a container of urine one of the mechanics had provided in his (Kelly's) shorts and he managed to pass it off as his own. This, as we had seen before, was always easier for the champions.

"A few days later, Kelly received a letter from the International federation informing him that he had tested positive in Paris-Brussels. The product? Stimul, which contains some amphetamine. He was incredulous. I started an investigation and soon got to the bottom of it: the mechanic had taken a stimulant during a long drive in the truck to stay awake at the wheel."

This is how Kelly described the same positive test to a journalist – David Walsh – in October 1984. "Last Tuesday week I received a notice which said that my urine sample for Paris-Brussels was positive. I just couldn't believe it. I immediately thought that there had been a mistake and that I would be cleared by the counter-examination of my sample. Through the Irish Cycling Federation and its international secretary, Karl McCarthy, I had an Irish doctor present at the second examination. This morning the news came that the result of the second test was the same as the first.

"Something is wrong: I did not take anything to ride Paris-Brussels. An error has been made and I will fight this affair until I can get it sorted out. In my eight years as a professional bike-racer I have been tested about two hundred times and have always been okay. This season I was tested in every other race and, until now, there was never a problem. Paris-Brussels is not an important classic – after the season I have enjoyed it was not important for me.

"On the day I was going okay, but got tired in the last few kilometres and was well beaten in the sprint by Vanderaerden and Mottet. There is no way I took anything. If I had, is it likely that I would have finished third and therefore ensured I was tested at medical control? I am convinced that the mistake happened because of irregularities at the testing centre that day.

"The medical control at Paris-Brussels was very badly organised and lots of people were in the room who had no right to be there. When the rider is giving his sample I believe there should be just two people in the room. When I gave mine, there were about seven people there. In all this confusion something must have gone wrong."

This is how Kelly describes the 1984 positive in Hunger: "I had finished third behind Eric Vanderaerden and Charly Mottet and I went to the dope control. The doctor took me into a small toilet so I could urinate into a container. That sample was then split between two smaller jars, sealed with wax and labelled.

"A few weeks later, there was a story in the French newspaper L'Equipe saying that one of the first three at Paris-Brussels had tested positive for a substance called Stimul. I asked my doctor what it was and he said it was something students took to help them concentrate when revising for exams.

"I had not taken anything, so I asked for the second sample to be tested and I asked Karl McCarthy from the Irish Cycling Federation to be my witness at the second test because I was busy racing.

"He said that there was a tiny amount of urine in the jar, less than the minimum required. I went before the Belgian Cycling Federation and they gave me a three-month suspended ban, which meant that if I had another problem within two years, I'd be in trouble. I paid the fine in Swiss francs but I felt aggrieved because my reputation had been damaged.

"I appealed to the UCI and they agreed that although there were grounds for making a case that protocol had not been followed, they wouldn't turn over the Belgian federation's decision. I considered appealing but I didn't want the case to drag on. The suspended ban wasn't going to stop my career."

This is how he describes his second time to test positive at the Tour of the Basque Country in 1988. "The race was always important to our Spanish sponsor, Kas, so there was never any opportunity for me to remain quietly in the bunch. I had to show my face at the front and be competitive.

"That week I was riding very well. I won a stage and was in the top three in all the others, although as the week went on I was developing a tickly cough.

"On the final day, there were two stages. I was third in the road race stage that morning, which meant I was 40 seconds behind the Dutchman Eric Breukink overall going into the afternoon's time trial. I gave it everything but the gap was too much to make up, although I was pleased to make it onto the podium.

"After the stage my cough was worse, so I took a swig from a bottle of cough medicine I'd bought from a pharmacist near my home in Belgium. The pharmacist was a friend of mine and he was involved in cycling at a regional level, so I trusted him to know what I could take safely when I was racing. He kept up-to-date with which substances were on the banned list.

"Then I went to dope control to give a urine sample before flying to France for Paris-Roubaix . . . (A few weeks later) before I was due to fly to Tenerife for the start of the Vuelta, Ramon Mendiburu called me to say I'd tested positive at the Tour of the Basque Country. He told me the drug was codeine and as soon as he said that I knew it had to be the cough medicine I'd taken.

"I explained the situation to Mendiburu and to Louis Knorr, the boss of Kas. Knorr understood but he wasn't happy because they made soft drinks so they didn't want any association with doping, but they understood it had been an accident. Louis Knorr wasn't angry but he was concerned.

"He said: 'Don't worry, the press is on our side'.

"If it had been a case involving steroids or a performance-enhancing drug rather than something that was in a cough medicine the situation would have been different. But it still wasn't something I wanted to be involved in. I was penalised ten minutes in the overall standings at the Tour of the Basque Country and I accepted the result.

"There wasn't a big controversy. It certainly wasn't like it is today. There was a story in the paper announcing the result and that was it. The organisers of the Vuelta and the Spanish Cycling Federation supported me."

And that's pretty much it from Kelly on doping. He does not address the problem. He does not suggest a solution. But hey, he's still welcome at the Tour.

In May 1999, a week after I'd delivered the extracts to Kelly, I sat down with Wily Voet at his home in Gap.

He was sorry to have dropped the bomb on Kelly – a man he still regarded as a friend – but prison had burst the bubble and he had felt compelled to tell the truth.

"The thing professional cycling needs now is for everyone – riders, masseurs, doctors, organisers, administrators – to stand up and take responsibility for the mess the sport has become."

Two months later, Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France.

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