Manolo Saiz made his long-awaited appearance on the witness stand during the fourth day of the Puerto trial's proceedings in Madrid today (Friday). The former ONCE and Liberty Seguros team manager, who is one of five defendants facing a charge of crimes against public health, played down the extent of his professional relationship with Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the centre of the investigation. Saiz insisted he had had no professional link at all with Fuentes between 1991 and 2004.
However, he did reveal that three of the riders on the Liberty team had asked him for permission to work with Fuentes. He then named Roberto Heras, Angel Vicioso and Marcos Serrano. According to Saiz, "Everyone in the peloton knew that Heras was working with Fuentes before signing for my team." He later added that he was not sure whether Isidro Nozal, another former Liberty rider who was prevented from starting the 2005 Dauphiné Libéré due to elevated haematocrit, had also been working with Fuentes.
"On repeated occasions I told him that I didn't like anybody going outside the team, but one day I acceded," Saiz said of Heras, who rode for Liberty in 2004 and 2005. "But agreeing to that is not the same as acting as an intermediary," he said. Saiz then admitted that Serrano and Vicioso had also asked for his permission to collaborate with Fuentes, and he also gave them the OK.
Saiz denied that he had any knowledge about the practices employed by Fuentes. "I didn't know what Dr Fuentes's practices were, nor in fact those of any of the doctors who worked with me on the team. For 280 days a year, I had no control over what the cyclists were doing," said Saiz, who stated that his professional relationship with Fuentes finished at the end of 1991 when the doctor stopped working with ONCE. After that, said Saiz, "I've never been with him in the company of a cyclist." He later stated categorically: "I've never given my riders banned medicines nor blood transfusions."
When he was arrested with Fuentes in a Madrid café in 2006, Saiz was found to be carrying around 60,000 euros in cash. Although he admitted that his team did owe Fuentes money dating back to 1991, Saiz denied that he was about to pay off the debt on that day. He claimed, instead, that the money was petty cash for the Liberty Seguros team to use over the following two months at the Dauphiné, Tour of Switzerland and Tour de France.
Saiz had said during questioning by the Guardia Civil in 2006 that the 60,000 euros had been intended for Fuentes, but he hadn't handed them over because of the problems surrounding Nozal's high haematocrit and his belief that this incident was Fuentes's fault. However, he said he had been tired when he made that comment and it was incorrect.
He then explained that he had met with Fuentes in Madrid to discuss the possibility of helping the doctor's daughter back into a job with ONCE following her treatment for cancer. He added that he did not know why haematologist José Luis Merino Batres attended that same meeting, insisting that Fuentes had invited him for reasons that Saiz was unaware of. Asked why calendars listing the training programme for Liberty's riders had been found in Fuentes's Madrid apartment and Merino's Madrid laboratory, Saiz said that, "at least 60 people had those [papers]".
Despite his lawyer previously saying that Saiz was ready to answer every question put to him, the former ONCE boss did refuse to answer two questions towards the end of his period on the stand. He said nothing when asked by the UCI's lawyer why he had asked Fuentes to provide Nozal with some help despite having already said he had been reluctant to give permission to Heras to work with Fuentes. He also a refused a request from the Italian Olympic Committee's lawyer to name other athletes outside cycling who had worked with Fuentes.
Former Kelme and Comunitat Valenciana team manager Vicente Belda also gave evidence on Friday, taking to the stand before Saiz. He insisted that blood transfusions had never taken place on his teams and said that he never had any problems with fellow defendant Yolanda Fuentes, who worked as the doctor on those teams.
Belda was most forthcoming when asked about the behaviour of former Kelme rider Jesús Manzano, whom he sacked on the penultimate day of the 2003 season having, alleged Belda, found Manzano in his hotel room with a woman who was not his girlfriend. Manzano later blew the whistle on alleged doping activities within the team.
Belda described Manzano as a rider who regularly broke disciplinary rules, often by going partying with fellow pro José Maria "Chava" Jiménez. "Manzano's mother used to call us practically every week. She called me and told me: 'Ay Vicente, his friend Chava has come and taken him out. He disappeared for several days.'" Manzano's lawyer responded to the claims by telling the judge that legal measures will be taken against Belda.
Belda painted himself as a man whose career had been devastated by Manzano's allegations and the Puerto investigation. "They've ruined my life. For years I've not had any income and now I'm earning just 400 euros," he said.
The case will begin again on Monday, when six members of the Guardia Civil will give evidence. It was also revealed that Tyler Hamilton will give evidence from the Spanish embassy in Washington DC on February 19.