Tadej Pogacar, Primoz Roglic, Matej Mohoric and why lazy doping accusations aimed at Slovenia hurt cycling
In our world of social media and hot takes, it’s not hard to spot the doping accusations that follow any remarkable performance in sport. Nick Christian draws on his time in Slovenia – the home of cycling’s two hottest properties right now – to explain why their sudden dominance doesn’t have to prompt automatic suspicion.
Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic hold the Slovenian flag after victories at the 2020 Tour de France and 2019 Vuelta respectively
As a cycling follower you’re sure to be familiar with the Sagan standard, an aphorism coined by the American astronomer, Carl Sagan, which “illustrates a core principle of the scientific method and scepticism and can be used to assess the validity of a claim.” The Sagan standard, itself a rewording of the Laplace principle, states that “the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” Presumably Laplace was somewhat short of his word count.
You’re staring blankly at the screen, aren’t you? Would the words “extraordinary allegations require extraordinary proof,” ring a few more bells? Thought so. The phrase, famously uttered by the controversial Lance Armstrong during a 2004 Tour de France press conference, was a neat bit of wordplay, an attempt to discredit allegations of doping. Retrospectively it reads as a cry of “catch me if you can.” Spoiler: They did.
Whether the Texan was comprehensively conversant in the scientific roots of his words, he would certainly have known that they amounted to no more than a hill of beans. Allegations of doping do not, of course, require the application of the same degree of scrutiny as claims about the cosmos and its origins.
Increasingly, however, it seems that cycling - in the form of audiences and pundits - is prepared to settle for none at all/a much lower standard of proof.
Simply being better than your rivals is, these days, enough to trigger a tidal wave of syringe emojis on social media.
And in the last few years, riders from one nation, Slovenia, seem to have been more likely than those of any other to have been at the frothy end of such a swell.
Before I go on, I ought to cop to a certain degree of (at least) possible bias here, subconscious or otherwise, having been responsible for the first (if not the definitive) in-depth article exploring Slovenia’s rise to superpower status. The catalyst for the story had been the observation - not entirely original, but earlier than most had made it - that Slovenian cyclists were achieving unprecedented levels of success, out of proportion to the size of the population.
Pogacar holds up Roglic's number in tribute
I wanted to know how that had come about. Though not an investigator by training I was not so naive as to dismiss the possibility that there might be a nefarious explanation.
So in December 2018, over the course of a week-long stay in Ljubljana and its environs, I met most of the major players of Slovenian road cycling. The majority of them sit within one of two distinct camps: the first is that of team Adria Mobil, based in Češča Vas, near Novo mesto, in the east of the country, with its ties to the Bahrain-Victorious WorldTour team; the other is the Ljubljana Gusto Santic team, with its home in the capital’s northern suburbs, which is more Italian in orientation and closely aligned with Team UAE Emirates.
And that distinction is the first reason as to why we should be highly sceptical of the idea of any institutional, country-wide doping conspiracy. The separate squads presented far more as competitors than likely collaborators. Each vies for national top dog status and the rewards that filter down from sending subsequently successful riders to the WorldTour.
In the former camp, I spent the most time in conversation with Bahrain-Merida’s sports director, Gorazd Stangelj, who raced at the height of the Armstrong era in the late 90s and early 00s. Though I was going to get to it, Stangelj brought up the subject of doping before I did:
“I believe the generation has changed,” he told me. “I raced with [Marco] Pantani and so on, and... it was not nice riding a bike. I was not proud many times.” There was a sadness to his delivery, which conveyed a certain loss of self. He could have been acting, of course, but I believed his denouncements of doping culture to be sincere. Besides his personal experience of the past, he made no attempt to present Slovenians as cleaner than thou in the present, simply expressing his belief that “as a percentage it’s the same [as other countries].”
‘He looks beautiful on the bike’ – Wiggins on Pogacar brilliance
After Stangelj I met with one of his plucky young charges, Matej Mohoric. Mohoric was presented to me as a young rider with enormous potential, in possession of an indefatigable will to work, to hit the very furthest reaches of it. Entirely accommodating, and generous with his time, he did not strike me as someone with anything to hide.
Moreover, his record up to that stage in his career was that of a rider capable of winning on the biggest stages.
You might, at this point, argue that while having said performance cannot be used as evidence to support claims of doping, it cannot also be used as evidence to refute them.
That’s fair, except to say that while being outstanding relative to others is no indication of anything, exceptionality when measured against your own record might be.
Before his cancer diagnosis Lance Armstrong was not a rider many imagined capable of contending for Grand Tours. He could compete in time trials and on hilly stages, but was an also-ran in the big mountains. At the 1995 Tour he was the 56th rider to finish on Alpe d’Huez.
Mohoric’s results, in contrast, have been entirely consistent with themselves. He was the under-23 world champion at the age of 18, in a field that contained the likes of Julian Alaphilippe, both Yates brothers, and Caleb Ewan. His first big pro win came on a lumpy stage of the Vuelta in 2017. The following year he picked one up from the longest stage (sound familiar) of the Giro d’Italia, as the sole survivor of an all-day break.
The 2019 and 2020 seasons bore less in the way of wins, but he became more visible in big races, even as his profile increased. Perhaps because his profile increased, as top riders knew better than to let him steal a march on them. Still, a fourth place at Milan-Sanremo, a 5th at Liege showed he was no flash in the pan.
Which is why both of his wins in this year’s Tour de France felt entirely in keeping with a rider of his calibre.
Although tracking a somewhat steeper trajectory than Mohoric’s, the cycling career of the other double Tour stage winner, Tadej Pogacar, has followed a comparably consistent course.
