Years ago, I was casually chatting to a press officer and asked him if his team’s leader was having a positive experience at the race we were at.
The press officer looked over spectacles that were halfway down his nose at me.
“Don’t say the ‘P’ word in cycling, Sophie,” he said dryly.
It’s a word that up until the Covid-19 pandemic was not by definition constructive, optimistic, or confident, rather something dirty and derogatory, a stain left on the sport by systemic drug cheats of the past.
History still haunts the Tour de France and it’s normal that the yellow jersey will be asked about the ‘P’ word. You can be good here, but if you’re exceptional and in yellow, you’ll need to spell out why. Or at least answer one direct question.
“Are you doping?”
It’s been put to virtually every Tour winner in my experience over the last 10 years. Two-time and defending Tour champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) got a taste of it last year when in front of a reduced press pack, the Slovenian prodigy was asked multiple times to defend his standing in the race.
The press wanted it on record: his yes, or no reply. Some wanted to see his power data, which he wouldn’t give because rivals might then get an edge on him. Fair enough.
However, at the 2022 Tour, which after the second rest day resumed on Tuesday with a bizarre sequence of events, the ‘P’ word means something entirely different.
P in the pandemic is not related to D, rather C: Covid-19 positive.
Instead, Pogačar at the 109th edition has been continually quizzed on the number of his teammates who have tested positive to Covid-19 and been forced to withdraw – two so far - and the potential consequences it may have on his third consecutive title assault.
The entire peloton was tested for Covid-19 after stage nine on Sunday and it was announced on Monday’s rest day that everyone was negative.
However, UAE Team Emirates is one of the squads conducting internal Covid-19 testing – in addition to two mandated test dates on the second and third rest day – which on Tuesday morning had rivals sympathising but also eyeing opportunity
Bradley Wiggins was in the know early and it wasn’t long before UAE Emirates made it public knowledge that one of Pogačar’s super domestiques, George Bennett, had, in an internal check, tested positive to Covid-19 that morning.
Not long after it was confirmed Rafał Majka had also tested positive on Tuesday morning but with the OK from the UCI could continue.
It was perhaps fortuitous for Pogačar at the beginning of the day that the front of EF Education-EasyPost bus somehow got lodged into uneven, melting tarmac, blocking the entrance to the teams’ paddock. It meant UAE Team Emirates, Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers all parked outside of it, avoiding questions and the buzz around Bennett’s withdrawal.
UAE Emirates arguably through its own internal protocol and diligence is two men down, with a third, Majka, asymptomatic.
It begs the question that with now three Covid-19 positives in the team, what, if anything they are doing to protect their race leader.
In a short post-race press conference in which written media were restricted to three questions, I asked Pogačar what measures his squad had in place to prevent further Covid-19 cases and if he was now, as UAE’s crown jewel, isolating from everyone.
The next two weeks could be a lonely road for him.
“We’re isolating all the time, but I think the problem is, I mean, it’s just unlucky that we race amongst so many people, so big bunch, crowds on the climbs and we are close contacts to many people when we are riding on the road,” he said.
“I think in our team we take really good precautions. We keep hygiene really high, and we are alone in the room, we try to be as much as possible alone.”
Jumbo-Visma has also observed strict standards, with riders wearing masks to and from the stage starts and finishes.
Tour organiser ASO on Tuesday responded by re-introducing some of the restrictions it put in place for the 2020-21 Tours. Media and VIP fans would again no longer be able to access the teams’ paddock, but the restrictions would not apply to finishes. Ever-present Netflix crews following select teams at the Tour for an upcoming series were excluded from the cap.
It is Pogačar’s resolve, more than anything, that may prevent rivals from taking advantage of his weakened arsenal in the Alps this week.
There were two schools of thoughts on Tuesday as to what his reduced squad would mean to his title aims.
The first was that it would have no effect. Pogačar would just attack. He’s won the last two Tours amid doubts about the strength of his squad. So why not a third?
Aleksander Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), who started the stage just outside the top 10, said the loss was a big blow but questioned the impact it would have.
“It will be difficult for UAE to control the race but he’s too strong and maybe it won’t be a big problem for him,” Vlasov said.
The second is that it could be a game changer, especially considering that Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma have power in numbers.
Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) at the start of stage 10 spoke was sympathy, not blood lust about how teammate Jonas Vingegaard could profit.
“You never want to see people go out like that. You want the best race possible with the complete teams. I’m friends with George and I feel for him that he can’t continue on,” Kuss said.
The gloves will surely come off this week and UAE will likely need to return to the playbook.
But I’m picking Pogacar won’t see it as a negative.