'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.

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