'Mountain king' goes on trial for Tour de France drug conspiracy

Eight people and an entire sport - road-race cycling - went on trial in Lille yesterday.

Eight people and an entire sport - road-race cycling - went on trial in Lille yesterday.

The defendants, who include Richard Virenque, a leading French rider, are accused of conspiracy to provide banned drugs to three teams in the Tour de France two years ago. Like the Tour, the trial is expected to last three weeks and go through many stages. It will amount to the most intensive public examination of doping in cycling and the health risks.

The trial arises from the arrest in 1998 of Willy Voet, trainer of the Festina team, as he tried to cross the Belgian-French border in a team van packed with banned substances. He and other officials of Festina, then the top team in the world, confessed to organising a system of drug-taking.

Most team members have also confessed but the leader, Mr Virenque, 30, runner-up in the 1997 Tour and three times King of the Mountains, insists he has never knowingly taken a banned drug.

Former team officials, including Mr Voet, say otherwise. In confessions to an investigating magistrate and in Mr Voet's book Chain Massacre, they accuse Mr Virenque of demanding and running a team-wide system of drugtaking financed by a "tax" on the team's win bonuses.

The trial will, in part, become a test of the credibility and integrity of Mr Virenque, who may not be convicted. The taking of endurance-boosting substances banned by the sport of cycling is not illegal. He is accused of organising the drug ring and pressing other riders to take drugs.

There is little firm corroborating evidence to convict him.The Lille public prosecutor wanted to drop the case against Mr Virenque but the investigating magistrate who conducted the inquiry insisted that at least one cyclist should appear in the dock.

But the trial is expected to demolish Mr Virenque's claims always to have been a "clean" rider. Soon after Mr Voet's arrest a test showed that eight out of nine Festina riders, including Mr Virenque, had been taking the drug erythropoietin (EPO), which increases oxygen in the blood. Mr Voet's note-books, seized by police, showed almost daily entries for drug-taking by members of the team, including Mr Virenque.

The proceedings have elements of a political show trial. The prosecution intends calling experts on drug-taking in cycling, followed by evidence on the risks of such drugs as EPO, corticoids, artificial testosterone and amphetamines.

Some of the most moving testimony may come from Christophe Bassons, 25, said to be the only Festina member in 1998 to refuse drugs. He was forced to quit the following year's Tour by fellow riders after writing newspaper articles criticising colleagues and describing the difficulties of riding "clean". He is expected to say cyclists are enthusiastic instigators of the drug culture, not "victims", as they often claim.

Otherwise, the hearing's usefulness as a show trial may be limited. The investigating magistrate, Patrick Keil, had to drop plans to bring charges of complicity against officials in the French and international cycling world, including the director of the Tour de France, Jean-Marie Leblanc.

As for the riders, they are, as usual, several stages ahead of the law and the rules of the sport. Many are said to have abandoned EPO and moved to other, less detectable drugs.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MBDA UK Ltd: Mission Planning and Control Solutions Systems Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? A pro-act...

MBDA UK Ltd: System Design Capability

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? The small...

Recruitment Genius: Time Served Fabricator / Welders - Immediate Start

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fabricator welder required for ...

Recruitment Genius: Inbound Customer Service Advisors

£14564 - £15311 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Inbound Customer Service Adviso...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific