Spanish cycling chief had 'suspicions' about doping

Updated: June 28, 2006, 9:41 AM ET
Associated Press

MADRID, Spain -- The head of Spain's cycling federation said he had "suspicions" for years about the doctors and team officials caught up in a sweeping doping scandal that has rocked the sport ahead of the Tour de France.

Fugencio Sanchez added that the allegations were one of the "greatest crises" in the country's sporting history.

"We've had doubts. We had heard comments," Sanchez told The Associated Press. "I always thought that this day had to come in order to clear up those doubts."

Manolo Saiz, the former Liberty Seguros team director, and four others were arrested in May when police seized steroids, hormones and the endurance-boosting substance EPO at a Madrid doping clinic. Saiz was later released and denies any involvement.

Athletes allegedly went to the clinic to have blood extracted for doping purposes or to collect performance-enhancing drugs. Nearly 100 bags of frozen blood and equipment for treating blood were found, along with documents on doping procedures performed on cyclists.

Liberty Seguros withdrew its sponsorship because of the investigation, and Astana-Wurth took over the team and announced Saiz's resignation earlier this month.

The Tour de France, which starts Saturday, urged the Astana Wurth Team on Tuesday to pull out of the race. The team protested and will have a hearing Thursday at Switzerland's Court of Arbitration for Sport with a ruling expected a day later.

The scandal has since widened with unconfirmed reports that more than 100 athletes -- including from other sports -- may have been given illegal substances.

The two doctors arrested -- Jose Luis Merino and Eufemiano Fuentes -- were charged with crimes against public health, while mountain biker Alberto Leon was forbidden from leaving Spain. None are in jail and all deny the accusations.

"I know all of these people. They have spent their lives in Spanish cycling and all of them have an important career in cycling," Sanchez said. "I was always suspicious."

He said he became suspicious after doping allegations surfaced in the 1998 Tour de France, and when Spanish rider Roberto Heras of Liberty Seguros tested positive for EPO at last year's Spanish Vuelta -- Spain's most important cycling race.

"The police operation was necessary. We had gone astray in anti-doping issues in Spain," Sanchez said. "We had the duty to start persecuting those frauds."

Leading Madrid daily El Pais reported on Sunday that police investigations show at least 58 pro cyclists may have received banned substances and blood transfusions in recent years -- including 15 members of the former Liberty Seguros team. Police have declined to comment on the case.

Only four cyclists -- all Spaniards -- have been identified by El Pais, including Liberty Seguros riders Heras, Marcos Serrano and Angel Vicioso. The fourth cyclist identified was Isidro Nozal.

The reports have also linked 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich and American rider and Olympic gold medallist Tyler Hamilton of Boulder, Colo. Both cyclists have denied the accusations.

Blood doping is a procedure in which blood is extracted, separated to find a concentration of oxygen-rich red blood cells, and injected back into the athlete before competition to boost performance.

The technique is undetectable if using your own blood, but two cyclists -- Hamilton and Phonak teammate Santi Perez of Spain -- tested positive in September 2004 for transfusions using the blood of another person.

Sanchez urged Spanish authorities to toughen the doping laws and punish pro athletes and doctors who use or supply the banned substances. Doping offenses are currently regarded as misdemeanors in Spain, but the country's criminal code is expected to be toughened later this year.

"This is one of the greatest crises in Spanish sport," Sanchez said. "We should defend sport to be clean, not just cycling."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press