It was dinner time when 200 drugs officers descended on the hotels, cars and camper vans of the 20 teams in the prestigious Giro d'Italia on Wednesday night, seizing enough medicines, drips, syringes and medical equipment to fill an entire room.
The raid produced the biggest shock to the sport since the scandal of the 1998 Tour de France and, if initial reports that banned substances have been seized are confirmed, it will show that the anti-doping measures introduced since then have done little to clean up professional cycling.
Officers moved in on 10 luxury hotels in the northern coastal resort of San Remo simultaneously at around 9pm. One rider tried to jump out of a first-floor window when armed officers burst into his room. Others scrambled to get rid of the medicines by throwing them out of windows or into corridors and communal areas. There were unconfirmed reports of a policeman attacked with a syringe of insulin. The searching and questioning was not finished until 4am, with most riders due for a 6am wakeup call for yesterday's 18th stage of a race which is second only in prestige to the Tour de France.
A spokesman for the Italian police, Gennaro Niglio, said that they had seized numerous illegal substances and containers of blood. Among the substances seized are reportedly caffeine, anabolisers, cortisone, human albumin, steroids, anaesthetics and hormones as well as other liquids in bottles without labels. All the material has been taken to laboratories in Florence and Rome for investigation. "I've been told that the commander who conducted the operation has confirmed the seizure of an amount of substances," Giancarlo Ceruti, the president of the Italian Cycling Federation, said. The raid was carried out on the orders of the Florence public prosecutor, Luigi Bocciolini. His inquiry was triggered by the discovery of syringes and other suspect material in hotel rooms after a Tuscan leg of the race.
An early-morning meeting of furious cyclists forced the organisers to shorten the 18th stage, which was later cancelled altogether. In a seven-hour long meeting they also discussed whether to abandon the tour altogether, in protest at what they see as persecution.
Mario Cipollini, one of the leaders of the riders' revolt, said: "It was a very strong decision not to start the stage. But after what we suffered during the night it was the right thing to do. We all have to respect rules and the law but it was probably the spectacular way things were done which upset everybody. We want the [anti-doping] law. But it was all just too much."
He complained that the police could have done the raid on the riders' rest day, rather than late at night before a crucial final leg. "If they had used all this power to do a blitz in the discotheques to find ecstasy and other drugs they would have saved more human lives," he said. The riders eventually agreed to take part in the rest of the race which ends after the 21st leg in Milan on 10 June.
Maro Pantani, who was denied victory in the Giro two years ago when he failed a blood test on the penultimate day, pulled out yesterday complaining of influenza. Eye-witnesses said at least 10 plain-clothed officers entered the hotel where the Telekom team and the Mercatone Uno team of Pantani, a former Tour de France winner, were staying. Police escorted Roberto Pregnaloto, Pantani's personal masseur, from the building and confiscated a bag from him containing a number of small vials. Pregnaloto told police the vials contained "reinvigorators".
The fourth floor of the building, where the Liquigas team were staying, was sealed off and the team's riders were barred from going downstairs for dinner. Food was brought up to their rooms while the cyclists were questioned.
Earlier on Wednesday Mercatone Uno confirmed that Riccardo Forconi had withdrawn from the 17th stage after failing a doping test. On Tuesday the father-in-law of the Italian rider Ivan Gotti was put under investigation, after police found drugs in the camper he used to follow the Giro.Reuse content