21

Checkmate

‘I don’t want to talk about the Fuentes period. I met him when I was riding myself. I met him, we talked, and voilà . . .’

—Rudy Pevenage

Long before Eufemiano Fuentes became a vampiric scourge of professional cycling, his family’s bloodline had already left an indelible, sanguinary mark in the chronicles of the Canary Islands.

Born in 1911, the doctor’s uncle, also called Eufemiano, created his own tobacco empire and helped build a football club, Unión Deportiva Las Palmas, which now plays in the Spanish Second Division and whose stadium once bore his name. Eufemiano senior is better known in the Canaries, however, for the events of 2 June 1976. In the middle of that night, a masked man broke into the Fuentes family villa, hauled its pyjama-clad owner out of his bed, into Fuentes’s own Cadillac, and sped off into the darkness. Months later, thanks to a tip-off from a relative of the presumed culprit, a seasoned local villain nicknamed ‘El Rubio’ or ‘The Blonde’, police found Fuentes’s mutilated body at the bottom of a well twenty minutes’ drive from Las Palmas. Twenty-two years would pass before they could finally track down, arrest and convict El Rubio.

Another Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor’s cousin, later put the family back in the news, in similarly grisly circumstances, in 1994. When a Las Palmas prostitute named Carmen Diepa Pérez refused to stub out his cigarette on her chest, Fuentes flew into a rage and killed her. He then hacked apart Pérez’s dead body with a chainsaw and scattered the body parts in various skips around his home city.

By the mid-1990s, of course, the Eufemiano who would one day become the most talked about member of the Fuentes clan was cannily forging a career in sports medicine. He had been the first member of his family to go to university, studying medicine at the University of Navarra. On the day of his uncle’s kidnapping, he was sitting a gynaecology exam. Described by classmates and his tutors as a brilliant and curious student, Eufemiano also excelled as an athlete, winning the Spanish Universities 400-metre hurdles title in 1976. According to an article in Pamplona newspaper Diario de Noticias de Navarra, ‘Eufemiano Fuentes caught the attention of 1970s Pamplona from behind the wheel of his Alfa Romeo, and those who knew him say that, with his well-bred airs, his intelligence and his gift of the gab, he had plenty of success in the art of seducing members of the opposite sex.’

It wasn’t only women who fell under Fuentes’s charm. José Luis Pascua was as well known in Spanish athletics for his coaching as for the rebellious streak that had earned him a three-year ban for defying Franco’s institutions in the mid-1970s. After the General’s death, the Spanish athletics federation appointed Pascua to head up their quest for medal success at the LA Olympics in 1984 – and Pascua enlisted the help of a kindred spirit studying at the Spanish National Institute of Physical Education in Madrid, one Eufemiano Fuentes. An Argentine named Guillermo Laich, whose clients later included Diego Maradona, completed a formidable brain trust. In the run-up to Los Angeles, Laich set up a ‘cultural exchange’ with Eastern Bloc counterparts and the athletes whom they were training, often in the Canary Islands, with methods that he, Fuentes and Pascua considered to be state-of-the-art. After Czech athletes’ remarkable performances in 1984, Laich told El País, ‘If you ever published a photo of a Czech athlete on the eve of a competition, anyone would think that it was an intensive care unit, with all the vials of serum going straight into the veins.’

What Fuentes, Laich and Pascua called their system of ‘biological preparation’, others called doping. There were rumours of Spanish athletes following the lead of Finnish runners and American track cyclists by experimenting with blood transfusions. It was also alleged that Fuentes et al were carrying out their own dope tests to ensure their athletes sailed through the official controls, as was common practice in East Germany. Embarrassingly, the method didn’t save Fuentes’s wife, the 400-metre runner Cristina Pérez, who tested positive for a banned amphetamine in 1987, although her conviction was later overturned.

Luckily, Fuentes had by then found his calling in a different sport. Before the 1985 cycling season, Pascua’s brother, Manuel, had recommended Fuentes for the job as team doctor to the SEAT-Orbea squad, whose riders included the future Tour de France winner Pedro Delgado. Fuentes arrived with his usual flourish, pulling up to his first training camp at Font Romeu in the Pyrenees in his Porsche, then guiding Delgado to victory in the Vuelta a España the following May. The team’s directeur sportif, Txomin Perurena, recalled him fondly years later: ‘He was a lovely guy, very good at his job – and extremely funny. He wasn’t a morning person, let’s say, and every time he showed up late he’d tell us with a big smile that his grandmother had died. I don’t know how many grandmothers he had . . .’

One of SEAT-Orbea’s star riders, Pello Ruiz Cabestany, also recalls a sharp, compassionate operator who respected the conditions laid down in their first meeting, namely that Cabestany wanted only legal treatment. ‘[Later] I think he lost his head,’ Cabestany told the journalist Ander Izagirre.

