As Tadej Pogacar celebrated his 22nd birthday on Monday, a day after becoming the youngest winner of the Tour de France in more than a century, two members of his UAE Team Emirates backroom staff could warn him how easily cycling careers become tarnished with suspicion.
UAE, supported by the Emirates airline, is one of the wealthiest teams in the peloton but was collectively outgunned by Jumbo-Visma’s all-star lineup until Pogacar could go one-on-one with his fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic on the time trial on the penultimate stage.
During the 12 days that Roglic led the Tour he faced questions about doping and replied that he had nothing to hide.
Both Roglic and Pogacar produced consistently impressive performances throughout the Tour and after the younger rider beat his compatriot by two minutes on Saturday, attention turned to him.
Two of the men who built the UAE squad, Mauro Gianetti, a former world road race silver medallist, 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 Ricco tested positive for a blood booster.
Ricco was thrown off the race in dramatic fashion, spent a night in a prison cell, and the side sponsored by the French heating and energy company pulled out.
Ricco was banned, admitted that suspended Italian doctor Carlo Santuccione had supplied him with the blood-boosting substance erythropoietin (EPO) and was given a two-year delayed prison sentence by a Toulouse court.
Matxin moved on to Italian team Lampre, which was accused of doping by the Italian sporting media but cleared. That team evolved into UAE.
Swarm of bees
Pogacar, like the other leaders of the UAE squad, has not failed a drugs test.
UAE’s Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff won the first stage but after that they rode in the shadow of Roglic and Jumbo-Visma.
Jumbo’s stellar squad, which included former Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin, German veteran Tony Martin and Strade Bianche champion Wout Van Aert, controlled the peloton like a swarm of bees in their yellow and black livery. They finished with four riders in the top 20 of the overall standings.
Behind Pogacar, who was making just his second Grand Tour appearance after winning three stages at last year’s Vuelta a Espana, UAE’s next best finisher was fellow Slovenian Jan Polanc in 40th. Fabio Aru, who with six stage wins was the team’s most successful rider in major tours, dropped out on stage nine. That stage ended with Pogacar winning to leap from ninth to second as Roglic took the overall lead.
Jumbo were repeating the formula used by Team Ineos, formerly Sky, most recently last year when Egan Bernal, at just 22, won with the support of 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas, experienced Jonathan Castroviejo and highly-respected Luke Rowe.
Riding with weaker support, Pogacar clung to Roglic and the Jumbo swarm until the time came to race alone on the time trial. Then he pounced on the ride up La Planche des Belles Filles to climb to the summit of cycling.
In celebration, the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, was lit up late on Sunday with the image of Pogacar wearing his historical yellow jersey.
On Monday, after three relentless weeks in the saddle, he could enjoy his birthday cake.