Doubt Is Haunting Tadej Pogačar’s TdF Win. That’s Not Fair

When Tadej Pogačar won the 2020 Tour de France at the tender age of 21, it didn't take long for the doubters to question his performance.

By Joe Lindsey |

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t really prepared for that Stage 20 time trial in the Tour de France. Maybe no one was—except Tadej Pogačar, who ripped the legs off absolutely everyone en route to winning that stage and ripped the yellow jersey off the back of Primož Roglič in the process.

Pogačar, of course, is the barely-22-year-old Slovenian cycling sensation who is breaking records every time he hits a finish line. He’s the youngest Tour winner in 111 years, and he also won the white and polka-dot jerseys, as well. He’s raced in two Grand Tours (2020 Tour de France, 2019 Vuelta a España), in which he’s won six stages and finished on the podium both times. Through just his second year as a pro, he already has 17 wins. After his debut as a WorldTour pro in January 2019 at the Tour Down Under, he won four of the next nine stage races he entered, which nets out to a .444 win rate, and he did not finish lower than sixth overall.

That, folks, is amazing.

In the Tour’s 75 editions in the modern age (post-World War II), just eight riders won the race in their first try. The others include the legendary Fausto Coppi, five-time Tour winners Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Eddy Merckx, the best men’s road racer of all time. We are, by any measure, likely witnessing the debut of the sport’s next great champion—and that’s terrifying for Pogačar’s rivals.

“This is the price of the murky past. We have to live with it … If Pogačar is clean, it is terrible to be accused like this.”

But in the days and weeks since Pogačar stood atop the Tour podium wearing yellow, a question stubbornly lingered.

My concern is not that we are larding Pogačar with too much praise and expectation (although we are); or that I don’t appreciate the sheer difficulty of winning Grand Tours, where you essentially have to have everything—or close enough—go right for 21 straight days (I do).

My question is whether he went too fast.

Cycling has a long history of doping, and while the sport today appears cleaner than it has in the recent past, Pogačar indeed rides for a team run by two men who have a significant past association with doping. Against that backdrop, Pogačar turned in several performances that strain the limits of what we could expect a clean rider to do, especially compared to the rest of the field. This is not conjecture; it’s math.

The Rides That Raise Scrutiny

The head-turning rides at the Tour started with his attack on Stage 8, when he smashed a 17-year-old climbing record on the Col du Peyresourde, knocking 45 seconds (three percent) off the old mark of 25:20. That record was set by Alexandre Vinokourov and Iban Mayo in 2003, when oxygen-vector doping was rampant in the peloton. Vino would finish third overall in the Tour that year; Mayo sixth. Of the top 10 that year, five have admitted doping in their careers, one has been strongly linked to it, and both Mayo and Vino tested positive in later years.

According to Pogačar’s own power file from Stage 8, which he uploaded to Strava, he sustained 6.5 watts of power per kilogram of body weight on the 24:35 Peyresourde effort, including a stretch of 10 minutes at 6.77 w/kg. (All figures are calculated based on Pogačar’s listed weight of 66 kilograms.)

That’s significant because power-to-weight ratio is one of the purest expressions of climbing ability in the sport. A well-known chart from training gurus Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan lays out the range of w/kg ratios for different time periods, which is called a power curve. For elite male riders, it stops at 6.4 w/kg for functional threshold power (FTP). Aldo Sassi—a longtime, respected coach who died of cancer in 2010—said earlier that year that 6.2 w/kg was close to the upper FTP limit for a clean rider.

Several analyses of Pogačar’s Strava data estimate that his FTP is right at that number. By way of comparison: Lance Armstrong’s coach, the infamous Dr. Michele Ferrari, said that his target for Armstrong—who we now know was thoroughly and aggressively doping with a wide range of substances and techniques—was an FTP of 6.7 w/kg.

The catch is that FTP is essentially a rider’s maximum power output on efforts of longer than 30 minutes, and Pogačar’s Peyresourde effort took just less than that time. On Stage 15, which Pogačar also won, his estimated power output on the 45-minute Grand Colombier finish was just shy of 6 w/kg—a mark that is within Sassi’s bounds for clean riding.

