The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
Two of the most perplexing – and unsettling – things I’ve witnessed while covering cycling races happened in the wake of Operacion Puerto, exactly five months apart, in September of one year and February of the next.
Both were in Spain, both were part of stage races, although each involved different riders and different teams. Both may well have involved doping products, although I’ll leave it up to you to draw conclusions.
The first was in the Vuelta a España, at the summit finish of one of the toughest mountains of the race and on a day when the final general classification edged closer to being defined.
The riders knew that, aside from the final time trial, this would be the big decider, and went absolutely eyeballs out to the top.
Muscles hammered by the steep gradients and bodies buffeted by strong winds on the climb, the lead group broke apart and ensured the riders finished in ones and twos at the summit.
Once to the top, they slumped to the ground, recovered their breathing and composure, put on some warmer clothing and began the long roll down along the route they had just climbed, and into the relative comfort of their team bus.
While the race still had several days left to run, the decisive nature of the stage meant there was a sense of relief at the top of the climb, with many of the riders visibly happy to have got the last big mountain over with.
The finish of the race was on the horizon and the general classification was more or less finalised.
I spoke to one of the riders at the top, getting quotes about the stage that had just finished. He was in an extremely good mood, buoyed by his solid performance on the mountain.
Then it happened. He rolled up his shorts to put on legwarmers underneath but, as he peeled up the lycra, two tiny pills fell to the ground.
I froze, didn’t know what to think. He continued to talk, more or less ignoring what had happened.
I can’t remember for sure if he picked up the tablets, but believe he likely did.
The rider didn’t mention the matter and I, noting his apparent lack of concern, and reasoning that they might be legitimate pills such as caffeine, didn’t quiz him on it.
It was a fleeting moment, but one which lingered in the mind long afterwards.
To this day, I’m not sure what I should have done. On the one hand, his nonchalance was clear; he didn’t act as if he had done anything wrong, didn’t look perturbed by what had happened.
On the other, I wondered afterwards if I had erred in not challenging him on what I had seen.
That’s perhaps why I reacted differently to what happened exactly five months later elsewhere in Spain.
On the day in question, what initially grabbed the attention was a girl wearing a long sleeve top bearing the name of a top-level team.
She and another walked about at the finish of the race in question, standing behind the barriers in the official area and waiting for the riders to arrive. Attractive, confident and in her early 20s, she stood out from the rest of those at the finish.
The racing was furious and details of what was playing out were being relayed by an announcer on the podium. A break was clear and hurtling towards the finish line.
Others were chasing hard behind, but it looked like they had missed out. Sure enough; the leaders stayed ahead of the pursuers and the day’s winner ended up being from the girl’s team.
She was clearly delighted by the result. The rider visited the podium, sprayed the champagne, received the flowers, presented the bouquet to her afterwards and received a big smacker on the lips; the moment confirmed that she was more than just a soigneur, at least to him.
So far, so normal… at least in terms of the sport’s rules.
But what happened next left me pinching myself.
The rider was approached by a chaperone who pointed out the bar/café that housed the day’s doping control. Finished with the presentation and the interviews, he walked alongside the girl in the direction of the building, being clad by then in a similar long-sleeved jersey from the team.
I took a photo of him moments before, and it preserves the circumstances: the jersey was zipped up to the collar, the rider wrapped up warm against the dangers of a post-race chill.
Then, just before they entered the building, the rider and the girl stopped walking and momentarily stood at right angles to each other. It was a very quick moment, yet the memory remains.
Their backs shielded the view, but when he turned his jersey was fully unzipped and his shorts appeared to be snapping back into place.
It seemed clear that one of two things had happened; motivated perhaps by the warm kiss she’d given him, our Romeo had either been flashing the girl, pulling out his shorts to afford her a glimpse of the goods.
Alternatively, she had passed him something which he had let fall inside his clothing.
Knowing about the use of protease substances – powders which can be dropped into urine to disguise the presence of EPO – the second seemed the more likely to me.
It was quite a ‘WTF’ moment. The duo entered the building.
I stood outside, head reeling. Not knowing what to do, I thought for a minute or so, then took out my phone and called the UCI.
“I’ve just seen something that may be dodgy, I’m not sure,” I said, then explained what had happened.
It was impossible to be certain whether the girl had indeed slipped him a masking agent, or if he was simply keen to show off the meat and two veg, but the test results would determine if option A was the case.
A little science: in addition to being an illegally used product when injected, EPO is also a naturally occurring hormone, and so there are always certain levels in the body. The doping control tests work by discerning between exogenous and endogenous EPO; in other words, between external and internal sources.
If the rider had used a protease, his sample would be completely devoid of any EPO, even that which would naturally be in his system.
For the UCI, or whomever was viewing the control results, it would be clear if something untoward had happened.
Months passed, and no news was announced about a suspicious test. The UCI never contacted me again about what I had seen, and the matter settled down.
However a couple of years later the rider in question was busted for EPO at a different race, and served a long ban; he later retired.
As for the first rider – another with whom, by coincidence, shorts were involved – he has since admitted using doping products earlier in his career, including the period in question.
The events have played out a fair bit on my mind in recent months. Put yourselves in each of those situations and ponder how you would have reacted.
Would you have challenged the first rider? Would you have contacted the UCI about the second?
Each of you will have your own opinion, each of you will have your own instinct about the right course of action.
Then, having thought about that, consider how you would have acted if you were a teammate of the riders in question.
Say something? Say nothing? Would you have told the team, or the UCI, about your concerns?
It’s undoubtedly a grey area: particularly if you were unsure if rules were being broken, and especially if it was ten years ago when things were a lot more blurred than they are now.
For some who spoke out then, rocking the boat cost them their jobs, or at least their place on their teams. Others may have opted to say nothing, even if they themselves were opposed to doping.
What’s certain is that some squads couldn’t have cared less what went on. If the results were coming and the tests were clear, then so be it. Turning a blind eye was par for the course on some teams, after all.
At least now, after the smouldering scandals of the Armstrong/USADA affair and Operacion Puerto, there is hope that those attitudes have changed.
But what would you have done?
Shane Stokes is a professional journalist who has been writing about cycling for over 15 years. Currently the editor of VeloNation, he has contributed to several worldwide publications and has featured on radio and television as well. He also writes for the Irish Times.