This year, Cyclingnews celebrates its 25th anniversary, and to mark such an important milestone, the editorial team will be publishing 25 pieces of work that look back at the sport over the last quarter of a century.
When Willy Voet was arrested on the Franco-Belgian border, sparking what would become the biggest drugs scandal in cycling’s history, Cyclingnews was barely three years old. Readers were still connecting to the site via dial-up internet and receiving their news in daily bulletins.
These days, live, minute-by-minute coverage is a staple on Cyclingnews, and the Festina Affair was an early step in the acceleration of the news cycle in the internet age.
Many books and articles have been written about the scandalous 1998 Tour de France, framing the so-called ‘Festina Affair’ in a familiar way, but we’ve gone back through the archives to see how our readers would have absorbed the whole soap opera as it unfolded.
News for July 12, 1998
Willy Voet was arrested on the Franco-Belgian border on July 8, three days ahead of the start of the Tour. The news didn’t cause shockwaves, as it took a few days for the details of what was found in his car to filter through, and the significance of it all to sink in.
The first of it on Cyclingnews came at the end of the race report for the opening prologue, soon followed up in the next news bulletin on July 12. Back then, news stories were packaged into daily round-ups, under the headline ‘News for [date]’.
Drug Scandal at the Tour
The 1998 Tour de France has now started and not exactly in the way that the official results will record. It was announced yesterday that the soigneur of the the French Festina team was arrested on Thursday on the French-Belgian border by customs officials for carrying banned substances.
The French Minister for the Sports, Marie-George Dresser, who is in Dublin for the start of the Tour requested that everyone calm down prior to the final results of the investigation being known. He concurred with officials that strong sanctions would be given against any riders or team officials who were implicated in the affair.
He is reported by the French media as saying: “We must first confirm the information. If the facts are exact, they are of an extreme gravity because they are significant quantities.”
Willy Voet, soigneur for Festina and the personal carer for team leader Richard Virenque, was stopped in his Festina Tour car last Thursday close to Neuville-in-Férain, near Lille in northern France. The customs officers discovered a few hundreds of grams and capsules of anabolic steroids, as well as EPO, and other doping products and syringes. Voet, has been the personal soigneur to Richard Virenque since the days of RMO. He was detained in police custody in Lille.
He is reported as saying that the drugs were for his personal use. What a joke! A legal investigation is now underway. The presumption is that the drugs were intended for riders in the Festina team. The Festina offices were searched on Thursday evening in Lyon and other suspect products were seized […]
News for July 18, 1998
Following the initial report of Voet’s arrest, the site’s next news bulletin came on the following Tuesday, July 14, but there was no mention of the goings-on in France – only coverage of a Mapei transfer, the British tandem sprint championship, and the SON-Cup from Suriname.
It was only July 18 that Festina reappeared on Cyclingnews headlines, but it barely stopped from that point on.
Festina out of Tour
My partner in cyclingnews.com, Hans just rang me from the Netherlands (23.20 Friday Dutch time) to tell me that Festina have been thrown out of the Tour de France. They have now admitted to systematic drug use under the direction of their doctors. All the top officials are involved. They have allegedly said that it was safer to do it under the direction of the medical staff rather than leave it to the riders. Comprehensive cheating no less.
The peloton is now in tatters for the Tour. The point is that Willy Voet was carrying enough dope to provide for the whole peloton and then some. The allegations are coming fast now of other teams and riders involved.
More news as it breaks.
Second Edition News for July 18, 1998
July 18’s initial updates were packaged together with some minor news and results from a range of races, including the Cascade Classic, where a certain Lance Armstrong was sitting seventh overall. However, such was the pace at which the story was now developing, July 18 featured what had been a rarity on Cyclingnews, but which would become common over the following weeks: Second Edition News.
The site had largely been operating on a news cycle vaguely akin to national newspapers but this was an early step in the evolution of an uninterrupted news cycle that would eventually lead to live, rolling coverage.
Even the day’s second bulletin couldn’t fully keep up with events, as it was divided into two parts – before and after it was announced the Festina team had been expelled from the Tour.
