Festina ’98: Into the Abyss

This feature was originally published in Rouleur 18.5. Download the Rouleur app to read the whole issue.

It’s twilight on a sultry evening in the Corrèze region of central France. We are downing cold beers, pizzas, rosé wine, lingered over at wobbling pavement tables. Natalie Imbruglia’s worldwide hit, ‘Torn’, blasts through the open doors of a spit and sawdust bar across the road.

In the old days, it would have been a leisurely evening, as the Tour de France press corps blithely swapped tales, discussed form, transfer gossip and mulled over what the next day’s racing might bring.

But this is the 1998 Tour de France, a race cut adrift, haemorrhaging credibility, punch drunk with scandal, mired in crisis, obsessed with, and possessed, by doping and cheating.

We’d left our pizza and rosé unfinished, jumped up and legged it to the car, as yet more late-night breaking news fuelled another feeding frenzy. Festina were out, they said, booted off the Tour for cheating after Bruno Roussel’s confession of an orchestrated doping programme. And they were leaving now, we heard, like rats on a sinking ship, scurrying away under cover of darkness.

As we raced along the country road to the Festina team’s hotel, the Domaine de Castel Novel, other press cars and motorbikes appeared, until we had a late night flotilla, a convoy of media-branded saloons, estates, and mini-vans, haring through the silent villages and dark lanes.

We followed the banks of the river Loyre, where swathes of fog hung over lush green meadows and turned through the iron gates and onto the gravel drive, the car’s headlights picking out startled deer grazing under the trees.

Then as we entered a car park crammed with TV crews, overlooked by the crenellated towers of the gothic hotel, I spotted Mapei director Patrick Lefevere’s unmistakable shock of white hair, as he stood alone under the low branches of a vast tree, smoking.

I slowed and leant out of the window. “Patrick, do you know what’s happening?” I blurted.

Lefevere, ciggie in hand, ashen faced and ashen haired, stared into the distance and shrugged a dismissive world-weary shrug.

“The best hotel I’ve ever stayed in on the Tour de France,” he said, “and then this happens…”

Twenty [two] years ago this summer, France won the World Cup. It was a dynamic, irresistible multi-racial win, an amalgam of old and new France that brought a divided nation together, with success sealed under a clear night sky, in Paris, city of lights.

But as a country celebrated and the Champs Elysées was thronged with drunken revellers, a dark cloud was moving in, from Belgium, via Ireland and on, across the sea, inexorably towards mainland France.

The hawkish Marie-George Buffet, aptly-named for someone whose actions ensured that most journalists went without dinner during that year’s Tour, was Minister for Sport during the summer of ‘98.

Her tenure involved the scandal at the Grenoble Six in November 1997, and was preceded by a series of mini eruptions: provincial cases of trafficking, EPO use, growth hormone, testosterone and anabolic steroid abuse. All of that fed a rumour mill of doping within cycling that was already in overdrive.

Buffet’s interest in doping in cycling gathered pace on July 8 1998, when Willy Voet, soigneur to the allstars of the Festina team, was stopped at the Belgian border by customs officers, acting on a tip off. The boot of Voet’s car was crammed with performance enhancing ‘gear’.

Willy Voet is led away by Jean Louis Bessis

When she heard the news of Voet’s arrest, Buffet didn’t mince her words. “This could have disastrous consequences for the Tour,” she said, presciently. In fact, most believe she already knew what was coming once the Tour arrived back in France after the Grand Départ in Dublin.

Brian Holm didn’t ride the 1998 Tour de France but he remembers hearing about what happened to Voet. “I was working for Danish TV,” he says, “out having a drink one night with a co-commentator and probably at about 11, maybe 12, they told us what had happened, that the police had caught Willy Voet at the border at Roubaix.

“I knew Willy, I knew that gang. I just said: ‘It’s going to explode.’ I knew it was going to happen sooner or later.”

“I said, ‘now the fun’s going to start, now there’s going to be some interesting days…’ People seem to forget about it now, but it was like the Big Bang.”

Over in Ireland, as the Tour convoy descended on Dublin, there was confusion and denial. “We didn’t immediately understand the seriousness of the situation,” then Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc remembers.

“We discovered it little by little. Madame Buffet was with me in Ireland when the news broke. She didn’t know then what would happen with the police when we got to France, which was when everything accelerated.”

