Storming Fort Knox

‘People want to make cycling an island of purity in a dirty world. It’s not possible’

—Walter Godefroot

On the morning of Sunday, 2 July 2006, I stood in a car park in Strasbourg mulling over the events of the previous forty-eight hours with an old acquaintance. I hadn’t needed to look for an ice-breaker or even mention Jan Ullrich’s name – the T-Mobile doctor, Lothar Heinrich, had seen me approaching the team bus, smiled and sighed. What else would there be to talk about except the Armageddon that had befallen them with Ullrich’s banishment from the Tour?

Of course, Heinrich had known nothing about Ullrich’s trips to Madrid, he said. There was no way for even the UCI to detect autologous transfusions – i.e. re-injecting one’s own blood – let alone Heinrich and his colleagues at the University of Freiburg, though good news was also on its way: a professor in northern Bavaria was devising a test method using carbon monoxide. T-Mobile would start using it for internal controls before it was even approved by WADA.

As ever, the doctor spoke differently from and looked unlike his counterparts on other teams. They were middle-aged, standoffish and had legacies of malpractice recorded in court archives in towns up and down Italy, France and Belgium. Heinrich could have been a recently retired athlete – a skier or rugby player. From the Adidas stripes on his fresh white polos to his stern, bass monotone, he seemed to epitomize typically German traits, values and virtues that belonged more to the sales pitch of ‘Germany’s team’ than its reality – at least while Ullrich’s waywardness was the dominant storyline.

Bob Stapleton, the American multi-millionaire whom T-Mobile now wanted to save the team, was also quite taken with Heinrich. ‘He was shovelling you shit the whole time. These big brown eyes, just feeding you shit. He was quite clever. He fooled me too,’ Stapleton says.

It should have come as no surprise that a practitioner known uncharitably as ‘Doc Hollywood’ would be a good actor, but Heinrich’s performance that weekend in Strasbourg was still remarkable. In the morning, he was telling me that Jan Ullrich had betrayed his team and his sport. The same evening, according to a sworn testimony by T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz, Sinkewitz’s girlfriend was driving him, Andreas Klöden and Matthias Kessler from their team hotel to the sports medicine department at Freiburg’s Uniklinik. There, Heinrich’s fellow team doctor, Andreas Schmid, was allegedly waiting to administer the illegal blood transfusions prepared before the Tour. The riders then returned to France and the next day took their place on the start line of stage two of the race. Only ‘happy circumstances’ prevented Sinkewitz suffering serious damage to his health, so sloppily was the procedure carried out, the Freiburg magistrate investigating the claims would say later.

When he learned of Sinkewitz’s claims, Stapleton’s thoughts raced back to the moment when Ullrich had exited the team hotel, the Tour and as it turned out his career. ‘The management called a rider meeting, and there are a lot of unhappy people in the room. They’re shocked, they’re upset, they’re talking about pulling out of the race en masse, just fuck it, all go home. I can remember Klöden being really worked up, shouting and swearing. Everyone else is sitting there with arms folded and legs crossed, stone-faced. This goes on for more than half an hour. The whole time I’m asking people what’s going on, but I think it finally starts to turn, and the meeting ends with them all being undecided as to whether or not they’ll race. Klöden was very loyal to Jan. He could have been the biggest single benefactor, but he was the one saying, “Fuck this.” But they decide to hash it out on a ride, and while they’re out on the ride they decide they’re going to start the Tour. Which, ultimately, I suppose, meant that they were going to go down the Rhine to Freiburg.’

Stapleton is looking out over the Pacific Ocean from our table in a cafe in Avila Beach, a few miles from his home in San Luis Obispo on the central Californian coast. When he agreed to step in as T-Mobile’s firefighter during the 2006 Tour, he hoped that Ullrich’s departure would signal a new dawn for the team – and for several months he thought that was what he had overseen. One of his first, significant steps had been to pick Lothar Heinrich’s brains about how T-Mobile could make sure they were different in a sport clearly riddled with charlatans and cheating. Heinrich had fixed him with those hypnotic hazel eyes and suggested a raft of measures, from a purge on external coaches like Ullrich’s old guru – Luigi Cecchini – to a renewed commitment to internal testing. It was everything he wanted to hear, and came from a doctor at one of Germany’s most prestigious universities. Telekom’s former CEO Ron Sommer has talked to me about Telekom’s ironclad trust in Freiburg in the team’s early years – that ‘having this medical team, for us . . . it was like having your money in Fort Knox. Safer than safe.’ Stapleton wasn’t as confident as that, but he also didn’t have much choice: the T-Mobile chiefs in Bonn were adamant that Freiburg should be the cornerstone of T-Mobile 2.0.

Heinrich and I would speak again about the reboot early in 2007. He even admitted that he had considered his position in the wake of Strasbourg but that, in the end, he had seen it as an ‘opportunity to look back and be critical of what I had and hadn’t done in terms of prevention’. His next chance to confront past mistakes would follow shortly afterwards – for Jef D’Hont, a Belgian soigneur who had worked for Team Telekom between 1992 and 1996, was about to publish his memoirs. D’Hont’s book hit the shelves in April 2007 – and it had the effect of a tornado through the scaffold of T-Mobile’s reconstruction. D’Hont wrote that he had been instrumental in a team-wide doping conspiracy that partly accounted for Telekom’s rise from minnows to Tour de France winners in 1996 and 1997. The allegations were itemized with names, dates, places and products. Lothar Heinrich was not spared and neither was Jan Ullrich. Journalists at Der Spiegel had known D’Hont for years, having approached him about being a source for their Telekom doping exposé in 1999. He had been unwilling to go on the record then, and his son Steven had been taken on by Telekom, also as a masseur, shortly thereafter. But, with Steven now working for another team, the pre-existing relationship ensured the book and its claims got maximum airplay in Germany’s biggest news magazine. In an interview, they asked him to be more specific about Ullrich and his first Tour de France, the 1996 edition, where he was second behind Bjarne Riis. Was Ullrich among the Telekom riders who took EPO in that race? D’Hont said he was and that Ullrich had also taken growth hormone. D’Hont had brought the EPO himself on a nervous journey home from the Tour of Switzerland: at a border check, one customs officer searched his boot and was about to find Telekom’s portable pharmacy when his colleague noticed that D’Hont’s car had no toll sticker on the windscreen. D’Hont was sent on his way with a fine.

When it was time to administer the drug, D’Hont said Ullrich needed only small doses, because ‘he was in a class of his own, physically . . . he would have beaten them all for years if no one had doped.’ But dope he also did. With the knowledge, blessing and direct input of Lothar Heinrich and the team’s other University of Freiburg doctor, Andreas Schmid, the soigneur alleged.