Special Festina Roundup
Festina riders before the revelation
Richard Virenque, Laurent Dufaux, and Laurent Brochard, called for a press conference, before the start of the Cholet stage to assure everyone that the team would not withdraw from the Tour, even if their sport director remains detained and now without a license. Virenque was the first to talk and said that he spoke in the “name of all the riders” and assured that they were going to “give their maximum to show that they are not related to this matter”.
After the Revelations
Jean-Marie Leblanc announced at a press conference at 23.00 in the Tour de France that he had expelled the entire Festina team from the Tour in consultation with the UCI. Festina is expelled under article 29 which freely translated says: “it is not permitted to damage the ethics and morality of the Tour de France.”
[…]The indications are now that there will be a number of public revelations in the next few days. A notable ex-pro from France has told French TV (20.00 on Friday night) that “all the riders in the Tour use dope.”
Theo de Rooy (Rabobank) said on Dutch TV: “It’s a dramatic day in cycling history. This Tour de France will be a historical tour for the future. It’s a dark shadow over our cycling world and it will take time for rehabilitate. My first reaction (I heard it 25 minutes ago) is: let’s start tomorrow to repair the image of our sport.”
News for July 19, 1998
A quieter morning on the Festina front, on the day after Jan Ullrich crushed the stage 7 time trial, with transcripts of television interviews with Stuart O’Grady and Laurent Jalabert from before the start of the Tour, plus a segment on previous doping cases in the sport. There’s also stuff on Australian track coach Heiko Salzwedel and results from Belgium and the USA.
But it was later in the day when the Festina news rolled in…
Second Edition News for July 19, 1998
A second ‘Festina special’ on the site, with news of UCI president Hein Verbruggen finally flying home from Cuba amid what he called “the greatest scandal in 100 years of cycling history”.
There were also shoots of what would become a major part of the story, as reports of doping at the TVM team started to emerge. The revelations related to the seizure of drugs from a TVM car in March, with team manager Cees Priem holding a press conference to claim it was someone trying to damage the team’s reputation. The closing comment from the editor is a portent of what’s to come.
And now TVM
[…] Noted Dutch TV cycling journalist Mart Smeet commented afterwards: “The story came piece by piece. Cees Priem had to often do retakes on his words because he didn’t have a clear story. He told us his team is completely innocent and he will talk with Leblanc tonight. But I think there can be no consequences in this Tour for the TVM team because this case is from March and has nothing to do with the Tour de France.” Oh yeh! […]
News for July 20, 1998
July 20’s news contained a series of minor news and race results, with the only Festina-related content coming in the form of transcripts from Australian television interviews with former pro Phil Anderson, sprinter Robbie McEwen, and Stuart O’Grady, who wore the yellow jersey early in the Tour. All are asked about Festina, although mostly at the end of the interviews. While Anderson notes the news is ‘overshadowing’ the race and the achievements of O’Grady, it’s interesting to note that O’Grady and McEwen themselves play down the significance of the matter.
O’Grady: That’s had absolutely no affect on me whatsoever, and probably not on any of the other teams either. It’s a business that the Festina team have to cope with themselves. I’ve got my yellow jersey – I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, so for me, there is nothing better at the moment.
McEwen: No, nothing at all. I mean you hear about it and see the little bit on TV here and it’s in the papers. But, most of it is in French so I haven’t read it anyway. That’s something for them to deal with, and it’s going to affect their riders obviously, but for the rest of us, we’re just going to get on and ride. What happens happens.
News for July 21, 1998
There’s some doping news as former TVM rider Alain van den Bossche admits to doping, but the agenda is dominated by results from the Tour of Liège, the Cascade Classic, US International Classic, and even the UK 100-mile TT championship.
News for July 22, 1998
A key development, as Roussel admits to a structured doping programme at Festina.
