German professional cyclist Patrik Sinkewitz came close to triggering the demise of the Tour de France in July. A member of the T-Mobile team, Sinkewitz tested positive for testosterone on June 8 during a training camp in the Pyrenees.
The results were only made public six weeks later, during the actual Tour and three days after Sinkewitz collided with a spectator during a descent in the Alps and was hospitalized in Hamburg with severe facial injuries. His fall was the culmination of a series of scandals that began with his confessions and an exposé in SPIEGEL and ended with two German public television networks, ARD and ZDF, terminating their live reporting of the Tour.
Sponsor T-Mobile, which had imposed a strict ban on doping on its team, also considered withdrawing from the race. Sinkewitz, 27, has been questioned at length by Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), public prosecutors and the German Cycling Federation. He told investigators about the alleged doping practices at Team Quick Step, a professional cycling team of which he was a member from 2003 to 2005. By offering his testimony, Sinkewitz hoped that he would be eligible for leniency and could return to professional cycling after one year.
He also provided investigators with detailed information on how Andreas Schmid and Lothar Heinrich -- the two doctors with Team T-Mobile, based in Freiburg, Germany -- administered performance-enhancing drugs to cyclists on the team, partly through blood replacement treatment, even after the suspension of fellow German cyclist Jan Ullrich from the Tour de France in 2006. So far, Schmid and Heinrich have only admitted to their involvement in doping during the 1990s -- crimes that have long since come under the statute of limitations. Last Wednesday, officials searched the apartments of the two doctors and the sports medicine department at the University of Freiburg Hospital in southwestern Germany.
Since testing positive for doping in June, Sinkewitz has kept his silence. However, in an exclusive interview with SPIEGEL, he discusses blood doping treatments he obtained from the Freiburg doctors and why he hopes, despite everything, to soon make a comback to the sport.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Sinkewitz, how did you find out about the positive results of your doping test?
Sinkewitz: It was around noon on July 18, three days after my accident. I had been given a sedative and was being taken to the operating room in a wheelchair. My phone rang, but I didn't recognize the number.
SPIEGEL: Who was it?
Sinkewitz: I don't remember, perhaps a journalist. He asked me to comment on the fact that I had tested positive for testosterone in a random test at a training session on June 8. June 8? Testosterone? I really didn't understand what he was talking about. I told him that I was about to go into surgery. I remember that I was wondering where I could get more information. But I was under anesthesia 10 minutes later.
SPIEGEL: When you received the call, was it already clear to you that you had been caught?
Sinkewitz: No, I wasn't fully aware of it until the next morning. The patient in the bed next to me told me that the newspapers were reporting on the test, and it was on television all day long. I stayed in Hamburg a few more days, and during that time I received a visit from Rolf Aldag, the sporting director at T-Mobile. He advised me to tell the truth.
SPIEGEL: And what is it? What exactly happened in the Pyrenees?
Sinkewitz: The whole thing was bizarre. I had two or three small, 25 mg bags of testosterone gel in my wallet.
SPIEGEL: You just happened to have the stuff on you?
SPIEGEL: Hard to believe.
Sinkewitz: But that's the way it was. I can't explain it either. I rubbed the contents of one bag onto my upper arm on the evening of June 7, just before I went to bed. I thought: Well, it can't hurt. I flushed the packaging down the toilet.
SPIEGEL: You hadn't been doing too well before that, and the Tour, the most important race of the season, was fast approaching. Was that why you resorted to the drug?
Sinkewitz: I was concerned about my form, despite the victory at the Frankfurt Grand Prix. The year hadn't gone the way I had expected, especially at the classic races. After you've lost a couple of races, you start to wonder whether the others are faster than you because they're getting a little extra boost. The crazy thing is that I really wasn't under any pressure. My contract wasn't going to expire until the end of 2008, and everyone was satisfied with me. But I wasn't. I always wanted to improve.
SPIEGEL: How did the doping test happen the next day?
Sinkewitz: Five of us went on a long ride, more than 200 kilometers (124 miles). We got back to the hotel at about 8 p.m. We knew that inspectors were there waiting for us. A masseur had notified our sporting director. It was normal for us to be tested at the training camp.
SPIEGEL: Testosterone is easy to detect. Weren't you in a panic?
Sinkewitz: Not at all. I wasn't in the least bit concerned after the test.
SPIEGEL: Why not? Don't you consider a small bag of testosterone doping?
Sinkewitz: I knew, of course, that it's prohibited. But I assumed the amount wouldn't be detectable. I also didn't feel that I had done anything wrong.
SPIEGEL: You knew that you had broken the rules, but you thought it was nothing?
