Virenque: 'I took drugs, I had no choice'

The thin cloak of respectability which the world of cycling has hidden beneath for several years was flung aside yesterday when Richard Virenque, the French rider and former Festina team leader, admitted here that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs.

The thin cloak of respectability which the world of cycling has hidden beneath for several years was flung aside yesterday when Richard Virenque, the French rider and former Festina team leader, admitted here that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs.

A tearful Virenque told a French judge: "Yes, I took doping substances but I didn't have any choice. I was the sheep, if they threw me out of the flock I was finished. I live in a world where the rules are set up a long time in advance. In 1998, the black sheep refused to leave. He wanted to keep doing his job. I told myself I was in a system where everybody did the same."

Virenque's confession, pronounced in a quavering voice, came on the second day of the trial 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 while accusations flew in recent years. He added: "We don't say doping. We say we're preparing for the race. To take drugs is to cheat. As long as the person doesn't test positive, they're not taking drugs."

The doping scandal almost wrecked the 1998 Tour de France, the world's top cycling competition. The shock confession unfolded when the presiding judge Daniel Delegrove asked Virenque: "Did you take doping products?"

"Yes," Virenque responded.

The Frenchman, who has been top Tour climber on five occasions, is the only cyclist on trial. He is charged with "complicity in facilitating and inciting the use of doping", but not with taking drugs. He risks up to two years in prison. Among the other nine are the 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 others 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 and burst into tears after leaving the courtroom. His attorney, Eric Hemmerdinger, commended his client's "great courage".

Later in the day the trial took another turn when the former Festina trainer Antoine Vayer cast doubt over the current Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, who celebrated his second victory in succession this year. Vayer testified under oath: "Armstrong rides at an average speed of 54kph. I find this scandalous. It's a nonsense." Then Frenchman Christophe Bassons, known as the only Festina rider to refuse doping, said Armstrong had forced him to leave the 1999 Tour. "Last year during a stage, Armstrong came to me and told me I was doing a lot of harm to cycling," Bassons said. "He [Armstrong] told me I had better go home." Bassons withdrew and did not take part in the event this year.

Meanwhile Virenque, who was told by the judge he could be "proud" of his confession, may be banned for up to a year by the Swiss cycling federation who hold his licence.

Retired compatriot Luc Leblanc, a witness in the trial, also confessed he had taken EPO.

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