Some French riders and ex-pros are leading a chorus of doubt in the wake of a string of stirring performances at the recent Tour de France.
Following a stunning comeback from Tadej Pogačar to win the yellow jersey in Saturday’s time trial and the domination of Jumbo-Visma throughout much of the race, some within the French cycling establishment are publicly questioning the veracity of the results.
“I didn’t watch the Tour after the stage to Grand Colombier,” former yellow-jersey holder Stéphane Heulot told Ouest-France. “It makes me want to vomit.”
The 2020 Tour is seeing some of the ghosts of cycling’s doping past come back to haunt the sport. And the ongoing investigation into the Arkéa-Samsic team by French authorities this week has only stoked the fires of suspicion and doubt among some observers.
Some are questioning the dominance of the top teams at the Tour as well as individual performances that included record speeds of climbs, including the Col de Peyresourde in the Pyrénées.
Jumbo-Visma, which had eliminated arch rival Egan Bernal and his powerful Ineos Grenadiers team, set an unrelenting tempo throughout the race to impose its might on the peloton, only to see Pogačar topple Primož Roglič in the penultimate-day time trial.
“Those who know racing know that this is not normal,” said retired rider Romain Feillu, also in Ouest-France. “We’ve learned from the past that when a team dominates so dramatically that there is something behind it.”
Feillu went on to suggest that some riders in the Tour must be taking new performance-enhancing products or are using mechanized-assisted bikes.
That skepticism is met with indignation from some within the peloton, who say the allegations are being made without any proof, and do not take into account a battery of new anti-doping controls or the biological passport that was introduced in 2008. There hasn’t been a doping case on the Tour since 2012, when Fränk Schleck tested positive for a banned diuretic.
Throughout the 2020 Tour, riders underwent routine anti-doping controls without triggering a positive result (so far), and bikes were scanned, X-rayed and even dismantled throughout the 2020 Tour, and there was no evidence of technological fraud.
Still, questions are rife in the wake of a Tour de France held in extraordinary conditions of a world pandemic, and with riders and teams coming into the race with a mix of fitness and preparation.
Some believe that riders and teams are pushing the ethical line without crossing it, perhaps not with blatant doping products, but instead with new practices and techniques that are not on the WADA banned list, such as ketones, that can still help with recovery and performance.
“I would not put my hand in the fire that all the peloton is proper,” said Cofidis rider Guillaume Martin, who finished 11th in Paris as the top French rider, on French radio. “Journalists have doubts, that’s their job. But for me, I cannot harbor them, because I would no longer be able to race. If I do, I would think, if I finish 11th, what would be my real place? I try to do things in the best way. There are a lot of people who don’t want to ask questions, because if you put that in your head, you can’t push on.”
Pogačar’s final-hour victory in the climbing time trial at Belles Filles on Saturday converted him into the youngest winner of the Tour de France in more than a century, and has trigged a fresh round of questions of credibility and suspicion that inevitable come with winning cycling’s hardest race.
The once familiar line of “ce n’est pas normal” has worked its way back into the lexicon of the 2020 Tour.
The stunning ride has also brought new focus on management at UAE-Team Emirates. Two of the men who built the UAE squad, Mauro Gianetti, a former world road race silver medalist, and Joxean “Matxin” Fernandez, have been involved as riders and coaches for more than three decades, and they have learned from experience how quickly a failed drugs test can destroy a team.
At the 2008 Tour, Italian Gianetti and Spaniard Matxin were in charge of the Saunier Duval team whose Italian rider Riccardo Riccò tested positive for a blood booster. Riccò, along with the team, was thrown off the race in dramatic fashion, and he spent a night in a prison cell. The title sponsor soon left.
Riccò was banned, admitted that an Italian doctor had supplied him with the blood-boosting substance erythropoietin (EPO), and was given a two-year delayed prison sentence. Riccò and Italian rider Leonardo Piepoli, who also tested positive for the banned blood-booster CERA, were both fired from the team.
The team later evolved into Geox-TMC, which won the 2011 Vuelta a España with Spanish rider Juan José Cobo, who saw the win overturned in 2019 for violations of his biological passport during the 2009 and 2011 seasons. The victory was later awarded to runner-up Chris Froome.
Of course, they are not alone. Nearly every major WorldTour team has at least some staffers or management with links to some of the darkest chapters in cycling’s obscure past.
There is nothing in the UCI rulebook to prevent formerly banned riders or managers involved in doping scandals before 2011, when a new rule was introduced, from returning to the peloton. The 1996 Tour-winner Bjarne Riis, who has since disavowed his doping past, was welcomed back to the fold with NTT Pro Cycling earlier this year.
Since taking over the UAE-Team Emirates in 2018, management has brought in a medical team and performance coaches with untarnished track records and no links to cycling’s obscure past.
So far, other than conjecture, there is no direct evidence to question Pogačar’s Tour victory.
That still hasn’t stopped some critics and observers from questioning the performances of some throughout what’s been an extraordinary edition of the Tour.
When asked in a post-race interview in L’Equipe, Pogačar, who was born in 1998, said he was largely unaware of some of the darker chapters of cycling’s history over the past few decades.
“I am too young to remember that era,” he told L’Équipe. “I was 10 in 2008 and it’s strange to be talking about it because it goes against everything I believe in. I know that doping puts the health of athletes in danger, I’ve always been aware of that. We have nothing to hide today and I think that cycling, despite the climate of suspicion, has done a lot to fight doping. In truth it saddens me that people doubt my performances. My only defense is that I am happy with my conscience.”
— Agence France Presse contributed to this report