Laurent Jalabert: easier to lie
Laurent Jalabert, turned pro aged 20 with Toshiba back in 1989, was a team leader at ONCE with Manolo Saiz between 1992 and 2000 and, for his final two years, rode for Bjarne Riis at CSC. In short, this is a man who should know a thing or two about Generation EPO. The 1991 – 2009 (?) era of blood bags, EPO, hormones and old school stimulants and ‘cortico.’ That, in any case, was the opinion of the French senate commission of inquiry into doping in sport. The senators – who looked like a gaggle of old bike fans shuffling their feet, too shy to request his autograph – asked Jalabert to appear in front of them to answer some questions – under oath – and in public. This was in distinction to Richard Virenque and ex-Juventus and French international football player Didier Deschamps who both also appeared, but in private.
Jalabert, still recovering from a March 2013 training crash when a car wiped him out, was dry mouthed as he answered early questions, wary of a trick question. However, once he got into his stride and realised that his toothless fanboy Inquisitors had barely done any research, he was never troubled and finally went on the offensive.
The ‘shock’ headline was that Jalabert never denied doping (though he was vague on the specifics and wasn’t pressed for details) and that, with a sympathetic and credible audience, his explanation of his performances, as well as those of others around him, seemed to add up. Credible, that is, if you were in a generous frame of mind and keep reminding yourself that he was testifying under oath. Like the X-Files, you really had to ‘want to believe’ and there are plenty who fall into that category.
Jalabert effectively claimed that he was involved in ‘doping lite,’ a healthier, lower risk menu option from a buffet groaning with peptide options and bloody specials cooked up by freelance consultants. Towards the end of his 50 minute Q&A, Jalabert seemed almost angry at being suspected of EPO use and blood doping practices. Th suggestion was that his ‘grey area’ doping of unnamed recovery products (or perhaps some hormone ‘re-balancing’) was one thing, but blood chemistry manipulation was beyond the pale, an insult.
After some preliminaries, a senator got to the point, or as close as he could: ‘Jaja’ were you doped? (“I can tell that you want me to say I was doped,” said Jalabert at one point. But he fudged that one, in the end).
“In the three teams I was part of, I was surrounded and supported by a group of people I had complete confidence in – from the mechanics to the team managers and the medical staff too…I admit that we were looked after and, during competition, there were times, I have to accept this, that we used a product that was forbidden…as long as you had medical authorisation. And there were times when I used these products because it was necessary.” The implication – never challenged – is that cortisone was administered for tendonitis or saddle sores and perhaps, sometimes, the theraputic limits might have been exceeded. Hmmm.
Jalabert continued: “But I can assure you that at no time did I go looking for a doctor or anyone like that with the intention of improving my performance, to try to take part in the arms race. I never spent a single Euro – or rather a Franc, at the time, it was a while ago – to go to see a doctor or buy any banned products. That wasn’t in my ‘culture’ and it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. But it’s true that I was in these teams and I was looked after (“soigne”) in those teams and now, can I say today that it was illegal? I can’t be sure. I can’t be sure either that it was entirely legal,” added Jalabert, confusingly.
So what to make of that? Reading – very charitably – between the lines it might be interpreted thus: ‘I doped but I didn’t ask any questions. We used products to help us recover from racing and training that were probably illegal and undetectable at the time. But I never went to Ferrari, Van Mol, Cecchini, Conconi, Dr Bernard ‘Mabuse’ Sainz or anyone else. And I never bought EPO or hGH.’ The ONCE team doctor was nicknamed Dr Citroen, a reference, of course, to Michele Ferrari (“who everyone in the peloton knew administed ‘magic potions’ but nobody talked about it”). There’s also a nod in the direction of the 1998 Festina doctor, Eric Rykaert, affectionately called Dr (Fiat) Punto. The problem with this is that during Jalabert’s long period with ONCE he would have worked with Dr Pedro Celaya (with the ONCE team in 1999-2000) and/or Dr Nicolas Torrados.