It would have been easy to dismiss D’Hont as an embittered former employee, but the detail of the accusations and the context in which they were made – the spring after Strasbourg – made them impossible to shrug off. Stapleton and his new regime had also made a very public pledge of transparency. One of the long-term stalwarts of the team in his riding career, Rolf Aldag, was now Stapleton’s team manager. Aldag urged Heinrich, Schmid and Freiburg to ‘explain themselves’ while stressing that he had never doped himself. But that was a lie with short legs: on 1 May, after the Rund um den Henninger Turm one-day race, Aldag and Erik Zabel, who was now riding for Milram, stood propped against a cigarette machine in a quiet corner of the hotel their teams were sharing, slowly persuading each other that a public confession was the only available course of action. Stapleton had already suspended Schmid and Heinrich after other riders came forward, most notably Bert Dietz. Dietz said on Reinhold Beckmann’s chat show that the Freiburg doctors had given him EPO in 1995 – Beckmann’s second cycling scoop in a few weeks after Ullrich’s car-crash farewell interview.

That was on a Monday. On the Tuesday, former Telekom rider Christian Henn came clean. On Wednesday, Udo Bölts told ARD that he regretted having earlier called D’Hont’s allegations ‘utter rubbish’, because they were true. Then, on Thursday, it was Aldag and Zabel’s turn at a press conference in Bonn. On Friday, Brian Holm joined the club. As did Bjarne Riis, finally, after years of denials.

As the Rheinische Post put it, the snowball had become an avalanche. And yet Jan Ullrich stood frozen once again. Frozen speechless.

Bob Stapleton could now fully grasp what he had inherited.

‘We were obligated to use the University of Freiburg in our sponsorship contract,’ Stapleton explains. ‘That had me and T-Mobile convinced that they were the good guys and that they were the right people to oversee the anti-doping programme and the training programme. And their position was that what Jan had done, he’d done on his own, and that was Fuentes. It turned out to be a pretty remarkable history of misconduct. It was well financed, well organized, and a doctor-overseen programme. And Lothar was central to that. I had put a lot of confidence into him and Schmid. You, know, Schmid, this solid, trustworthy guy, who apparently started to give riders information for their own safety when EPO came into the team, for their own health. But then that just spun out of control into some spectacularly organized programme. However well-intentioned it was when it started – however true that was – it became something that was quite over the top. Lothar’s “Doc Hollywood” thing was also central to that. He’d love the limelight, being at press conferences, and that just corrupted it even further. I think once you start doing crazy shit like that, the moral boundaries are gone. You can’t pull back. All judgement is out the window, and all alternatives are pretty bad. I think it just got pretty wild.’

Stapleton would be grateful to T-Mobile at the time for reaffirming their faith in him and in the team to reinvent itself. Equally, in what had occurred over the previous few months and what Aldag in particular had told him, he could see a textbook tale of corruption fed by money, egos and dishonesty. All set against the backdrop of a sport so replete with foul play that it had long since become desensitized.

‘There was also just so much money involved at that point,’ Stapleton says. ‘T-Mobile was putting north of 25 million euros into the team and its promotion. By the standards of that time it was a huge amount of money. They’d put cycling on the map in Germany, they were a proud German team, they had the best German athletes, they were celebrated. There was this cultural undertone to it – we’re better at this, partly because we’re German. There was a big aura of superiority that the whole thing carried. And I don’t think that was just me. They were Die Mannschaft, and they kicked everyone’s ass. They were bigger and badder than everyone else – and they wore that on their sleeve. The CEO, Ron Sommer, Kindervater . . . that was their pride and joy. They felt they’d created it. Zabel and Jan were regularly on the front page of the press with the CEO, or whoever it might be that day, so they had a role in the German mind and the German media that was far beyond what any other cycling team had. Far beyond what Lance had here in the US. As well known as Lance was, you heard about him around the Tour, whereas Jan was followed around the clock. He took the trash out in baggy sweatpants and the next day there was a photo in the tabloid press and a caption underneath, pointing out how fat his ass was. It was a remarkably visible sponsorship and affiliation with Telekom. And I think that was a ripe environment for all kinds of crazy things to happen.’

Ron Sommer, the Telekom CEO until 2002, had also been deceived by the Freiburg doctors. The question of how much Telekom did or should have known was hotly debated. But initially, Sommer says, his reaction was not one of self-reproach but disbelief.

‘You’re a newly privatized company, you float on the stock market, and you want to be cleaner than clean, whiter than white. The question was: is there a danger in sponsorship in general and sports sponsorship specifically? Our conclusion was that if we were supported by the Freiburg sports clinic, it was like being supported by the notary of the Bundesgericht or something . . . You know – if you wanted an organization to make sure you were clean, there wasn’t anything better on Earth than going to that clinic – that turned out to be the centre of the dirty stuff. I met the doctors a few times because we went to visit the team at the training camps. We took customers. We felt totally safe. They were good guys, nice guys, great reputation. Perfect. We never had the slightest idea that anything was dirty there. Of course we knew that it was a high-risk sport but we thought that with guys like that taking care of them nothing could happen.’

To err is, of course, human. But is it understandable, or forgivable, when those slipping up had made fortunes for themselves and their corporations by being brilliant, thorough, faultless – certainly not naive? Ron Sommer sighs. As he has already told me, his and to a large extent the company’s energies were focused elsewhere. Cycling was meant to be the fun part.

‘I don’t think we were in any way negligent,’ he says. ‘Freiburg, we could not even have investigated. I mean, can we investigate how clean the German police is? No, I have to trust that when they protect me, they are not corrupt. That when they protected my life at certain stages they aren’t paid by some people who wanted to kill me. So there are certain things you just don’t doubt unless you have a signal to be careful. And for Freiburg we didn’t have this signal, at least not at that time.’

In October 2015, I travel to Nuremberg for a congress on anti-doping in the National Germanic Museum, but it is the attendees who resemble a living, breathing Madame Tussaud’s of the field in East, West and now unified Germany.

Munching through a slice of cheesecake on one side of the green room is Brigitte Berendonk, the former discus thrower turned whistle-blower and heretical heroine of anti-doping in Germany. A few metres away, Berendonk’s husband, the microbiologist and drugs cheats’ bête noire for five decades, Werner Franke, has his huge paws clasped around Hajo Seppelt. Seppelt is the renowned journalist whose exposés on doping in Russian athletics have made headlines around the world – and whose impromptu appearance on Reinhold Beckmann’s chat show so flustered Jan Ullrich in 2007.

I also recognize a stocky, balding man of around fifty who has the sleeves of his cable-knit jumper rolled up to reveal his thick forearms. They are the muscles of a shot-putter – in this case Andreas Krieger, or Heidi as he was called when winning a gold medal in the 1986 European championships. Heidi became Andreas after sex reassignment surgery in 1997. Andreas says today that he was confused about his gender even before his voice became deeper, hair started growing in strange places and he experienced other alarming side effects of the steroid Oral Turinabol. Nevertheless, even today Krieger will tell you ‘they killed Heidi’. ‘They’ being both those ‘little blue pills’ that fuelled the most successful and notorious state doping system in sports history, and the doctors and coaches who imposed them.