Roussel takes the rap
Festina manager Bruno Roussel who is in jail for his alleged role in the smuggling and provision of drugs to the Festina team has said through his lawyer that he was wholly responsible for the systematic doping of his riders. His statement also makes suggestions about the clarification of the existing laws on drugs in cycling. […]
Meanwhile, the riders will be called to court next week to answer questions. It is expected that they will all deny any involvement or knowledge of the alleged doping in the team.
News for July 24, 1998
There was nothing on Thursday, July 23, which was the rest day of the Tour. However, rest days are always eventful and the following day’s bulletins were packed with news, starting with the headline: The drugs scandal widens.
The day’s news carried reports of the arrests of three more ‘top officials’ from Festina managers – including Miguel Moreno and Michel Gros – as well as three from TVM – including boss Cees Priem and doctor Andrei Michailov. It went on to reference the amount of drugs found in Voet’s car, in a sign of how far the affair would soon widen.
As French police began questioning cyclists from the disgraced Festina team Thursday, the doping scandal overshadowing the Tour de France grew still further when investigators summoned officials from the TVM team. The UCI has now asked Dutch Cycling Federation officials to do their own investigation into the incident and also the Tour de France organisation are now threatening to kick TVM out of the race.
And investigators are also trying to work out why there were so much drugs seized in the vehicle driven by Willy Voet. Voet has now said that they were only for Festina. But there were too bigger a volume for that.
Second Edition News for July 24, 1998
July 24’s second edition featured the first usage of a headline that would be used throughout the following week’s coverage: The drugs scandal update. The fact that it was no longer the ‘Festina special’ reflected the fact that the affair had grown far beyond the confines of one team.
At 21.30 European time, it has been announced that a French 2 TV crew has found needles with the remains of banned substances in the hotel room of the Asics team while riding in the Tour de France. They say that the syringes had initials of the riders in the team.
The Festina riders who were questioned in Lyon have been held in police custody for further questioning. Under French law they can be detained for 48 hours with formal charges being laid. French police have said that they will question Casino and Rabobank later today after further allegations have arisen among the Tour peloton.
News for July 25, 1998
The rest day was followed by one of the most momentous events in the Tour’s history, a rider protest in which the peloton stopped and sat down next to their bikes in the middle of the road. It has yielded one of the most iconic sports photographs, in which eventual winner Marco Pantani sits cross-legged on the tarmac, staring blankly into the middle distance.
News of the protest reached Cyclingnews readers the following day, accompanied by confessions from Meier, Brochard, and Moreau (but not Virenque), plus more detail on TVM and Asics. However, as we wrote..
“The revelation has been overtaken by more pressing matters for the organisers of the Tour de France.”
The riders initially refused to ride Stage 12 because they claimed that there was too much emphasis on drugs and not enough on the racing. They appointed Laurent Jalabert as their spokesperson and he told the Tour radio service that: “We are fed up with being treated like cattle. So we are going to behave like cattle. The sport is no longer interesting to anyone. We won’t cycle and that’s the end of it.”
Tour Organiser Jean-Marie Leblanc called in team managers to resolve the strike.
It was very tense at the start of the stage. Casino team manager said to press that: “It cannot go on like this. We want sport to prevail at last. Riders feel they have become secondary I ordered riders not to read the press or watch TV but you can’t help rumours spreading. It’s getting on everybody’s nerves. We’re not criminals.”
Second Edition News for July 25, 1998
The news rolled on later that night with another ‘drugs scandal update’.
Another Festina rider had been detained amid talk of ‘cocktails’ of caffeine, cocaine, amphetamines and heroin, plus drug raids on hospitals. There was also the headline ‘TVM remains in the Tour – for the moment’ as Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc held a press conference to say that despite mounting evidence, there were not enough grounds yet to expel the team.
Meanwhile, the report carried quotes from Telekom’s Jan Ullrich, who’d taken the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees a few days previously.
Jan Ullrich interview
Yellow jersey holder Jan Ullrich gave an extended press interview after Stage 12 yesterday and called for tighter drug controls. He also said that he would donate his winnings to fight the drugs problems. In his interview he said: “The events of the past few days have made me very sad. You look forward for your whole life to wearing the yellow jersey and now you can’t even enjoy it. The riders want tougher controls. I would even contribute all the money that I win here to ensure that there are more controls. We’re working like crazy out there and then something like this happens and all anybody talks about is doping.”