The Stage 20 time trial offers the most eye-popping numbers. In some respects, this effort is a clearer signal of Pogačar’s abilities than on the Peyresourde in Stage 8: Time trials are pure solo efforts, without the drafting and tactics that can affect power outputs and climbing speeds on road stages.

Pogačar did not have a power meter on the bike he used on the Planche des Belles Filles climb, in the second half of that Stage 20 time trial, but we know that stretch took him just 16 minutes, well short of an FTP effort. His estimated output was 6.5 w/kg.

READ MORE Why Your Power-To-Weight Ratio Also Matters

Taken alone, the Belles Filles climb is short enough that Pogačar’s performance is within clean limits. But it came after a nearly 40-minute FTP effort on the flatter terrain leading to the climb, where intermediate splits show Pogačar was level with 2017 World Time Trial Champion Tom Dumoulin, a heavier rider who produces more total power at threshold and who was racing for the stage win. (Total power matters more than w/kg on flats because wind resistance, not gravity, is the primary force a rider is battling, and larger riders can have very aerodynamic positions.) Dumoulin said that his own power output for the stage, estimated at just shy of 6w/kg on the climb, was “World Championship-worthy values.” Pogačar finished 1:21 ahead of second-place Dumoulin.

While Pogačar went wheel-to-wheel on the flat with the best time triallists in the peloton, it’s also notable that he absolutely dominated the climb; the next-best performances on the Belles Filles were Richie Porte, estimated at 6.36 w/kg, and Wout van Aert, at 6.23 w/kg. Both are world-class time triallists, both riding for the stage win and, in Porte’s case, a world-class climber racing to better his general classification position (which he did, to third overall).

Why So Fast?

It is not easy to explain Pogačar’s power outputs. According to sources in the sport, Pogačar’s nutrition and equipment technology is solid, but not best-in-class. His bike legally cannot be lighter than 6.8 kilograms, a floor that’s been in place for 20 years. Gear and clothing have become more aerodynamic, but the value of aero efficiency progressively drops the slower you go (ie. on climbs) and, in any case, would not account for the gaps to other riders with access to similar, or better, equipment.

Raw physiological gifts may offer the best insight into Pogačar’s ability. Consider that his performances in this year’s Tour are generally a step up from his already-high efforts in somewhat similar road and TT stages at last year’s Tour of Spain. One of his UAE-Emirates team’s coaches, Iñigo san Millán, said on a recent TrainingPeaks podcast that Pogačar’s power output at threshold improved 20 to 30 watts from last year—a remarkable jump for an already world-class rider.

San Millán also said that Pogačar’s test results confirm he’s physiologically elite even among elite athletes: his metabolic efficiency, lactate clearance, and power output are all among the best he’s ever tested. (Metabolism is a special focus for san Millán, who is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine.) A new study from san Millán on metabolic efficiency in WorldTour cyclists, published in June, hints at what he’s saying. The test subjects included UAE riders, and one subject in particular shows remarkable lactate clearance, implying exceptional recovery capacity from hard efforts. In May, san Millán later told Eurosport, he had to tell Pogačar to take a week off the bike because he was peaking too soon.

To get more context on Pogacar’s performances, I contacted the team to interview san Millán and Jeroen Swart, a respected South African physiologist and researcher who heads the team’s health and training staff. I also contacted Swart and san Millán directly. Swart directed me to the team, which did not respond to neither my direct requests to them nor Swart’s referral. San Millán apologised but said he was too busy to participate in this article.

While Swart, san Millán, and Adri van Diemen, another member of the UAE-Emirates training staff, have solid ethical reputations, their presence doesn’t fully allay doubt. Because of the pandemic, san Millán has not seen Pogačar in person in nine months. The data shows him how good Pogačar is, but can’t fully show why. Due to the pandemic, anti-doping testing was all but frozen in the spring, which offered a window for any unscrupulous participant in the sport to dope with near impunity.

The Company You Keep

San Millán, Swart, and van Diemen are far from the only influences at UAE-Emirates. The team itself is just the latest iteration of a 22-year-old outfit long known as Lampre (a host of co-sponsors came and went), which has seen nine riders test positive. In addition, others on the team failed hematocrit-limit testing, or were linked to suspected doping rings (which often ended quietly, without charges) or to doctors with their own unsavory reputations, like Ferrari.