The day’s lectures will provide an aerial view of anti-doping in Germany in 2015 – much as two televised round tables on the same subject did on state channel ZDF in March 1977. Brigitte Berendonk and Werner Franke will never forget them, not only because they were protagonists but because many lives, including Jan Ullrich’s, might have turned out differently if more people watching had paid more attention.

Before the first 1977 programme, Berendonk had written an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that one of the speakers in Nuremberg calls ‘still the greatest achievement in the history of anti-doping’. In the piece, Berendonk had laid bare two co-existing cultures of rampant steroid abuse, in the East that she had escaped at the end of the 1950s and in the West that had adopted and feted her for her athletic achievements. A few days later, she was repeating the claims on national, West German television.

That was the cue for a slim gentleman with an outsized briar of white hair to introduce himself. ‘Here I am, Frau Berendonk,’ he said, ‘one of the sports doctors you described as a criminal and ignorant.’ This man’s name was Joseph Keul, the director of the University of Freiburg’s sports clinic – a position that he would hold right up to his death in 2000. The same man to whom the Telekom cycling team would effectively entrust its medical programme, with Lothar Heinrich and Andreas Schmid as his underlings, from the first day of its existence. And who would assure Jürgen Kindervater in 1998 that no one at the team could be using EPO.

Berendonk put it to Keul that the use of steroids had been endorsed at a recent sports congress in Freiburg. Keul responded that steroids needn’t be dangerous if they were administered in the right doses.

Berendonk also asked the professor whether he had ever prescribed steroids to healthy people. Keul turned away indignantly without answering, then finally conceded that he had prescribed nandrolone.

Berendonk asked whether Keul was familiar with the banned list. He didn’t respond.

The programme continued in the same, fractious vein. So fractious that it would end with Werner Franke, Berendonk’s husband, rising from his seat on the front row of the audience, and striding across the studio floor to berate Keul. Franke now judges the very notion Telekom could have enlisted Freiburg and Keul to run a clean programme ‘a joke’. While Keul was conducting experiments with steroids and weightlifters in the early 1970s, records show that in the second half of the decade the professor’s Freiburg colleague, Armin Klümper, was plying cyclists with some of the same drugs, funded by the West German national cycling federation. With sporting competition a vital battleground for the East – given the DDR’s limited ability to use trade and diplomacy to influence the world beyond its borders – the West had become increasingly aware of the need to keep pace, and how to do it. As a doctor to the German Olympic team for almost four decades, Keul received the explicit backing of West German government ministers. Another of the attendees of the Nuremberg congress, Professor Gerhard Treutlein, said of Keul: ‘He was ambitious, great in public and his aim was to become more famous and the greatest. He needed doping for this. He knew that without doping you couldn’t be among the very best.’

Statements like this are, we should add, counterbalanced by favourable memories of Keul. One sportsman who was treated by the professor, the tennis player Charly Steeb, later also became Ullrich’s manager. Steeb assures me Keul was irreproachable as the doctor of the three German Davis Cup-winning teams in which Steeb played between 1988 and 1993.

Not even Werner Franke can say what Keul’s precise role was in the genesis of Team Telekom’s doping programme, but then, in Franke’s eyes, there is plenty of blame to go around. Ten days after the Nuremberg congress, Franke invites me to visit him in beautiful Heidelberg, the jewel of Germany’s south-west. On a cold November morning, the city that enchanted Goethe, Mark Twain and a generation of German Romantics wakes under a thick mist that chokes the valley of the Neckar and half-obscures Heidelberg’s most famous landmark, the castle ruins. Franke has told me that he has ‘six huge files’ on Ullrich and his doping waiting for me in his office at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg University Hospital. The documents were the basis for Franke’s defence when Ullrich tried to sue him for libel over allegations about Eufemiano Fuentes in 2007.

At the agreed hour, Franke appears at the end of a corridor, walking, as usual, with the gait and tortured air of an old bear battling through a rainstorm. A black canvas trolley bag scuttles behind him. He instructs me to follow him to an empty conference room, where he proceeds to unzip the bag and wearily unload its contents – half a dozen huge folders – onto the table. After he’s pulled up a chair, I ask him whether he doesn’t feel pangs of sympathy for Ullrich, at least insofar as the 1997 Tour winner was the victim of multiple corrupt systems, both Eastern and Western in their creation. After all, Franke was one of the founding fathers of the Doping Opfer Hilfe organization that now offers support and financial compensation to survivors of DDR state doping – admittedly, many of them minors and non-consenting.

The professor nearly explodes out of his seat.

‘Sympathy?! Sympathy?!’ he booms. ‘Why should we have sympathy?! These people are liars! Permanent liars! You say he may not be well educated, but to lie or not to lie – that doesn’t need much education! Should we have sympathy for Armstrong next?!’

The bear’s cage has been truly rattled.

‘Read the statement of Jörg Jaksche! On the Tour de France they went over the border to Karlsruhe, into a hotel room, onto the bed and they got blood pumped back into them! Sympathy?!’

I have my answer.

Even without our twenty-twenty hindsight, in truth, there were many reasons to be concerned about Freiburg across Team Telekom’s lifespan, not only or even mainly to do with Joseph Keul. In mid-May 2007, a fortnight after Heinrich and Schmid’s suspension from their T-Mobile duties, an expert commission was appointed by the University of Freiburg to investigate what appeared to be a long, undistinguished history of doping by the department of sports medicine stretching back to long before reunification. The enquiry had barely begun before both Schmid and Heinrich had confirmed in written statements that they had both played an active role in Telekom riders’ doping. Schmid added one caveat: he had never administered the drugs himself. Heinrich stated that he was merely ‘integrated into an existing system’ that he ‘neither initiated, directed, nor controlled’.

Schmid was fresh out of medical school when he was taken on by Joseph Keul and the Uniklinik in 1989. One of his first responsibilities was the medical care of Team Stuttgart, an outfit too modest to compete in races like the Tour de France until Deutsche Telekom arrived as a title sponsor at the end of 1991. This was also when Walter Godefroot took over the team, bringing with him a posse of Belgian soigneurs, including Jef D’Hont.

Ahead of the 1992 season, D’Hont and Schmid discussed the medicine that they would take to races and, according to D’Hont talked about obtaining medical certificates for the riders to use the steroids betamethasone and prednisolone. D’Hont also sought permission to introduce his ‘magic drink’ – a mix of caffeine, persantin, a vasodilator, and alupent, a banned bronchodilator that he had been giving to bike riders since 1977. According to D’Hont, Schmid took plenty of persuading, but eventually agreed the drink could be used.

A bidon hadn’t even been filled, a pedal not even turned, though, before Team Telekom had its first whistle-blower. Martina Wechsung told the commission set up to investigate the Freiburg Uniklinik that, in 1991, she worked on behalf of Telekom to identify existing teams that they could sponsor, and had been alarmed by the company’s attitude. In particular, Wechsung objected to the decision to recruit Walter Godefroot as a team manager, given that the Belgian had tested positive three times in his riding career. Wechsung also claimed to have warned Telekom that Godefroot had a ‘dirty’ reputation as a team manager. She told the Freiburg commission that Telekom not only ignored her advice but relieved her of her duties. She also claimed to have felt intimidated to the point that she felt compelled to leave Germany.