News for July 26, 1998
Another ‘drugs scandal update’ and an edition jam packed with doping news.
Police questioning of TVM and Festina officials saw more details seep out, but the main headline is ‘Le Monde and the Anonymous rider’ as the French newspaper publishes a confession from an unnamed rider, along with details of the costs and logistics of a doping programme.
The major talking point, by this stage, was whether the Tour de France would continue. Le Monde and France-Soir both called for the race to be abandoned amid the atmosphere of suspicion, but the Tour de France organisers, backed up by French politicians, were keen to press on.
This edition’s news is accompanied by a rare bit of editorial comment, some of it with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
Riders meet with Officials
After a meeting on Saturday evening between riders and officials, it was decided to continue the Tour de France and have an end of the season crisis summit to clean up the entertainment…sorry, sport.
They [the riders] said the media was more concerned with the doping instead of the race. But, isn’t the race intrinsically tied up with the doping?
News for July 27, 1998
Another day, another ‘drugs scandal update’, but this one is shorter and accompanied by in-depth coverage of ‘The Australian coaching debacle’, plus results from the US Masters Championships.
The Tour de France news revolves around the Festina riders coming out of prison and making doping admissions to the media. Alex Zülle complains of his treatment in prison and toys with retirement, while Laurent Dufaux insists the Festina riders should not be made ‘scapegoats’, a sentiment echoed by a third teammate…
Armin Meier, the first to go public, told the Swiss newspaper the Sonntags Zeitung that he believed more than 100 riders will be suspended by the UCI. He said in the interview that: “I would not be surprised if that started an avalanche. Perhaps that the UCI must suspend more than one hundred riders after the Tour. I do not believe in a general amnesty.”
News for July 28, 1998
The latest ‘drugs scandal update’ sees an update on the TVM investigations, 1996 Tour champion Bjarne Riis insisting he never doped, plus a discussion on whether performance-enhancing drugs should be legalised – backed by Spanish teams ONCE and Banesto. The bulletin also publishes the full editorial in which Le Monde calls for the race to be called off. However, the major story, especially for an Australian-run site, was to come further down…
Neil Stephens admission
Neil Stephens who has consistently denied taking any performance-enhancing drugs has now admitted that he probably did but though they were just vitamin supplements. He has issued a statement from his home in Spain which also alleges illegal treatment by Lyon police.
Stephens has now been forced to admit that the evidence presented to the investigating police in Lyon during the inquiry into Festina’s systematic drug taking, shows clearly that he has been using EPO. He now faces a minimum 6 months ban for cheating.
News for July 29, 1998
A monster of a news day that called for not one, not two, but three bulletins.
Even the first one was jam-packed, led by news that drugs had been discovered in a raid on a truck of the Big Mat-Auber 93 team. Elsewhere, Roussel was released on bail but team doctor Eric Ryckaert, who continued to deny any knowledge of doping, kept in, as was TVM manager Priem. Former Festina riders opened up about doping on the team, but still Richard Virenque kept up his denials.
That created a rift between those who had and hadn’t come clean, with Dufaux quoted as saying:
“Richard called me the evening after I was released. He told me he had denied any drug taking. But that is now his problem. Each of us has to live with his own conscience.”
Second Edition News for July 29, 1998
The second batch of news from July 29 – the day of stage 17 – leads with the line: “TVM is now in a state of total chaos.”
Two more members of staff are taken into custody, soon followed by the entire team after police seized items from the team’s cars and truck outside their hotel in Albertville. The news is no longer being relayed from journalists at a delay, but almost in real time, with the editor even switching to the present tense.
The police arrived at 18.10 to the hotel Million and then came back 2 hours later […] The police also took in three cases, a sport’s bag and a dustbin bag for further examination. And then soon after, the whole TVM squad including Servais Knaven and Steven De Jongh were also taken into custody and were escorted to the local hospital for extensive drug tests.
