Reading the records of the USADA case against Lance Armstrong is like falling down a rabbit hole and ending up behind the curtain that divides what cycling fans see from the roadside from what happens on the way to the starting line.
Among the dark spaces lit up by the USADA spotlight is the world of the illusive Michele Ferrari, doping doctor to cycling’s stars. The USADA benefitted from cooperation from the Italian authorities.
Bertagnolli meets Ferrari while riding for Saeco, then the team of Gilberto Simoni, Danilo DiLuca, and Mirko Celestino. He turned professional in 2002, and testifies that he believes he first visted Ferrari during that year. There was no talk of doping in that first visit, though. Bertagnolli went to Ferrari for a single test. The following year, he begins taking EPO on the advice of Filippo Manelli, a doctor based in Brescia.
Bertagnolli does not again encounter Ferrari until the end of 2006 on the eve of his transfer to Liquigas for the 2007 season. Bertagnolli has a long-running thyroid problem, he says, and he goes to Ferrari to manage it. He makes clear in his testimony that he told the Liquigas team management, including Roberto Amadio, that he intended to work with Ferrari and they made no objection.
Bertagnolli pays his first visit to Ferrari’s camper in early 2007, takes a hematocrit test, gets weighed, and receives a training schedule. He also agrees to pay €12,000 to Ferrari. A virus puts Bertagnolli out of action for several months and he only ends up paying €3000 in the end. Bertagnolli is a small fish in Ferrari’s pond. Armstrong was paying six figures or more for Ferrari’s services.
In July 2007, Bertagnolli is back in action and pays Ferrari a visit in St. Moritz. There Ferrari teaches him to microdose EPO intravenously. This was not Bertagnolli’s first encounter with EPO, he tells the investigators, Ferrari simply taught him a better way to do it.
Now with microdosing, he can take EPO within two or three days of a race, rather than having to stop the week before the race starts as he did with traditional, subcutaneous EPO. He says he gains 4-5 points in his hematocrit. Later that summer, Bertagnolli won the Basque one-day race, Clasicá San Sebastián.
Bertagnolli also sees other riders when he visits Ferrari. During that July 2007 trip to St. Moritz, he encountered Alessandro Bertolini, “the nephew of Francesco Moser” [Unclear which Moser nephew this was, but likely Leonardo Moser, as Moreno was 17 at the time], Enrico Gasparotto, Franco Pellizotti, Francesco Chicchi, and “many others from other teams.” He sees Alexandre Vinokourov with Ferrari during a 2006 training ride in Livigno. Bertagnolli also says he saw Popovych, Bileka, and Kreuziger, and Possoni on “several occasions.”
Riders went one at a time into the camper to visit Ferrari, and the doctor talked to them “without the presence of other colleagues.”
The advent of the ADAMS whereabouts system leads to a shift in tactics for Bertagnolli. From this document, it’s clear that Ferrari obsessively follows the testing protocols and is determined to keep his riders from failing a control. With more out-of-competition testing, Ferrari shifts his clients to blood doping.
Bertagnolli testifies that he has never transfused before Ferrari teaches him how. He’s a blood doping virgin until 2008, when he tries it for the first time. By contrast, Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team began the practice before the 2000 Tour. Plainly, Armstrong had a premier membership in the Ferrari club, and this particular playing field was no more level than a grand tour’s high mountains.
The following year, Bertagnolli says he transfuses during the Giro del Trentino, and wins a stage of the Giro d’Italia. He transfuses twice during 2009, and three times during 2010. At the end of 2010, Ferrari tells Bertagnolli to switch to polypropilene blood bags. The warning comes as a consequence of the Barcelona WADA lab’s detection of plastic residue in the 2010 Tour samples of Alberto Contador.