Tour de France 1998. Jean Marie LeBlanc talks to the press following the withdrawal of the Festina team.

As the unease over Voet’s arrest grew, the much-anticipated ‘craic’ – the good times that were meant to herald the Tour’s arrival in Dublin – never fully materialised. Former UCI President, Pat McQuaid, then President of the UCI Road Commission, was director of the Irish Grand Départ.

“I’d been the one who suggested bringing the Tour to Ireland,” McQuaid says, “because I knew Jean-Marie loved Ireland and I was already working with Alan Rushton to bring the Tour to England in 1994.

“And I wanted to bring back the Tour of Ireland and use a Tour Grand Départ as the launching pad for that. But of course, 48 hours before the Tour started, when Voet was arrested, Jean-Marie called us into a meeting and said, ‘I’ve got some bad news…’”

Yet Leblanc was determined that the developing scandal around Festina wouldn’t ruin the Irish party. He told McQuaid that he’d put on a brave face: ‘You deserve to have the Tour without any issues.’

“He said he would do his best to keep a lid on it until the race got back to France. ‘Once we get back to France,’ Jean Marie said, ‘the lid will blow off.’”

Doping products are displayed as evidence at the tribunal into the Festina doping allegations.

So, as the race rolled out of Dublin, Voet was hung out to dry, with the now familiar language being trotted out. This was a rogue team helper, an isolated case, Leblanc insisted, far from the Tour’s Grand Départ in Dublin, nothing to do with the Festina team and unrelated to any riders.

“Jean-Marie was as good as his word,” McQuaid said of the festival atmosphere that greeted the peloton. “But once the race got to France, the shit really hit the fan.”

Jean-Marie Leblanc remembers that he went through the 1998 Tour “like a boxer on the ropes. I took a lot of punches without being able to fight back,” he says.

The Tour became a three-week nightmare made real for Leblanc. “There was no end to it,” McQuaid said. “Police raids, sit-down protests, walk-outs. A total nightmare.”

The stars that fell from the sky in July 1998 were the brightest in cycling at the time. Richard Virenque and Alex Zülle, Laurent Jalabert and Abraham Olano, all of them feted champions across the European scene.

Chris Boardman departs the ramp in Dublin

Imagine Chris Froome being arrested on a finish line, or Nairo Quintana held in a police cell overnight. Think of Romain Bardet in tears, protesting his innocence in front of camera crews and hysterical fans. That was the scale of the scandal.

Virenque was the undoubted star of the Festina team, a national hero in France, the Bardet of his generation. But for 1998 the squad had added Alex Zülle, formerly of ONCE, as co-leader.

“That put extra pressure on me,” Virenque says, “but it was good pressure. I think I could have won in 1998. I’d prepared more than ever, over six or seven months. The proof of that was in Dublin, when I was in the first 15 in the prologue [14th, 12 seconds down on winner Chris Boardman].”

Dublin was where Virenque first heard that Voet, his personal soigneur, had been stopped. “Because we were in Ireland we didn’t fully know the situation,” the Frenchman says. “Then we heard about all the stuff in the boot, but we didn’t think that would become a police investigation, that we’d be arrested and interrogated. We thought it would go away.”

There were others who became embroiled too, names now familiar from other dark days, including Johan Bruyneel, Steven de Jongh, Laurent Roux and Philippe Gaumont.

As the race was brought to its knees, Jean-Marie Leblanc felt powerless: “We’d hear a story on the radio or the news each morning about les flics — the cops — raiding one team or another, going through their hotel rooms, seizing products and accusing a rider of doping.

“We knew nothing in advance and the riders got mad with me because of that. They didn’t understand how a race organiser wasn’t in direct contact with the police. In fact it was the media that was in charge, because the police spoke to them and we’d only hear about it afterwards.”

Once the Festina team had been kicked off the race, the atmosphere got far worse. On the road south towards the Pyrenees, it became hard to keep track of the police raids, the arrests, and the growing number of confessions.

The Tour became schizophrenic, nerve-wracked. Banal conversations about the points jersey were interrupted by rumours of arrests and abandons. Exhaustion and hysteria were everywhere.

On the rest day in Pamiers, police raided the TVM team’s hotel. In the aftermath, the squad cancelled their usual ‘moules et frites’ party. At least one sponsor fully understood the gravity of the situation.

