In the summer of 1998 Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa spent a summer chasing down Roger Maris' single-season home run record. Between the home runs and the fact that they played for the Cardinals and Cubs respectively it was about the only thing I cared about that summer. Somewhere in the depths of my old childhood bedroom I still have the “collectible” card set produced after it ended. The following summer there were stories from France about how the American cyclist Lance Armstrong was dominating the Tour de France and looked to be on his way to being the second American to win the grand tour after Greg LeMond a decade before. Armstrong would continue to win the Tour through 2005, seven in a row.
Both made spectacular sports viewing but by the time Armstrong finished his seventh tour in 2005 there were already gaping cracks in their allure. In 2003 the BALCO scandal showed prominent athletes were regularly using performing-enhanced drugs. By 2005 McGwire had been labeled a doper by José Canseco and been subpoenaed to testify before Congress, where he declined to answer questions. Armstrong had long been suspected of doping but by 2005 French newspapers were reporting positive urine samples from previous tours, particularly the 1999 victory.
In 1998 I was nine, the prime age to sit around and watch two baseball players hit baseballs really hard and I loved it. I also wore my fare share of the iconic Livestrong bans in the summer of 2004 along with everyone else. I loved all of it but it also conditioned me to wonder if magical performances were somehow tainted by the specter of seediness. Many are now wondering if this year’s Tour de France is haunted by that specter with the performance of defending champion Tadej Pogačar over the first week. Not only has Pogačar taken out massive time gaps on the climbs, but like Armstrong he’s seems relatively un-taxed by the effort. On Stage 5 he won the individual time trial by 19 seconds over Stefan Küng, the European time trial champion and 30 seconds over Wout van Aert, the Belgian who was pegged to win the stage and challenge for the yellow jersey. After finishing Tadej drank a can of Fanta and basically started his media interviews. On Stage 8 Tadej gained a three minute advantage on the Colombière climb. He spent the rest of the stage easily riding through the breakaway riders and finished 49 seconds off the race victory. After again riding away from the main general classification favorites on stage 8, he enters the rest day with a two minute lead over Ben O’Connor and nearly five and half over Rigoberto Uran. All of it is admittedly very Armstrong-esque, leading to not so subtle Beyond the Results threads on the peloton subreddit. Pogačar has also found himself with a new nickname, Pogastrong.
No sport is going to ever end doping and cycling has had its far share of questionable incidents in recent memory. Ineos Grenadiers had questionable laptop recycling policies. French team Arkéa-Samsic ended their Tour de France last year with a visit from the French Police that found a large wellness center in the team’s hotel. Italian squad Vini Zabù pulled out of the 2021 Giro d’Italia after two of their riders tested positive, including one at the 2020 Giro. That is a few, the doping cases in cycling list on Wikipedia is quite extensive.
Pogačar and UAE Team Emirates are also not the only ones to raise suspicions in the last few weeks. Mark Padun of Team Bahrain Victorious easily won two stages of this years Critérium du Dauphiné, including easily dropping American Sepp Kuss, who had previously won stages at the Dauphiné and the Vuelta. The two wins were the biggest of Padun’s young career and he looked relaxed in both. His teammate Sonny Colbrelli operates mostly as a sprinter but has handled the mountains so far in the Tour de France, finishing third on today’s mountain stage after joining the breakaway to contest the stage’s green jersey sprint and drop jersey leader Mark Cavendish. Colbrelli’s third followed two consecutive wins by Bahrain with Matej Mohorič and Dylan Teuns winning the previous two stages.
Both Bahrain and UAE undoubtedly have the resources to run a sophisticated operation that could potentially avoid detection. It’s reasonable to be suspicious but it’s probably more likely that there’s nothing amiss, at least nothing that violates the currently defined rules. Winning races and stages is important for publicity and sponsors but both Bahrain Victorious and UAE Team Emirates aren’t in particular need of funding given that they’re both funded by wealthy Mideast nations. That alone is probably the biggest reason to believe that neither team is doing anything too shady. Both teams have riders who want to win and the team probably wants to win, but Bahrain and the UAE? The teams are good avenues for sportswashing. Bahrain Victorious is entirely devoted to promote the country around the world and was founded by Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa. The team has had a positive doping test but running a widespread operation is an entirely different and more serious matter. One has to assume that if any team is documented to have widespread doping they would be in line to lose their UCI WorldTour license, which then defeats the whole sportswashing.
Additionally if UAE is doping they’re doing it while basically sitting on the sun. Tadej won the 2020 Tour de France by taking the final individual time trial up La Planche des Belles Filles by gaining nearly two minutes on Primož Roglič. Armstrong of course doped regularly while under the biggest spotlight in the sport and managed to avoid penalty during his racing career but Pogačar is operating in a very different world than the one Armstrong was when Tadej was just a toddler. In the event he is doping, he probably deserves the yellow jersey simply for avoiding detection this well.
So, what is happening? The simplest answers are usually always right. Coming into the Tour the assumption was that the race would be a two person race for yellow with Pogačar defending and Roglič seeking to avenge his loss last year. Primož abandoned the race this morning after crashing hard on stage three and losing over 30 minutes on Saturday’s stage, so the two man race has been a one man race for much of the first week. Primož was riding well prior to his crash and seems like he would have been able to potentially stick with Tadej over the last few stages, or Tadej would’ve at least been hesitant to put in huge efforts with the fear of cracking early and giving Primož distance. Regardless, the current standing seem to indicate the two man race was correct and all the other GC candidates would be fighting for third on the podium. Even if he were doping, why would Tadej see his biggest rival disappear as a threat and still decide the best course of action is to bring more attention to himself? He could easily sit in the main GC group and ride easy for most of the day and pull away with smaller gaps.
The first week of the Tour has been one of the most exhilarating in recent memory with the longest stage turning into a brutal one-day classic built into a grand tour. Besides the unfortunate crashes on stages one and three, the Tour has provided excellent television, even if Tadej seems to already be riding to Paris with two weeks to go. I’m ready to feel like I did in the summer of 1998 without the baggage of it being something of a lie.