Under Godefroot, results were underwhelming in the team’s rookie season. Jef D’Hont told German federal police in June 2007 that, meanwhile, one of Telekom’s star riders at the time, Uwe Ampler, had heard about the new wonder drug EPO from riders at the Dutch PDM team. Ampler also wanted to try the miracle potion – and, according to D’Hont, did just that. Andreas Schmid disapproved at first but could already tell that resistance would soon be futile. The Freiburg commission concluded that Schmid was soon helping to procure EPO for another of the team’s star riders. The following spring, Erik Zabel was fined 2,000 euros and docked fifty UCI points for his unauthorized use of a steroid-based saddle cream.

The 1994 season was significant for another reason: Lothar Heinrich joined the Uniklinik on 1 July. Jef D’Hont told an SWR television documentary in 2008 that it took Heinrich just a few conversations with him, the riders and Schmid to familiarize himself with Telekom’s ‘system’. ‘After a week he’d got the hang of everything, and then we soigneurs did nothing. Lothar took on everything.’

On the same programme, D’Hont maintained that the impulse for Telekom’s doping programme had originally come from one group of individuals: ‘The riders wanted it. Then, later, the doctors and the directeurs sportifs too. The team simply won more afterwards. The riders also said that they couldn’t even keep up with the bunch without EPO and growth hormone.’

Dozens of eyewitness accounts from other cyclists in other teams suggest the Telekom riders were not alone in believing they faced a dope-or-be-damned Hobson’s choice. Also in 1994, the Italian athletics coach and researcher Sandro Donati presented his national Olympic Committee with a devastating exposé of how an EPO plague was tearing through professional cycling, estimating that 70–80 per cent of pro riders were using the drug. Designed as a call to arms, his report was ignored, he said buried, until La Gazzetta dello Sport leaked it in 1996.

Donati is also present at the Nuremberg congress in October 2015. Between lectures, over coffee, we speak about Telekom, Freiburg and Jan Ullrich, who was on the cusp of turning professional at the end of 1994. It was, Donati concedes, a deeply inopportune time for a young rider to receive his baptism.

‘Everything could have changed, because that was a key moment in which the EPO plague was starting but it was being controlled on an international level by a few doctors,’ Donati says. ‘It was contained, so an intervention would have been possible. The problem was that my dossier showed that the institutions didn’t want to act because they were totally compromised. I showed that Francesco Conconi was one of the biggest contributors to the problem taking hold – at a time when he was the president of the UCI’s medical commission and a member of the International Olympic Committee. He claimed to be researching a detection method, and for seven years he carried on saying it was nearly ready, when in actual fact he was doping athletes with EPO. So, yes, action could have been taken then, but my dossier showed that the problem wasn’t even Conconi or others like him – it was the institutions above them.’

Donati says that when the UCI finally acted, introducing blood tests and a haematocrit limit of 50 per cent in 1997, what they had effectively done was ‘send out an open invitation to dope up to that limit’. He is adamant that, even if EPO couldn’t be directly detected in urine until 2001, a version of the biological passport finally rolled out by the UCI in 2008 could have been implemented many years earlier.

After Donati, later in the day, I discuss some of the same themes with another Italian, Letizia Paoli. A criminologist with a rich pedigree of research into mafia-type organizations, Paoli was appointed to the chair of the Freiburg commission in 2009. Notwithstanding assorted disputes and repeated accusations that the University of Freiburg has obstructed the expert commission it set up to investigate its own sports medicine department, Paoli still holds that position when we speak in October 2015. She is therefore uniquely placed to evaluate the pressures that Ullrich would have faced upon his introduction into what some have called a ‘system’, and others liken to . . . a mafia.

‘In both cases, mafia organizations and cycling at that time, there’s a process of socialization over many, many years,’ Paoli says. ‘A lot of people who are born and grow up in certain areas of southern Italy – in parts of Palermo or Reggio Calabria or San Luca or the Aspromonte mountains – believe that what the Calabrian mafia, the ’Ndrangheta, does, and what the Sicilian mafia does, is completely legitimate. It’s the same in cycling: past generations in particular grew up with the idea that it was absolutely normal and legitimate to dope, meaning it becomes the social norm.’

Over the course of their investigations, Paoli and the Freiburg commission heard multiple accounts to the effect that, by the time Telekom convened for their pre-season training camp in Mallorca in January 1995, on the eve of Jan Ullrich’s rookie year, EPO doping was about to become the standard, the expectation, the societal norm in the team.

Rudy Pevenage had been recruited the previous season. When I ask Pevenage whether Ullrich was immediately presented with the choice or obligation to take EPO, he reacts uncomfortably but decisively. ‘No, no, no. Don’t ask me that. It’s too difficult for me to talk about . . . but no is the answer.’

At this point one thing seems to be widely agreed upon by Pevenage, Walter Godefroot, ex-Telekom riders and Peter Becker, Ullrich’s coach in 1995: it was certainly not Becker who introduced Ullrich to EPO, either when he was a teenager in the DDR,30 in Hamburg as an under-23 or when he joined Telekom.

Becker considers the very suggestion ludicrous. ‘In 1995 and 1996 I didn’t notice anything. In the time when I worked with him it also wouldn’t have been possible. He would have had to inject the stuff himself. But he promised me that I had nothing to worry about, that he wasn’t [taking EPO]. Word for word, he said, “Coach, at the end of my career I don’t want to be sitting there, with money and whatever else, but having ruined my health and with big horse’s teeth growing out to the front of my mouth.” I told him that was all good but he had to be open with me. When it all came out later, I was disappointed beyond belief.’

Less plausibly, Becker assures me that Ullrich didn’t need EPO even in a peloton hooked on the stuff.

‘The kid was so trainable. His ability to recover was enormous. And I’ll say it again: if he really did use EPO and whatever else, it simply wasn’t necessary. He just had to train properly with me. The kid has a gift, he hits numbers that others can only dream about. If he’s doping and Armstrong’s still riding away from him, of course that’s shit. But if what you’re taking is still not enough, why take it?’

Becker’s oversimplification will strike some as disingenuous, but it won’t surprise many who were trained by him. Former ‘pupil’ Raphael Schweda remembers how Becker ‘would get very angry if ever doping came up. It’d be, “Here, we don’t dope. End of story!” ’

Walter Godefroot is also willing to vouch for Becker’s righteousness – or for his naivety. ‘I think Peter Becker is a good coach, but he’s like a horse – he just goes straight ahead and doesn’t look left or right,’ Godefroot says. ‘Peter’s not really up to speed with modern cycling, if you know what I mean.’

A smirk creeps across Godefroot’s lips.

He’ll elaborate: ‘In Peter’s head, EPO doesn’t exist. He only knows what he’s learned in East Germany. He also said silly things in the press . . . again, because he doesn’t know what’s happening in the team.’