Sinkewitz: That was our approach to it as cycling pros. I didn't think anything of it when I put the stuff on my arm. I'll probably never really know why I did it. I can count off on one hand the number of times I've used testosterone gel -- because it doesn't really do much. But taking something to improve my performance just happened to be a part of my life.
'I Wouldn't Call it an Addiction'
SPIEGEL: T-Mobile introduced a strict anti-doping policy in 2007. You must have been aware of it. Or didn't the team management make that clear enough to you?
Sinkewitz: Of course they were saying: No doping! But as a rider, it's difficult to believe that things can really change from one day to the next. You're still expected to do well. The message I understood was this: Just don't get caught! But now I know that they were really serious about it.
SPIEGEL: What else did you take this year besides testosterone?
SPIEGEL: That was it?
Sinkewitz: Yes. The risks were too great. T-Mobile had introduced internal tests. And besides, during training we could expect to see inspectors come knocking at our door at any time.
SPIEGEL: You became a professional cyclist at 20, and now you're 27. Is it possible that you've become addicted to performance-enhancing drugs?
Sinkewitz: I wouldn't call it an addiction. But the truth is, when you join a team as a new professional you encounter a system. As a young rider, older riders let you know how the business works. You're ambitious, you train hard, you develop professionally and, at some point, you give yourself that extra boost. Things just keep getting better, you're successful, you get recognition, everyone likes you and everyone loves you. That's how doping becomes normal.
SPIEGEL: When your case was revealed to the public, there were special broadcasts about it on television, and Germany's public TV stations cancelled their live reporting on the Tour de France. Rarely has a positive test set off such a furor.
Sinkewitz: I was the right rider at the right time, the one they could blame for everything. Suddenly it was all my fault: the anti-doping policy's lack of credibility, the TV networks' decision to cancel their coverage, and the notion that supposedly nothing has changed. I couldn't just sit back and watch. There were many people who also took advantage of my case to improve their own public images.
SPIEGEL: T-Mobile rider Linus Gerdemann said that he was "furious" with you, that you had jeopardized "our team and our approach." Other riders on the team reacted similarly. Do you understand your fellow cyclists' anger?
Sinkewitz: Riders called me up afterwards to say that they had had no other choice. I couldn't understand the way they changed their tune. I didn't harm anyone, nor did I cause anyone to lose his job. It's a great disappointment to me to hear someone with whom I've shared a room for weeks making those kinds of statements, especially because I wasn't in a position to defend myself. Sometimes it's a brutal profession. The first thing I thought of at the time was revenge. I have a more levelheaded take on the issue today.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel that you were treated unfairly?
Sinkewitz: I made a big mistake. There's no doubt about it. But there have been positive testing cases in the past where the offender wasn't attacked to quite the same extent, especially not by other riders.
SPIEGEL: Do you also feel unfairly treated because you know, or at least have an idea, that you're not the only one, and that others are still doping?
Sinkewitz: I'd rather not comment on that.
SPIEGEL: Prosecutors in Bonn are now investigating you on suspicions that you deceived your contractual partners. Were you surprised by this investigation?
Sinkewitz: The truth is that things were already going so poorly for me that nothing surprised me anymore. But then the BKA sent 20 agents to search my house. They even paid a visit to my parents and my ex-girlfriend. My mother had to justify the fact that she had heart pills. When she demanded an explanation, the agent, who even had a pistol in his belt, said to her: "I'm the one asking the questions here." I gave them a saliva sample that evening, and they also took my fingerprints. Okay, I screwed up, but the whole thing is exaggerated. I'm not a hardened criminal.
SPIEGEL: What did the officers find?
Sinkewitz: Ampoules containing cortisone, testosterone gel residues, syringes and needles, a centrifuge for measuring my blood values. And receipts for EPO from the spring of 2006. But, contrary to the erroneous reports in the press, they didn't find any EPO or growth hormone.
SPIEGEL: Reports that you had said that world champion Paolo Bettini gave you performance-enhancing drugs caused an uproar at the cycling world championship in Stuttgart in September. Was that what you said?
Sinkewitz: No. I was shopping when Bettini called me to tell me what I had supposedly accused him of. But the whole thing was a misunderstanding. It's possible that the name Bettini came up at some point during a conversation with the German Cycling Federation's anti-doping commission, but I certainly didn't claim that he gave me any drugs. They made that up. Bettini warned me: If you said that, then things could get dangerous for you.
SPIEGEL: Was doping part of the deal from the very beginning of your career?
Sinkewitz: No. I spent my first two years as a professional with Mapei in Italy, on their youth team. We rode in minor races. Doping wasn't an issue.
SPIEGEL: Mapei withdrew as a sponsor in late 2002. That was when you switched to Quick Step in Belgium and started riding in big races. How were things with your new team?
SPIEGEL: They quickly made it clear to you that doping was the thing to do?
