The Festina Affair was famous for wrecking the 1998 Tour de France. But the aftershocks would be felt for months and years afterwards. Procycling recalls the autumn of 1998, as cycling came to terms with its biggest ever scandal
Mid-August 1998, and I was commissioned by BBC radio to make a documentary on the Festina doping scandal and its aftermath. During the months after the disastrous Tour de France of that July, the one which came closest of any before or since to precipitating the implosion of professional cycling, I worked closely with a producer whose Edinburgh accent was pure Jean Brodie. Every few days I went into Broadcasting House with a new interview or a new angle, and we tried to figure out where it all fitted into a very complex, constantly evolving big picture. My enduring memory of those weeks is this: every fresh revelation about doping within cycling would be greeted by my producer with the exclamation, “But it’s rrrrife,” rolling the impeccable Auld Reekie ‘R’ with surprise.
My producer had no idea that doping was so widespread within cycling. But I would be many miles from the truth if I said that those of us who supposedly were experts on cycling had much more of an idea.
You could roll that R to spell out ruin, wreck, and wrath. And ridiculous, because Festina was very much a theatre of the absurd. Now, 20 years on, roll that R on reminiscence, or retrospective. As we mark the anniversary of the cataclysm, the Tour itself has been central to most of the looking back: the two rider strikes, the police raids, the daily dread of what the gendarmes might dredge up next.
What’s been forgotten is that the Festina scandal didn’t end on 3 August 1998, with a celebratory dinner in the Hotel Concorde Lafayette in Paris, where all present breathed a sigh of relief that they had made it to Paris against the odds. It dragged on through the autumn as the riders got on with racing and the gendarmes got on with unravelling professional cycling’s seamier side.
The months after the 1998 Tour were dominated by two themes: the constant evolution of the inquiries into doping within the TVM and Festina teams, and the fates of the ‘Festina Nine’ who had been thrown off the Tour when the organisers decided – belatedly – that their presence there was damaging to the image of the sport.
As there had been during the Tour, there was a bizarre disconnect between the legal inquiries into the riders from Festina and public opinion about them. Their reception was summed up two days after the Tour when Alex Zülle, Armin Meier and Laurent Dufaux signed on at À Travers Lausanne, a race held, with the sort of ironic twist that delighted Festina watchers, in the town that was then the home of both the UCI and the IOC.
There were cheers there, as there tended to be everywhere Festina raced, be it the after-Tour criterium at Lisieux, or the Tour of Portugal, which promised riders “no police raids”. A minor cycling cold war broke out between France – tough on doping – and Spain, which was more lenient. Things were to remain that way until Operation Puerto in 2006. A stage of the Vuelta was rerouted to avoid a minor incursion into French territory, amid fears that the gendarmes might descend on the race. The ONCE team announced that they wouldn’t race in France again; Laurent Jalabert, their leader, said he had no further interest in riding his home Tour.
Amid all this, the Festina riders who had confessed to doping – Zülle, Meier, Dufaux, Laurent Brochard and
Christophe Moreau - found themselves in a legal impasse, where neither their national federations nor the UCI could find the means to exclude them from racing. Trying to explain that bizarre situation in our BBC documentary reduced the then UCI president, the late Hein Verbruggen, to a state of near apoplexy.
Constant leaks of the inquiry hearings meant that the scandal remained on the front pages. The ultimate irony came a few months on when the watch company proudly announced that its public profile was up, and so were its sales.
Meanwhile, the hearings went on, once French officialdom had returned from its August holidays, as Patrick Keil, the judge behind the Festina inquiry, looked into other teams, and the TVM investigation chuntered on to what would be an anticlimactic end. When the Tour winner Marco Pantani turned up in Brittany for the Châteaulin criterium, customs pointedly singled him out for a baggage search.
September 16: Française des Jeux rider Erwann Menthéour and soigneur Jef d’Hont, with the latter taken into custody for 12 days; 18 September: GAN doctor Patrick Nédélec; 1 October, FDJ manager Marc Madiot; 5 November: former world champion Luc Leblanc; 7 December, seven riders from the Casino team.