Since Operación Puerto and the Freiburg affair, Godefroot has said almost nothing in the press about his years running Telekom. Late in 2015 he speaks to me in the Holiday Inn just outside Ghent in Belgium, a few kilometres from his home, only thanks to the intervention of a mutual friend, the journalist Guy Vermeiren. Vermeiren also sits in on our interview. At one point in our discussion, I’ll ask Godefroot whether, more than Pevenage’s arrival in 1995, it was the signing of Bjarne Riis the following year that really changed the team’s culture vis-à-vis ‘medical preparation’, as others have told me, and as results on the road also suggested. Godefroot has already told me about the promise he made to Riis before the Dane signed – that the whole team would raise its game in order to assist him, and that there would be Unterstützung – ‘support’. Again, when he says this, Godefroot smiles.

Now, he says that, yes, in answer to my question, ‘Riis changed the culture of the team.’ He then turns to Guy Vermeiren to ask in Flemish whether he can trust me. Vermeiren responds kindly, in the affirmative. And so Godefroot decides to loosen the lid a little more.

‘Riis changes the culture of the team, but it’s different from Armstrong: no one’s pushed into doing anything. Someone putting pressure on teammates to dope . . . that never happened in my teams. It was always the individual’s choice.’13

I push my luck by asking whether Pevenage had been hired primarily to coordinate Telekom’s doping.

Godefroot laughs. ‘Time out! Time out! Just because I’ve said “A” it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the whole alphabet!’

A different tack. Did he ever consider getting rid of Pevenage?

‘We’re getting into dangerous territory,’ Godefroot responds. ‘But, look, Jan eats out of Rudy’s hands. It’s Rudy who put him in touch with Fuentes later. And that works for me. Of course I also knew that Jan needed Rudy . . . but I can’t tell too many stories about Pevenage. It wouldn’t be fair. That’s also why I don’t write a book. I trust you, but I don’t want to go into the story of when we started with the EPO and so on. That’d take several books.’

Godefroot is here on his terms. I am not the German federal police, nor the Freiburg commission, neither of which could force Godefroot to go on the record about how he and others contributed to Telekom’s ‘system’ years ago. To my surprise, though, the more we talk, the more he opens up, beginning when I ask whether Ullrich could have beaten Riis in the 1996 Tour. I don’t even need to broach one of Jef D’Hont’s more lurid accusations – that Riis had doped to excess, that his body was shutting down in the final week; Godefroot already assumes that’s what I’m getting at.

‘Yes, Jan was stronger,’ he says. ‘But I don’t really know what’s happening in my team there. I always say that when you’re in charge of a team it’s like with adultery: everyone knows except the wife or husband. Jef D’Hont was always doing things and telling people, “Don’t tell Walter.” I was always the last to know.’

So what percentage of D’Hont’s allegations were truth, and what percentage invention?

‘Hard to say. I mean, ooof . . .’ Godefroot puffs out his cheeks. ‘They’re things that go on. Everything happens in the context of its time. That said, to sell a book like that you have to sex things up a bit. That’s also why I won a lawsuit against him.

‘But yes, after 1996 everyone came to me congratulating me, saying that we knew who was going to win the next five Tours, i.e. Jan. Then, one day, we were all together and I said to Jan, “You mustn’t follow Bjarne’s example. Bjarne’s an American car which uses a lot of petrol and a lot of oil. You’re a young Mercedes and you’re clean and smooth. Be very careful.” There is EPO but there’s also cortisone, steroids . . . If we start talking about drugs, though, we could be here for hours.’

Yet, still, at least for a few more minutes before retreating to safer ground, Godefroot goes on.

‘In 1996, when [the UCI president] Hein Verbruggen congratulated me for the Tour win, I told him that I wasn’t proud, that it hurt a bit in my heart, because I wasn’t sure but I thought things were happening that were dangerous for the health of riders. He replied, “Yes, I know he’s doing this, and he’s doing that” – I won’t say the names – “but we still can’t find the product, so what can we do?” That year there was a meeting in Geneva with all of the directeurs sportifs and all of the doctors. No one knew what the haematocrit limit should be: the Italians were saying fifty, others wanted fifty-two, the team doctors didn’t know what to suggest. It was Verbruggen who finally took responsibility and made the decision. It ended up costing the UCI a lot of money, at a time when EPO was being used in all endurance sports. What could he do? All I could do was offer my resignation. But I always said that the only people who had any right to complain about EPO were the people who had never taken cortisone, steroids or caffeine either.’

Godefroot sounds unapologetic. In a way, he is – except to Telekom and in particular Jürgen Kindervater, Telekom’s Head of Communications from 1990 to 2002 and the team’s biggest cheerleader at company headquarters in Bonn. The Freiburg commission would devote considerable effort to finding out how much Telekom knew about their team’s doping. Their work eventually spawned two published reports, one in 2009 and another in 2015, authored by the researcher Andreas Singler. The latter was deeply critical of Kindervater personally, noting that ‘the way that he publicly tried to neutralize doping rumours at least partly and disturbingly mirrored . . . the typical reaction of the accused doper.’ It was even more scathing about Telekom and T-Mobile in general, asserting that it was possible to ‘sketch a picture of an unscrupulous sponsorship’ and referring repeatedly to their ‘offshoring of responsibility’ or, more simply, a wilful ignorance if not outright, fully cognizant complicity.

All of which, Walter Godefroot tells me, is wildly inaccurate, an unjust misconstrual.

‘Telekom weren’t naive but they didn’t know anything. I said to Kindervater later that I needed to apologize to one person: him. He quizzed me on several occasions. He was the only one who deserved an apology. He asked me directly several times: “There’s no doping in the team, though, is there?” No one in the Telekom management knew. They weren’t naive but they trusted us.

‘Also, I have to say Telekom made a lot of money out of us,’ Godefroot continues. ‘They floated on the stock market, then Riis won the Tour and the share price rocketed. Everyone wanted to be part of the success . . . But, no, there weren’t that many people who knew. Even I was the last person to know sometimes.’

There is a rugged realism – if it is not more honest to call it cynicism – that seeps into the worldview of everyone who has worked in professional cycling for a significant number of years. Certainly it seeped into the minds of people who were around in the period when Godefroot was managing Telekom. This, maybe more than the doping itself, was the real contagion in that process of socialization: a numb acceptance that, whatever hopes and values are projected onto a sport which styles itself as the pursuit of all that is epic, noble and transcendental in humans and nature, the wheels never truly leave the ground. There can be, or at least has never been, any escape from the same venalities and vulnerabilities present in other reaches of the human condition – only illusions of one. Reality, with its sinners and imperfections, will bite as surely as rubber meets the road.

In November 2015, Walter Godefroot’s heart is still healing from a bypass operation and his nose and sinuses from a fall on his bike. His birth certificate says that he’s seventy-two but Godefroot is sure he’s ‘aged years in the last twelve months’. He still feels disorientated, not quite himself – and yet he is also as sure as ever about one thing: when it comes to drugs and cycling, moralizing is a vain endeavour.