Maybe Torrados was ‘Citroen,’ but to claim that Celaya lacked blood doping know-how is plain embarrassing – particularly for his inquisitors who never picked this up. Curiously, given Jalabert’s insistence that “at no time did I go looking for a doctor…to improve my performance,” nobody on the Senate thought to quiz him on alleged links to Dr Michele Ferrari that have been gaining credibilty. Of course, if all Jalabert wanted from Ferrari was advice about his saddle height or recovery periods between three minute interval efforts, well…
So, reading less charitably, Jalabert’s testimony might turn out to be about 20 per cent true and 80 per cent watered down. It wouldn’t be the first time we had seen ONCE riders lying under oath in recent months. The ONCE team doctor was, for a period when Jalabert was on the team, Dr Pedro Celaya who went on to find a measure of fame in the USADA report. No questions asked, indeed. Why none of the senators asked him what products he thought were “illegal” or why he imaged that he took certain products (presumably intramuscular cortisone) under a Theraputic Use Exemption certificate which didn’t properly exist at the time, is surprising to say the least. And rather cunningly stating that he “never bought” EPO or hGH isn’t the same thing as denying that he had ever used it.
Jalabert’s use of the phrase ‘arms race’ was intriguing and, sure enough, Senator Jean-Jacques Lozach asked for clarification. “Well, I was a rider with a bit of talent, I didn’t just turn up from the back woods,” explained Jalabert, the World’s top ranked rider for four years in the mid 1990s and still ranked eighth in 2001 in the twilight of his career. “Without wishing to be pretentious, from when I was young I was one of the top ranked riders in my category, I was in the French junior squad, I turned pro at 20 and won races, the same level of races that when a young French rider wins today are a big deal; I was a ‘puncheur’ and because of those qualities I struggled to win big races, but my progress as a rider was normal, regular,” explained Jalabert. Indeed, his early results were promising – at the Dauphine and in French national races – but the pressure got to him in the Tour. Being outfoxed by Mauro Ribeiro of RMO in the Tour when he looked odds-on to win into Rennes in 1991 was typical.
The issue that might need some exploring here is how a rider of talent (even of huge talent) can end up as the World ranked number one rider throughout an era when EPO was still undetectable and some Spanish and Italian riders were racing with blood chemistry that was downright extraterrestrial.
Jalabert was never a serious Tour de France contender, though he said he was tempted, having had his head turned by the French media. True, he won the 1995 Vuelta, but he had an explanation for that – as well as a superficially plausible explanation for his fourth place in the 1995 Tour.
“I only finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France once – I finished fourth overall. But if you remember, I was in a 200km break with five riders and – most importantly – this was on a stage when Miguel Indurain was having a terrible day, so we were able to get the finish at Mende with a lead of several minutes. If it hadn’t been for that one day, I don’t think I would have finished in the top 10. I got carried away after that result and started to dream that maybe the Tour was a race I could win. Journalists started saying that I was a direct rival to Miguel Indurain. But as soon as we hit the first mountain stage in 1996 I was brought back to earth and I dropped down the classification. That was a reality check for me, a shock, but at no point did I want to take part in the (doping) arms race. I never said to myself ‘OK there’s stuff happening here, do what you have to do you and you can win the Tour de France.’ That just didn’t interest me.”
So how did he explain his win in the 1995 Vuelta, a race dear to his Spanish ONCE team and its manager, Manolo Saiz?
“Yes, I won the Tour of Spain, a three week race, but it’s nothing like the same level as the Tour and again I had that ability to recover. I’m not saying that I was better than the rest because I had my weaknesses. I won that Tour of Spain because we had a strong team and I found myself in a position similar to that at Mende in the 1995 Tour, so I took the lead and we locked the race down. But I confess that I had a really hard time holding on to the jersey in the third week , but that was never picked up do on because cycling is also that – there is bluff involved, hiding your weakness from others. So, yes, I won the Tour of Spain. Was I the best that year? Well, the quality of the field was nothing like as strong as the Tour de France. Second was Olano, third was Mauri I think (it was team mate Johan Bruyneel – Ed). It just wasn’t the same level as the Tour, you don’t need the same physical qualities to win.”