By 1990, such was Fuentes’s reputation that, when the ONCE team manager Manolo Saiz asked his riders to suggest candidates for the role of team doctor, calls for Fuentes rang back in a resounding chorus. One day, Saiz proclaimed the doctor ‘the best psychologist that ever existed’. Whether because of his magic words, hands or potions, in Fuentes’s two seasons at ONCE, the team soared. When journalists recognized Fuentes on their flight to Mallorca for the decisive time trial of the 1991 Vuelta, the doctor nodded towards a package on the seat next to him. ‘In there is the key to the Vuelta,’ he grinned.27

Fuentes eventually left ONCE, claiming to be worn out by the stress of frequent travel to and from races. He enjoyed more relaxed schedules at Amaya first, then Kelme, yet was still able to produce similarly transformative results. In 1995, the owners of Kelme, a sportswear company, begged him to give their hometown football team, Elche, a final push in their bid for promotion to the Spanish second division. Fuentes’s efforts proved vain, but Barcelona still made him a handsome offer, with perks including a beachside villa, in 1996. Fuentes declined – so he told Stern magazine in 2008 – and waited four years before his next flirtation with the beautiful game with the club of his native city, UD Las Palmas. There, Fuentes’s methods were ‘shrouded in mystery’ and kept largely hidden from the medical staff upon whom he had been ‘imposed’, as they later told the press. He reported for work only once a week and administered all treatments behind the closed door of his office in the bowels of the Estadio Insular. He frequently promised players that he could make them ‘300 per cent better’. Not long after his arrival, Las Palmas made a quick getaway after an away match at Rayo Vallecano – and left ampoules and pills strewn across the dressing-room floor, according to a cleaner who found them. The leftovers were never analysed, but Las Palmas still felt compelled to call a press conference the following day. The syringes had contained only vitamins, Fuentes said. One player had even refused an injection when he was told that it would do nothing for his receding hairline.

Las Palmas enjoyed their best season since the late 1970s, finishing eleventh in Spain’s top division – and yet the doctor didn’t return for a second campaign. Asked years later if it was true that Barcelona had made him a second offer in 2002, he said that he would rather not comment. In one interview with Cadena SER in 2006, he bragged that he had worked for another football team, ‘almost winning the league, and the next year, when I was gone, they nearly got relegated’. If that was one clue, the initials RSOC on documents seized by the Guardia Civil in their Puerto raids in 2006 was another. The former Real Sociedad president claimed in 2013 that an internal investigation had uncovered years of substantial payments to Fuentes for ‘strange medicines’.

On the evolutionary timeline of professional cycling and its credibility, as we have noted already, Jan Ullrich’s ride to Arcalís in 1997 had marked a significant moment. While Ullrich swept Germany off its feet, he was also, unbeknownst to himself and the wider audience, giving cycling its last experience of unquestioning, untainted awe on its grandest stage. After the following year and the Festina scandal, there could never again be the same swoons without suspicion or caveats.

On 30 June 2006, the ensuing age of well-founded cynicism was also reaching its acme, or its nadir, with Ullrich. My own fifth Tour de France began that morning, on the steps of Strasbourg’s Palais des Congrès, where I chewed over the rumours of Ullrich and Ivan Basso’s imminent banishment with Luigi Perna of La Gazzetta dello Sport. Luigi, like me, had previously interviewed Basso at his home and been introduced to the family dog: Birillo. ‘Birillo’ was also the second name on the business card in Merino Batres’s wallet, just underneath ‘Hijo de Rudicio’. Three hours later we were squashed into the doorway of the local Holiday Inn with more of our colleagues than could fit, while the CSC team manager Bjarne Riis read a statement to create a diversion, and Basso snuck out the rear exit and out of the Tour.

The Spaniard Paco Mancebo had also been sent home, as had Jörg Jaksche’s entire team. Five of their riders, including Jaksche, were implicated, meaning they were too short on numbers to even start. Soon it would be the turn of the two T-Mobile riders, Oscar Sevilla and Jan Ullrich. Wolfgang Strohband, Ullrich’s manager, followed the Audi driven by Stefan, Ullrich’s brother, and with Jan in the passenger seat. Strohband remembers a scene like a Hollywood car chase, filmed on an eerily silent set beside the Rhine river, as events in Berlin – where Die Mannschaft were knocking Argentina out of the World Cup – had drained the German roads of traffic. ‘There were eight motorbikes following us with paparazzi on them. I almost rode one of them into a car coming the other way because we were on a little country road and he was trying to overtake to get his picture.’

T-Mobile and Christian Frommert had in fact pulled off a minor PR masterstroke by suspending Ullrich and Sevilla at 9.45 in the morning, before other teams acted and before the Tour organizers ASO had even had time to nudge them towards that decision. As then ASO boss Patrice Clerc tells me, ‘If the teams had refused to send the riders home, we couldn’t have forced them to do that from a legal standpoint.’

Frommert, though, was a shrewd operator who had quickly shifted into crisis management mode. The man T-Mobile were about to install as the team boss, Bob Stapleton, describes him as a ‘hard bastard’ and a ‘real talent who single-handedly kept T-Mobile in the sport’. In an autobiography published later and largely dedicated to his lifelong battle with anorexia, Frommert wrote about another gruelling struggle – to get Jan Ullrich to realize that ‘communication isn’t everything but without communication there is nothing’.28 In the days before and weeks that followed Strasbourg, Frommert would see Ullrich languish in a state of infuriating inertia.

As Frommert wrote, ‘Jan doesn’t and can’t hurt anyone. He wants to be loved, by anyone and everyone . . . a guy who craves harmony and wants above all to be seen as down to earth. A lot of people describe him as naive, perhaps because he was never really aware of his star status in this country.’

