By HAROLD HECKLE, Associated Press
MADRID (AP) — Just days after Lance Armstrong's doping admission, cycling is set for more damaging revelations when the long-delayed Operation Puerto case finally goes to court in Spain.
Seven years after Spanish investigators uncovered one of cycling's most sophisticated and widespread doping networks, some of its central figures will stand trial on Monday in Madrid's Criminal Court. The case, in which 35 witnesses are called to testify, is scheduled to last until March 22.
Judge Julia Santamaria will preside as six defendants are tried. They include doctors Eufemiano and Yolanda Fuentes, brother-and-sister suspects at the heart of a complex blood-doping ring that stained cycling's reputation in Europe.
Also on trial will be Jose Luis Merino, another medical doctor; and Manolo Saiz, former ONCE and Liberty Seguros team sports director. Vicente Belda and Ignacio Labarta, both associated with the former Kelme team, will also be on trial.
Many riders will be called to testify as witnesses, including two-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador.
Cyclists will not be on trial because Santamaria can only rule on matters covered by Spanish law as it applied in May 2006, when police raids uncovered a mass of evidence in labs, offices and apartments in Madrid, Zaragoza and El Escorial.
This limitation means the scope of the trial can only focus on charges relating to actions that could "endanger public health." But that doesn't mean the trial won't lead to new revelations about athletes who cheated to get an unfair advantage.
"If one of the defendants says that, for example, he injected a certain athlete, then Spain's anti-doping agency or a sports federation could open an investigation to see if they could be subject to a ban," Eduardo Esteban, spokesman for the state prosecutor's office, told The Associated Press.
Miguel Angel Adan, spokesman for Spain's anti-doping agency, confirmed the body was studying the possibility.
According to documents reportedly seen by sports newspaper AS, defense lawyers will argue that Fuentes and his co-defendants did not endanger cyclists' health because they relied on the best technology available.
The proceedings will be followed closely by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which pushed for the case to go to court and will be a party to the trial along with the International Cycling Union, the Italian Olympic Committee, the International Association of Professional Cycling Teams, and former cyclist Jesus Manzano.
WADA is disappointed the trial is limited to cycling, as athletes from other sports were also implicated.
"We have expressed our frustration, but at least we are finally getting a hearing," WADA director general David Howman told the AP in a telephone interview. "The case was originally canned, but we pushed and insisted to get it reopened. Our expectations are limited, but our hopes are high."
"There were athletes from a number of sports involved," Howman said. "The doctor is on trial. We need to hear what he was practicing and who his patients were."
Among evidence seized were code names allegedly referring to individual riders, refrigerators stocked with numbered blood and blood plasma bags and a virtual pharmacy of performance-enhancing substances including EPO, human growth hormone, steroids and testosterone — many of the things Armstrong admitted to using in his interview with Oprah Winfrey.
The Puerto case implicated more than 50 cyclists — including Contador, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Alejandro Valverde — in the use of performance-enhancing substances or practices.
The most high-profile witness is Contador, who was stripped of a third Tour de France title and banned for two years for testing positive for clenbuterol en route to winning the 2010 Tour.
Contador has since had to negotiate with the UCI and the Court of Arbitration for Sport about the size of the fine to be paid when the court rejected his assertion that the positive doping sample he provided originated from eating contaminated beef.
Contador is scheduled to testify on Feb 15. Contador's spokesman told the AP that the cyclist refused to comment ahead of the Puerto trial.