Jalabert rode for three teams and had experience of at least three doctors, but insisted that they – particularly at ONCE – worked to help riders recover during races, rather than administer EPO or blood transfusions. “I never had any prescriptions, there were never any medicines at home, though at races there were always team doctors. At Toshiba, my first team, the doctor was accredited to the Olympic Committee though it’s so long ago I can’t remember how that worked. But after, when I was at ONCE, after the end of the stage the doctor would visit the rooms and administer recovery products. We didn’t really have an exact idea what they were. That’s the truth. Was I tricked? I don’t believe I was. But I never tested positive. Now I know that some will say that the controls are easy to pass, but I was never worried, never stressed when I had to go to dope control. Frankly? I would like to race with the anti-doping controls there are now and I think that I would be able to win more races in the 2010s than I did back in the 1990s.”
This just sounds plain weird, yet Jalabert simply wasn’t pressed to go into more detail. What, exactly, would he consider ‘products to aid recovery’? Alas, all avuncular Senator Jean-Francois Hubert could come up with by way of a follow up question was, “But weren’t you afraid that you would be injected with something harmful?”
“Yes, there were times when I was afraid, but it passes and in the end you have a real confidence in the doctor and you stop asking the questions although I never asked anyway. When the Festina affair hit the Tour in 1998, like all the other teams we were stopped and searched. Our hotel rooms were searched, the bus was turned inside out, I was questioned for three or four hours, the team doctor was taken to the station and questioned. Nothing came out of that – though they wanted me to admit that I was a cheat. I can’t say or avow that I have never taken anything – I mentioned corticoids earlier but they were for very specific reasons and there was always for theraputic use and there weren’t that many times anyway. Plus there was the ‘carnet de sante’ where all medicines had to be noted down and I never received any notice that there was anything anomalous going on in any medical control. As I said before, we were looked after, helped (soigne), but were we doped? I don’t believe so (Je crois que non), I really don’t. I was never tempted, really.”
The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ defence is feeble, of course. And other former ONCE riders stuck with it for years. And even when former ONCE and Festina rider Alex Zulle said “for the period I was at ONCE, the use of EPO was carried out in the same way,” nobody blinked. Neil Stephens, an ONCE rider between 1992-96 then Festina 1997-98, used the same defence/explanation as Jalabert during the Festina inquest, claiming he thought he was being injected with vitamins, rather than Eprex. All of which strains the credibility. EPO was a key topic in cycling between 1992 and 1998 and to imagine that you wouldn’t ask what was being injected and infused into you in that era is hard to swallow.
But Jalabert continued, boldly stating his case as a force for good in the peloton. “In fact…I tell you what. After the Festina affair, there were some changes in the regulations, for instance, injections were forbidden in France and, after that, I refused injections when the team offered them (though he was in a Spanish team, obviously – Ed). As I said, there was a a before and after Festina and I think there were some more intelligent elements who wanted to recognise that there were problems and change and others who basically carried on as though nothing had happened. I was one of those who wanted to see things change and tried to move things in the right direction, which didn’t prevent me from having decent results – my last Tour de France was almost my best.”
There’s a wee bit of a problem with Jalabert setting himself up as a force for good, post-Festina. In 1999, Jalabert rode the Giro d’Italia with as dubious a field of riders as is possible to imagine. And he finished fourth overall, won two stages (including a 32km time trial ahead of Serhiy Honchar), led the race for eight stages before cracking late in the race. This was Giro where Marco Pantani, the then maglia rosa, was thrown off the race for having an unhealthily high haematocrit and the race was effectively awarded to Ivan Gotti of Polti ahead of Paolo Savoldelli (Saeco) with Gilberto Simoni of Ballan in third. Every single one of those riders has been implicated in some kind of blood doping scandal or doping inquiry. And fifth place went to Roberto Herras of Kelme, who turned out to be no stranger to EPO.
