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Drug Pedaling A team masseur tells how he doped hundreds of cyclists and set off last year's Tour de France scandal

July 05, 1999
July 05, 1999

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July 5, 1999

Drug Pedaling A team masseur tells how he doped hundreds of cyclists and set off last year's Tour de France scandal

By E.M. Swift Special Reporting by Don Yaeger

For the first time in 20 years Willy Voet will not be inside the
beast that is the Tour de France, cycling's premier race, when
it begins on Saturday under its deceptive cloak of pomp and
pageantry. A Belgian by birth and a masseur by training, the
54-year-old Voet will be home in Veynes, a picturesque town in
the south of France, where once a week he must register at the
local gendarmerie. Charged with illegally trafficking in
performance-enhancing drugs just days before last year's Tour,
he is awaiting a December trial that could result, if he is
convicted, in a sentence of up to five years in prison.

This is an article from the July 5, 1999 issue Original Layout

It has been a year of metamorphosis for Voet since he was
arrested by French customs officials and briefly jailed last
July. He lost his job as masseur for the powerful French-based
Festina cycling team but then wrote an expose on the cycling
culture, Massacre a la Chaine: Revelations sur 30 ans de
tricheries (Chain Massacre: Revelations of 30 Years of
Cheating), which became a best-seller in Europe after its
publication in May. He was abandoned by almost all his friends
in the cycling world yet regained his self-respect. He was
threatened by strangers and vilified by the men he worked for
but has cleansed his conscience and, for the first time in 10
years, rid his body of drugs--except for the sleeping pills he
needs at night. The memories of jail, and a fear of being sent
back, haunt him.

After Voet was caught transporting recreational and
performance-enhancing drugs into France, he eventually admitted
that the latter were for use by Festina cyclists in the Tour de
France, setting off a chain of events that has radically altered
the public's perception of the cycling world. As a masseur for
eight teams in 20 years, he did much more than massage sore
muscles. He was part trainer, part dietician, part doctor and
part pharmacist. Voet estimates that during the course of his
career he spent at least half his time making sure cyclists had
access to whatever their bodies required to perform at the
highest level--fluids, vitamins, food, caffeine, cortisone,
steroids, amphetamines, blood thinner, growth hormones and
masking agents to beat drug tests. Voet worked with some of the
greatest cyclists in the world, including Ireland's Sean Kelly
and France's Richard Virenque. He also saw firsthand just how
pervasive drug use is at the sport's highest level. Masseurs,
like people in most any profession, share information, so Voet
has reason to believe that the teams he worked for were not
unique. According to Voet, the overwhelming majority of the
cyclists in the peloton (the lead group of riders) used illegal
drugs. Those who didn't use them? "The back of the pack," he
told SI in interviews at his home last month.

Asked about such stars as five-time Tour de France champion
Miguel Indurain of Spain (1991 through '95), and Americans Greg
LeMond, a three-time Tour winner (1986, '89, '90), and Lance
Armstrong, the '93 road race world champion, Voet chose his
words carefully. "In my book I only wrote about things I saw
with my own eyes," he said. "I never worked with LeMond or those
other great champions, so I cannot say for certain they were
doing that. But virtually all the good racers I worked with were
taking drugs. And that was also true in the '80s." Of the
estimated 500 cyclists he treated in his career, how many did
not take drugs to enhance their performance? "I can count them
on two hands, maybe two hands and two feet if I'm generous,"
Voet said.

In the '70s, according to Voet, the most widely used
performance-enhancing drugs were amphetamines; in the '80s,
anabolic steroids and cortisone; and in the '90s, growth
hormones and EPO (erythropoietin), a drug that stimulates the
body's production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. If a
doctor wasn't around, it was Voet who often injected the
dosages. Once he leaned out the window of his car and gave a
cyclist a shot in the middle of a race. Another time he used
himself as a guinea pig to test how long a particular steroid,
Clenbuterol, stayed in the system.

Voet knew any number of tricks to get his riders through doping
control. In the '80s, for instance, he would often fill a condom
with "clean" urine, then attach a rubber tube to it. He would
plug the tube and glue small hairs onto it for camouflage. After
a race, before heading to doping control, a cyclist would come
to the team car and insert the condom of clean urine into his
anus. The tube would be glued into his crotch, the fake hair
blending into the real hair of his nether regions should a
doctor be so bold as to inspect. When it came time for the
sample, the rider would unplug the tube and fill his sample cup
with warm, drug-free urine.