Richard Virenque climbs through the Alps in the polka dot jersey in 1997

Rumours of a raid at the Cofidis team hotel took hold that evening. High on scandal, we drove in a manic, high-speed convoy to Ax-les-Thermes, screeching to a halt on the pavement and bursting into the hotel’s dining room only to find the bemused riders sitting quietly, eating pasta.

The affair was the lead story in every news bulletin. French newspaper Le Monde called for the Tour to be stopped. TV crews searched through bin bags discarded by teams, while late-night political shows called for the Tour to be discarded as an embarrassing anachronism.

It was all too much for the paranoid peloton. The riders decided they’d had it and the morning after the TVM raids, in Tarascon-sur-Ariège, staged a sit-down protest on the start line of stage 12.

Some wanted to race, others didn’t. Luc Leblanc, Marco Pantani and Jacky Durand argued as the media watched on. The infighting was bitter and ONCE boss Manolo Saiz almost came to blows with some journalists.

Eventually, the day’s stage to Cap d’Agde got going. That night, when he spoke to the press, Leblanc blamed the media for the rider protest. “Contrary to what some intellectuals and Paris newspapers suggest, the Tour must continue,” he said, adding that, “the public are still loyal.”

TVM riders lead the peloton in a strike in protest at the doping investigations

The next series of raids on the TVM team, which included the taking of hair samples, stretched that loyalty too far and almost killed the Tour for good. At the stage 17 start in Albertville, riders ripped their race numbers off and threw them on the ground.

“The police were acting like Nazis,” one TVM rider said.

“By the time we reached the Alps, the riders didn’t want to go on,” Leblanc remembers. “Paranoia had spread and in Albertville, after the TVM arrests, they refused to start. I tried to convince them but I couldn’t persuade them.”

Not for the first time, Manolo Saiz railed long and loud. “The French are going to kill cycling,” he said. “If it continues like this, then it’s over — it’s the end for cycling.”

But as the race almost collapsed, Leblanc got lucky. His VIP guest in the race director’s car that day was from the Ministry of the Interior. “He told me that the police weren’t going after the riders anymore, but the doctors and soigneurs instead.”

Jan Ullrich meets French president Jacques Chirac after Stage 7

Leblanc passed that information to Bjarne Riis, then, as winner of the 1996 Tour, acting as the peloton’s porte-parole, or spokesman. “He said they’d ride, but that the stage would be neutralised. If the stage hadn’t taken place, the Tour would have been stopped.”

But that day’s chaos also highlighted the cultural differences within cycling. Enraged and appalled, there was a Spanish mass walkout that led to the wholesale abandon of the ONCE and Banesto teams, soon to be mimicked by the departure of Kelme and Vitalicio Seguros. In a petulant show of loyalty, even the Spanish media huffily packed up and went home.

But the TVM team still had a point to make. At half past seven that evening, the diminished peloton finally crossed the line in Aix-les-Bains, led home through the lengthening shadows by TVM’s riders, arms raised as if in triumph.

Ironically, there was one team desperate to stay on the right side of the Tour organisation. The pre-Armstrong US Postal team, then in its relative infancy, was very much the new kid on the block.

Directed by Johnny Weltz, they somehow arrived in Paris, entire team intact and without being raided. Among the nine men who made it to the Champs Elysées, were Frankie Andreu, George Hincapie, and Tyler Hamilton.

Marco Pantani joins the other riders in protest on Stage 12

Lance was there too, not racing and, like his team-mates, largely unnoticed. I bumped into him outside a TV broadcast lorry in Le Creusot, the finish for the final time-trial. He was planning his comeback, targeting that year’s Vuelta, and destined to be the poster boy for the following year’s ‘Tour of Renewal’.

Only 96 of the 189 starters rode into Paris for the final stage of the 1998 Tour. A mournful rain greeted them on the Champs Elysées. Marco Pantani and his team dyed their hair yellow in celebration of his success. “The power of the law scares everyone,” the Italian said in his final press conference, “so maybe the investigations have made this a cleaner race.”

Exhausted and depressed, Leblanc was already heading for the exit. “I heard people say that I saved the Tour,” he says now, “but I don’t really believe that. I did my best. I gave it my all, my health, my strength to avoid the worst. But it’s true to say that we were on a razor’s edge.