Sinkewitz: Yes. The way it was framed was that everyone was doing it. As if it were part of being a professional. Everyone knew it, but no one wanted to admit it. You didn't talk about it.
'I'm not the One Who Invented Doping'
SPIEGEL: How did you learn how to dope -- from other riders, from doctors?
Sinkewitz: A little bit from everyone. After all, I'm not the one who invented doping.
SPIEGEL: Which drugs did you use?
Sinkewitz: At the time, and this certainly isn't a secret anymore, EPO was the drug of choice. Then there were things like cortisone and Synacthene. I didnt know anything about blood doping in those days.
SPIEGEL: EPO has been detectable since 2000. How did you manage to pass the tests?
Sinkewitz: When I found out that a dose is detectable for five days, I stopped using the drug six days before a race. There were hardly any random tests during training in those days.
SPIEGEL: Was Patrick Lefevere, the manager of Quick Step, aware of what was going on in his team?
Sinkewitz: It's hard to imagine that he couldn't have known. There are things you don't talk about, but they're still clear to everyone. I don't know the extent to which he was aware of the details.
SPIEGEL: You were already being hailed as the new Jan Ullrich after your triumph at the 2004 Deutschland Tour. Were you just as euphoric as everyone else?
Sinkewitz: No. I didn't take it seriously when the media made such a big deal about me. Someone like Jan Ullrich only comes along once. I was never as good as he was. But it was clear to me that I had potential. I was only 23, and I had everything ahead of me. But the pressure was still mounting. A fourth-place finish wasn't anything special anymore.
SPIEGEL: Why did you decide to switch to T-Mobile in 2006?
Sinkewitz: It was a financially lucrative offer. Besides, they gave me a three-year contract, which was worth a lot in itself. It seemed to me that, as a German rider, being part of a German team was an option for a secure future.
SPIEGEL: Autotransfusion became a standard method in 2005. Did you do this at Quick Step?
Sinkewitz: No. I didn't find out what it is and how it works until the summer of 2005. T-Mobile was doing well in the big races, which led me to believe that they must have been doing it.
SPIEGEL: Andreas Schmid and Lothar Heinrich, both at the University of Freiburg Hospital, were the T-Mobile team doctors. Did you ask them about it?
Sinkewitz: I specifically asked them about it at our first meeting in November 2005. I was told that it was a possibility. But it was my impression that the Freiburg doctors didn't like doing it. In fact, they were really against it. But apparently they wanted to prevent riders from finding someone else to do it and risking that something could go wrong.
SPIEGEL: What makes you think that?
Sinkewitz: They never pressured me to do it. They never said that I had to do it. It was my idea.
SPIEGEL: Didn't you have any misgivings?
Sinkewitz: No. They were using my own blood -- what could be risky about that? It seemed a lot safer to me than drugs. And it was very effective.
SPIEGEL: Did you consider it doping?
Sinkewitz: Riders don't use that word, anyway. Your main concern is not to get caught.
SPIEGEL: In blood doping, they draw about half a liter of your own blood and reinfuse it after about a month. Isn't this an unpleasant procedure?
Sinkewitz: As a pro, I'm already used to dealing with a few unpleasant things. But I can't imagine that a rider would voluntarily consent to blood doping.
SPIEGEL: Did you have to pay for the blood doping?
Sinkewitz: Only for the bags. It was maybe €50 apiece, I don't remember exactly how much.
SPIEGEL: Then who paid for it?
Sinkewitz: I have no idea. I assume that it didn't cost very much. I think they already had the necessary equipment and refrigerators there at the clinic.
SPIEGEL: Who at Team T-Mobile knew about the blood doping?
Sinkewitz: In theory, just the doctor and me.
SPIEGEL: You supposedly said, during questioning, that blood doping was systematic at Team T-Mobile beginning in 2006.
Sinkewitz: I didn't say that, because that's something I don't even know. It isn't like giving blood. We may have had an idea that other riders were receiving similar treatments, but no one knew exactly what the other guy was doing. In any event, I was always lying completely alone in the room on a cot.
SPIEGEL: Do you know whether you were the only one?
Sinkewitz: I don't want to comment on the other riders.
'Sometimes I Think that there Isn't any Point to it Anymore'
SPIEGEL: The apartments of Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes were searched before the 2006 Tour de France. Ullrich was suspended, and so was T-Mobile's sporting director, Rudy Pevenage. Did you stop blood doping right away?
Sinkewitz: No. On the evening of the first stage, I drove from Strasbourg to Freiburg.
SPIEGEL: Ullrich, your fellow team member, had been suspended two days earlier for blood doping, and you actually had the nerve to continue using the same method?