As drug testers became more sophisticated in the '90s, so did
Voet and the cyclists. Voet learned how to use a handheld
centrifuge to test a cyclist's blood for an elevated volume of
red cells, a sign of EPO usage, and taught the cyclists how to
use the centrifuge themselves. To avoid detection of EPO in the
event of a surprise test during a race, Voet would prepare IV
bags of saline solution, wrap them in towels and hide them under
the cyclists' beds. If hit with an unexpected test, a cyclist
had just enough time to suspend the IV bag from a bicycle spoke
bent into the shape of an S and hooked over a door, attach a
tube to the bag and put the IV needle into a vein in his arm. In
20 minutes the saline solution would bring his hematocrit value
(the ratio of red blood cell volume to total blood volume) below
the legal limit of 50%.

"A racer who gets caught by doping control is dumb as a mule,"
Voet said. Before the '98 Tour de France, only two of Voet's 500
charges had failed a drug test. In 1984 Sean Kelly was suspended
for one month, but was quickly reinstated, by the International
Cycling Union (UCI), the sport's governing body, after turning
in a urine sample that he had secreted under his jersey during
the Paris-Brussels Classic. According to Voet, Kelly assumed the
sample was clean, but it had been contributed by an acquaintance
who had been popping pills to stay awake during an all-night
drive. The amphetamines showed up in the test.

During his 20-year career Voet developed a reputation as one of
the best in the business at the variety of tasks he performed.
Cyclists, team doctors and team directors trusted him
implicitly. Employed by Festina since 1993, Voet was going
through his usual prerace preparations before last summer's
Tour, which for the first time would begin in Dublin. On July 7,
1998, he left his Veynes apartment carrying two coolers
containing 234 doses of EPO, 24 vials of growth hormones and
testosterone, and 60 capsules of Asaflow, an aspirin-based
product that thins the blood. All are substances banned by the
UCI. According to Voet the drugs had been obtained by a team
connection in Portugal, where they can be purchased over the
counter. For a month before the Tour, Voet stored them in the
vegetable drawer of his refrigerator at home, much to the
annoyance of his wife, Sylvie. She was happy to see them go.

Voet would later tell French authorities that his first stop was
Paris, where he transferred the coolers from his car to
Festina's team car. He drove that car to Ghent, Belgium, the
home of Festina's doctor, Eric Rijckaert, who, according to
Voet, had asked him to come by to pick up more doses of EPO and
some bags of sterile water for intravenous drips. Then Voet
continued to Brussels, where he would spend the night with a
friend. By the time he arrived he had been on the road more than
12 hours.

Voet was up the next morning at 5:30. He was used to long days.
During a race four to five hours of sleep a night is the norm,
so to keep themselves awake many of the masseurs, team managers
and mechanics who serve as the cyclists' support crew routinely
take uppers of one kind or another. "It's easy to justify," Voet
says. "It's better to pop a little pill than to run into a tree
on the side of the road."

The drive from Brussels to Calais, France, where he was to catch
a ferry to Dover, England, was no more than three hours, but to
give himself a little boost, Voet had a "Belgian cocktail," as
it's known in cycling circles, a concoction of amphetamines,
caffeine, cocaine and heroin that is injected into the arm.
This, too, is part of the sport's culture, according to Voet. He
was carrying two vials of the cocktail--one for himself, one for
a friend--each containing 10 to 20 milliliters, enough for 20 to
40 doses. He was pretty sure that was enough to get him through
the rest of the season. The feeling of elation the cocktail
provided him was nearly instantaneous. Voet headed down the
Belgian highway ready to take on the world.

For some reason he still can't explain, Voet began to get
nervous as he neared the French border, so he turned off the
motorway at the last exit in Belgium and decided to cross on a
back road called Route du Bronkeart. A mile into France he was
forced to slow down by the sight of a customs official standing
in the middle of the road. Voet briefly thought of turning
around but decided there was nothing to worry about. In all his
years of driving the garishly identified Festina team car, he'd
never been bothered by customs. No doubt the official would ask
him about Virenque, who'd finished second in the Tour in 1997,
had four times won the King of the Mountains award (given to the
Tour rider with the most points in the hill stages), and was
something of a French national icon. Voet pulled over. It was
then that he noticed another car hidden in the bushes, from
which four uniformed officials emerged. My god, he thought, I'm
dead.

Voet was asked if he had anything to declare. "Not really, just
some vitamins for the cyclists," he replied. Voet wasn't worried
about the coolers containing Festina's drugs, which he had
placed behind the driver's seat. He'd transported those so many
times he didn't even think of them as illegal. In his mind they
really were like vitamins. He certainly didn't think he could go
to jail for carrying them. Voet was worried about the two
Belgian cocktails in his pocket--"real illegal drugs," he says.

It didn't take long for the officials to open the two coolers
with the unidentified vials of EPO, growth hormones and
testosterone. Asked about their contents, Voet said he didn't
know what they were beyond recovery aids for the cyclists. The
customs officers said they were going to send the vials to the
lab to be tested. When Voet told the officers he had to catch a
boat in Calais to make the start of the race, one of them
replied, "You can forget about your boat."

