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preparing for the race - redoux

Jul 2, 2009
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Cycling star admits to doping in Festina trial
Last Updated: Tuesday, October 24, 2000 | 2:35 PM ET
CBC Sports

hervevir15.jpg



French cycling star Richard Virenque on Tuesday admitted before a court to taking performance-enhancing drugs and said doping was a routine practice on his former Festina team, expelled from the 1998 Tour de France.

Virenque's confession, pronounced in a quavering voice, was likely to remain a high-point of the trial here of 10 people, including the 30-year-old cyclist, all once connected with the Festina team.

It was a full turnaround for Virenque who had maintained he never knowingly took drugs.

"We don't say doping. We say we're preparing for the race," Virenque said. "To take drugs is to cheat. As long as the person doesn't test positive, they're not taking drugs."

The doping scandal, centring on Festina, almost wrecked the 1998 Tour, the world's top cycling competition. Its repercussions are still being felt in the sports world today.

"Did you take doping products?" Judge Daniel Delegove asked Virenque on the second day of the trial, expected to last three weeks.

"Yes," Virenque responded in a shaky voice. He said he took drugs to be part of the team. "I was the black sheep. If I strayed from the flock, I was finished."

The Festina team was expelled from the 1998 Tour after a team masseur was caught with a stash of drugs and officials admitted to systematic doping.

"In making this confession, you have grown in stature," Delegove told Virenque.

"You have dropped a defence that was bound to fail. You can now look at yourself in the mirror," the judge said.

Virenque, who now rides for Italy's Polti team, is the only cyclist on trial. He is charged with "complicity in facilitating and inciting the use of doping," but not with taking drugs. Virenque risks up to two years in prison.

Among the other nine are former Festina team trainer Bruno Roussel and Willy Voet, the Belgian physiotherapist caught just before the Tour started with a load of the performance-enhancing erythropoietin (EPO), in a team car.

The nine defendants risk up to 10 years in prison for "infraction of drug laws and doping legislation and importing medication as contraband."

Virenque fell into Voet's arms after leaving the courtroom, bursting into tears.

"The first step, the toughest, has been made," Voet said later on the French LCI television channel. Voet reiterated the bitterness he felt at having been isolated by team members after confessing to police.

Virenque's lawyer, Eric Hemmerdinger, commended his client's "great courage."

"He explained what happens in the highest level of cycling," the lawyer said.

The Tour scandal opened the door to speculation about rampant doping among cyclists in general, and in all sports, and led to tighter controls in France and elsewhere.

A former Festina coach, Antoine Vayer, repeated allegations that two-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who came back from testicular cancer, also took drugs.

"It's like Lance Armstrong, who rides at 54 kilometres per hour. It's scandalous. It doesn't make sense," Vayer said.

Rumours had dogged Armstrong because of his strong performances, but the American cyclist has repeatedly denied using drugs. Attempts to contact him Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The investigation into the Festina team uncovered a system to finance banned performance-enhancing substances, notably EPO, which improves the transport of oxygen in the blood.

The system allegedly was decided jointly by riders and team officials, with a secret fund of $76,00 Cdn per year paid for with cuts from victory bonuses by riders using the drugs.

By Pierre-Antoine Souchard