In 2017, UAE came in with new sponsorship, and new management in 2018. But that new management came with its own baggage. Directeur Sportifs Neil Stephens and Andrej Hauptman, hired in 2019, both failed hematocrit-level tests as riders. The biggest concern, however, is team leadership: CEO Mauro Gianetti and general manager Joxean Fernandez Matxin previously ran a different team that, during an eight-year life from 2004 to 2011 under a rotating cast of five different title sponsors, saw six riders test positive, most for oxygen-vector drugs like EPO—including Mayo, one of the riders who set the old Peyresourde record in 2003. A seventh rider, Juan Jose Cobo, saw his 2011 Tour of Spain win stripped last year for doping, and the team folded that fall.

Gianetti has his own past as a rider. In 1998, at the Tour of Romandie, he collapsed on the bike and spent three days in a coma at a hospital in Lausanne. The doctor who oversaw his care, Gerald Gremion, later said that Gianetti’s medical condition was likely caused by an experimental synthetic blood substitute, a class of drug that has in the past decade only been narrowly approved for use in a few countries, partly due to severe side effects. Gianetti denied taking any banned substances and blamed an infection for his condition, but declined to take legal action over Gremion’s accusation—and to my knowledge, he has never spoken publicly about the incident otherwise.

Finally, in 2019, a new doping investigation called Operation Aderlass (German for “bloodletting”) ensnared UAE-Emirates when one of its longtime riders, Kristijan Durasek, was named in the inquiry. He was later banned for four years. The Aderlass ring operated in several sports, but within cycling many of those involved are Slovenian or Austrian.

Cycling’s Inability To Resolve Its Past

This is the sport’s undeniable history. And what it makes clear is that, in the 1990s and 2000s, cycling was overrun with aggressive, sophisticated doping. With each new testing regime or investigation, doping mutated to evade detection. In the last decade, more riders have come forward to admit their doping pasts. And after the earthshaking conclusion of the U.S. Postal Service team investigation in 2012, it was undeniable just how ingrained the problem was in the sport.

Despite that investigation, and the spontaneous admissions of a number of ex-pros, the vast majority of those in the sport caught or implicated in doping claimed innocence, and then maintained silence. And so pro cycling’s past becomes inextricably bound up in its present: many of the people involved, like Gianetti and Fernandez Matxin, were allowed to continue with zero repercussions, because the sport does not make team management responsible for incidents under their watch. To date, Gianetti and Fernandez Matxin have never been held accountable for the run of positives at the team they formerly ran. UAE’s press officer did not respond to a request to ask Gianetti and Fernandez Matxin about their time at Saunier Duval.

It didn’t have to be this way. After the USPS bombshell, pro cycling had an opportunity to finally make a clean break with the past when, in January 2013, the UCI announced what it initially called a “truth and reconciliation” commission. A true TRC focuses on restorative justice. It can bestow amnesty, but only on condition of complete and total honesty from witnesses. An independent commission—which is what the UCI actually had—is less thorough, has no amnesty power, and witnesses can elect to tell a selective truth.

Predictably, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission’s report was incomplete, even at 223 pages. Of over a thousand possible interview candidates in the sport, just 16 then-current or former pros spoke to the commission (many of whose past doping was by that point already known), and only 15 then-current or former team staff. No rider admitted a (previously unknown) anti-doping violation, no new doping cases came to light, and of the 20-odd pages of recommendations, few were put into place. In the end, it was neither truth, nor reconciliation, and scant reform.

According to pro cycling insiders I talk with, as well as evidence like power data shared by riders and the mathematical estimates of power like those used above, pro cycling is undoubtedly cleaner than it was in the 1990s and 2000s. But doping persists, and in the absence of a thorough examination of the histories of athletes of that era who now run the sport as team managers, we have no systematic way to evaluate their sincere commitment to racing clean.

