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Jacques Hanegraaf knows his dope. He knows what’s on the market, what works, and what doesn’t. And he knows what style of doping offers the least chance of getting caught: blood transfusion. He tells me the big names in the pro peloton have been doing it for years and that he even experimented with it himself in his days as a rider. Aranesp, EPO, and CERA—which is third-generation EPO, basically—are all traceable to a greater or lesser degree, but your own blood is your own blood. It’s impossible for any doping control to detect, Jacques insists. He talks about Jan Ullrich, who used blood doping in the 2003 Tour de France.
First Jacques tries to find a Dutch doctor willing to tap my blood and freeze it, but this proves impossible to arrange. In Holland, all blood bags are marked and registered; obtaining them for unofficial purposes is no easy feat. And so Jacques gets in touch with an old acquaintance: Eufemiano Fuentes, the man who helped Jan Ullrich arrange his blood doping in the days when Jacques was his teammate. Today the name Fuentes is widely known, but at the start of 2006 only a select few know what he is up to. He never seeks the spotlight, a phantom hovering in the shadows behind sport’s bright façade.
I first meet Fuentes on February 10, 2006, the day after the final stage of the Vuelta a Mallorca. By coincidence Rabobank has booked me a flight with a transfer in Madrid. With four hours to while away at Barajas Airport and secure in the knowledge that my bags are being sent on to Pisa, I head out through customs with only my hand luggage. I hail a cab and give the driver the name of the hotel where we have agreed to meet: the Diana TRYP Hotel, 2 kilometers from the airport.
When I enter the lobby, Fuentes and Hanegraaf are ready and waiting. I walk over, shake hands, and collapse into an armchair. I order a soda from the waitress. Fuentes looks like a million other Spaniards his age. Trousers neatly pressed, hair neatly parted, open-necked shirt, and a pair of the brown suede loafers that are a staple of every shoe shop in Madrid. He speaks broken English. His repertoire includes “hello” and just about stretches to rudimentary chit-chat, but when we get down to the business of what kind of doping he can arrange, he switches to Spanish. I don’t speak a word of Spanish, but Jacques does. They speak calmly and evenly; I sit and watch them. Every now and then, Jacques translates something for me.
Fuentes has a whole range of dope on offer. You can go to him for EPO, growth hormones, and testosterone. He can help you out with an extensive regime of day-by-day and week-by-week advice on what you should be taking and when. But Jacques and I are only interested in blood transfusion, to keep the risk of being caught to an absolute minimum. I don’t want to mess around trying to inject myself with everything under the sun. I go for the most expensive, medically advanced, and least traceable form of doping. No half-assed shenanigans—this is all or nothing.
The idea behind it is simple: You give blood, which is then stored. The body responds to the lack of blood in your system and shifts gear in the days that follow to compensate for the blood loss. You feel a bit weak at the knees for a while but in 7 to 10 days it’s as if nothing’s happened. When the blood is reinfused at a later date, your blood volume increases. And more blood means more red blood cells, which means improved oxygen transport. As a result, you can generate more power and need less time to recover between races.
The best results are achieved by reinfusing the blood just before the start of a major race or during a stage race. The benefits in a grand tour are enormous. While the blood values of your competitors are dropping steadily, a transfusion in the third week gives you the edge. It’s like refueling. Pop in a blood bag, and before you know it you’re fit as a fiddle again.
In the past, riders sometimes used other people’s blood, often donated by family members. But by 2006 that’s been traceable for some time; anti-doping sleuths can find the donor’s DNA in your bloodstream. Stick to your own blood and there’s no problem. After all, how is anyone supposed to spot the difference between your own blood and your own blood?
Fuentes has two systems to choose from, one short-term, one long-term. The short system involves withdrawing blood and keeping it in the fridge for up to a month at a temperature of around 39 degrees Fahrenheit. In the long system, the tapped blood is frozen and can be stored for years. The smartest thing to do is give blood in the winter months when you’re not racing. I’m too late for that; the season is already underway, and I have my sights firmly set on an early victory in the Tirreno–Adriatico, an Italian stage race in March.
We come up with the following plan: I will give blood for the first time that same day, one bag of 450 milliliters to be stored in the fridge for the short system. In a few weeks’ time, ahead of the Tirreno–Adriatico, Fuentes will return it to my bloodstream. After that we will tap more blood, to be frozen ready for use during the next Tour de France. The price for storing blood bags in Fuentes’s freezer is €10,000, cash only. We agree that I will pay him later in the year.
While Fuentes and Hanegraaf run through the details, tossing the odd snatch of translation my way, I take a look around, and my mind starts to wander. Here we are discussing blood bags as if they are salads on the lunch menu. Tourists with backpacks mill around, and businessmen stroll by with their mobiles clamped to their ears. I cast an approving glance at the rear of a tasty stewardess who sashays past in high heels. Something in me knows we are playing a cheating game, but that’s not how it feels. It feels more like being admitted to a secret brotherhood that everybody knows exists, only no one knows where the clubhouse is or who exactly is a member.
I finish my Coke, and Fuentes gets to his feet and nods in my direction. “Vamos, Thomas,” he says, pointing at the ceiling. “Come, come.” I get up and follow him to the elevator. He pushes the button, and we start to ascend. We stand side by side in uncomfortable silence, watching the little light jump from floor to floor. The elevator shudders to a halt. Fuentes steps out into the corridor and stops at one of the doors. He takes a card from his pocket, slides it into the lock, and disappears inside. I hesitate for a second and look over my shoulder to see if there’s anyone watching. Then I cross the threshold.
The room is a thousand shades of dark.
Adapted from Descent: My Epic Fall from Cycling Superstardom to Doping Dead End by Thomas Dekker with permission of VeloPress.