“The Tour could have been stopped and, if it had, I think it would have struggled to continue, because the loss of confidence among our sponsors would have been crippling.”

Richard Virenque’s career never fully recovered from the scandal. “I was stalked by the UCI, the police, the courts and the press. I was the whipping boy, destined for the guillotine,” he says.

“In hindsight, when you see the scandals in politics these days and in cycling, in the years after Festina, it’s shocking. During the Festina Affair, they threw me in jail for 72 hours, once, twice, three times. If I got through it, it’s thanks to the cocoon of my family, because it was a refuge from all that.”

Virenque returned to the peloton in 1999, but remained in denial. “They said I wasn’t welcome on the Tour because I was the ‘incarnation of doping’! And that was at the start of the Armstrong era…

“The fans still cheered and clapped me, but for the other riders I was a plague. I was lucky because Gianluigi Stanga took me in and gave me a chance at Polti. He made me listen to Mozart to relax — me, who loved dance music and Michael Jackson! So I listened to Mozart for hours before races in an effort to de-stress.”

Even now he still believes he could have won the 1998 Tour, if not for the chaos that followed the Grand Départ in Dublin. “By 1997, the Festina team was really on top of its game. Leading a team like that, with exceptional riders — Laurent Brochard, Laurent Dufaux, Pascal Hervé, Christophe Moreau, Didier Rous — was a privilege.”

Yellow jersey holder Lance Armstrong shakes hands with UCI president Hein Verbruggen in 2000

Twenty years on, Dick Pound, founding father of WADA, and bugbear of the UCI and its then President Hein Verbruggen in the aftermath of the affair, says it is still increasingly difficult to get positive tests and that police co-operation is essential.

“You have to have the funding, and resource, and ensure that your testing is based on intelligence,” the Canadian says. “You have to start thinking like a doper – what would you take in this event, when would you take it and where would you take it.

“The testing is getting better but the doping is getting better too,” he says. “The gap has been narrowed since WADA was first created, but the battle is far from over.”

And how much did Festina damage the French scene? Would there have been a successor to Bernard Hinault by now if Willy Voet had driven safely across the Franco-Belgian border that day?

There’s no dispute that the scandal killed off home interest. Crowds fell at the roadside, investment in cycling dropped away, disenchantment spread and several bedrock races — such as the Midi Libre and the Tour of the Mediterranean — collapsed.

Paris-Nice, formerly owned by Monde Six, and then briefly by Laurent Fignon, struggled even to find a sponsor for its King of the Mountains competition.

That race and the Dauphiné Libére were both salvaged by Tour de France owners ASO, which in turn has now led to a homogenisation of presentation and parcours. Every year’s Paris-Nice and Dauphiné is now increasingly a dress rehearsal for the all-powerful Tour, rather than a race to be won for itself. 

There were other consequences. Any trust between riders and the media was lost. There may now be an uneasy truce, but the scandal forced many to choose sides, take a stance, shout from the rooftops. In the aftermath of Festina, as WADA took shape and anti-doping gathered momentum, you were either campaigner or collaborator.

The 1998 Tour still casts a long shadow. Before the scandal, for the most part, we believed. Maybe there was a little bit of doping going on, but only among a handful of individuals. Now the white noise of skepticism is crippling. Twenty years on, our faith is so brittle that it shatters at every hairpin on the Colle delle Finestre.

For McQuaid, Festina was catastrophic. It dirtied the perception of cycling in Ireland and blew away his hopes of resurrecting the national tour.

Pat McQuaid

“It flipped in 24 hours,” McQuaid recalled. “One day it looked as if we’d get the support to bring back the Tour of Ireland. By the next evening, it was gone. I was very low after that. That experience hardened my views on anti-doping.”

Read: A doping inspector calls

Finally, how much did Virenque, still the name most associated with the Festina Affair, really suffer? Reputationally, a little maybe, but then Virenque is a survivor.  As he describes his life in the Caribbean – all jet skis, barbecues and laid-back parenting – it’s hard to see where it really went wrong for Tricky Dicky.

And when he walks through a start village or along a finish line in any one of those familiar Alpine ski resorts — Courchevel, the Alpe, Le Grand Bornand, Bourg St Maurice, Val d’Isère and so on — Virenque, bête noire of world cycling 20 years ago, is still stopped for selfies and autographs and cheered and applauded, even now with his salt and pepper hair and lined eyes.

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