Jalabert is a rider who straddles the pre-EPO era, then rode through the Festina affair in 1998, quit ONCE in 2000 (not in the best of terms with Saiz) and ended his career with CSC in 2002, not on the best of terms with Lance Armstrong. His eight seasons with Saiz at ONCE (“I stayed there too long”) have led many (most?) to assume that ‘Jaja’ was well versed in the ways of doping. But here – under oath – he insisted that he resisted the temptations to ‘go nuclear’.
In as much as the French senate inquiry was set up in the aftermath of the USADA reasoned decision, it was inevitable that Armstrong’s name and influence would arise. “I’d say that he was an exceptional athlete, even from a young age, as a triathlete”) but clarified what he meant had been too ambiguous. “When he arrived in the European peloton he was arrogant which annoyed a lot of people as well as some inside the peloton. He had no respect for the hierarchy within the bunch, but he imposed himself because he was such a strong rider – he was world road champion at 21 and demonstrated that he was a special in his area in terms of being able to concentrate on a target and never deviate, by winning the Tour. But we learned a bit late that throughout this period he conned us.”
“I knew him before his cancer episode and he was a serious rival and I’d say that I was able to compete with him – though I don’t have any precise memories of riding with him in the high mountains – but in one day races, Classics and in week-long stage races, races that suited me, I was able to follow him without any problems. When he came back into the bunch after he had recovered from his illness he was like…in a way he was like the incarnation of an American comic book hero who had overcome death and was now stronger than before. And, after that, for many of us who were reduced to the status of spectators and even for riders competing against him there was a feeling of powerlessness. No matter how hard the race was there was just no way to drop him, we had no idea how to deal with this guy, he was just so much stronger than everyone else.”
Jalabert had been pilloried in some sections of the media for apparently offering ‘support’ or refusing to utterly damn Armstrong following the UCI’s decision to ratify the USADA report and strike Armstrong’s results from the record books. “I had the misfortune of saying that…because I was in Hawaii for a triathlon in October at the moment when the UCI took away his seven wins…and I got off the plane and I was interviewed and I had the misfortune to say that ‘In spite of everything he was an immense champion, truly exceptional.’ It didn’t come out right. Rather, he was an extraordinary athlete, that he had physical and mental abilities that were well beyond the norm…but he cheated. And perhaps his mental attitude, his desire to win, pushed him to become the person he turned into. But justice was done – too bad it was 13 years too late.”
Jalabert recognised the ‘athlete’ in Armstrong, but you strongly suspect that the arrogance of Armstrong – the Texan’s lack of respect for the rules, either inside or outside the peloton, his use of Ferrari and his methods – was something that rankled. And there were a couple of anecdotes that perhaps illustrate the point. “In the Tour 2000 – a hard Tour for me, I was struggling – I was looking for another team for 2001 because I had decided to leave ONCE. I attacked early on a stage and as soon as I went Armstrong shouted on his team to chase me down. I was over two hours down and absolutely no danger. And that day I really felt that I was paying the price for the incident in Paris-Nice I was on another..I was looking for a team for the next season, he didn’t need to chase me. But I think it was payback for an incident in Paris-Nice years before.”
In that Paris-Nice, back in 1996, Armstrong had attacked Jalabert, the race leader incessantly on a stage to Millau and on the final climb, Armstrong attacked. “I managed to get up to him and he came back to me and said ‘OK, I’m going to win the stage,’ and I said ‘Eh well, what I am meant to do? If you win the stage I lose the white (leader’s) jersey. Well, you can if you can beat me, then you win. If you want to stop riding, that’s fine by me, because I’m not in any hurry here, but you can try to win if you want. So we rode to the finish at the top and I beat him and took the time bonus because the race was going to be won and lost on bonuses. That was the way it should be. But for him, it was as though his word was all it took. If he said it, well, that’s the way it would happen. The next day he came up to me before the start and said that I would pay for that, that we wouldn’t always be in the mountains. In the Tour, four years later, I think that was it. That was his attitude though, spiteful.” A character analysis that Chrisophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni would no doubt support.
