Austrian doping: A complete history of Operation Aderlass

Operation Aderlass
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite cycling's efforts to clean up the sport with the Athlete Biological Passport, intelligence-led doping controls, the UCI's 'independent' anti-doping body the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation and attempts to shift the sport's culture, there will always be those who will break the rules for personal gain. And so it was of little surprise when Austrian Federal Criminal Police Office raids on the Nordic World Ski Championships in February 2019 had a link to pro cycling.

The investigators with Operation Aderlass (or 'bloodletting' in English) tracked a doping scheme from 2011 through to the arrests in February 2019 of nine individuals, five of whom were skiers from Kazakhstan, Estonia and Austria. Operation Aderlass comes 13 years after the infamous Spanish inquiry Operacion Puerto, and a decade on from the more closely related HumanPlasma scandal and Mantova investigations.

In a coordinated raid on a clinic in Erfurt, Germany on February 27, 2019, investigators raided an illegal doping laboratory with doping preparations, blood bags, blood transfusions and a centrifuge and arrested a German physician with ties to the former pro team Gerolsteiner.

It was none other than Mark Schmidt, formerly a team doctor for Gerolsteiner and Milram who had been named in 2009 by Bernhard Kohl as the supervisor of team doping practices. Kohl was banned and exited the sport in disgrace, but an Austrian court blocked proceedings against Schmidt in 2010. Even so, at that time, UCI anti-doping rules did not apply to team doctors or staff, allowing Schmidt to continue to work with athletes.

The first cyclist to confess to blood doping under the scheme was Stefan Denifl, who had signed with the CCC Team and, troublingly, had no 'red flags' on his biological passport. Soon after, Stefan Preidler (Groupama-FDJ) admitting to having extractions. The UCI suspended both riders and their colleagues denounced them, while others questioned the effectiveness of the biological passport.

After the first round of outrage was cleared, the state prosecutor Kai Gräber warned ominously that there were "more chapters to be written" in the investigation.

Just before the start of the 2019 Giro d'Italia, Danilo Hondo - who came up through Team Telekom and formerly raced with Lampre before retiring and moving into a coaching position with the Swiss Federation - admitted to blood doping in 2012 and 2013 (while with Lampre and RadioShack, respectively). "Everyone was shocked," Hondo said, before adding he was confessing to teach a lesson to his young prodigies.

"It would have been wrong if I had tried to escape my responsibilities by legal means, and that's the only way I can send a clear signal to my athletes."

Hondo's former Lampre teammate Alessandro Petacchi might have been vindicated by Chris Froome's salbutamol case last year, but the investigative documents reportedly incriminated him in Operation Aderlass. The Italian sprinter was forced to leave his role as technical commentator for Giro d'Italia broadcaster RAI after the UCI confirmed that Petacchi, Kristijan Koren, Kristijan Durasek, and Borut Bozic were all being suspended and notified of potential Anti-Doping Rules Violations.

UAE Team Emirates started the Tour of California without Durasek, while Koren was forced out of the Giro d'Italia. Bozic was suspended as a directeur sportif with Bahrain-Merida.

Operation Aderlass then steered toward a key figure in the Bahrain-Merida team, as links emerged between Dr. Schmidt an the team's unofficial manager, Slovenian Milan Erzen.

Erzen issued a terse denial, "all and any implications regarding my involvement in Aderlass are absolutely false and unfounded". 

The UCI proceeded with banning a number of riders in connection with the affair and decided to proceed with retesting unspecified samples from 2016 and 2017.

The investigation led to more punishment for those involved, including charges of sporting fraud, while turning up more details about the ways athletes cheated the system. Schmidt faced a five and a half year prison sentence, the most severe punishment of all the involved parties. The case also led the UCI to order re-testing of stored samples from 2016 and 2017, including those from the Tour de France.

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