His performance on the Planche des Belle Filles last year - the dramatic day that saw the yellow jersey swing from Primoz Roglic to Pogacar - inevitably unsettled some. But it shouldn't have. All that victory proved was that he was his rivals’ equal on the flat and faster uphill than heavier men whose wheels he’d sucked around France for the preceding three weeks.
‘This is happening!’ - The moment Pogacar overhauled Roglic
This was a rider who had won the Tour de l’Avenir at a canter, ahead of the likes of Gino Mader, Aleksandr Vlasov and Joao Almeida. One whose first professional win, at the Volta ao Algarve, came barely a month into his WorldTour career. His first top tier stage race, the notoriously nose-bleedy Tour of the Basque, saw him finish 6th (a placing which arguably would have been higher had he not been riding in support of a team-mate); at his second, the Tour of California, he saw off the likes of Sergio Higuita and George Bennett to win the whole thing. Pogacar’s first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a Espana, came at the end of that summer. He stayed with - then outsprinted - Roglic on the summit of Los Machucos, before soloing to a strong victory and an overall podium place in the race’s final mountain stage.
Nor was Pogacar’s dominant defence at this year’s Tour de France remotely implausible. Given his age, what grounds would someone have for imagining that he might not have continued to develop and grow in the 11 months since his first Tour win? Besides natural biological improvement, there was the simple fact that the few who might have threatened him fell like dominoes in the first week of the race. More surprising, arguably, was that the rider who finished in 67th in the same Tour de l’Avenir as Pogacar won, a man with nothing more prestigious than a Tour of Poland stage to his name, should finish only one position and five minutes behind him on the GC. Before you jump on that, no I’m not accusing Jonas Vinegaard of anything either.
Fewer whisperings surround Primoz, a rider who also came somewhat out of nowhere. Perhaps it’s because Roglic is currently employed by a cycling team that stems from one of the more pedigreed cycling countries than Slovenia. Although that seems less than logical when you consider the list of riders known to have doped while riding for that team when it was known as Rabobank, who were swift to withdraw their name when doping claims surfaced in 2012. Denis Menchov, Michael Boogerd, Michael Rasmussen… the list isn’t exactly short. But again, the past does not have to determine the present - something Richard Plugge, who stepped in during the team's darkest moment and set about a titanic rebuild, would be keen to stress.
Arguably the rider whose performances have been the most “incredible” in the last year or so is that same team’s Belgian star, Wout van Aert.
Likewise, Van Aert’s longstanding rival, Matthieu van der Poel, who has been responsible for some of the most extraordinary race outcomes any of us have seen in recent years.
There is no doubt chatter, even about these two, but it remains relegated to the fringes of the discourse, while casting aspersions about the Slovenians’ integrity has practically become mainstream.
Spoiler: it didn’t. Froome did at least produce an adverse analytical finding at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana, which at least added some credence to the accusations until he was cleared of all charges in 2018.
It’s true that it isn’t only Slovenian performances that are raising eyebrows, but none of the rest of that which is being pointed to can reasonably be deemed to meet an evidentiary standard, either. A finish-line gesture that may be vaguely similar to - but is actually quite different from - something Lance Armstrong did when Mohoric was ten years old, and still to race a bike in anger, doesn’t qualify. For one thing, is it being suggested that a rider who is doping would be quite so brazen about it?
'That was brilliant!' - Mohoric takes win and sends pointed message
An additional difference is that Armstrong’s famous “zip it” gesture was directed at his fellow riders, a reference to the so-called “omerta”. That connection only makes sense for Mohoric to mimic if we assume they are all at it. It would also mean that there is a performance-enhancing product out there which is currently undetectable. If those things are the case, then cycling has far bigger problems than a few riders from a single country.
And in the post-Armstrong years, during which doping has dropped from being an endemic problem to a peripheral one, is that the riders who have tested positive have most often been from the middle or lower ranks of the World Tour, the kind who are fighting for contracts not Grand Tour victories. For it to be otherwise would suggest the Slovenians are outliers, the only ones at it.
Then there’s Pogacar’s answer to a question in a Tour de France press conference, which amounted to “I have never failed a drug test.” It was certainly clumsy, and understandably too close to one the Texan once gave. He absolutely ought to have said something along the lines of that which Cillian Kelly came up with, but clumsy doesn’t amount to smoke, let alone fire.
The police raid on the Bahrain-Victorious team hotel at the Tour is more damaging, but we still don’t know what they were looking for, what they found - if anything - and how that implicates - if it does - any riders on that team. The team's general manager Milan Erzen, no stranger to fielding doping accusations though nothing remotely substantial has stuck, has insisted the team are clean after accusations from an anonymous team boss in June. "I can be 110 per cent sure that we’re working by the rules. I don’t need to explain to anybody. We have the same doping controls as other teams, maybe more, I don’t know. And if anyone comes to us for doping control we are always open about that."
All things considered, I stand by my original, multi-faceted explanation for the recent surge in Slovenian success. Back then I saw no sign, nor heard any hint of significant scale doping in the places I looked and listened. That hasn’t altered in the years since.
But that isn't to reject the need to maintain constant vigilance, or the importance of asking questions of riders, such as the one Pogacar took umbrage at during the Tour. It might be that he is paying for the sins of his predecessors, but it is still a small bill to pay.
But vigilance is not the same as issuing baseless pronouncements. Asking questions is not the same as making accusations.
Until such time that a doping scandal does erupt, let us respect the riders, enjoy their extraordinary performances and look to another celebrated scientific principle, Occam's razor, to help us understand them. Because the simplest explanation - in this case that talent and hard work is paying off - usually is the right one.
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