Ferrari, he likes to gossip. He follows the doping cases and advances in the testing obssesively. In a phone conversation with Bertagnolli, he speculates that a lab worker tampered with Contador’s samples to lead to the Clenbuterol positive. Bertagnolli wonders if it was Actovegin, a drug made from animal blood, that led to the Contador clen postive. No, says Ferrari, Actovegin is made with lamb’s blood, and is unlikely to be contaminated with clenbuterol.
The question between them isn’t whether Contador is likely using Actovegin - it is after all still not on the banned list - but rather, whether it could be the source of the Clen.
Ferrari and Bertagnolli talk a lot of dope. Who’s using what, and whether it’s working. By 2010, Ferrari considers EPO use to be suicidal. You’ll get caught, he says. It’s for suicidal crazies, he says. The two have a long conversation about RETACRIT and NESP, which are by then detectable.
Ferrari also counsels caution in a separate conversation when Bertagnolli brings up AICAR. People are using it, says Bertagnolli. The rider says the drug, which is considered genetic doping because it works on the cell nucleus, is available through Slovenia and names Lampre rider Grega Bole as one source. According to a footnote, it’s nicknamed “the pill,” among its users.
Ferrari is not enthusiastic. He explains how the testing works, how mass spectrometry will show substances that aren’t part of the body. He cites BALCO as a cautionary tale. The testers will find the new wonder drug, it’s just a matter of time, he says.
The manipulation from Ferrari is subtle, but powerful. If you try those other drugs, you will get caught. Stick with me, kid, I’ll keep you safe. Also, give me all your money.
Ferrari also chats about doping cases. Ah, that Scarponi, it’s going to end badly for him, just as it did for Petacchi, he says. In another conversation, Ferrari compares the Valjavec and Pellizotti passport cases. Valjavec successfully explains away his abnormal levels during the 2009 Vuelta with gastroenteritis. The Slovenian federation accepts it. For Pellizotti, it’s more difficult. And reading the transcript, it’s easy to imagine Ferrrari shaking his head. That high reading during the 2009 Tour, that’s going to be hard to explain away, says Ferrari. The Italian anti-doping authorities subsequently suspended Pellizotti.
As 2010 wears on, it’s clear that the Ferrari is becoming more paranoid. Bertagnolli calls from public telephones, and Ferrari warns him not to keep anything in his house. By now, the Padova investigation is running full-speed, with riders such as Popovych receiving visits from the narcotics police who search their houses and doctors such as Fanelli under investigation.
Ferrari encourages his client to try to avoid looking suspicious. In an August 2010 conversation, Bertagnolli and Ferrari talk about the Mapei Center. Aldo Sassi, considered by many to be an advocate of clean cycling, ran the Center. Bertagnolli plans to go to the Mapei Center. Ferrari calls this “a façade.” If you go there, you will be automatically on the list of the good, he says.
Nine months later, Bertagnolli is called before the procura in Padova to give testimony under threat of perjury. A year later, Bertagnolli retired from cycling in June 2012. Subsequently, news emerged that the UCI was in the process of opening a biopassport case against him.
Apparently, the Mapei Center façade at last wore off and that old Ferrari magic just wasn’t so magic any more.
Update: Liquigas-Cannondale has issued a press release “to express its opposition and strong desire for clarification” to the testimony of Bertagnolli. The team asserts a commitment to clean cycling. From the press release:
Following the case of the athlete Di Luca (who was not resigned) visiting doctor Santuccione and the report about banned doctors issued at the end of 2007 by the national anti-doping prosecutor Torri, Liquigas Sport has worked to get to the root of this problem and prevent it by putting a clause (the first team in the world to do so) in the team-athlete contracts that categorically prevents them from seeing trainers or doctors outside of the team (Paolo Slongo and doctor Roberto Corsetti), with the penalty of immediate dismissal with just cause. There has only been one exception since 2008 and this was granted to Ivan Basso, who is followed by Aldo Sassi and by the Mapei Center.
The team also restates its commitment to transparency and supporting anti-doping efforts in cycling, but does not explcitily deny the details of Bertagnolli’s statement.