As at the Tour de France, the focus of attention was Richard Virenque. The autumn came down to two questions: had he doped? And would he keep racing?
It was obvious to anyone that he had been an integral part of the Festina doping system – the stream of leaks from the hearings made that clear – which gave his persistent denials a surreal air. It left him open to ridicule from satirical outlets such as the puppet show Les Guignols, where he was depicted with a syringe coming out of his arm; his explanation of doping “à l’insu de mon plein gré” – of my own free will but unknowingly – has entered the French lexicon as an expression of hypocritical denial. It did not, however, prevent him from racing up to the Tour of Lombardy, or from announcing his retirement, largely as a tactic to gain attention from potential sponsors. He dropped his price from the 700,000 he was reported to have earned at Festina, and eventually signed with the Italian team Polti.
During the fallout after Festina, that year’s world road race championships took place in Valkenberg, Holland, a week of racing on a circuit that took in Maastrict, the wooded climb of the Bemelerberg and the finish ascent up the legendary Cauberg. It was marked by grey skies, damp and rain, and debate over just where cycling was headed. Most of us who were there were eagerly looking for portents of a brighter future among the leaden skies.
There were pointers to the future. Among the British junior team was one Bradley Wiggins, fresh from a win in the world pursuit title and given the last place in the GB junior line-up “because he has a good future ahead of him” as the team manager John Herety put it.
The winners of the U23 and junior races mostly went on either to fame or notoriety or both, depending on how you look at it. Fabian Cancellara won the junior time trial title ahead of Torsten Hiekmann and Filippo Pozzato; the Swiss would go on to open far greater margins against the watch as a pro, while Pozzato would win Milan-San Remo.
The U23 time trial title went to another future legend, Thor Hushovd, while the road race went to Ivan Basso from future Tour de France yellow jersey Rinaldo Nocentini and a third Italian, Danilo Di Luca. If that Italian clean sweep had a suspicious ring, recall that while Nocentini had a blameless record, both Basso and Di Luca were busted for doping as professionals, Basso in Operación Puerto, Di Luca with two positives for EPO.
But the most optimism stemmed from the junior men’s gold medallist. Most of those who had spent the summer following the Tour and the fallout from Festina knew nothing of Mark Scanlon, the prodigy from County Sligo who had won 38 races that year. They included big events against senior opposition: the Gorey and Dunboyne Three-Days, the Tour of Galway and the Junior Tour of Ireland, where he finished 3min and 20sec ahead of the second-placed rider, B. Wiggins.
When the Tour winner Marco Pantani turned up for the Châteaulin criterium, customs pointedly singled him out for a baggage search
Scanlon was a stocky, confident young man, a former hurler with a low-slung position on his bike which recalled that of Sean Kelly. He finished only 22nd in the time trial, and was, modestly, expecting a top-10 in the junior road race where he thought he would “get hammered” on his 18th birthday. Instead, Scanlon forced the winning move clear up the Bemelerberg, stayed cool when the break split on the Cauberg then regained contact to win the finish sprint.
The comparisons with his legendary peers Kelly and Stephen Roche were obvious and easily made; the acclaim in his homeland was inevitable. Scanlon returned to his modest housing estate home in Sligo to a welcome from 2,500 locals, a vast banner on the road outside his house, a civic reception, and so many calls from media and wellwishers that his mother had to take the telephone off the hook in the evenings.
When the Tour route was announced in October 1998, the organisers ASO needed to find a young rider who would symbolise a clean future for the race. Their aspiration was – as ASO’s Jean-Claude Killy put it – that the Tour would go from being a symbol of doping to a symbol of the fight against doping. Up on the stage came Scanlon, pushed into the limelight in a way which now seems totally unfair on an 18-year-old, but which encapsulated a sport clutching at any cause for optimism.
Scanlon’s career had its ups and downs after that, largely due to untimely injuries, but by 2004 he was making waves in the Tour de France for the Ag2r team along with others of that generation of 1998: Pozzato, who won the stage into Saint-Brieuc, Cancellara, who won the prologue, and Hushovd, who took the bunch sprint into Quimper. “He is a massive hope for the future,” said his team manager Vincent Lavenu, who hailed the young Irishman’s maturity.
