Ex-pro cyclist tells of wide drug use, test-beating measures

Until a week ago, Jesus Manzano was a 25-year-old former professional bicycle racer who was remembered, if at all, for two rare episodes.

The first occurred last year in the seventh stage of the Tour de France, a climb in the Alps from Lyon to Morzine under heavy heat.

Manzano, who rode for the Kelme team from his native Spain, was heading uphill on a breakaway when his bicycle began to zigzag and he suddenly crumpled to the road. After emergency medical treatment, he was hospitalized.

While riders often drop out of the Tour in the mountains, they usually glide to the side of the road and dismount or simply fail to start the next day. Though dramatic, Manzano's collapse went unremarked because he was such an obscure rider: In his fourth year as a professional with Kelme, he had recorded only two stage victories, the first in the Tour of the Rioja in 2001 and the second in the Tour of Catalonia in 2003.

Two months after the Tour de France, toward the end of the three- week Vuelta a Espana, he made another bit of news. After team officials said they had found a woman in his hotel room during the night, Manzano was pulled from the race and sent home.

Kelme officials decided at the end of the last season not to renew his contract.

Part of the reason was financial. The team, now in its 25th year and by far the longest-lasting in the sport, has had money problems the last few years and has been unable to pay its riders on time.

That instability caused the International Cycling Union, which oversees the sport, to drop Kelme this season from the First Division to the Second, where invitations to major races like the Tour de France and Vuelta are difficult to procure.

Another reason not to rehire Manzano was his record, both personal, as in the hotel incident, and professional, as in his sparse victories. He was just a hewer of wood and bearer of water for Kelme, and the cycling world is full of similar riders. Usually, when their careers are over, they go home, find another job and tell their buddies about life in the sport.

Not Manzano. He has been telling the world.

In a series of articles last week in the Madrid sports newspaper As, Manzano charged Kelme officials and doctors with systematic use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs and blood packing, or transfusing blood into riders to increase the red corpuscles that carry oxygen to muscles.

This practice, which has been outlawed since the U.S. bicycle team used it to dominate the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, can also serve to dilute the concentration of drugs in a rider's blood.

Manzano's account is chillingly detailed. He has demonstrated how to inject EPO, an artificial hormone that increases red corpuscles and how to beat the tests that detect it. He reported that he almost died on a train after being given drugs for racing.

These charges are dynamite in a sport where doping is usually regarded as an individual practice, not teamwide.

An exception was the Festina Affair, which nearly scuttled the 1998 Tour de France amid riders' protests over police drug raids. After the nine-man Festina squad was ousted from the race when a team car was found to be packed with illegal drugs, most of the riders admitted doping in a program organized by team officials.

Although the sport has since avoided any scandal on that scale, the Cofidis team in France was investigated in February by the narcotics police, who have accused three riders and arrested a team masseur.

In addition to France, police raids and charges have also marked professional racing in Italy and Belgium in the last few years, but Manzano's account of widespread drug use is a first for Spain.

He charged that team doctors twice extracted 500 milliliters of blood from each rider days before the start of the Tour last July, that the plastic pouches of blood were not marked by name and that they were not refrigerated. He had to pay 3,000, or $3,600, for this treatment, he said.

It's like an open bar when it comes to growth hormones, and you get injected with EPO almost every day, he said in As on Thursday.

"If it wasn't for EPO, I don't think the average speed at major tours would be 41 kilometers an hour," or 25 miles an hour, he said.

He also described how easy it is to fool drug inspectors when they visit a team's hotel during a race to test the riders' hematocrit levels, or the relation of red corpuscles to white. A level above 50 percent means an instant suspension of two weeks.

"You get around half an hour after the testers turn up," he said, "because team officials send down the riders with low levels first. The rest of the cyclists who have higher levels are given blood plasma and glucose products and then do the inspections -- these can lower your hematocrit level by four points."

In his first article, which appeared on Wednesday, Manzano said that before the seventh stage of the Tour he was injected with "something I'd never taken before" and phoned his girlfriend to say, "Get ready, because according to what I've been told, I'm going to ride well today."

Instead, he collapsed.

"My hands had gone to sleep," he said, "and I started feeling nauseated. I felt very warm but had cold sweats. I began to shake. I went on for 500 meters, and after that I don't remember anything."

His accusations mirror those of a French rider, Philippe Gaumont, who was fired by the Cofidis team last month after he admitted to the police that he had used performance-enhancing drugs and supplied those drugs to other riders.

In an interview with Le Monde, a French newspaper, two weeks ago, Gaumont discussed what he described as the many illegal products and practices in use and explained why the riders' standard defense that they have never failed a drug test can be invalid.

"Above all," he said, "there are products that can't be detected, like human growth hormone, which riders use whenever they want. For cortisone or steroids, it's enough to have a doctor's prescription for therapeutic reasons and so turn an inspector's positive finding into a negative one."

Why Gaumont broke the sport's law of silence is a mystery. For Manzano, however, the reasons are clear: money and revenge.

Unemployed and having said that he did not have enough money to pay his rent, he was reported to have been paid well by As for his story and to have sold television rights outside Spain for 300,000 Euros.

He admits he is angry with his former team.

"Kelme owes me money, about a month's wages and some expenses," he said. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

Can his allegations be believed? Kelme officials have called them lies, but the organizers of the Tour de France feel otherwise. On Friday, the Tour withdrew the wildcard invitation it was saving for Kelme, once it got its financial affairs in order.

Speaking of Manzano, the Tour's director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, told L'Equipe, a French sports newspaper: "We can't imagine that just by himself he's done all that he describes. There had to be complicity, passive or active, by team officials or doctors. I don't think this fellow can have invented all of this.

"We organizers have the duty to tell that team we don't want to see it again," he said. "For us, the Kelme team is finished. There is no more Kelme."

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