The Tour at the dawn of a huge scandal


It was on July 8, 1998 that Willy Voet, trainer for the Festina team, was arrested by customs in possession of doping products. An arrest that launched one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Tour de France.

Marco Pantani won the 1998 Tour de France but some favorites lost it three days before the start, in the early morning, several hundred kilometers from Dublin where the peloton started. It was on July 8, 1998, in the early morning, that a trainer named Willy Voet was arrested by customs at the Franco-Belgian border, in possession of doping products. The Festina affair, one of the biggest doping scandals in the Tour, started from there.

In 1998, the French formation had immense ambitions. “To win the Tour, it was the year or never, remembers today Richard Virenque. We had a great armada with Brochard, Dufaux, Moreau, Hervé, Rous, Stephens, Zülle… I don’t see how we couldn’t have won after finishing 9th, 5th, 3rd and 2nd the previous year. We were launched, very offensive… before being excluded. »

A car loaded with EPO

The arrest of Willy Voet spelled the beginning of the end for the Festina team. In his car, the healer had quite a load: 120 capsules amphetamines, 82 solutions growth hormone, 60 vials of testosterone, corticosteroids and of course 235 bulbs of erythropoietin, the infamous EPO, the hit of the moment in the pelotons.

Placed in police custody, Willy Voet ends up letting go after three days. Yes, there is indeed an organized and medicalized doping system within his team. Meanwhile, a judicial investigation was opened in Lille on July 10. The next day, the director of the Tour, Jean-Marie Leblanc, organized a crisis meeting with Jean-Claude Killy, then president of Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), the organizer of the Grande Boucle, and Bruno Roussel, the boss of the Festival team.

Virenque has long denied

Despite Voet’s confession, Virenque and his teammates are well authorized to start the Tour. At the time, the governing bodies of cycling did everything to minimize doping in their sport. But when the peloton returned to France, Bruno Roussel was arrested, as was team doctor Eric Rijckaert, when the 4e step in Cholet. They are indicted on July 17 for “administration and incitement to the use of doping products. Roussel and Rijckaert confessed to all of them, which forced the Tour de France, on the evening of July 17, to exclude the Festina team.

The next day, July 18, Virenque and the riders of the Festina tried to plead their cause with the management of the Tour, in the back room of At Gillou’ssmall country café in Saint-Priest-de-Gimel, a place that despite itself belongs to the legend of the Grande Boucle. A surreal press conference follows where Virenque, in tears, cries out at the injustice and proclaims his innocence. The French climber will deny the facts for many months, until the Festina trial, October 24, 2000.

In 1999, the revival with… Lance Armstrong

On December 22, 2000, justice delivered its verdict. Bruno Roussel is given a one-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 francs. Willy Voet receives a 10-month suspended prison sentence and a 30,000 franc fine. Virenque, the only runner prosecuted (for complicity in incitement to doping), is released. But the UCI inflicted a nine-month suspension on him. Virenque will return to the Tour in 2002, and will win the Mont Ventoux stage. In 2003 and 2004, he added two polka dot jerseys to his collection before stepping down.

The Tour de France tried to recover from the Festina affair. The 1999 edition has been described as the “Tour of renewal”. It will mark the beginning of an even darker period, the seven-year reign of a certain Lance Armstrong…

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