The Sligo racer quit the sport in 2007 after moving to the US to ride for Toyota, for a variety of reasons which included his girlfriend being pregnant with medical complications, plus a general feeling after a five-year fight to earn a professional contract, ProTour cycling wasn’t the place for him. He told this magazine in 2008, “The mentality of some pro teams is that when you’re giving 100 per cent you’re just getting the piss taken out of you, and they’re not happy if you do that. It’s like you’re making them look bad or something.
“It became a constant battle between me and the other Ag2r riders. Eventually I fell into their way of doing things – just getting by, race by race, and having a bit of fun. It was the wrong road to go down. For me, it was the same as getting hassle for doing well at school. You’re liked when you’re doing nothing and disliked when you’re doing well.” There was speculation that continued doping within the peloton played a part, and it may have done – “You wonder if you should be making big sacrifices to finish 16th or 17th in a race, if guys are doping. It is not
very motivating,” he said in 2006 - but it does not seem to have been the clinching factor.
The winner of the elite race at the Valkenburg world championship was Oscar Camenzind, a chubby cheeked former postman from Schwyz, the German-speaking canton which gave its name to a confederation of small states that make up today’s Switzerland. It was a fine solo victory for a relative unknown, perfectly timed from a strong lead group that included Lance Armstrong – who placed fourth - Michael Boogerd, Michele Bartoli and Peter Van Petegem, who would eventually finish second after closing to within 23sec, followed by the Italian. Six days later, the postman delivered again, or knocked twice depending which headline you opted for, by winning the Giro di Lombardia, the magic double of rainbow jersey and Race of the Falling Leaves which had previously crowned only five greats: Alfredo Binda, Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi and Giuseppe Saronni.
It was a more than decent victory on another dark, dank day, as the Swiss broke away with Boogerd on the descent of the Forcella di Bura and built a minute’s lead over a chasing group including two of the best Classics hunters of the 1990s: Pascal Richard and Michele Bartoli. Camenzind left Boogerd behind on the climb into Bergamo; years later, the Dutchman claimed that a deal had taken place, something the Swiss denied.
Camenzind was welcomed back to his homeland by Ferdi Kübler, the legendary Eagle of Adliswil, the last Swiss to win the world title before him 47 years previously, and it was Kübler who went on to present him with the title of Swiss sportsman of the year. The Postman’s career progressed neatly thereafter with Mapei and Lampre, including a victory in LiègeBastogne-Liège in 2001, ahead of four riders including Boogerd again, also Casagrande and Davide Rebellin.
All those three were banned for doping at various stages in their careers, and a doping case ended Camenzind’s career as well; he was found positive for EPO in a random test in late July 2004, and hung up his wheels immediately. Camenzind explained his use of the blood booster as an attempt to reboot his career after an attack of glandular fever in 2002, and a number of crashes that had brought him close to retirement. He now appears to devote his time to climbing.
That then, was the autumn of 1998, a curious time, when cycling fans were in a state of shock, unsure where renewal would come from and when, if ever, the run of scandals would end. The key change probably came at the end of the year when the French Cycling Federation and the French Professional Cyclists’ Union adopted what was termed ‘le suivi medicale longitudinale’: extended monitoring of the physiology of its cyclists so that medical anomalies due to doping could be picked up. This was the forerunner of the biological passport, now seen as one of the big turning points in cycling’s progress out of the mire.
It would be 10 years before the passport came in, and there was another portent at the end of 1998. As well as Camenzind and Scanlon, the other big racing news was the run of fourth places – in the Vuelta, the Worlds time trial and the road race – which capped Lance Armstrong’s return from cancer and prompted his decision to turn his attention to the Tour de France. We all know the conclusion to that tale.
The winner of the elite race at Valkenburg was Oscar Camenzind, a chubby- cheeked former postman from Switzerland
Mark Scanlon beat Filippo Pozzato (l) into second at the 1998 junior Worlds
A less-than- contrite Richard Virenque, in tears at his exclusion from the 1998 Tour
Ivan Basso celebrates winning the U23 worlds road race in 1998
Camenzind leads Boogerd in the ! inal stages of the men’s Worlds road race