‘Cycling is the working man’s sport,’ he says. ‘It can’t defend itself. After the war, there were a lot of amphetamines around, the amphetamines that the Japanese kamikaze pilots had been taking, for example. My mother worked in a textile factory where there were women doing twenty-four-hour shifts with earplugs in, taking thousands of painkillers . . . It’s that kind of time. A lot of people were taking too many drugs everywhere. It was inevitable that would leak into an endurance sport where initially there were no doctors, just soigneurs, some good, some bad. And the bad ones were having more success than the good ones. Cycling isn’t better than the other sports but it’s certainly not worse. The BALCO scandal in athletics . . . that’s only the start. Russia. Bribery in football. People want to make cycling an island of purity in a dirty world. It’s not possible.’

One sub-section of the second Freiburg report, authored by Andreas Singler in 2015, poses the question of whether doctors Lothar Heinrich and Andreas Schmid may have doped Jan Ullrich before 1996. Singler’s conclusion is that the possibility exists, but, between Jef D’Hont’s claims and the findings of the German federal police, it seems more plausible that he began taking EPO, at least, in May or June 1996, in the build-up to his first Tour de France.

Rolf Aldag’s description of Ullrich’s almost overnight metamorphosis when they trained together in the Black Forest in the spring of 1995 might point to an earlier ‘initiation’. Nonetheless, Aldag is inclined to believe what Rudy Pevenage has told me – Ullrich reached his fork in the road later.

‘I think his early results were pretty fair and clean, then whoever realized this kid could go really far then, yeah, they probably convinced him,’ Aldag says. ‘I think it was after the training camp with me in the Black Forest. I don’t really think he did anything in 1995. I don’t think in 1995 Jan ever had that status where it was like, “Let’s give him wings and he’ll fly.” I personally think that maybe in the second half of 1995, someone said, “Hang on, that’s not so bad.” Then in 1996 it maybe came to a point where it was like, “What do we do?”

‘That’s also the point: it’s really not in Jan’s nature,’ Aldag continues. ‘He’s not an active guy. He’s not active in terms of finding out about stuff, doing research. He was an absolute follower.’

Like other riders who saw Telekom’s ‘system’ develop and escalate in the mid-1990s, Aldag says that it relied, if not on total secrecy, then at least on discretion. ‘At the time, it also would have been dangerous to have other people knowing what was happening,’ he explains. ‘Why would you do it? Because let’s say you’re talking to Walter about a contract, about him giving you less money or more money. You don’t want to give me a contract? OK, all the world will know tomorrow morning what you have done . . . If I ever started talking about medication with Walter Godefroot, after two sentences he’d shut me down. “You know what? I pay doctors for that. I’m not a doctor.” And this is self-protection. It’s clever.’

Jens Heppner, Ullrich’s roommate for many years, concurs that, ‘Everyone cooked their own broth.’ Meaning that he didn’t know what Ullrich was doing or taking; whether it was the soigneurs, Pevenage or the Freiburg doctors who were taking charge. Heppner himself was one of twenty-two riders including Ullrich whose urine samples from the 1998 Tour de France were re-tested six years later for research purposes and shown to contain EPO, according to a 2013 French Senate report.

Brian Holm definitely doped with EPO – but he too says that his blinkers came off slowly, belatedly, and even then not entirely. He hadn’t even heard of the drug until April 1994, when Gewiss-Ballan’s riders swept the Flèche Wallonne podium and that infamous article appeared in L’Équipe quoting the team’s doctor, Michele Ferrari – ‘It’s also dangerous to drink ten litres of orange juice.’ Holm soon moved with the times but, for him at least, ‘the soigneurs dealt with it, not Schmid and Heinrich’. Holm informed Schmid only after his first, nervous phase of self-experimentation. ‘The most difficult bit was knowing how much to take,’ he says. ‘No one knew at the start. You’d heard people were dying from it and you didn’t have a clue. You didn’t know whether to take 2,000 units a month, a day, or an hour. You’d take one ampoule, wait a week and think it’d give you magic powers, but then you raced again and thought, What the fuck is this? So then you would take more.’

It seems highly improbable that Ullrich lost his ‘virginity’ in the same dilettantish, ad hoc fashion. Rudy Pevenage has told me that he ‘got close to Jan’ at the 1995 Vuelta, and Walter Godefroot also wants me to understand that ‘Lothar Heinrich is Rudy Pevenage.’ Hence, the findings of the Freiburg commission indicating that Heinrich oversaw Ullrich’s ‘coming of age’ before the 1996 Tour, together with what Godefroot has told me about Bjarne Riis’s arrival ‘changing the medical culture of the team’ that year, begin to look like pieces in a more complete jigsaw. The commission also noted the coincidence, or not, of the German Olympic Committee being unable to locate Ullrich for any out-of-competition dope tests in 1996 before 11 August. The following year, after Ullrich had won the Tour de France, La Gazzetta Dello Sport’s Angelo Zomegnan wrote that the UCI had not submitted Ullrich to a single blood test in 1997.

Ensuring riders didn’t test positive was at this point no doubt easier for Schmid and Heinrich than hiding their activities in Freiburg from prying eyes. One co-worker at the Uniklinik spoke to the commission about how the two doctors’ ‘Telekom life’ was kept hidden behind the doors of their two private rooms, to which no else was allowed access. Hans-Hermann Dickhuth, the head of sports medicine at the Uniklinik from 2002, has also pointed out that most illicit procedures appear to have been carried out at weekends, in the evening or when the doctors were away at races. Nevertheless, the Freiburg commission assembled a catalogue of episodes and behaviours that should have raised red flags. There were multiple opportunities over the years to spy hidden agendas in comments like Schmid’s on the eve of the 1997 Tour about the fallibility of the UCI’s recently introduced blood tests, and spurned chances, like the time a colleague found a box of anabolic steroids in Schmid’s office but kept quiet. Schmid was also visibly panicked after Der Spiegel’s allegations about Telekom’s systematic doping in 1999, blurting to his friend, Walter Schmidt of the University of Bayreuth, ‘Now a bomb’s really going to off!’ He wore a general air of being conflicted, of having a heavy conscience, which at times of stress would spill over into mutterings about ‘going back to my disabled guys’ – meaning the para-sport athletes he had treated in the past. Then there was the day early in 1996 when, amid rumours of an EPO test being close to approval, Schmid approached a colleague in the Uniklinik’s blood transfusion department to enquire about extracting red cells from a whole blood sample.

Blood transfusions also seemed to interest Lothar Heinrich in the late 1990s. In Andreas Singler’s 2015 Freiburg report, he lamented ‘a perhaps unique opportunity to expose the Freiburg sports doctors at an earlier date’ that had arisen in 1998. An eyewitness working in the Uniklinik’s transfusion department at the time told the Freiburg commission that, one day that year, they received an email from Heinrich asking for information about how to get hold of blood storage bags. A fortnight or so later, on a Sunday morning, one of the doctors in the department appeared with a knotted, half-filled bag of blood that, he claimed, had come from Heinrich and needed to be centrifuged. The doctor in question joked that it was perhaps Jan Ullrich’s blood. He waved away the witness’s urgings to report the incident.

