Fall From Grace

The rags to rags story of cyclist Bernhard Kohl

Christian Cummins | December 2008 / January 2009

Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl at the Tour de France (Photo: M. Allardbolk)

The bunched ‘peleton’ of Tour de France cyclists were nearing the summit of the 2,645 metre Col du Galibier – one of the most fearsome mountain passes in the Alps. By now the road had narrowed out, the tree line had been left behind long ago, and the riders were blinking up at seemingly never ending landscape of windswept and barren slopes of scree. But there were sizeable patches of hardy, short-bladed green grass growing between the hair pin bends of the zigzagging road; and on one of those patches, in words spelled out by shining white stones, some fans had written a huge message to their heroes: "Mon rêve: un Tour propre" or "My dream: a clean tour."

In the main group, his head idiosyncratically waggling left and right, was Bernhard Kohl. The 26-year-old Austrian, wearing the red and white polka dot jersey of the Tour’s best climber, was near the front of the main group, trying to conserve as much energy as possible and to stay out of trouble. Whatever thoughts crossed his mind as he passed the banner, we can only conjecture.

On that hot July afternoon the crooked-toothed Kohl, who the international press decided is a dead ringer for rapper Jay-Z, was on his way to becoming a national sporting hero. A week later he became the first Austrian to ride over the Tours traditional finish line  on the Champs d’Elysee in the the red and white maillot à pois – and, with his third place in the overall classification, he became only the second Austrian to finish the world’s most prestigious cycling race on the podium.

"Chapeau!" cried the world’s press; and Austria, singularly bereft of sporting heroes during the summer months, was ecstatic. Kohl, who picked up a cheque for €25,000 for his King of the Mountain’s crown, was given an official reception at Vienna’s City Hall. Thousands of cheering fans turned out to welcome him home. Erwin Pröll, the provincial governor of Lower Austria, the region of Kohl’s birth, and Jörg Haider the late provincial governor of Carinthia, the region the cyclist has made his home, argued publicly about whose man he was, with Pröll seizing the initiative by cycling alongside the neo-superstar in a charity bike race. After the disappointing home performance at the Euro 08 football tournament, Köhl flying finish was particularly sweet.

If only the story could have ended there! In mid-October the French anti-doping agency (AFLD) announced that Kohl had tested positive for a blood booster called CERA – a third-generation form of the banned booster EPO that increases haemoglobin production and hence the body’s ability to process oxygen, improving endurance and recovery rates. CERA, which was originally developed to help people with the anaemia that often accompanies chronic kidney disease, had previously been thought to be undetectable. Which explains why Kohl had looked so relaxed during the regular tests during the tour. He’d gambled and won, but only temporarily, before spectacularly falling from grace.  On Oct. 15th, in a hastily arranged press conference, Kohl broke down and tearfully admitted his guilt, begging his fans for forgiveness.

Cycling is no stranger to doping, of course. Its prevalence has come close to bringing the noble sport to its knees – spawning myriad colourful nicknames, like "pissing violet," "having a magic suitcase," "loading the cannon," "salting the mustard" and my favourite: "dining chez Virenque," a reference to tainted French climbing legend Richard Virenque. Kohl is merely one more dismal entry on a long list of fallen heroes: men whom thousands have revered only to watch them succumb one by one to the increasingly sophisticated vigilance of the doping inspectors. From the piratical Marco Pantani, the lanky Dane Michael Rasmussen, the gritted-toothed Jan Ullrich, to the two Americans: Tyler Hamilton, who cycled for most of the 1994 tour with a broken collar-bone, and Floyd Landis, who propelled his way over the Alps with the aid of a testosterone-patch.

Like those men, Kohl, who is a trained chimney-sweep, had risen to untold riches by cheating. Bonuses for his success and a 3-year contract with a new team - Silence-Lotto - had put him on the road to millions. But by November, he was disgraced, sacked and facing a €135,000 bill for false-bonuses received from the Tour. Moreover, the manager of his former team, Gerolsteiner, says that he is considering launching legal action against Kohl for damage to their reputation. The hit song "99 Problems" from look-alike Jay-Z is starting to appear more and more appropriate.

On Nov. 24, Bernhard Kohl faced the inquisitors of the Austrian National Anti-Doping Agency to plead for clemency, in a hearing that took on the appearance of a mafia trial. It’s pretty clear that the athletes are pawns in the lucrative and highly organised world of doping – if Kohl was prepared to name names, it was thought that he would be granted a milder sentence. Who prescribed the drug? Who recommended it? The 3-hour hearing was closed to the press and we can only rely on the testamony of those present to judge how co-operative Kohl was. The commission’s president Gernot Scharr says that Kohl merely described his motives for doping in a rather long-winded way and told them nothing they didn’t already know. Kohl himself claims that far from hiding behind "Omerta" – the vow of silence – he gave the commission valuable information about the doping network.

Whatever went on behind those closed doors, the sanction for Kohl was devastating. Because he had publicly admitted his guilt and expressed remorse, the cyclist was hoping for a reduced sanction. But after being accused of leniency when dealing with embarrassing Austrian doping scandals at the Salt Lake City and Turin Winter Olympic Games, NADA seemed keen to be seen taking a hard line. Kohl was handed down the maximum 2-year ban.

Yet that’s probably the least of Kohl’s worries. Cycling is driven by marketing. With so much negative publicity, it seems unlikely that any team will be prepared to hire Kohl again even after his sentence is served, leaving a promising career ruined before it had a chance to start. On the Col du Galibier, the stones spelling out the dream of a clean sport must already be covered in a thick cold layer of wind-blown snow.

The Closing Statements: Kohl believes his "cooperative attitudes" should be rewarded

In an interview with the Associated Press, Kohl said he was "disappointed" with the two-year penalty.

"I’ve made my statement and I’ve been honest," said Kohl, who declined to comment on whether he told NADA the names of his suppliers. "It’s a shame that I got the same penalty as someone who denies everything. This is the wrong way. I definitely made clear how I got it and what my reasons behind it were."

Kohl said he would wait for the written verdict before deciding whether to appeal. Any appeal must be filed at the national level within four weeks, and the case could ultimately end up at the Court of Arbitration of Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Kohl’s manager, Stefan Matschiner, who didn’t attend the hearing, said he was also disappointed by the outcome.

"I really hoped his cooperative attitude would have lowered the penalty," Matschiner was quoted as saying by Austrian national broadcaster ORF.

"Bernhard is willing to cooperate and he will explain how he got the substance and how and where he used it," Matschiner said.

Kohl was the fourth rider to test positive for CERA."I succumbed to temptation because the pressure on me to succeed was incredibly huge," Kohl said in October, two days after his positive test was revealed.

After this year’s Tour, Kohl became one of the most sought-after riders along with teammate Stefan Schumacher. Both tested positive for CERA in rechecks of the samples by the French anti-doping agency.

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