As I type, there is a police cordon around the hospital and the press are outside waiting to find out the next step. It is now doubtful whether TVM will start in tomorrow’s 17th stage.
Third Edition News for July 29, 1998
‘It’s getting bizarre!’
That’s the subhead that accompanies the day’s third update. Naturally, it’s all about the explosive scenes outside the TVM hotel. The report starts with a blow-by-blow account of how the events unfolded, including details of the riders being detained in hospital to undergo tests until nearly midnight, with doubts about whether they could start the following stage 18. The President of the Dutch Federation complains of ‘inhumane treatment’ as the French authorities are accused of a ‘witch hunt’ in retaliation for a French team being caught red-handed.
TVM saga continues
[…] You would have thought that something like the President of the USA was around by the look of the security arrangement around the hospital where the TVM riders were taken. There were throngs of media reps and more than 15 policemen around the hospital.
Sources within the TVM team in Albertville believe that the riders will start on Wednesday “as normal”.
News for July 30, 1998
After a bumper day of news, things hadn’t calmed down by July 30, the day after the peloton enacted another protest and stage 17 was scrapped entirely.
That drama was captured in our stage report, while the fall-out led to an avalanche of news, many of which had to be reduced to mere headlines, and the most important of which are included below.
Updates overnight in Europe
There are a lot of rumours here overnight. We have attempted to capture the headlines.
– Casino will leave the Tour this morning. Police investigators from Lille began searching the trucks of the team at around 20.30.
– Luc Leblanc has left the Tour but nothing is known about the rest of the Polti team.
– TVM riders have told the press: “We’ll fight further. Some of our people are still in jail in Reims and for them we have to keep cycling”
– Some people are against the stoppages because they say it shows no respect for Marco Pantani in yellow.
– ONCE Doctor arrested
– Already today ONCE, Banesto and Riso Scotti have abandoned in protest of the way the police have handled the investigation.
– The man with the most to lose if the Tour is abandoned, Marco Pantani expressed solidarity for the rider’s protest. He said that: “It is unacceptable that the police raid my room and take me to prison for having some vitamin C. It is unjust that a sportsperson is treated like a criminal.”
Second Edition News for July 30, 1998
Another flood of bullet-pointed updates as more riders withdraw and debate rages as to whether the race should go on.
– Kelme and Vitalicio Seguros have now left the Tour. The whole Kelme team (including the number 4, Ferdinand Escartin) left the hotel by bus at 8.30 am.
– Only 15 teams now remain and all four Spanish teams are gone.
– Rodolfo Massi (Casino) did not start in Stage 18. The Italian who is 7th on GC and also leader of the KOM has been detained by police shortly before midnight (Wednesday). His team will start however. Casino’s manager, Vincent Levanu was also arrested but released.
– Also arrested late on Wednesday night by Chambery police were Marc Madiot, manager of La Française des Jeux, and the ONCE team doctor Nicolas Terrado. Madiot’s team will remain in the Tour.
– Big Mat are in the clear.
– And the biggest rumour in the symbolism stakes – when the peloton cross the border into Switzerland they are all going to stop and leave the Tour. This is totally unconfirmed.
– Richard Virenque announced this morning that he will be suing the organisers of the Tour de France for expelling him from the race without having ever been tested positive for any banned substance.
News for July 31
After two days of intense coverage, the Festina Affair slips down the news order on the day of stage 19. The top item concerns the ‘Australian coaching situation’, but there’s still room for another ‘drugs scandal update’ below.
There’s less breaking news today, although corticosteroids are found in Rodolfo Massi’s hotel room and the UCI announces the introduction of compulsory medical checks. The lead story comes as the yellow jersey Marco Pantani speaks to the press.
Marco Pantani comments
Marco Pantani who is just three days from winning the Tour de France now claims that the strike activity by riders has been badly thought out and a waste of time. He said that if riders were using drugs then justice demanded that they be dealt with appropriately by the judicial authorities.
