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Cycling

Controversy hangs over the 2022 Tour de France, in echo of cycling’s bad old days

Riders on the Bahrain Victorious team were introduced at an event in Copenhagen, Denmark, where the 2022 Tour de France will begin.Daniel Cole/Associated Press

The police arrived at 5:30 in the morning Thursday to search the hotel rooms of the team’s riders and staff. Just a day before the Tour de France’s “Grand Départ,” the authorities were looking for drugs, or for bags of blood, or for any of the other grim implements top cyclists have used to gain a competitive edge.

The early morning raid in Copenhagen, where the Tour begins this year, was the third time that Bahrain Victorious, one of the world’s premier cycling teams, had been targeted by police in less than a year. On Monday, authorities coordinated by Europol raided team members’ homes. Last year, at the end of a Tour de France mountain stage, police searched the team’s bus and hotel.

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In statements released this week, the team proclaimed its innocence and acknowledged that the three raids were connected to an investigation into suspected possession of banned substances initiated by the prosecutor’s office of Marseille, the southern French city. “Team Bahrain Victorious always works based on the highest standards of professionalism in sports, including the integrity of all professional members and competitors,” the team said.

No one associated with the team has been charged with any crime. The team did not respond to requests for comment.

The raids, on the eve of the world’s biggest cycling race, recalled the sport’s darkest era, in the 1990s and 2000s, when performance-enhancing drug use was rampant in the peloton, and team managers seemed to expend as much effort evading authorities as crafting training plans. During the past decade, it was possible to believe that cycling had entered a cleaner phase, as doping detection methods improved and teams turned to technological advancements to gain a competitive edge. But in the past few seasons, as racing speeds hit all-time highs, doubts crept back in.

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And then, in an echo of the bad old days, came the raids against Bahrain Victorious.

Financially backed by the Kingdom of Bahrain, the team is a relative newcomer to the top echelon of the sport. After notching some significant victories in its four seasons, between 2017 and 2020, the team had a breakout year in 2021, winning three Tour de France stages and Paris-Roubaix, the sport’s biggest one-day race.

In the midst of the winning streak, the Marseille prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the team for suspected “acquisition, transportation, possession and importing of a prohibited substance or method for use by an athlete,” the office said in a statement last year.

In the scandal that followed, attention focused on Bahrain Victorious’s general manager Milan Erzen, who played a key role in setting up the team and courting Bahrain as a sponsor. He had previously trained Bahraini prince Nasser ben Hamed Al-Khalifa for a triathlon, according to the website Cyclingnews. He was also a magnet for doping suspicions.

Bahrain Victorious rider Mikel Landa finished third at the Giro d'Italia in May.LUCA BETTINI/AFP via Getty Images

The team did not respond to a request to make Erzen available for an interview. He has previously denied any involvement with doping.

In 2019 press reports and in 2020 court testimony in Germany, Erzen was linked to a German doctor accused of blood doping – the banned practice of extracting fully oxygenated blood from a cyclist before a multi-week race and then transfusing it into him later when his blood oxygen levels are depleted from fatigue. The Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body, also reportedly investigated Erzen.

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The German doctor, Mark Schmidt, was at the center of an anti-doping investigation known as Operation Aderlass, which implicated two members of Bahrain-Merida (a previous name of Bahrain Victorious), as well as other professional athletes. Kristijan Koren, a rider for the team, and Borut Bozic, a sports director, received two-year bans from competition for their ties to the alleged blood doping ring.

The most infamous drug raid in cycling history occurred at the 1998 Tour de France and became known as the Festina Affair, named for the Festina team, whose drug use – later admitted – sparked the law enforcement action. That raid targeted the hotel rooms and vehicles of numerous teams and led to arrests of riders and staff. Other riders protested the raid and some called for performance-enhancing drugs to be legalized.

In recent years, as investigators have circled Bahrain Victorious, no such support has been voiced. Primoz Roglic, a star cyclist and Tour de France contender, described the connection between Erzen and doping allegations “sad” in 2019. (Roglic raced for a team managed by Erzen from 2013 to 2015.)

Bahrain Victorious noted in one of its statements this week that the French investigation, launched last year, has “not yield[ed] any results” and it cast doubts on the investigators’ motives. “[T]he team feels the timing of this investigation is aimed at intentionally damaging the team’s reputation,” the statement said.

Performance director Vladimir Miholjevic told the cycling website Velonews this week that the team had nothing to hide.

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“We sleep like babies,” he said. “We work like horses.”


Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.