Instead it’s a chaotic scrum of opinion, where Jonathan Vaughters is, to many if not all, OK to manage the EF Pro Cycling team because he’s spoken long and publicly about his transgressions as a rider and his commitment as a team official to clean racing. Bjarne Riis, recently returned to the sport with NTT, is accepted more warily, his own limited professions of reform seen as less trustworthy. And Vinokourov, the longtime rider and general manager of Astana, he of the positive test for blood transfusion, and the links to Michele Ferrari as a rider and a manager? The sport has apparently given up even trying to get some semblance of honesty from him.

As for Gianetti, a teammate from his pro years, Stephane Heulot, said in 2008 that “Doping is so entrenched in some managers, like Gianetti, that they cannot conceive of cycling otherwise,” based on the history discussed above. (Heulot also worked with Gianetti briefly at Saunier Duval.) Asked again this September, Heulot stood by his opinion, adding, “that people like [Gianetti] are still in cycling today is unthinkable.”

The Past Shadows the Present

Pro cycling’s long history of performance enhancement looms over points that, without that context, seem entirely benign.

It’s hard to read the professions about Pogačar’s natural talent, however compelling, without remembering the explanations offered for Lance Armstrong’s miraculous mid-career transformation into a Tour winner. Well-meaning, independent researchers and journalists said that his super-fast cadence made him more biomechanically efficient; or that cancer had re-shaped his body through hormonal change, or stripping away excess fat; or offered little mythologies like that his heart was a third larger than an average person’s.

These held grains of truth but ignored the biggest: Armstrong transformed because doping transformed him. Pogačar has not undergone a transformation like Armstrong’s; as I noted, he’s been a stage race phenomenon since his first season, and his physiology is undoubtedly elite. But I’m naturally wary of appeals to extraordinary physiology as the sole explanation for extraordinary performances. I’m similarly wary of relying on power files (or estimates of output) to question a rider; expert interpretation is important.

Similarly, it is unfair to lay Gianetti’s and Fernandez Matxin’s pasts at Pogačar’s feet. He was not even born when Gianetti lay comatose in a Lausanne hospital. But today, because of Gianetti’s and Fernandez Matxin’s choice to not speak of past allegations against themselves, or positive tests by riders under their watch, and the sport’s total abdication of its responsibility to make people accountable for it, that past hangs over Pogačar too.

“I was 10 years old in 2008 and it feels weird to talk about it, because it goes against everything I believe,” he told l’Equipe, when asked about suspicions based on his association with Gianetti and Fernandez Matxin. “It saddens me that people doubt my performance. … My only defense is to have my conscience on my side.”

But this is the reality of the sport right now—where mistrust of explanations for extraordinary performances is borne of past experience, and where association can tie you, fairly or not, to events that occurred before you were born. Unless Pogačar wants to find a team with less-objectionable management, maybe he’s right: his conscience is his only defense as he becomes just the latest rider faced with the insoluble riddle of trying to prove a negative.

And that, in turn, is completely unfair to, and unfortunate for fans. We should be heralding the rise of perhaps the greatest stage race talent of his generation, or of generations, plural. We should be eagerly looking forward to five or more years of titanic clashes between Pogačar and other young talents like 2019 Tour winner Egan Bernal. We should marvel at his domination of that Stage 20 time trial, arguably the most amazing individual feat in the Tour since Greg LeMond’s 1989 time trial.

Instead, we hold his victory at arm’s length, examining and probing for signs of concern. We are justifiably hesitant to trust, because that trust has so often been betrayed in the past. We know that, in pro cycling, where there are performances that strain the bounds of what we believe is possible, and when they come amid associations with officials with dark histories, that they are almost always too good to be true.

I canvassed a handful of journalists and other racing insiders post-Tour, and all expressed at least tentative misgivings about Pogačar’s ride. Some of his compatriots in the peloton were similarly equivocal about the state of the sport. “I won’t put my hand in the fire to say the whole peloton is clean,” 11th-place finisher Guillaume Martin said to le Parisien.

Martin, who has a master’s degree in philosophy, neatly summed up my conflicted feelings. “Every year, the winner of the Tour is suspect,” he said. “This is the price of the murky past. We have to live with it … If Pogačar is clean, it is terrible to be accused like this.”

The sport, and its fans, deserve better. Maybe it’s too late for a real TRC. But if we never have one, we will always be stuck in this place, caught between suspicion and surety, apprehension and approval. We are in a purgatory of doubt.

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