He told the press that: “If some riders have committed offences, they must pay. We realised after we stopped that it was useless and that justice should keep on doing their job. We agreed with organisers we should go on. To stop would only make things worse and be like admitting we have things to hide.”
The reason for Pantani’s extended reaction is probably because some of the riders who abandoned on Wednesday, particularly the Spanish and Italian riders, have criticised him for staying in the Tour. There have been allegations that he is more concerned with the yellow jersey and his own glory than he is with justice and riders’ rights.
Second Edition News for July 31, 1998
Massi’s nickname of ‘the little chemist’ is revealed but the main news concerns another big development surrounding TVM.
TVM out of Tour
The remaining 5 TVM riders will not start on Friday. They say they are too emotionally and physically tired to continue racing and will fly back to the Netherlands this morning. They have to be back in Reims on Monday at 10.00.
However, there is a sentiment that they should refuse to appear and put pressure on the Dutch government.
News for August 1, 1998
A quieter day as the race heads for its penultimate-day time trial. Massi is released from prison but is still under suspicion, with results from a blood test pending for September. Meanwhile Jeroen Blijlevens leaves Switzerland by plane and lands in Brussels, but without a valid passport.
News for August 2, 1998
Another quieter day after Ullrich wins the time trial and Pantani is all-but confirmed as the champion. There’s a bit more on Massi and Blijlevens but by this point the race is trudging to Paris and coverage is turning more analytical. An eight-page special in French newspaper Le Monde is the main talking point of the day’s bulletin.
Le Monde – The Broken Legend
Le Monde is highly critical of the riders, reflecting its right-wing ideology. It doesn’t for one minute think about the pressures that the capitalist sponsors put on riders who are still largely from working class backgrounds. It doesn’t see that this is a worker-capital issue. Instead it blames the riders who are seen as breaking the rules of the sport, and the laws of the land. Who appear to be resentful of legal intervention by police into their criminal activities and their contempt for the traditions of the sport.
News for August 3, 1998
The race has now reached Paris, and the 1998 Tour de France is over, although the Festina Affair has much ground ahead of it.
The drugs scandal update
With the Tour de France now over the, recriminations are due to begin with judicial police authorities declaring an all-out offensive against drug smuggling and use within the cycling peloton.
Bernard Gravet, the Director for Judicial Police, said that the judges in Lille and Reims will go all the way to stamp it out and bring criminal charges against those involved. Rodolfo Massi is the first to be charged with dealing in banned substances. The police are putting pressure on the politicians in France to bring in tougher laws. These will be considered in the last quarter of 1998.
The TVM team is due to be heard in Reims today. Their masseur, Jan Moors has been held in custody since the team was taken in for questioning last Tuesday in Albertville. A suitcase was seized and contains evidence so the police say. The five TVM riders – Bart Voskamp, Servais Knaven, Serguei Outschakov, Serguei Ivanov and Stephen de Jongh – are scheduled to appear today.
The team manager Cees Priem and Russian doctor Andrei Mikhailov have been held in custody after being placed under official investigation. Two matters are of concern – the March discovery of a large stash of drugs in the team truck on the way back from the Tour of Valencia, and the discovery on Tuesday night.
But don’t think that justice can’t wait! The Festina enquiry in Lille, seemingly so urgent while the bike race was on, is now in abeyance while the judge goes on holiday.
The police have admitted that they are in no hurry despite trying to wreck the bike race in what seemed to be an indecent haste. They have openly said that the riders who they are putting pressure on a slowly realising that it is better to talk.
The information that Festina riders have already given the police has led to many more riders coming under suspicion. Birds have talked.
After the riders left Paris and went their various ways, coverage of the Festina Affair slowed down, partly due to the lead judge in the case going on holiday. However, August still saw plenty of recriminations, and the Festina Affair stayed among the headlines for the next two years. In fact, a major moment arrived in October 2000, when Virenque finally confessed.
The 1998 Tour would become known as the ‘Tour de Farce’, and the following one was billed as the ‘Tour of Renewal’. As we’ll see in our next feature this week, which will look at how cycling’s next major doping scandal played out, that moniker turned out to be just as farcical.