TThe Tour de France peloton woke up with a hangover on Monday, not only from excessive indulgence in the breweries around the Champs Elysees, but also from the headache caused by growing anxiety hanging over this year’s race.
French media reported that public health officials searched the hotel rooms of teams in Méribel occupied by Nairo Quintana – a former winner of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta, a Spain – and his team Arkea Samsic, after step 17. Team leader Emmanuel Hubert confirmed the research, but would not comment. Quintana finished 17th overall in the 2020 Tour.
A preliminary investigation into suspicion of doping was then opened by the Marseille public health service. Prosecutor Dominique Laurens spoke of “the discovery of many health products including drugs and especially a method that can be described as doping”.
Not everyone in France was in the mood to send birthday wishes to Tadej Pogacar on Monday, either, as the new Tour de France champion turned 22, the morning after becoming the first Slovenian to come back from Paris with a yellow jersey.
Pogacar’s victory, based on a time trial performance at La Planche des Belles Filles, which crowned his solid drive in the Pyrenees and the Alps, had elements of both shock and awe. The fear was based on the time he was able to recover from a sad Primoz Roglic and his teammate Jumbo-Visma, former time trial world champion Tom Dumoulin, the shock on the disturbing stories of some members of its management team.
Some, to use the expression of a skeptic, keep their hands at their side for the moment. The main reason for this is the continued presence of those with their own dark histories working in the engine rooms of top teams, including Pogacar’s UAE Team Emirates.
Operation UAE Team Emirates is led by Mauro Gianetti, Team Director and CEO. The former Swiss professional, who spent three days in a coma in 1998 after being hospitalized during the Tour de Romandie, has been at the heart of a series of notorious incidents over the past 25 years.
The most infamous would be the Saunier Duval scandal of 2008, when the team led by Gianetti left the Tour after its star driver Riccardo Riccò tested positive for a next-gen EPO. Riccò was also made redundant, along with his teammate Leonardo Piepoli, and the sponsorship ended shortly after.
But neither the UCI nor ASO, the promoter of the Tour, could say that they had not been warned, given that the British professional David Millar, returning to his account of a two-year doping ban , had written to both organizations expressing doubts about Gianetti’s direction, while riding for the team.
Gianetti and Saunier Duval team manager Matxin Fernández then joined the Geox-TMC team, which included a rider called Juan José Cobo. The Spaniard also raced for Gianetti at Saunier Duval. In 2011, to everyone’s surprise, Cobo rose through the ranks to win the Vuelta a España at the expense of Chris Froome.
It took almost a decade for Cobo to finally be stripped of this victory, in favor of Froome. The four-time Tour de France winner was recovering in July 2019 from his serious accident when he learned that Cobo had been convicted of “an anti-doping rule violation.” [use of a banned substance] on the basis of irregularities found in the athlete’s biological passport in 2009 and 2011 ”.
On Monday, skepticism over Pogacar’s success was noted, but not persisted, in the pages of L’Équipe, the French sports newspaper owned by ASO. Gianetti’s managerial career, he said, had “often been marred by doping scandals”, while Fernández was described as “leading to several ‘pots’ of doping cases”.
Pogacar responded to questions saying, “I’m too young to remember that time.” He told L’Équipe: “I was 10 in 2008 and it’s strange to talk about it because it goes against everything I believe in. I know that doping puts the health of athletes in danger, I have always been aware of this. We have nothing to hide today and I believe that cycling, despite the climate of suspicion, has done a lot to fight doping. In truth, it saddens me that people doubt my performance. My only defense is that I’m happy with my conscience.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme shrugged off the skepticism. “We have been carrying our cross for many years,” he told Le Figaro. “In a way, it’s part of the game that certain voices rise up, ask questions. I will not be offended.
Yet there were also signs during this tour that the silence, the law of silence that peaked during the Lance Armstrong years, may be receding. Straightforward questions about credibility and trust are now criticized by runners for “disrespect” and even discouraged by others.
The move towards even stronger restrictions on access to the media, essential to preserve health “bubbles” in the unique circumstances of this Tour, has been welcomed by many teams and may remain, pandemic or not. Having somehow made it through the Tour of Covid, the mentality within the cycling bubble mainly seems to be joy, applause and no questions asked.