Despite opening a trapdoor under Ullrich, Frommert initially gave the impression of looking for the softest landing both for him and T-Mobile. There was talk of a televised confession on the first rest day of the Tour. Ullrich didn’t initially reject this idea, and on 12 July his fiancée Sara even emailed Wolfgang Strohband two draft statements: one still dismissing the allegations as speculation yet also announcing Ullrich’s retirement; the other admitting that Ullrich and Pevenage had ‘gone down a route that we didn’t think constituted doping’ and which led to Ullrich having blood extracted by Fuentes but never re-injected – i.e. that he had only ‘attempted to dope’. The latter would have been identical to the defence employed by Ivan Basso the following spring.

Frommert was never going to sanction either statement, even if it looked to Ullrich like a way out. Their lines of communication were cut for good when Ullrich sent Frommert a message withdrawing the invitation to his wedding.

‘Frommert was perfect for T-Mobile – they came out of it smelling of roses,’ says Wolfgang Strohband. Strohband’s calls to T-Mobile’s HQ in Bonn were soon also ringing out and going unreturned.

‘Jan didn’t seem to have fully understood the dimensions of the whole thing,’ Strohband says. ‘He didn’t think they could stop him from riding the Tour. Why would they? How could they? I don’t know if he fell apart – but I had never heard him scream before that moment in his room in the hotel. I simply hadn’t experienced that from him before. It could be that he’s someone who just bottles everything up and never lets it out.’

Processing what had happened was made harder by Ullrich’s sense of betrayal. He swam endless lengths of his pool in Scherzingen, feeling the muscles sculpted by months of graft straining at their sinews, his lungs billowing under his ribcage and dark thoughts thumping inside his skull. In time, the extent to which T-Mobile, the management and even Ullrich’s teammates could and should have been aware of his trips to Madrid would reveal itself – but for now it was bad enough or maybe worse that T-Mobile were turning the whole thing to their advantage. For years, Ullrich, the sponsor and the media had maintained an unholy, unspoken alliance whereby access was granted in return for positive coverage. Now T-Mobile and Christian Frommert in particular found a way to maintain the same cosy arrangement, at least temporarily, while cutting Ullrich adrift.

Michael Ostermann, who was covering the 2006 Tour for television network ZDF, could see what was happening. Ostermann knew that Frommert was a master of strategically planting stories, particularly in Der Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung – coincidentally or not the two outlets with the most comprehensive stories about Ullrich and Fuentes. On the day after Ullrich’s exclusion from the Tour, Ostermann could hardly believe his eyes when he opened the Süddeutsche to see a long article outlining Frommert’s plan to clean up T-Mobile. Then he twigged. ‘Christian Frommert was a T-Mobile guy, and as soon as they learned that Ullrich and Pevenage were dealing with Fuentes, it was clear they had to save T-Mobile. I realized that he’d been the Süddeutsche’s source all along because they seemed to have all the information that Frommert was getting. Frommert really knew what he was doing. I mean, look at it from the T-Mobile side. The day after Ullrich got kicked out, Frommert had managed to give everyone the impression that Telekom were the good guys and they would clean up the mess. From a PR point of view, that’s perfect. Your team is going down the drain and there you are telling everyone you’re going to save the sport.’

The more Frommert talked, the more it seemed as though, with Ullrich gone, T-Mobile had completed its own Wende, similar to Germany’s in 1989. In reality, says Ostermann, his first instincts in Strasbourg had been correct. ‘I think in the first thing I wrote I said that whatever came out of it, it was going to be a massive blow from which German cycling would probably not recover. And I think that’s what happened. It wasn’t because I was so clever. Ullrich was simply the axis on which cycling in Germany turned. With him gone, it was obvious everything would fall apart.’

An editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said much the same thing: ‘With Jan Ullrich cycling became a mainstream sport in Germany. And with Jan Ullrich it will fall at least halfway back down again. People will still ride bikes, if that’s what they enjoy. But why should they still be interested in events like the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia? It’s high time everyone woke up. The dream is over, not only for Jan Ullrich.’

WADA chief Dick Pound said that cycling’s image was ‘in the toilet’. Three weeks later, Floyd Landis won the show that did go on, the 2006 Tour, only to test positive and lose his title soon afterwards.

Without specifying exactly how and when, Rudy Pevenage is sure about one thing: he wanted and even urged Jan Ullrich to tell the truth about Eufemiano Fuentes. ‘We never argued . . . The only problem we had was that I wanted it all to come out. I can’t bear the hypocrisy in cycling any more. But Jan didn’t want it to come out.’

Two or three days before leaving for the Tour, Pevenage had received a call from the former UCI president, Hein Verbruggen, forewarning him of what would occur when they got to France. Verbruggen urged Pevenage to stop Ullrich travelling to France, to make him stage a fall down some stairs and break his arm. But Pevenage knew that wouldn’t fly, certainly not with Ullrich in Bombenform. He hoped and prayed that somehow they would slip through a crack, even when the Quickstep team manager, Patrick Lefevere, saw him in the car park outside the press room in Strasbourg and called out an ominous greeting: ‘Hey, Rudy, you’re famous today and you’ll be even more famous tomorrow.’

Pevenage concedes that, after his careless text messages to Fuentes during the Giro, he would do one other thing differently if he had his time again. ‘If I regret one thing, it’s not getting a lawyer and staying in Strasbourg. There were riders who were with Fuentes who still started that Tour . . . But the hardest thing for me was the trip to the airport. Sneaking out of the hotel by the back door, driving to Basel, knowing that I was finished as a directeur. Frommert and Luuc Eisenga broke the news to me . . .’ Pevenage makes the motion of someone twisting a knife. Then adds a rueful footnote: ‘Jan wanted to do the Tour, then the Deutschland Tour as a farewell. Leave cycling. He was young but he was sick of it.’