Sinkewitz: Yes. The doctors really didn't want to do it anymore. But I said, look, we have the blood, so let's put it in. What was going to happen? It was already clear that it would be over after the Tour de France. Nobody wanted to take the risk anymore.
SPIEGEL: How were you prepared for the Tour?
Sinkewitz: I was actually supposed to get two bags. But there was something wrong with both of them. The blood just wouldn't flow. A little of the blood flowed from the first bag, but then it clotted, and the same thing happened with the second bag. So I basically rode the Tour without being doped. The doctor said that this had never happened. He was embarrassed. But I didn't ask for any further explanations. It wasn't something you asked about. It just made me angry. Tough luck, I thought.
SPIEGEL: Isn't it sort of unusual to get an entire liter of blood in one session?
Sinkewitz: The original plan was to administer the second bag 10 or 15 days later. But that would've meant making arrangements, and it had become too dangerous after the Ullrich affair. There was no way that the doctors were going to travel to France with the blood.
SPIEGEL: When did you give the blood?
Sinkewitz: I began giving the blood at the beginning of the year, so that we could build up a supply of two bags over time. You have to keep replacing the blood, because it goes bad after a month. I received a bag in April, but without giving any fresh blood. I was hoping that that would prepare me for the Classic. I went to Freiburg a total of four or five times for the same reason, and I was always at the clinic where normal examinations were also done.
SPIEGEL: At Schmid's and Heinrich's clinic.
Sinkewitz: I don't want to comment on that.
SPIEGEL: How did the team react when Ullrich was suddenly gone?
Sinkewitz: It was strange for us to have lost our captain. We thought it was unfair that he wasn't being allowed to ride, just because of some alleged evidence. Meanwhile, others who were supposedly on Fuentes's list were kept on the team. That was all we knew. At the time, there was no way of predicting everything else that would eventually happen.
SPIEGEL: Did you talk about the scandal with the team?
Sinkewitz: During the Tour, you're tense from morning to night. We talked about the stages on the bus ride to the hotel, not about doping. Of course, whenever was I asked in public whether I had doped, I always said no. It's part of my job.
SPIEGEL: When you stopped the blood doping after the Tour, were you concerned that it would hurt your performance?
Sinkewitz: I was relieved. There was no more stress. You have to realize that these things are increasingly stressful. Besides, I also know that I'm not a bad cyclist, even without doping.
SPIEGEL: The T-Mobile team received strict instructions after the Tour to stop doping. Did you come to terms with the fact that your performance would suffer at first?
Sinkewitz: Well, it was hard to imagine that everyone in other countries would play along with the anti-doping campaign. Everyone says: Of course we're against doping, but many don't really mean it. For example, I was hoping that I would be in the lead this year during the Paris-Nice stage. But then the Spaniards came along and cleaned up. It makes you wonder, after the race.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the many confessions will be good for cycling?
Sinkewitz: Everyone told me to be honest and put my cards on the table. It hasn't helped me so far. I'm more than just somebody who sinned by doping. I'm the defendant in a crime. But telling the truth is also liberating. I don't have to hide anything anymore.
SPIEGEL: You're hoping for leniency. Why are you so determined to get back into cycling?
Sinkewitz: I don't know how to do anything else. Sometimes I think that there isn't any point to it anymore. Time is the only thing I have plenty of. I could find plenty of things to do, but when everything seems pointless, you end up doing nothing.
SPIEGEL: Are you in training?
Sinkewitz: I couldn't do anything at first, because of the injuries from my fall. I wanted to start up again after four or five weeks, but I couldn't do it. Now I'm back. I spent four hours riding through the woods on my mountain bike yesterday. I was totally exhausted. It was a great feeling.
SPIEGEL: Are you still in touch with some of your old fellow riders?
Sinkewitz: Almost all contacts ended from one day to the next. Some of the people I used to see almost every day contacted me once to see how I was doing. It was if I didn't even exist anymore. Before I tested positive, I had a three-year contract, a private sponsor and a house. And there were constantly people who were supporting me. Now I've lost my profession and I have nothing left but my house. I could use help now, but there's nobody left. Everyone knows that people pat you on the back when you're successful, but it comes as a shock to realize what it's like when the success is gone. It yanks the ground out from under your feet.
SPIEGEL: Are you ruined?
Sinkewitz: I don't make any money anymore, and I have to pay fines and lawyers. Besides, I didn't exactly make a fortune during my first few years as a professional. At least the house is paid off.
SPIEGEL: Under the terms of your contract with Team T-Mobile, you might have to pay back part of your salary.
Sinkewitz: I try not to think about that. It's something my attorney will deal with. I don't want to talk about it. Besides, what do they want from me? Haven't I been punished enough?
SPIEGEL: Mr. Sinkewitz, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Udo Ludwig and Detlef Hacke.