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Analysis: How Spain became center of operations in Armstrong’s doping ring

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Oct. 16, 2012
French headlines have recently vilified Lance Armstrong, who had numerous run-ins with the French press and doping authorities. Photo: Franck Fife | AFP

Celaya back after 2003 disaster

The well-oiled system was working beyond imagination. Armstrong continued to reel off one Tour victory after another. He moved to Girona in 2000 to be closer to his teammates and the team’s doping operations as well as avoid the French, who discovered that team staffers had thrown away vials of used Actovegin in the 2000 Tour.

Armstrong became a worldwide sensation, a rock star-dating anti-cancer crusader that hung out with the likes of Robin Williams and even went mountain biking with presidents. Millions wore the yellow LiveStrong wristband and there seemed to be no stopping Armstrong. There was even talk that Armstrong some day could enter politics.

With Ferrari orchestrating things from Italy, and Del Moral and Martí on the ground in Spain, Armstrong and his entourage had created the perfect system. They could literally dope at will and easily evade detection. Spain came in handy for that as well.

Well before the UCI created its out-of-competition testing system (ADAMS), Armstrong would literally disappear into the Spanish Pyrénées when he needed to avoid authorities.

USADA wrote:

Johan Bruyneel told Tom Danielson that when Lance Armstrong needed to avoid drug testing he would simply go stay at the Hotel Fontanals Golf in Puigcerdà, Spain, where Armstrong was virtually certain not to be tested.”

The 2003 Tour, however, was a near-disaster for Armstrong.

Rivals were nipping at his heels. Joseba Beloki, riding for Bruyneel’s former tutor Saíz at ONCE, looked better than ever. Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion, was on his best form in years.

Hamilton wrote in his book, “The Secret Race,” that it was a case of the Joneses finally catching up and that rivals had figured out what Armstrong was up to. Rival doping networks — later revealed at the Freiburg Clinic in Germany and with Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes in Spain — were developing doping programs that matched those of Ferrari and Del Moral.

By 2003, blood doping had firmly become an established piece of the doping arsenal. It was complicated business: an extraction of up 500cc would have to be refrigerated, labeled properly, transported safely and later re-injected.

Botching it could prove deadly. Jesus Manzano, the Spanish whistle-blower from Kelme who was largely ignored by the Spanish cycling community when he went public with doping claims in 2004, nearly died in the 2003 Tour when he said the team re-injected contaminated blood.

Re-injecting one’s own blood, known as a homologous transfusion, remains undetectable even today. Riders said it was like giving them a new set of legs.

In describing how the elaborate blood-doping process would work, the USADA report states: “Ferrari and del Moral supervised the extraction process. The riders were told that Martí and del Moral would be responsible for re-infusing the blood during the Tour. The whole process took about an hour…”

After suffering through his most challenging Tour victory yet in 2003 — that year’s winning margin of 1:01 would be the narrowest of his seven yellow jerseys — Armstrong decided to shake things up. Del Moral got the boot and team management brought Celaya back in.

After getting fired the first time for being too conservative, USADA testimony reveals that the Spanish doctor was not going to make the same mistake twice:

Five years after his departure from the U.S. Postal Service team, Dr. Celaya returned to the U.S. Postal Service team for the 2004 season after Dr. del Moral fell out of favor with Armstrong, apparently due in part to Armstrong feeling like del Moral had some blame for Armstrong’s weaker performance in the 2003 Tour than in his previous Tour winning performances. After returning to the team in 2004 , Dr. Celaya picked up where he had left off, continuing his involvement in providing banned drugs to riders and his participation in the team blood doping program. Also, like Dr. del Moral before him, Celaya continued the practice of injecting the riders with substances he would not identify even when asked.

The scope of the Spanish activities went beyond Bruyneel’s orbit.

Martí, whom Landis later described as “nothing more than a pusher,” was actively procuring and supplying riders with doping products purchased in Spain.

USADA wrote that Martí “also surreptitiously sold banned performance enhancing drugs to athletes who were not at the time on the U.S. Postal Service or Discovery Channel Cycling teams. Beginning in 2003 Levi Leipheimer began purchasing EPO from Pepe Martí… When Leipheimer approached Martí about purchasing EPO in 2005, Martí asked Leipheimer ‘not to tell Johan that Pepe was providing drugs to a rider from a rival team.’”

With little or no enforcement from authorities to act as a deterrent, Spain was like an open market. Drugs were easily available in Spain and Martí was more than willing to deliver.

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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