There is another explanation for Jalabert’s enthusiasm to heap more opprobrium at Armstrong’s door of course. For as long as Jalabert and others pay lip service by damning and condemning the evil US Postal empire, the less likely it is that anyone will be tempted to dig deeper into European team practices during the same era. Invoking the name of the Texan bogeyman in front of a French senate is as simple and efficient a distracting tactic as anyone could come up with. And it worked.
The Senate inquiry is nominally about ‘the efficacy of anti-doping measures’ and Jalabert was asked how good (or not) they were. “From where I’m looking from, I’d say in cycling they were working, although that’s probably not the view of the general public. I’d say that there was a bit of taking stock after the Festina affair and the governing bodies put in place more rigorous controls, with blood tests and the longitudinal health checks, blood transfusion tests and today there’s the biological passport, the random out of competition testing…I’d say that cycling has been at the forefront when it comes to anti-doping measures.”
And what role did team doctors play in this area? What changes had he noticed in the behaviour and culture of the teams and doctors he had worked with? “At CSC there was more attention paid to riders because some of them were working with external doctors and preferred to be looked after elsewhere which was a big problem for the team boss (Riis), who installed a system of internal controls for riders he was worried about, in the days before a race the riders would be tested to make sure that they were keeping to the straight and narrow. There again, when the team doctor saw me arriving at the hotel, he’s say, ‘OK, we need to do a control.’
‘Yes, no problem.’
And a few weeks later, ‘OK Laurent we need to take some blood.’
‘Yeah, fine, whatever you want but…’
“Is it worth it Laurent?”
“No, I’ve got nothing to hide, but if you need to do it, carry on.”
And the blood anecdotes concluded with another, in which Jalabert once again tried to back up his insistence that he was never involved in EPO or blood doping. “I don’t know if you remember the stage of the 2001 Tour that finished in St Lary? The one where Armstrong caught me with four kilometers to go and slapped my backside saying ‘Follow me’? No? I was in the early break with 12 riders, crossed the summit of the Portet d’Aspet and rode away, crossing the rest of the climbs on my own. I’ve often thought back and regretted taking off on my own because it was a really hard day. But what you need to know is that that morning we had had a UCI blood control at the hotel and my haematocrit was 39 per cent. And that didn’t cause me any problems when it came to attacking later that morning. I won the climbers jersey in the Tour twice, without ever having blood values that were abnormal, if you understand what I mean. All I did was adapt my riding and racing to suit my qualities as a rider and I knew I was simply not capable of fighting for the general classification, I didn’t have it, I learned that in 1996, the Tour de France was a level above what I was capable of.”
Among journalists it was widely assumed that, given the team Jalabert was a key part of (ONCE) and the era he rode through (1989-2002), that he was, frankly, up to his eyes in it. And perhaps he was, but the tone of his responses managed to cast doubt on this presumption of guilt. It was an impressive performance in the face of admittedly weak questions. Might it be that France – Tour de France organisers ASO, France 2 (for whom Jalabert does co-commentary) and the French Cycling Federation – didn’t really want a Puerto-Padua level mess in the media in the run up to the 2013 Tour?
Was Jalabert guilty of some form of doping? By his own admission he certainly was. But was he guilty of the worst excesses of the era? In spite of Jalabert’s explanations, the jury must still be out on that one – there were too many areas of history and detail which escaped examination. That Jalabert really was only involved in ‘doping lite’ is an analysis that requires you (me, us) to believe that ‘Jaja’ was telling the truth under oath. And that seems unlikely to say the least.
If he wasn’t being truthful, there are a probably a few people who watched his performance and squirmed. Maybe they laughed at his nerve. Or were disgusted at the fact that, when offered a platform to come clean and help move the debate on, French national hero ‘Jaja’ declined to stand up and be counted. At a time when the drive for Truth with a little reconciliation has stalled, Jalabert had a good chance to come clean – he was under oath, he wasn’t facing a ban, his misdemeanours are ancient history – he declined. Could Jalabert find any witnesses to corroborate his version of events? Maybe Manolo Saiz, but as character witnesses go, Saiz isn’t the best. It would appear that, even so many years after the events, it’s still easier to lie. Under oath.
Kenny Pryde, May 2013