It was of course obvious that Pevenage had led Ullrich to Fuentes. While he at first denied it, the ‘Hijo de Rudicio’ nickname pointed clearly to that conclusion. Eventually, in 2010, Pevenage would admit it in an interview with Philippe Le Gars of L’Équipe.

By this time, what documentary evidence may previously have been lacking also lay in the hands or on the hard drives of the German federal police (BKA) in Bonn. Ullrich had barely unpacked the unworn clothes from his Tour suitcase before, on 7 July 2006, a former athlete turned criminology professor named Britta Bannenberg was filing a criminal complaint against him for alleged fraud and infringing the German medicines act. At nine a.m. on 13 September, officers carried out simultaneous searches of Ullrich’s residence in Scherzingen, Rudy Pevenage’s in Geraardsbergen, Walter Godefroot’s in Sint-Martens-Latem and the offices of Wolfgang Strohband in Hamburg and T-Mobile in Bonn. For Ullrich it was an unwelcome wedding present, four days after he and Sara had tied the knot in front of a hundred of their friends in St. Nikolaus von Lech in the Austrian Alps. After the ‘happiest day of [his] life’, he returned to one of the most traumatic. The same went for Pevenage, whose home office contained all the documentation the BKA needed to prove beyond doubt that he was the conduit between Ullrich and Fuentes. During the search, Pevenage had whispered to his wife to stuff a bag filled with incriminating paperwork into the suitcase of their visiting granddaughter; they were foiled when one of the police officers demanded they unzip the little girl’s luggage.

In total, the BKA determined that Pevenage had made at least fifteen trips to Madrid between December 2003 and the spring of 2006. Ullrich was usually if not always with him. Some receipts for flight bookings, room reservations and drinks at hotel bars were still lying around Pevenage’s office in plastic folders. Others were stored on his computer. Several had been deleted but were discovered by the BKA’s data-recovery experts. On some trips, like the one on 21 February 2005, Ullrich was in Madrid for only a couple of hours before he boarded a plane back to Zürich, while Pevenage went home via Brussels. Their preferred hotel, or Fuentes’s, was the Tryp Diana, less than a kilometre from the arrivals lounge at Barajas airport. The BKA presumed Ullrich, Fuentes and Pevenage gave themselves just enough time for a ‘fly-thru’ refill – mere minutes to reach the hotel, less than an hour for Fuentes to do his work, then a mad dash to make it back to Barajas in time for the gate closing.

They found no direct evidence to suggest that anyone else could have been in the loop – except an email from Pevenage to Ullrich’s then fiancée Sara in November 2005 asking about flights for Jan’s forthcoming trip to Madrid. On the days when he was in the Spanish capital, the calendars of T-Mobile manager Olaf Ludwig and Wolfgang Strohband indicated that Ullrich was training at home in Switzerland as far as they were aware. Strohband admits that he knew about at least one flight to Madrid – but thought perhaps Ullrich had met a Spanish girl and was having an affair. He didn’t pry. ‘He never said anything to me . . . A lot of it, including the medical stuff, passed me by,’ Strohband concedes sheepishly.

The BKA, though, also gained access to Ullrich’s bank statements. His payments to Fuentes had left a paper trail. Strohband admits that on one occasion, he believes in 2002 or 2003, Ullrich asked Strohband’s daughter, his bookkeeper, to transfer money to a Spanish account registered to the surname Fuentes – ‘who I didn’t know from Adam’. Strohband says the payment had escaped his notice until the BKA went through his files. Regardless, when Ullrich made requests, generally they would be granted without further questions. Perhaps significantly, 2003 was also when Strohband noticed that Ullrich had suddenly started showing a little more interest in his finances.

Between the fruits of their searches and what the Guardia Civil had sent over from Spain, the BKA were able to assemble a comprehensive picture of the Fuentes–Ullrich–Pevenage ménage à trois, how it functioned, when and where. Calendars taken from Fuentes’s apartments and annotated with numbers, code names and symbols – the ‘Sanskrit of Eufemiano’ – were paired with travel bookings and bank transfers to determine exactly what Ullrich had done and what it had cost. Thus, they were able to establish how repeated trips to Madrid in the winters of 2004, 2005 and 2006 had served to build a blood bank from which Ullrich would draw at important moments of the season. In total, the BKA believed they had found evidence for two Madrid appointments in 2003, five in 2004, twelve in 2005 and five up to the moment when Fuentes was arrested in 2006. At Ullrich’s home they had found a Compur Mikrospin centrifuge used to measure haematocrit in blood.