Voet had been able to drop one of his Belgian cocktails into the
grass without detection, but when he was strip-searched at the
customs office in Neuville-en-Ferrain, the other was found in
his underwear, and he was handcuffed. When the results of the
lab tests on the vials in the coolers came back, Voet at first
pretended he had no idea what EPO was. Later, trying to protect
his cyclists, he said the drugs were for his personal use. "You
take me for a jerk?" the customs official said. Voet was moved
to the jail in the central customs office in Lille.

Over the next few days, living in a cell that smelled of vomit
and urine, Voet--alone, confused, crying--eventually broke down
and on July 14 he told officials the truth. But not, he says,
until he'd overheard Festina cyclists lying in interviews
broadcast on a TV near his cell. The riders said that they were
clean and that the drugs found in the team car must have been
for Voet's own use. Voet was especially infuriated by Virenque,
whom he had treated as a son and who, Voet believed, had enough
friends in high places to make a few phone calls and get him
released from jail.

"Virenque told an interviewer, 'Oh, I never took any dope, I'm
clean,'" Voet says. "He even said, 'He's been my personal
trainer for eight years, but I'm not responsible for what he's
doing behind my back.' I was in prison, helpless, and no one was
supporting me. I thought of my family, my children. What if my
13-year-old son, Mathieu, grew up to be a cyclist, and his
trainer asked him to take drugs? Would I let him? No way. That's
when I decided to tell the truth."

The drugs, he told French magistrates, were for the nine Festina
cyclists competing in the Tour de France, which had started
three days earlier. On July 15, after Voet told the magistrates
that Rijckaert oversaw the dosages, taking blood samples from
the riders twice a day to test for hematocrit values, the
Festina team doctor was arrested on charges of importing and
illegal transport of poisonous substances. Voet told the
magistrates that the purchase of the drugs was financed by Bruno
Roussel, Festina's director, who also was arrested that day and
charged with administering, aiding and abetting the using of
doping substances and procedures during a sports competition. At
the end of the season, the cost of the drugs was to be repaid
out of the cyclists' year-end bonuses. The system had been in
place for several years. The amount deducted from each cyclist's
bonus check depended on which drugs he used and in what
quantities.

Voet was in charge of keeping track, and he kept meticulously
coded notebooks that recorded everyone's intake. After Voet was
jailed, he said, Roussel contacted Sylvie and told her to
destroy the notebooks. Instead, she turned them over to the
authorities. Those notebooks were Voet's proof that the Festina
doping program was systematic and not the work of a renegade
masseur. Rijckaert spent 95 days in jail; he is still awaiting
trial. Roussel spent 10 days in jail and is also awaiting trial.
Last month Roussel told the French newspaper Le Monde, "I set up
the system with Dr. Eric Rijckaert out of a desire to protect
the riders. I was reassured by the idea of seeing a doctor
supervising the treatment." (SI could not reach Rijckaert for
comment.)

Two days after the arrests of Rijckaert and Roussel, the Festina
team was thrown out of the Tour. Six of the nine Festina riders
soon admitted taking drugs (none of them were charged with a
crime), but team leader Virenque vehemently denied he had done
so. The protestations of Virenque were particularly appalling to
Voet. In a brief from a hearing before Judge Patrick Keil last
May in Lille, Voet said that after the scandal broke he told
Virenque, "If I had injected you with everything you had asked
me to, you would be a dead man." (In March, Virenque was hit
with four sets of drug charges, including ones similar to those
leveled at Roussel and Rijckaert. In May, according to French
media reports, after months of pleading his innocence, the
29-year-old Virenque, worn down by a 21-hour grilling by French
police in a separate investigation, admitted he'd been lying.
Virenque has denied the reports and has not been charged in the
second probe, though he is still awaiting trial on the March
charges. Meanwhile Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc,
intent on cleaning up his race's image, announced on June 16
that Virenque was "not welcome" at the '99 Tour because he
"epitomizes, in his name, in his image, the doping phenomenon.")

The 1998 Tour drug scandal continued to escalate after Festina's
departure. One team after another came under suspicion. In late
July syringes with traces of EPO were found in a field in
Brives, a town on the Tour route. On July 29 French police
searched the hotel rooms of the Spanish team ONCE, confiscating
a large supply of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia but
making no arrests. ONCE and a second Spanish team, Banesto,
pulled out of the Tour. That same week the doctor and the
director of the Dutch team TVM were brought in for questioning
after the entire team failed a doping test, and TVM was
subsequently banned from the 1999 race. Racers, complaining they
were being treated like criminals, organized a sit-down protest
on July 24 before the start of the 12th stage and on July 29
rode the entire 17th stage at a snail's pace. Of the 189 riders
who started the Tour, fewer than 100 finished in Paris on Aug.
2. Seven teams had dropped out. In the meantime Judge Keil ruled
on July 24 that Voet, who had spent 16 days in jail, could
return to his home under "judicial custody" while awaiting trial.

