Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile cycling team, which fired 1997 Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich on doping allegations last July, is reeling from its sixth and seventh drug confessions in four days.
Sports director Rolf Aldag, who competed in the Tour de France 10 times as a rider for the team, today admitted to doping from 1995 to 2002. Erik Zabel, who won 12 stages of the Tour with the squad before joining Team Milram last year, said he used the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin, or EPO, in 1996, when there wasn't a test for it.
"I tried doping because it was possible, the controls were very loose," Zabel, 36, told a televised news conference in Bonn. "My generation will probably be remembered as generation EPO."
They're breaking what former riders call a code of silence within cycling as German state prosecutors delve into doping practices. The prosecutors opened a probe after Ullrich was linked to a blood-doping ring that Spanish police say involved 58 riders. Ullrich quit the sport Feb. 26, saying allegations against him were wrong.
Three former team riders and two team doctors earlier this week admitted to their part in doping in the 1990s, when the squad was known as Team Telekom. Bob Stapleton, the T-Mobile team's general manager, said at the news conference that doping in cycling "is still widespread."
Riis News Conference
Denmark's Bjarne Riis, who won the 1996 Tour de France with the Telekom team, will hold a news conference in Copenhagen tomorrow, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported. Brian Nygaard, a spokesman for the CSC team that Riis now manages, didn't immediately answer a phone message seeking comment.
The German government, which holds 32 percent of Deutsche Telekom, may put pressure on the phone company to withdraw its sponsorship of the team following the confessions, Handelsblatt reported today.
"The public-relations damage is a 'disaster,"' the newspaper quoted government officials as saying.
Christian Frommert, a spokesman for Deutsche Telekom's T- Mobile unit, said it remains "committed" to its sponsorship contract with the team through 2010. The contract is worth about 12 million euros ($16.1 million) a year.
Test for EPO
Zabel said he only took EPO for one week in 1996 before abandoning it because of the side-effects. A test for EPO, which boosts the number of oxygen-rich red blood cells to lift stamina, was introduced in 2000.
Milram, Zabel's Hamburg-based team, and the squad's dairy- company sponsor Nordmilch AG said in a statement they would have a "clarifying conversation" in the next few days to decide what action to take following his confession.
Aldag said he carried out blood transfusions to increase his red blood cell count and bought EPO on the Internet.
"In 1997, for the first time I began to have a guilty conscience," Aldag, 38, said. "Of course I feared the side- effects but I never felt any."
Cycling's Aigle, Switzerland-based ruling body, Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, is "taking note" of and analyzing what the former riders are saying, UCI spokesman Enrico Carpani said in a phone interview.
T-Mobile has been one of the most outspoken teams in cycling's fight against doping, introducing extra drug tests for its riders this season. On May 11, it suspended its rider Serhiy Honchar following one of the tests.
"T-Mobile is working well with the UCI against doping," Carpani said. "We're strongly behind their efforts."
Cycling had already been hit by two of its biggest doping scandals involving Tour of France winner Floyd Landis and Giro d'Italia champion Ivan Basso.
Landis, 31, tested positive for improper levels of testosterone in winning the elite event last year and his case is being considered by an arbitration panel in the U.S. He denies wrongdoing and has repeatedly criticized the Paris laboratory that carried out the tests.
The 29-year-old Basso, being probed by Italian sports authorities for his part in the Spanish blood-doping ring that Ullrich was linked to, said May 8 that "in a moment of weakness" he planned to dope himself before last year's Tour de France. He didn't carry out the plans, he said.