The Fuentes method itself had become more sophisticated in 2004 when he acquired a deep-freeze he and his collaborators referred to as ‘Siberia’. Frozen blood bags could be preserved for years, but the process of storing and re-injecting them was delicate, time-consuming and costly. Fuentes told one of his star clients, Tyler Hamilton, he would offer the use of Siberia to only top-tier riders – meaning Ullrich, Basso and a couple of others. These were also the only ones who could afford what Fuentes was touting as his club-class service. The BKA identified two payments to Fuentes from Ullrich’s Credit Suisse account, one for 25,003.20 euros on 4 February 2004 and one for 55,000 euros on 9 January 2006. The Guardia Civil also believed this was only a fraction of what Fuentes had received from or was owed by Ullrich. On a sheet of paper found in his apartment at the Calle Caídos de la División Azul, Fuentes had scribbled a breakdown of his expected income from various clients in 2006. Next to the number one, thought to denote Ullrich, Fuentes had scribbled down a 50,000-euro basic fee and a further 10,000 euros for the use of ‘Siberia’. In the same table were letters and symbols which, based on what Jesús Manzano had told the Guardia Civil, indicated that he expected to supply Ullrich with the banned hormones EPO, testosterone and human growth hormone. On a further sheet Fuentes had jotted 70,000 euros alongside ‘1. Nibelungo’, another of Ullrich’s presumed code names, and also noted bonuses of 50,000 euros for a Tour de France win and 30,000 euros for first place in the Giro or Vuelta. Ivan Basso evidently had exactly the same arrangement. One well-placed source claims that Basso didn’t know that Fuentes was treating Ullrich. By the time he got to Strasbourg before the 2006 Tour, Basso was certainly in the picture – hence why, at the team presentation on the eve of the race, he approached Pevenage in a panic and asked what Pevenage thought would happen to them the following day.

The transfusions themselves seemed to follow a well-established cadence, with one generally occurring a day or two before a grand tour and another on the first rest day. Certain anomalies could be explained only by someone well-versed in the Fuentes method – like Jörg Jaksche. Before his arrest, Fuentes had Ullrich booked in for what the BKA believed was going to be the re-injection of two bags of blood and the extraction of the same number, both on 20 June, ten days before the Grand Départ in Strasbourg. Jaksche believes this could have been because Fuentes sometimes had riders acting as their own ‘blood mule’, as Jaksche had also done in the past. As he explains: ‘To avoid transporting the blood across an international border during the race, Fuentes would get you to carry it to France, probably Paris, in your own body. He’d have someone in Paris waiting to take the blood out again as soon as you landed, and then the blood would be in France, ready to inject again straight after the pre-Tour medical checks when they would test you.’

Whatever exactly it consisted of, the Guardia Civil could see that some kind of last, pre-Tour tango in Paris had been scheduled for that third week in June. Two hotel rooms, one at the Holiday Inn and one at the AGIL 7, were reserved for five and six nights respectively. Per their airline tickets, Fuentes and Alberto León – aka Ali Baba – had been due to arrive in the French capital on the sixteenth and seventeenth of June. As it turned out, by that point, they were under arrest and there was no blood left in the bank.

Between them, the Guardia Civil and the BKA assembled thousands of pages of evidence, and there were also the nine bags of blood presumed to be Ullrich’s seized from Madrid and now stored by the Guardia Civil at the Municipal Institute of Medical Research in Barcelona. But they couldn’t know everything. For the purposes of their respective cases it also didn’t matter to the BKA when exactly Ullrich had first turned to Fuentes – although many were still curious. Günther Dahms, the man who had signed Ullrich for Team Coast in 2003, certainly had a vested interest. When in 2008 Ullrich sued Dahms for around 500,000 euros in unpaid wages from his four months with Coast in 2003, Dahms retaliated with the allegation that Ullrich’s doping in that period breached his contract. One of the year planners found in Fuentes’s apartments indeed showed an appointment with ‘1. Nibelungo’ on 14 April 2003, three days after the end of the Circuit de la Sarthe, Ullrich’s comeback race after his ecstasy ban. But how could it be proved that Ullrich took illegal drugs that day, as opposed, to say, just having Fuentes talk him through his menu? Even if Fuentes had performed a first extraction during their meeting, demonstrating Ullrich’s intention to cheat at an indefinite point in the future, Dahms’s case looked weak and was defeated.

In none of his subsequent legal proceedings was Ullrich ever called to pinpoint exactly when he and Fuentes had their ‘first date’ – but, privately, he did tell a reliable source that it had been in late April 2003, when he and Pevenage were on their way to a race in Spain, possibly the Vuelta a Aragon. Ullrich had heard Spanish teammates at Coast raving about Fuentes in conversations earlier in 2003, and it was at around the same time that Pevenage dialled the doctor’s number. In their first encounter in Madrid, speaking English, Fuentes immediately talked Ullrich through his list of available treatments. He then asked Ullrich to imagine driving to a traffic light: did he want to wait for green, go through on amber or run the red? Green – in fact ‘light green’, was apparently Ullrich’s reply. At this moment and at others, the words of his first and in some ways only spiritual guide, his grandfather, perhaps echoed through his conscience: ‘Better to give up than carry on riding and take drugs.’ Ullrich cared about his health and his future – but had also convinced himself, like many of his peers, that anything that didn’t take him above the UCI’s 50 per cent haematocrit limit was not doping.

The second entry in Fuentes’s 2003 diary suspected by the BKA to relate to Ullrich was not until 29 May – after he had officially left Team Coast for Bianchi and all ties with Dahms were cut. Again, though, as long as Ullrich, Fuentes, Pevenage and other interested parties would not put it on the record, the only calendars available were the ones retrieved from Fuentes’s apartments in Madrid. The doctor’s home and clinic in Gran Canaria were never searched.

