Operacion Puerto has been a mess, partly because of the rumours that competitors in other sports were protected from further investigation while cycling took the role of the fall guy.
But within the sport of cycling, the way justice has been administered has been inconsistent and unfair. Some have paid a very high price, others have not.
It is almost four years since Manolo Saiz, the manager of the Liberty Seguros team, was arrested by police and the investigation into a Madrid-based blood-doping ring run by a gynaecologist, Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, rocked the sport.
Operacion Puerto ended the career of Jan Ullrich, for example. Others were fired from their teams but resurfaced with smaller squads having avoided suspension. Ivan Basso tried to race on before being forced to admit he had ‘prepared to dope’. He returned to the sport at the end of 2008. There was one rule for one, and a different rule for the next man.
But Valverde, the 29-year-old Spaniard has raced on, avoiding the question and racking up the victories.
In July 2006, he crashed out of the Tour de France on the third stage to Valkenburg but was back in action the following month.
Since then he has won 27 races – including the Vuelta a Espana, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Dauphiné Libéré. He has worn the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, a Spanish national title and a World Championship bronze medal. He has also represented Spain at the Olympic Games. And he has earned millions of euros.
Instead, he should have served a two-year suspension for, at the very least, removing his blood, which is banned.
It has taken the persistence of CONI, the Italian Olympic Committee, and the Italian judiciary to get to this point. The Italian authorities used an international accord between police services to obtain access to the blood bags seized in the Operacion Puerto investigation, much to the annoyance of those in Spain who wanted to draw a line under the entire affair.
They have played a long game. When the Tour de France visited Cuneo, in the Italian Alps in 2008, the authorities made sure they blood tested Valverde. Then they claimed to have matched samples from blood bag number 18, belonging to a rider code-named Valv.Piti, to Valverde.
As a result, in May 2009 they banned Valverde from racing in Italy for two years, effectively ruling him out of last summer’s Tour de France, which again crossed the border.
Valverde appealed and so it was left to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to study the case and decide whether CONI was within its right to ban the rider. CAS agreed with the Italians. Now the UCI has confirmed it will seek to extend the ban worldwide, although Valverde continues to protest his innocence.
The question is how the UCI will seek to adapt the ban. Valverde has been suspended from competing in Italy for almost 10 months, but has raced elsewhere. Will the UCI try to impose a two-year worldwide suspension? Or will the governing body settle for less. There’s no clean, easy way to proceed.
For cycling, there is the unpleasant prospect of having to re-evaluate some, or all, of the races Valverde has won since the summer of 2006. By rights he should have served a two-year suspension so should he be stripped of some, or all, of his victories?
How do riders who have been beaten by Valverde feel about losing not just race victories but the prize money and prestige that goes with them?
And what of Caisse d’Epargne, who have stood by Valverde and profited from his victories over the past three and a bit years?
There are a lot of questions to be resolved, but one thing is for sure, it was right that CONI pursued Valverde this far rather than let it drop and pretend it didn’t happen. Cycling has had enough problems to deal with over the past decade or so without settling for a two-tier justice system based on a rider’s nationality.
RIDING THROUGH THE STORM
How Alejandro Valverde has carried on winning while others served suspensions
Manolo Saiz is arrested in Madrid. Operacion Puerto is in the public domain.
Just before the start of the Tour de France in Strasbourg, the scandal blows up. Several high-profile riders, including race favourites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, are kicked out of the Tour after they are linked to Fuentes. Rumours that Valverde is the rider referred to as Valv.Piti in documents and correspondence seized from Fuentes are denied. Valverde crashes on the third stage to Valkenburg.
A number of riders are sacked from their teams and provisionally suspended for their involvement in Operacion Puerto.
Won a stage of the Vuelta a Espana at Alto de El Morredero, led the race for a week and finished second overall, behind Alexandre Vinokourov.
Bronze medallist in the World Championship road race in Salzburg.
Won the Tour of Murcia.
Second at both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Won a time trial stage of the Clasica a Alcobendas in Spain.
Sixth overall at the Tour de France.
German authorities try to prevent Valverde from riding the World Championship road race in Stuttgart because of his links with Operacion Puerto. UCI initially agrees but backs down because the ruling is not legally enforceable. Valverde rides anonymously and finishes 56th.
Wins a stage and the overall title at the Tour of Murcia.
Wins Paris-Camembert, a small one-day race in France, then takes Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Wins the Dauphiné Libéré and the Spanish national championship title.
Sprints to victory in the opening stage of the Tour de France in Brest, taking the first yellow jersey of the race. Cycling Weekly asks Is Valverde’s win a good thing for the Tour?
Valverde wins the San Sebastian Classic.
A smiling UCI president Pat McQuaid presents Valverde with his prize for topping the ProTour classification.
Victory in the Tour of Catalonia is soured by the news that the Italian Olympic Committee [CONI] has banned Valverde from competing in Italy for two years. CONI claims it has done tests that link Valverde to blood bags seized in the investigation. Removing and storing blood with the intention of doping is a banned practice. With the Tour de France set to cross the border into Italy, it puts his participation in the event in jeopardy.
Valverde wins the Dauphiné Libéré.
The Caisse d’Epargne team does the diplomatic thing and leaves Valverde out of the Tour de France line-up.
Valverde wins his first grand tour – the Vuelta a Espana.
First victory of the season comes at the Tour of the Mediterranean.
Second overall behind Alberto Contador at Paris-Nice.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport upholds CONI’s two-year suspension. As a result Valverde is banned from racing in Italy until May 10, 2011. The UCI confirms it will seek to apply the suspension worldwide.