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French Cycling Takes a Spill at Doping Trial

With a national hero's admission that he used banned drugs in the Tour de France, the country's love affair with the sport is being sorely tested.

October 28, 2000|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — France this week is living through its own version of the Chicago Black Sox scandal, with its greatest sports hero of summer now in the role of fallen star.

Every July, no Frenchman is more popular or beloved than Richard Virenque. His name is written thousands of times on the country's roads and streets. Millions of his countrymen will stand for hours to see him pass.

The 30-year-old Virenque is a professional cyclist and a remarkably good one. Five times he has been awarded the title of "king of the mountains" as the top climber in the Tour de France, cycling's annual endurance classic.

This week, on trial on the northern city of Lille, the sportsman nicknamed "Richard the Lionheart" admitted what had been widely suspected--that he used performance-enhancing drugs to help him cycle over the Alps, the Pyrenees and the rest of the 1998 Tour's grueling itinerary.

"Did you take doping products?" Daniel Delegove, president of the court, asked Virenque on Tuesday. The cyclist, who in the past had steadfastly denied doing so, this time said he had, explaining that he used drugs to be part of the team.

"We don't say doping," Virenque explained. "We say we're 'preparing for the race.' "

Officials of the French Cycling Federation said Virenque's confession will mean a six-month suspension from competition, at a minimum. He is jobless at the moment, and his chances of finding a new employer depend on the outcome of the trial.

As well as Virenque and eight other defendants, the sport of professional cycling itself is on trial in Lille. The French press is covering the case as one of the most important events of the week, and radio and TV provide updates throughout the day.

Virenque and the team he was riding for at the time, Festina, were booted out of the 1998 Tour after French customs agents caught a team masseur, Willy Voet, in a car loaded with anabolic steroids, erythropoietin--which increases the blood's capacity for oxygen--and other banned pharmaceuticals. Virenque risks up to two years in prison if convicted of "complicity in facilitating and inciting the use of doping."

Organizers of the Tour and French cycling officials have stressed their determination to eradicate doping from the sport. But witnesses appearing in Lille have been alleging that, despite beefed-up testing, the illegal practice remains as endemic as ever. Some even accuse reigning two-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong of the United States of using drugs--an allegation Armstrong has consistently denied.

"Armstrong rides at an average speed of 54 kph [33 1/2 mph]. I find that scandalous," former Festina trainer Antoine Vayer testified in Lille.

For some observers of French society, putting a national hero like Virenque on trial on drug charges is part of the slow process of ending the immunity of the powerful in this country, whether they be politicians or captains of industry.

The process is difficult; in Lille, the investigating magistrate had to abandon his original plan of charging French and international cycling officials, including Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc, with complicity in the practice of doping.

As for Virenque, one of his attorneys, Vincent Speder, said the doping investigation and trial have left him "psychologically destroyed."

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