Another unsolved puzzle was whether Ullrich’s performances were enhanced and his blood enriched by other banned substances. Multiple signs and annotations in Fuentes’s files suggested this was the case, and synthetic testosterone had also been found during the search of Ullrich’s house in Scherzingen in September 2006. A few months after that, the BKA also requested samples from the nine bags of blood stored in Barcelona. They were analysed by world-renowned expert Wilhelm Schänzer in Cologne – but none were shown to contain banned substances. It was also impossible to prove whether Ullrich had ever used a Fuentes especialidad de la casa – the substance others referred to as ‘the powder of the Madre Celestina’. By covering one’s hands with this ‘magic’ red dust and then urinating over them in a dope test, a rider could apparently cleanse his sample of EPO and escape detection. The BKA thought it likely, based on papers found at Number 53 Calle Alonso Cano, that Ullrich had bought tubes of the substance from Fuentes on multiple occasions. TV and newspaper reports by Swiss media in October 2006 also alleged that three urine samples collected from Ullrich in recent months had been ‘suspiciously’ free of EPO – even the naturally produced variety. But evidence like this enabled only a very educated guess.

What could be verified, eventually, was that the nine bags of blood in Barcelona were indeed Ullrich’s. Immediately after Strasbourg, both he and Pevenage indicated that he would be willing in principle to give a DNA sample to cross-reference with the bags now being kept in Barcelona. Ullrich finally had to provide Swiss police with a saliva sample during the September 2006 house search. That couldn’t be used by the BKA but, eventually, pressure from them led to Ullrich giving a further sample on 1 February 2007. Two millilitres of blood from each of the nine bags in Spain were duly sent to Düsseldorf for a comparative analysis, the results of which were expected to be announced in March.

At which point, it surely would be game over.

In the many appraisals of Eufemiano Fuentes’s customer service and his bedside manner, one thing that crops up repeatedly, on and off the record, is his talent for making patients feel at ease. There were occasional slips, appalling punctuality, the permanent air of someone who had left a cooker on or a tap running, plus clients like Thomas Dekker who felt he was ‘just hungry for money and attention’. But, in the eyes of most who met him, Fuentes’s charisma cast a spell as powerful as any of his potions.

‘I don’t want to talk about the Fuentes period. I met him when I was riding myself. I met him, we talked, and voilà . . .’ Rudy Pevenage tells me. When the BKA interviewed Pevenage in October 2008, he was marginally more forthcoming, explaining that he had struck up a friendship with Fuentes when he began his career as a directeur sportif with Histor in 1989 and Fuentes was working for Kelme. Later still, Pevenage revealed that he and Fuentes got talking about blood transfusions – then something of which Pevenage was only vaguely aware – one evening at the Vuelta a España, when both men were several glasses of wine deep, possibly in 2000.

To me, Pevenage continues to offer only tempting crumbs – such as, ‘Fuentes wasn’t involved for the 2003 Tour’ – but for the most part he wants to avoid any more bother. As he says, ‘2006, 2007 and 2008 were awful for me.’

For all his languid charm, the way he makes dreary postulates of endocrinology sing like delicious verses crafted by Dante or Boccaccio, even Luigi Cecchini sounds in a hurry when I press him on Fuentes. ‘Per favore,’ he says, ‘don’t ask me to judge Fuentes.’ Later, he wearily acquiesces, ‘There are bad things happening in all sports. It’s true that there are lots of positive tests in cycling but that’s because there are so many tests. If you tried to do that many tests in football . . . but, per favore, don’t make me say any more.’

I turn to Tyler Hamilton, who – like Thomas Dekker, Jörg Jaksche and Ullrich – was coached by Cecchini and treated by Fuentes. Surely, I put to Hamilton, Cecchini must have at least known that Fuentes was supplying medical ‘care’ to his riders. The BKA logged multiple occasions when Ullrich flew directly from Madrid to Cecchini’s local airport in Pisa, or vice versa.

‘With me, Luigi knew [I was with Fuentes],’ Hamilton says. ‘He didn’t push it on me, he knew it was all crazy but he also understood there were other riders doing the same thing. But he wasn’t doing blood tests so he wouldn’t have seen the evidence of what I was doing.’

In 2007, one Italian newspaper reported that two Fuentes clients, Basso and Michele Scarponi, had told Italian Olympic Committee prosecutor Ettore Torri that Cecchini had put them in contact with Fuentes.29 Cecchini firmly rebuts this and Torri tells me on the phone in September 2015 that he can’t remember what the riders told him. Despite Torri’s blessing, the Italian Olympic Committee declines permission for me to see the transcripts of the two riders’ statements.

Whatever misgivings or embarrassment prevent Cecchini or Pevenage from saying more, there is, or was, one man for whom the topic was even harder to broach: Jan Ullrich.

As the weeks passed in the summer then autumn and winter of 2006, Ullrich’s silence became ever more awkward and more incriminating. Another of Ullrich’s grandfather’s favourite sayings had been that ‘words are silver and silence is golden’ – a policy at the antipodes of what Christian Frommert had advocated. But Frommert and T-Mobile were out of the picture from 20 July 2006, the date on which Ullrich’s contract was officially terminated. Remarkably in the circumstances, T-Mobile had paid Ullrich a severance fee of 250,000 euros. The T-Mobile marketing chief Ulrich Gritzuhn told the BKA that the company didn’t want to wait around to see whether Ullrich was cleared – they simply preferred to get him off the books.

Ullrich was ‘no backstabber’, said one email between the T-Mobile executives – and indeed any worries about what he might disclose in public would have been misplaced. In October 2006, the possibility of a full confession still hadn’t been completely discarded when Strohband made an appointment with the hotshot defence lawyer Johann Schwenn in Hamburg. Schwenn insisted on speaking to Ullrich alone before any strategy was decided upon. After an hour and a half, they called Strohband into the room . . . only for Ullrich to announce that he was no longer allowed to say anything, not even to his manager of the previous fifteen years.

