How Operación Ilex became “Superman” López’s kryptonite

by Peter Cossins

Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by

The combustible Colombian who’s renowned as one of the peloton’s great climbers has had his wings clipped by a doping investigation that could yet claim more names

A few days back I wrote about the collapse of the Team B&B Hotels, which was one of the stories that had held my attention over the off-season. Now I’m looking at another – the sacking of Miguel Ángel “Superman” López by Astana Qazaqstan, which has resulted in Mark Cavendish’s late signing for the Kazakh team as its new leader and the Colombian climber stepping down to the second rank with Medellín-EPM, with whom he’s just won the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina against a high-class field.

López’s split from Astana was triggered by his links with Dr Marcos Maynar, a Spanish doctor who’s no stranger to controversy in cycling circles. The statement released by Astana on 12 December was rather opaque on the issue, simply explaining that López had been sacked, but not giving very much detail at all about the why. It read: “Astana Qazaqstan Team discovered new elements showing Miguel Angel Lopez’ [sic] probable connection with Dr Marcos Maynar. Accordingly, the team had no other solution than to end the contract between team and rider, based on breaches of said contract and internal team rules, with immediate effect.” Their only other comment was that there would be no further comment. López, meanwhile, insisted that he’d done wrong and that his biological passport was in order.

“Maynar is alleged to have provided training plans, nutritional advice and details on the use of medical products, including those whose use is banned within sport, to athletes who paid a 3,000-euro annual fee for the group’s services”

The news was intriguing not only because it involved one of the peloton’s outstanding climbers, winner at the steepling Col de la Loze during the 2020 Tour de France (pictured above) and a podium finisher at both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España in 2018, but also because the case involving Maynar also features one of the personalities who was at the heart of the Operación Puerto investigation that blew the sport apart back in 2006. What’s more, you don’t have to dig too far into the story to realise that it also hints at the possibility of a Puerto Part II.

The investigation that prompted López’s dismissal is being led by a magistrate in the city of Cáceres in southern Spain. Named Operación Ilex (the genus of tree that includes the holly and holm oak), it’s been focused on the aforementioned Dr Maynar. According to the Spanish press, the “new elements” that Astana were made aware of were documents that indicated that López had received an injection of menotropin, an analogue of growth hormone that’s used as a follicle-stimulant (FSH) for women undergoing IVF treatment. Menotropin can also boost muscle mass and remove liquid from the body. Writing in Spanish daily ABC the day after the Colombian’s sacking, José Carlos Carabias reported that López had received the injection just prior to the start of last year’s Giro in Hungary. His reaction to it had, Carabias added, forced his retirement during the race’s fourth stage to Mount Etna, Astana announcing at that time that the Colombian was struggling with a hip injury.

“According to documentation available to ABC, the menotropin had been prescribed by Doctor Maynar for the Colombian cyclist and sent to Hungary, where it would have been allegedly received by Vicente Belda García, the son of the former director Vicente Belda, who works as a masseur for Astana.”

Belda senior, the long-time manager of the Kelme/Comunitat Valenciana team, was one of central characters in the Puerto affair, which was sparked by one of his riders, Jesús Manzano. The Spanish domestique collapsed from his bike when in the breakaway on the Morzine stage of the Tour de France in 2003. Manzano was extremely dehydrated and heat stroke was blamed. While the weather was very hot, the Spaniard later confessed that he’d been injected that morning with a performance-boosting product, later revealed to be Oxyglobin, a blood surrogate used in transfusions to boost red blood levels. Taking this product accelerated his state of dehydration and led to his collapse. In extensive interviews with Spanish daily AS, he went on to detail systemic doping within the Kelme team (which was sponsored by Comunitat Valenciana from 2004).

Manzano’s confessions led to the establishment of the Puerto investigation in early 2006, which focused on Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, the Kelme team doctor who, it was revealed, also worked with the Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE) as well as leading riders such as Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Tyler Hamilton and Thomas Dekker. The furore caused by Puerto quickly led to Comunitat Valenciana pulling its backing from the team. Other sponsors abandoned the sport too (including Liberty Seguros, whose team subsequently found a new sponsor in Astana), while fifteen riders, including those just mentioned, received suspensions. Puerto also resulted in the offence of committing a crime against public health being added to the Spanish statute book, and this is one of the charges that has been laid against Maynar.

He’s long been based at the University of Extremadura in Cáceres, where his specialty is sports medicine. He’s been the focus of legal inquiries a number of times before. Spanish police detained him in June 2004 during an investigation into the trafficking of doping products in gyms, Operación Gamma. Maynar argued that he had products of this kind in his possession because he made use of them in his research. Consequently, no charges were laid against him.