Nearly a year later, what amazes Voet is how little his sport
has changed. One drug-related scandal after another continues to
surface in cycling, invariably followed by Virenque-like denials
and protestations of innocence. Der Spiegel, the German news
magazine, published an article in mid-June alleging that the
Telekom team, which is led by 1997 Tour de France winner Jan
Ullrich, systematically used a doping program similar to
Festina's that involved growth hormones, steroids and EPO. The
magazine cited team documents and an unnamed former team aide as
its sources. Ullrich vehemently denied the allegations.

On June 5 Italian star Marco Pantani, who last year won the Tour
de France and the Giro D'Italia, saw his title defense of the
latter come to an abrupt end when he was ejected from the
race--while holding more than a five-minute lead on the
field--for having a hematocrit value of 52%. A surprise drug
test at dawn before a grueling mountainous stage led to the
disqualification. The normal range of hematocrit values in the
blood is 44% to 46%, but EPO injections can raise them to 52%,
54%, even 60%, at which point the oxygen-rich blood runs like
sludge through the veins, a condition that can lead to a heart
attack or stroke.

Despite the danger, many top cyclists continue to resist all
attempts at more rigorous drug testing. French champion Laurent
Jalabert, who leads the ONCE team and was the top-ranked rider
in the world heading into this year's Tour, has refused to
subject himself to a physical exam every three months as part of
a stepped-up drug-testing regimen instituted this year by the
French Cycling Federation, making himself ineligible for a
French racing license. Jalabert has said he'll no longer compete
in France, won't defend his French national title and won't be
part of the French team at the world championships in Italy in
October.

"The athletes are young, so they don't think about the dangers,"
says Voet, who has been barred from any association with racing
for three years by the UCI. Festina stopped paying him his
$40,000 salary the day of his arrest. Until his book was
published, he'd been living on the salary his wife earns as a
secretary in the Veynes town hall. "All [riders] care about is
the money. They don't look at the long term."

Voet wrote Chain Massacre in the hope that it would lead to some
sort of lasting reform in the sport. "Virenque said to me last
fall, 'Willy, you lived cycling, and now you want to ruin it?'"
Voet said of a confrontation outside Judge Keil's courtroom. "I
said to him, 'No, I want to save it.'"

But he's pessimistic. The doping culture is too ingrained, the
urge to cheat too strong. Performance-enhancing drugs have long
been part of cycling. Voet says his grandfather, an amateur
cyclist, telling him that he would use a mix of ether and sugar
water before a race to expand his lungs. "That was 80 years
ago," Voet says.

In 1956, 22-year-old Jacques Anquetil, who would go on to win
the Tour de France five times, broke the world record for most
miles pedaled in an hour. Afterward he baldly refused to go to
antidoping control. Voet doubts it was a coincidence that
Anquetil died of stomach cancer at 53.

In 1967 England's Tom Simpson died of asphyxiation during a
mountain stage of the Tour de France when he literally pedaled
until he could no longer breathe. An autopsy revealed high
levels of amphetamines in his blood. "Simpson died taking dope,
and it never stopped anything," says Voet, who remembers being
given amphetamines before an amateur race in 1962. "Why should
these revelations stop anything now? In this year's Tour de
France there'll be just as many people using dope as before."

Only two people in the cycling community have called to
congratulate Voet for trying to clean up the sport and save
future generations of cyclists from using their bodies to
experiment with future generations of drugs. From the rest
there's been only silence and denial. It doesn't surprise Voet.
What surprises him, really, is that he was the one to come out
and talk. "Because once you talk, then it's all over," he says.
"You're outside the system, and no one will ever let you back
in. I can understand that. Just as I can understand the fans who
call me a bastard or a stool pigeon. They can call me a bastard
and a stool pigeon all they want, but they can't call me a liar."

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Whistleblower After his arrest Voet, feeling betrayed by the riders he'd helped, gave authorities his doping records (opposite) and started talking.COLOR PHOTO [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN A good ride spoiled Drug raids, team suspensions and ongoing investigations have left the once grand Tour de France reeling.COLOR PHOTO: PHILLIPE MILLEREAU/D.P.P.I. "If I'd injected you with everything you asked me to," Voet told Virenque (above), "you'd be a dead man."COLOR PHOTOCOLOR PHOTO: TEMPSPORT/DHP Tainted champion Pantani won the '98 Tour de France but was ejected from a race in Italy last month because of signs of EPO use. COLOR PHOTO
"The athletes are young, so they don't think about the dangers,"
says Voet. "All they care about is the money."