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Fuel for the Fire

Today, the Süddeutsche Zeitung resurrected yet again Operation Puerto, the vampire that preys on cycling and refuses to die. Journalist Andreas Burkert's story is based upon the original Puerto documents, an anonymous source close to the German investigation of Puerto, and the testimony of Basso in Italy, though it's unclear how much of that testimony Burkert personally saw. He makes three claims: that Schleck is Amigo di Birillo, that Riis, Basso and Schleck met Fuentes in December 2005, and that the recent testing of Team CSC-Saxo Bank by CONI related to a renewed investigation of Puerto.

Read the original German article here.

Translation and analysis below the fold. My apologies in advance for the ridiculous length!

Cast your mind back, and you will recall that the German authorities launched their own investigation into Puerto, because of Jan Ullrich's involvement and because of the evidence pointing to the involvement of German doctors. According to evidence that emerged during the Basso investigation, both Basso and Ullrich met with Fuentes in Germany before the ill-fated 2006 Tour. Subsequently, the German authorities uncovered significant evidence in the case. Süddeutsche Zeitung covered the story aggressively, and buried in their archives is likely one of the more complete stories of the case outside of the secret records kept by the authorities. They are a well-respected paper in Germany, who devotes extensive attention to doping questions.

On to today's story. The article begins by reminding us of Bjarne Riis's past, his confession and his absence from last year's Tour. Riis's past taints his team's present. Or so implies journalist Andreas Burkert. The story relies on an anonymous source close to the investigation in Germany. According to this source, the police notes on the case reveal clearly the name of Frank Schleck as connected to Dr. Fuentes. The article further claims that officials in an un-named country - the article makes clear that they refused for "tactical reasons" to reveal their nationality - have evidence that un-masks Schleck as the "Amigo di Birillo," code name #25 on the list of Fuentes. The article does not give any indication as to the nature of that evidence, though it includes a reproduction of the list of codenames from the Puerto dossier.

Speculation has always existed about the identity of the "Amigo," as indeed it has for all the code names. Of course, the name had to correspond to someone close to Ivan Basso, quickly revealed as Birillo. But who? Conventional wisdom believed "Amigo" to be Giovanni Lombardi, who lived in Madrid and by all accounts knew Dr. Fuentes. Lombardi also travelled as Basso's room-mate, adding credence to the triangular relationship between Fuentes, Lombardi, and Basso.

In today's article, Burkert mentions this argument, but also points to the connection between Lombardi and the Schlecks: Lombardi serves as the manager for both brothers. In his own public statements, Lombardi has said he knew Fuentes "only superficially," writes Burkert. And here Burkert seems to want to have it both ways: Lombardi knew Fuentes, and manages the Schleck brothers, so Frank must have worked with Fuentes. But Lombardi only knew Fuentes superficially, so he could not himself have been a client. It had to have been Schleck, not Lombardi who worked with Fuentes. Which is it? Did Lombardi know Fuentes or not? And what does that tell us about Schleck? Burkert has no answers here.

Carlos Sastre is not above reproach either for Burkert. Though no code name has ever been linked with Sastre, Burkert tells us that Sastre lives in Madrid, where Fuentes had his clinic. Madrid is a big city. Surely, many people live there. But Sastre has also ridden for Bjarne Riis since 2001, and the question of Riis is a more complicated one, of course. He admitted to doping as a rider, but has claimed to run a clean team and hired Damsgard, one of the world's foremost anti-doping experts to run an internal testing program. Whether Riis's claims and Damsgard's program are credible, I leave to the judgement of the reader.

Perhaps more intriguingly, the author claims to have seen or been told about the contents of Ivan Basso's testimony in Italy. Burkert claims that the Basso testimony indicates that Basso, Riis and Schleck met with Fuentes in December 2005. The article does not say where the meeting took place. The quotes from the testimony are incomplete, and consequently, impossible to evaluate. "In december in a meeting with Fuentes was" comes from the testimony, but the subject is missing. (Translation is intentionally literal here to show the truncated nature of the quote.) Burkert tells us that Riis, Basso and Schleck were at the meeting and that the testimony says so. But he does not show us how he knows this, or at least does so in an incomplete way.