In subsequent seasons he worked within cycling, including for the Portuguese LA-MSS team. Following the sudden death in May 2008 of LA-MSS sprinter Bruno Neves as the result of a heart attack suffered during a Portuguese race, Maynar came under scrutiny again. Investigators found he had training plans for cyclists as well as details on the administration of steroids and EPO. In a trial held in 2010 he was cleared of supplying doping products, although a 10-year ban from activity in Portuguese sport that had been imposed the previous year did remain in place.

In between Neves’s death and the court case that transpired two years afterwards, Dr Maynar’s name surfaced in a court case involving Italian ex-professional Dario Frigo. Caught by the French police with a dozen doses of EPO in his car during the 2005 Tour de France, Frigo went on trial in Chambéry in September 2008. During the proceedings, he revealed that Maynar had supplied him and other members of his Fassa Bortolo team with doping products during the 2003 season. Bizarrely, like Miguel Ángel López, Frigo was himself forced to abandon a race, the 2003 edition of Paris-Nice, having received an injection of a female hormone, to which he had a severe reaction that required hospitalisation.

Returning to Belda, after the Comunitat Valenciana team was disbanded, he worked as a consultant (2007) and then as director (2008) for the Fuenteventura-Canarias team. At the start of 2009, he was appointed directeur sportif of the Boyacá Es Para Vivirla in Colombia. This is the region that López hails from and, as a promising teenage racer, he came under Belda’s wing, the Spaniard becoming his mentor.

Let’s fast forward to 2022 and Operación Ilex. Last May, Maynar, Vicente Belda senior, Vicente Belda junior (then an Astana soigneur) and five others were put under investigation by the Guardia Civil for allegedly being part of what El País described as “a criminal group supposedly dedicated to trafficking medical products and doping in sport allegedly overseen from the University of Extremadura (UNEX) by Doctor Marcos Maynar”. Among the others under investigation is former rider Ángel Vázquez Iglesias, banned for life for doping offences and apparently responsible for finding “clients” for this group. Vázquez, incidentally, was a three-time winner of the Quebrantahuesos sportive and was arrested by the Guardia Civil during the 2014 edition for participating in the event when banned.

During searches carried out in May, the Guardia Civil uncovered a number of medical products that cannot be commercially traded in Spain, including Actovegin, Dicholoacetic Acid (DCA) and asthma drug Teofilin, as well as products banned within sport such as menotropin. Maynar is alleged to have provided training plans, nutritional advice and details on the use of medical products, including those whose use is banned within sport, to athletes who paid a 3,000-euro annual fee for the group’s services, which also included physiological testing at UNEX. According to ABC, players on two fourth-level football teams based in Cáceres were among the group’s clients and used medical products that are banned in Spain but aren’t on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list.

As part of their investigation, the Guardia Civil interviewed López in July when he arrived at Madrid’s Barajas airport. ABC has reported that they searched his luggage but found nothing pertinent to their case. When news of his link to the Ilex investigation broke towards the end of that month, Astana suspended him provisionally. Yet he was subsequently cleared to continue racing when the Guardia Civil indicated that he wasn’t under investigation, but had in fact been approached as a potential witness.

As their investigation continued, the Guardia Civil tried to interview López again last September following the Vuelta a España, where he finished fourth overall. The Colombian missed the rendezvous, though, as he had rushed back to Colombia to see his second child, who was born during that race. This clearly didn’t put a brake on the investigation, though, as López’s sacking by Astana underlined.

The investigation has continued apace. On 25 January, Maynar appeared before the investigating magistrate in Cáceres. This coming Wednesday (February 1), Vicente Belda senior and junior have been summoned to appear. ABC says that its sources suggest that López is likely to be called as a witness in the case at a future date.

During his appearance, Maynar acknowledged his links to López but insisted that he had only provided the Colombian with “nutritional supplements”. He admitted that he had advised that the Colombian and other athletes to use Actovegin, which can reduce stress on the heart during intense exercise, but pointed out: “It’s not a substance that’s on the list of banned substances, therefore it’s not doping.” However, commercialising its use is a criminal offence in Spain.

The significant difference between Puerto and Ilex is that the Spanish police and judiciary can now lay criminal charges against people involved in the trafficking and supply of doping products. This doesn’t, of course, mean that the eight investigation as part of Operación Ilex will necessarily be found guilty and perhaps face prison sentences. However, it does raise the possibility that, if they are found guilty, the names of other athletes who paid for services may come to light. Indeed, Spain’s State Commission for Anti-Doping has already asked for the names of athletes involved in the investigation, a request that was turned down by the case’s supervising magistrate because the investigation is ongoing.

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