Others who over the years tried to raise questions were treated in the same offhand manner, notably by Joseph Keul. ‘There’s no doping at Telekom,’ Keul told an employee who raised questions about the frequency of blood tests on the team riders – and over the years that remained the party line. Lothar Heinrich trotted out similar platitudes whenever the subject came up, on TV or to newspaper journalists. In the middle of the scandal-ravaged 1998 Tour, Rudy Pevenage was caught retrieving empty ampoules from a dustbin outside the Telekom team hotel in the Pyrenees. ‘The doctor had put our ampoules in the bin and I went to fetch them, in case the police looked through them. I fished them out and crushed them under my feet,’ Pevenage tells me. And yet, in Paris at the end of that Tour, Telekom’s communications director Jürgen Kindervater was parroting the old dictum – ‘There is no doping at Telekom’ – and believing it. Hours later, Telekom were taking out those full-page adverts in every major German newspaper: ‘Well done, clean performance, boys!’

This was also the point at which one of the most barefaced acts of deception was being concocted in Freiburg – the doping-free sport initiative proposed by Keul and funded by Telekom.

In his 2015 report, the Freiburg commission member Singler would conclude that Dopingfreier Sport was in fact more Trojan Horse than genuine attempt to combat illegal performance-enhancement. He compared it to the protocol employed in the old DDR, whereby athletes were systematically screened before going abroad to compete and withdrawn if they were in danger of testing positive. Singler noted that not once during the group’s three-year mandate was a Telekom rider suspended, despite the numerous indicators of EPO use in their clinical files. Perhaps worst of all – simply ‘embarrassing’, as Singler put – was Keul’s unsuccessful bid, days after the Festina scandal broke, to make the Uniklinik Germany’s third UCI-accredited anti-doping laboratory.

Dopingfreier Sport ended up outliving Joseph Keul, who died in July 2000. By then, Lothar Heinrich had long since established himself as Keul’s heir. The Freiburg commission alleged that in May 1999 Jörg Jaksche received a batch of EPO from Heinrich at the Herzogenhorn training centre in the Black Forest – where Heinrich was participating in a conference under the aegis of Dopingfreier Sport. The delivery fees for some of the drugs sent to riders were also included in Dopingfreier Sport’s running costs.

In 2007, Jaksche told the German federal police that Schmid and Heinrich seemed not to be motivated by money and were supplying the Telekom drugs ‘because they thought that was better than us buying them from some gym in Timbuktu’.

In Munich in 2015, Jaksche describes Heinrich to me in less flattering terms.

‘We called Lothar the television doctor. If someone crashed, for Lothar it was important to go on TV and tell them what had happened. Schmid was a super-good guy, and he didn’t like having to dope people, but the athletes were like brothers and sons for him. He knew that he had to do it somehow, or that we had to do it, so he tried to keep it under control. He’d be like, “Don’t use insulin, don’t use that.” Whereas Lothar was a nice guy, very well educated, but more freestyle.’

Where Heinrich’s supposedly ‘freestyle’ approach situated Telekom and Ullrich in the medical arms race is hard to say. Jens Heppner scoffs at the idea that Heinrich was ‘extreme’, but robust evidence points to his growing influence as the years passed, particularly after Jef D’Hont’s departure at the end of 1996. Christian Frommert joined the T-Mobile staff in 2005 and was astonished to discover that ‘the nice older guy’ he assumed to be Heinrich’s assistant was in fact Andreas Schmid, at least nominally Heinrich’s superior, although it was ‘Lothar who always acted like the boss’. Where Ullrich was concerned, Rudy Pevenage tells me that, in his second spell with the team, post-2003, he consulted the Freiburg doctors only for ‘normal things’ and Andreas Schmid specifically for ‘private matters’. Meanwhile, Eufemiano Fuentes sourced the heavy artillery from Spain. But the Freiburg doctors could without doubt have seen the effects of Fuentes’s treatments in their routine blood tests. The TV network ARD reported in 2009 that a professor who examined the Uniklinik patient files stored in Freiburg had seen ‘implausible’ variations in Ullrich’s blood values only a few months before Fuentes’s arrest. Prior to that, the haematocrit level recorded for a patient logged as ‘Ulrich Maier’ in Heinrich and Schmid’s filing cabinet had dipped miraculously in the space of a few hours shortly before the 2005 Tour de France. Not that Maier would be winning bike races any time soon: he coincidentally shared a birthday with Jan Ullrich, 2 December, but was born not in 1973, like Ullrich . . . but 1937.

I re-establish contact with Lothar Heinrich in October 2015. An email. He replies: ‘Good to hear from you. Yes, it’s been a very, very long time. I am doing well, hope you too. Obviously you are still in cycling, I am not. I stopped in 2007 and after some time for orientation changed my focus completely.’

He went on to say that, no, unfortunately he couldn’t agree to an interview because of medical confidentiality. My follow-up went unanswered.

In a final analysis, most would believe that Schmid and Heinrich got off lightly. The Freiburg commission heard detailed accounts of blood transfusions that were rushed and haphazard, and conduct that was seemingly in violation of their Hippocratic Oath. Not that this was how Schmid and Heinrich had seen it, in their certainty that riders would take drugs with or without them. As an utterly bereft Jürgen Kindervater told Der Spiegel in June 2007, he could only imagine that Schmid and Heinrich ‘wanted to make sure, out of a sense of responsibility as doctors, that the riders didn’t fall down dead off their bikes’. Better the devil, or the doping, they knew, in other words.

Heinrich earned a 100 per cent pay rise when, oblivious to his past and the revelations around the corner, Bob Stapleton put him in charge of T-Mobile’s new anti-doping plan in 2007. Granted, Heinrich’s 120,000-euro wage barely registered alongside the eight-figure sum that Jan Ullrich had amassed over the course of his career. Ullrich, though, was also left holding by far the biggest emotional and legal bills of all the old gang; Walter Godefroot lost his (new) job as an advisor to Team Astana but successfully sued Jef D’Hont for accusing him of financing Telekom’s doping;31 Andreas Schmid got a fine equal to ninety days’ pay from a Freiburg magistrate but kept his medical licence; the same judge could do nothing against Lothar Heinrich, who declined to testify and had emigrated to the United States, but who was also spared because at the time there was no provision in the German Medicinal Act for blood transfusions, and the allegations about more conventional forms of doping were too broad. Three other Freiburg doctors outed by the commission for lesser offences simply got new jobs. Meanwhile, Ullrich’s friend and training partner, Andreas Klöden, was also investigated by the federal police in Bonn, but they closed the case when Klöden made a substantial donation to charity; Klöden maintained that he was innocent and never made the trip down the Rhine on the opening weekend of the 2006 Tour, but had coughed up just to halt the investigation, ‘to make sure this case wouldn’t obstruct my career any longer’. Kessler issued a similar denial to Klöden but tested positive and was banned months later. Rudy Pevenage paid a five-figure sum to end his involvement in the federal investigation, but was at least spared the same excoriation as Ullrich.