Burkert makes a very big claim here: That Basso told Torri that Riis himself participated in the blood doping shenanigans on the team, and that Fuentes provided something like team-wide doping services. If this allegation were ever proven, it would mean the end not only of the team, but of a number of successful careers.

For the cynics, the heavy testing of CSC riders, including Frank Schleck by both the French and Italian authorities and the search of Johnny Schleck's car point add fuel to the fire. But no formal investigation of Frank Schleck's possible involvement in Puerto has ever occurred. Nor has any evidence yet surfaced publicly that placed Riis and Fuentes in the same room at the same time. By now, I would have expected an enterprising journalist from Denmark - there are several who work the doping beat very hard - or elsewhere would have uncovered it. Riis with Fuentes? That's just far too good to have gone two years undiscovered.

Lastly, Burkert links these allegations against Schleck and Riis to the out of competition testing carried out by CONI during the Italian stages of the Tour. Are the officials from the un-named country Italian? Burkert implies in the end that they are, and that the Italians may still have an interest in Operation Puerto, despite the recent public statements of Etorre Torri to the contrary. Rumors suggest that Fuentes is again active. Perhaps Torri hopes to catch him out, though no evidence has yet surfaced of Fuentes renewed activities. The alleged meeting between Riis and Fuentes occurred in December 2005. What does that tell us about the team now?

If the Basso testimony in truth links Riis to Fuentes and if Basso told the Italian authorities that Riis intended to match up more of his riders with Fuentes, then it's hard to imagine that Frank Schleck was not among those linked to Fuentes, given his then role as a climbing gregario to Basso. The testimony from Basso, if real, might also explain the intense scrutiny the French authorites have focused on team CSC during this Tour. French newspaper l'Humanité today suggests that the AFLD suspects Frank Schleck of blood doping, though nothing conclusive has appeared in his test results. The l'Humanité article, however, gives no sources. Damien Ressiot, this is not. Consequently, it adds only ambiguity to the Schleck story.

The SDZ asked six questions of Riis, and asked for comment. The editors sought confirmation of the allegations that Riis had met with Fuentes, that Riis had worked with Basso and Fuentes, and that Schleck is, in fact, Amigo di Birillo. In response, Riis wrote, "Whenever a team has many successes, it seems too often to lead to speculation and rumors. It seems, as if that is part of the successes." Riis offered his oft-repeated assurances about the strict nature of the CSC anti-doping program. "Our riders have obligated themselves to work under the strictest anti-doping rules, and therefore we trust them." By way of conclusion, Riis commented that all CSC riders are "obligated to provide DNA tests, should the circumstances require them." Shorter: I refuse to comment on these allegations. My team has a strict anti-doping policy. The end.

The Tour de France is a hothouse for rumors, and on no subject do the rumors grow more quickly than doping. The list of ten riders, or maybe it was 20, who had "abnormal values," the heavy testing carried out on some riders more than others, and the abrupt abandon by Christophe Moreau, nevermind l'affaire Saunier Duval: all of these incidents have helped to raise the speculation to a fever pitch this Tour. During the first week, for example, the caravan buzzed with the "news" that Fabian Cancellara had tested positive. But no official statement ever emerged. Of course, the closer to the top of the classification, the faster the grapevine grows. As Denis Menchov drew closer to the race lead, for example, murmurings about his relationship with Michael Rasmussen grew louder. It is all but certain that Menchov trained with the disgraced Dane. But only at the Tour could this relationship take on its fullest, most nefarious importance.

In this context, it's hard to know what to make of these allegations against Frank Schleck. Yes, by all acounts, he has been tested early and often by the AFLD and CONI. And yes, French officials searched Papa Schleck's car. But neither the tests nor the search has yet found anything conclusive. Until then, we're left where we began: we either believe in a particular performance or we don't, and absent a positive test or formal investigation, we can't know one way or the other whether a particular rider is lying to us or not. On any given day, your favorite rider could test positive. C'est le vélo.

So go watch the bike race already.