Ullrich fed his fans and the entire cycling community in Germany the same message. And many let him know that he had lost their confidence. The Deutschland Tour had been rescued from oblivion and turned into one of the richest, most attractive races on the international calendar on the back of Ullrich’s success. The 2006 edition in September was therefore a good place to test the mood of the nation – and the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s headline on the first day, ‘Threat of Apocalypse’, captured it succinctly. State TV channel ARD had already given the organizers an ice-cold shower by saying that it was fifty-fifty whether they would show the race in future years. ARD’s now head of sport, their former Tour de France presenter and Ullrich’s one-time ghostwriter, Hagen Boßdorf, had been portrayed in some quarters as the worst of Ullrich’s media facilitators – and it now looked as though Boßdorf and ARD wished to atone by building a bonfire. A young fan called onto the stage before the roll-out in Düsseldorf knew who should be the burning guy. ‘Who’s your favourite rider?’ boomed the MC, to which the boy replied, ‘Not Jan Ullrich.’ A matter of weeks later, a Hamburg magistrate would open an investigation into private, financial agreements between Ullrich and ARD – which Hagen Boßdorf still defends. ‘These contracts are very normal. RTL had one with Michael Schumacher for years,’ Boßdorf says when I meet him in Berlin.

By the autumn, Ullrich had given up his Swiss racing licence and was officially ineligible to race – though not retired or even officially suspended, he was at pains to point out. There were rumours of negotiations with various teams and of him competing in 2007. He also announced he still wanted to win the Tour. A Russian beer and banking magnate with designs on precisely that prize, Oleg Tinkov, was among the suitors, as were a second-tier Austrian team, Volksbank. Meanwhile, at home in Scherzingen, Ullrich felt hunted, stressed, cheated – including by T-Mobile. His last communication with them had been the fax he received to say he was sacked. Eleven seasons, a Tour de France, gold medals, unquantifiable media exposure, dissatisfied customers who became infatuated fans – all signed away with an adieu, an ‘Auf Nimmerwiedersehen’ or good riddance. ‘I didn’t feel they’d treated me well. Whatever mistake you’ve made, to be fired by fax – to basically be told you’re so toxic we can’t even call you – that’s not a very human way of doing things,’ Ullrich said later.

It felt less like a goodbye than a lobotomy. Not surprisingly, Ullrich also seemed to want to obliterate all memories of his fifteen years with the team. One surviving connection was the car on his drive, one of the latest models from long-time T-Mobile partner Audi. On the last day of October, a classified ad for the vehicle appeared on a Swiss second-hand car website, urging readers to contact the ‘well-known owner’. The contact address was Ullrich’s in Scherzingen.

Sara would one day open up how ‘pressures from the outside’ had caused ‘lots of arguments, misunderstanding and lots of tears’. Ullrich’s mum Marianne had to seek treatment for the mental strain. Two of her sons had lost their jobs – Stefan, the mechanic, having left T-Mobile at the same time as Jan. But the BKA investigation, triggered by Britta Bannenberg’s criminal complaint, had been the final insult. ‘No company in Europe got as much publicity out of cycling as T-Mobile and Telekom,’ seethed Marianne Kaatz. Ullrich’s mum wasn’t the only one horrified by Bannenberg’s apparent vendetta: soon various letters threatening violence led to Bannenberg being given police protection.

For Ullrich, the final hope of clearing his name would dissolve with the Spanish court ruling early in 2007 that allowed the Bonn prosecutors access to blood samples from the Fuentes stock. In the last week of March the bags would finally arrive from Barcelona and be cross-checked against the saliva sample Ullrich provided in Düsseldorf on the first day of February. Before that point, he had stayed fit and even honoured an annual tradition – his winter training camp in Mallorca. Upon his return to Switzerland, he mulled over his options with his lawyer, Johan Schwenn – or rather the lack thereof. A scene from a few weeks earlier was also lodged in his memory: his three-year-old daughter, Sarah Maria, had told Ullrich that all she wanted for Christmas was to spend more time with her dad.

An email sent to journalists one Friday in February 2007 said that Jan Ullrich had an announcement to make at the Intercontinental Hotel in Hamburg the following Monday. It added that he would take no questions. This cryptic message was enough for many of the main German networks and newspapers to correctly guess that Ullrich had decided to retire.

The substance may not have been a surprise, but the style in which Ullrich delivered it was to many. Overlooked by a giant picture of himself celebrating in the yellow jersey at the 1997 Tour, he appeared slimmer than in other years in late February, and oddly upbeat – or at least belligerent. Upon taking his seat he welcomed the journalists who had come from all over Europe – as Ullrich said, ‘Some I’m pleased to see for the first time in a while and others who don’t fill my heart with the same joy, black sheep who, I’m not going to lie, are tolerated rather than welcome.’

If that made one or two sit up straighter, they were soon gulping as, working his way through a pile of prompt cards, Ullrich took aim: at everyone who had contributed to an ‘overreaction’ in Strasbourg; at the federations which weren’t helping him to prove his innocence; at the German media not covering any of his grievances; at Werner Franke, the Heidelberg professor who had turned exposing Ullrich into a personal crusade; at Britta Bannenberg; and at Rudolf Scharping – aka ‘Bin Baden’ – the former German defence minister who, the German tabloids said, spent more time splashing around in Mallorca swimming pools with his girlfriend than fighting terrorists, and who, having become the president of the German Cycling Federation in 2005, Ullrich thought had duly turned his back on an old friend.