At the Nuremberg conference in October 2015, Sandro Donati shrugs at a dynamic he has seen play out many times before.

‘Individual responsibility is relative to age and experience, to upbringing and intelligence. That said, the athlete is always a victim and a beneficiary. That’s one point. After which, the athlete is a victim and a victim only the moment he’s found out and he becomes the target. On one hand that’s right, on the other, when it goes beyond and he becomes a symbol of doping, the person is destroyed in their self-esteem. His character’s assassinated. I can understand people being that severe when they judge athletes as long as they’re just as severe in their judgement of the institutions. You also have to consider that athletes are around for six, seven, eight years, whereas the authorities and the coaches stick around, in this society of dinosaurs where people don’t given up their positions – that’s the source of corruption. It’s a source that starts way back and remains.’

Telekom were the institution which had unwittingly funded Schmid and Heinrich’s dirty work. But then, as they also pleaded to the Freiburg commission, the telecommunications giant’s arrangement with the cycling team was no different from the one they had with Bayern Munich: they paid a pre-agreed fee and in return got their name on a jersey and, hopefully, success on the field or the road. This was also how nearly every team in the top tier of professional cycling functioned. Godefroot, and after him Olaf Ludwig, gave them a rough breakdown of how much money was needed and on what it would be spent, but itemized receipts and invoices were never sent to Bonn.

All of which made it easy for Telekom to act like the injured party, despite the justifiable charge that the reflected glory also came with responsibility. Their negligence, though, could be spun as a lesser sin than Ullrich’s deception. Ullrich’s was, after all, the main if not only face the lay public recognized, cared about or felt personally betrayed by, and that suited Telekom just fine.

‘If we’d been smarter we would have discovered it earlier and the damage would have been smaller, but you know in sports it’s even more emotional because millions of people consider you a hero,’ says Ron Sommer. ‘They admire you, they’re all saying, “Woah, I want to be like this guy.” But one thing that has not changed enough in any sport, and is still the weak link, is the quality of support around the sportsmen. If the people in the entourage were doing their work as well as the superstar was doing his part, wow – but in my time in cycling that was not the case. How do you protect and make sure this huge success in this one area does not kill him?’

By 2007, none of this was T-Mobile’s concern. They had believed there was still something to be saved, or gained for them, from a team without Ullrich, but he had cut holes in the blindfold and the Freiburg revelations tore it from their face. Then came two successive punches in the nose – Patrik Sinkewitz’s positive test midway through the 2007 Tour de France, which had prompted the ARD and ZDF crews to pack up and leave the Tour, and Lorenzo Bernucci’s in September. It was a point of no return – commercial returns or indeed anything remotely positive for the company image. They announced they were pulling out before the 2008 season had begun – even if it meant incurring a substantial kill fee. Having spent millions to get their name on the team jersey for a decade and a half, they were now effectively paying Bob Stapleton to take it off.

‘From the spring of 2007 it was just blow after blow,’ says Stapleton. ‘I think it was extreme both ways: the hero worship was excessive, and then the public flogging was over the top too. But my impression is that Jan would have been forgiven if he’d played it differently. On the other hand, the German media is quite remarkable. There’s a whole level of journalism that you just don’t see in many other places. Super aggressive, super knowledgeable and quite relentless. It’s also a very literate culture – newspapers are still very widely read. So you had numerous good, insightful reporters covering this, and just hammering away. That brought out Jef D’Hont and lots of other information. Then the Freiburg thing in the end was just overwhelming for T-Mobile and everyone.’

Five years after leaving the organization, Telekom’s former CEO, Ron Sommer, and his old wingman, then communications chief Jürgen Kindervater, watched the whole thing unravel from afar, and with dismay. In time, Kindervater would find himself in the dock, among the main accusees: how could he, the team’s midwife at its inception and a sort of doting godparent for years thereafter, not have known? Even if Walter Godefroot has assured me that was indeed the case.

Despite Kindervater’s insistence, detailed in Chapter 9, that he had ‘total confidence’ in the clinic because its university status placed it ‘above everything’, he was aware of Keul’s controversial comments about anabolic steroids on German national television in 1977. Over the next two decades, Keul became more circumspect in words if not actions, although his efforts to publicly minimize the prevalence, effect and danger of doping remained a recurring theme. Given that he specialized in rhetoric, it was perhaps not surprising that he found a way to sweet-talk the suits at Telekom. Their lack of due diligence seems startling nevertheless – although, equally, much of what we now know about Keul was only uncovered by a tenacious team of experts working for several years on the Freiburg commission.

As for the charge that Kindervater himself had known or even masterminded whatever was happening in Freiburg, he has no better defence than an appeal to our common sense.

‘If someone suggested to me that I knew or in some way promoted doping, I’d have asked them whether they really thought I’d imperil my whole existence for the sake of that?’ he says. ‘I mean, to what end? I’d have been endangering my financial and my professional future to push sportsmen towards success that would bring me nothing personally. It would have been crazy. And, similarly, with Keul. Personally I think the same applied to him . . .’

This final claim is debatable, but there is no future in arguing the point, not today, years later. Meanwhile, enthroned in his space-age citadel in Meerbusch, Ron Sommer has made a career, his life, out of predicting upcoming events, but it’s also an eternal source of frustration to him that more people don’t learn lessons from the past. Equally, he may not have felt that Telekom deserved their slice of the blame for Ullrich, Fuentes, Freiburg et al, but he did believe it was in their interests, if not an obligation, for them to commit to cycling’s reconstruction.

‘I’m not sure I would have left the sport if I’d still been CEO when everything was discovered,’ he says. ‘You know, it’s the same thing as being in a company and having a technical disaster. You don’t run away; you fix it. You can fire the sports people because they didn’t play by the rules, tell them we don’t want their kind, but saying goodbye to the whole sport is pretty unfair in my opinion. Cycling was not bad to you; there were some specific people who did really bad stuff. They cheated, they cheated themselves, their families, the sponsor, the public, and the worst of it was that they thought they were right because they thought everyone was doing it. Maybe they were, I don’t know, but if my neighbour kills someone that doesn’t mean I have the right to kill someone.’

Sommer knows the analogy is a little forced, and pauses. There are no simple answers here. He purses his lips, gathers some closing thoughts.

‘I really feel sorry for people like Jan. He could have been a superstar without necessarily winning a Tour. Jan is really a good guy. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He was not calculating – that’s why he didn’t do well on the training side, gained too much weight, fell from one trap to the next. At the end of the day, everyone is responsible for himself, but it could have gone a different way with different support. A different manager, different doctors, a different masseur and so on . . . Maybe he would not have won the Tour de France but he would have been the clear winner of German hearts, and not only Germans.’

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