Occasionally he would smile defiantly, or season his monologue with black comedy, like when he asked whether everyone had fallen asleep ten minutes in. Then he would catch himself, mutter that, ‘the past is the past now anyway’, yet still reveal his wounds through a veil of faux matter-of-factness. ‘Ach, well, we’re still alive, eh, darling?’ he said at one point, turning to meet Sara’s gaze in the front row.

There were indisputable truths, like when he noted how few German journalists in the room had followed cycling pre-1997. But this neither endeared him to the gallery nor lessened their frustration. They had come for answers, mainly, and not to hear Ullrich confirm that he would now work as an advisor to Team Volksbank, a clothing company and a manufacturer of puncture repair kits.

The adjectives ‘sad’ and ‘embarrassing’ would pepper comment pieces the next day. Not all of the journalists, though, saw it like that. Michael Ostermann had first met Ullrich when he was an amateur living in a bedsit in Hamburg. Ostermann had also covered Ullrich’s rise and fall over the next decade and a half, and seen fortunes and his superstar status wax, wane and finally wear him down.

‘I was there and I got asked by a German media magazine – Zapp – what I thought,’ Ostermann recalls. ‘I said that I thought he was really authentic, that we’d seen Jan Ullrich unfiltered. It was bizarre but it was him. For the first time in a long, long time, I think he did something the way he wanted. He decided not to listen to any advice. He hasn’t done that very often. When I met him for the first time there in Hamburg he was himself, but later on he was in that Telekom system and there was always a press officer who gave him advice. I used to do some work for the T-Mobile website, and a lot of the time journalists had to send in their questions in writing and they’d get them answered in writing. And it wasn’t Jan who was writing them – it was someone in the press department. So with the retirement press conference, if you watch it again and keep in mind that it was his choice to do it that way, you see it a bit differently.’

Wolfgang Strohband had seen the whole choreography of the event take shape, and hadn’t agreed with the advice from Ullrich’s new media advisor, Michael Lang, about not taking questions. It was, though, the second act of Ullrich’s staged farewell that would cause both Ullrich and Strohband the sharpest regrets. Reinhold Beckmann is Germany’s best-known talk show host, so when he offered Ullrich the chance to say a more informal farewell to millions of German TV viewers, there appeared to be everything to gain and nothing to lose. Given that he would go straight from his press conference to Beckmann’s studio, it would also be the perfect opportunity to smother any negative feedback already coming Ullrich’s way.

This was the idea. What ensued was a PR catastrophe that not only eclipsed whatever he had said in the Intercontinental Hotel that morning but is still, over a decade on, many Germans’ abiding, unflattering image of Ullrich – that of an inarticulate, deluded former athlete who had sold them fantasies disguised as dreams, and who could now safely be consigned to the same scrapheap as other fallen national idols. Asked first to define ‘doping’, Ullrich first stammered and let out a deep sigh while looking heavenward. He then fell silent for several, excruciating seconds before offering, ‘It’s when . . . you’re trying to get an advantage over your rivals with medicine and stuff like that. An unfair advantage . . .’ The comic Mathias Richling’s later skit on the grilling, including such gems as, ‘I’ve always ridden with my own DNA, even at the Tour de France, never without’, confirmed that most watching Germans had not known whether to laugh or cry.

Little did the viewers realize that the entire mise en scène of the Beckmann interview was itself possibly an exercise in double-dealing and dissimulation.

‘Beckmann came to my office to talk through how it was going to work,’ Wolfgang Strohband remembers. ‘I knew Beckmann before this – and now I don’t want to know him. In my office it was Sara, Jan, Beckmann, his producer and me. We went through it all and I said to him, “Just ask Jan two or three questions about doping, then stop there, OK? The lawyer has said Jan can’t talk about it.” We were going to be able to watch the whole interview back before it was broadcast and cut out what we wanted. No problem, they said. I’m still glad that Sara and Jan were there because otherwise they might have thought I’d agreed something else with Beckmann.

‘Anyway, in the morning we did the press conference, which Jan had only partly talked through with Sara and not at all with me, and then we went to Beckmann with Lang, the press advisor Jan had hired, and one of our legal representatives. Beckmann took Jan into the studio and we were allowed to watch the recording in the next room. We had agreed that they would also play pre-recorded interviews with Rudolf Scharping and [T-Mobile’s CEO] René Obermann. We sat there for a quarter of an hour and it was all fine. Then suddenly: “And now to our anti-doping expert Hajo Seppelt.” He was evidently standing by in another room or building. I was absolutely beside myself and ready to force my way into the studio, but the producer told me that I had to stay where I was and calm down. I told him you could see Jan’s mood changing, that this wasn’t what we agreed and so on. He said again that we could cut what we didn’t like. But then the programme finished and Beckmann suddenly vanished.

‘We wanted to watch it all back but suddenly we weren’t allowed to. Finally they let us see it, but when we started telling them what needed to be taken out, a woman from the network came along and said the programme had been made and nothing was getting cut. The lawyers said we’d get an injunction to stop it being broadcast – but they had recorded at six and it was going out at nine thirty. There was no time. Sara and Jan went back to their hotel, watched and couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The whole thing angered me so much . . . although the bottom line is, if Jan had opened up about everything then, I really don’t think he’d have come out of the whole thing as badly as he did. And he wouldn’t be perceived the way he still is now.’

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