Vincenzo Nibali is always a man in demand at stage starts on the Giro d’Italia, but his schedule was heavier than usual in Frascati on Wednesday, where he met with prime minister Giuseppe Conte and reacted to the news that his Bahrain-Merida teammate Kristijan Koren has been suspended following his implication in Operation Aderlass.
Early on Wednesday morning, the UCI announced that it had provisionally suspended Koren and Bahrain-Merida directeur sportif Borut Bozic after they were linked to the Austrian blood doping inquiry. Bahrain-Merida later confirmed that Koren had been suspended by the team and sent home from the Giro, where he was part of Nibali’s supporting cast.
Before Nibali could face questions from reporters about the fall-out from Koren’s suspension, however, his presence was required at the signing-on podium, where he joined the prime minister for a public question and answer session. Decorum, perhaps, dictated that Conte did not ask about Koren, just as Nibali did not ask about the instability of his prime minister’s coalition government.
After fulfilling his civic duties, Nibali was then ushered stage left to speak with RAI television. Given that RAI’s Giro pundit Alessandro Petacchi has himself been suspended by the UCI for his implication in Operation Aderlass, the state broadcaster was perhaps attempting to spare itself embarrassment when it neglected to ask Nibali about Koren’s suspension as part of the very same inquiry.
As Nibali emerged from the television mixed zone, however, he paused and briefly addressed Koren’s abrupt departure from the Giro. Koren joined Bahrain-Merida in 2018, having previously been a teammate of Nibali at Liquigas between 2010 and 2012.
“I’m disappointed,” Nibali said. “I don’t know anything about it. It’s an old affair of his, it doesn’t regard the team. He didn’t say anything about it to us. I’m disappointed.”
News of Koren, Bozic and UAE Team Emirates rider Kristijan Durasek’s implication in Operation Aderlass was first broken by La Gazzetta dello Sporton Wednesday morning, with a UCI communique announcing their suspension arriving shortly afterwards. Koren and his fellow Slovenian Bozic are under investigation for the "use of prohibited method” in 2012-2013.
“We were a bit shocked because things like this shouldn’t happen,” Bahrain-Merida directeur sportif Paolo Slongo said in Frascati. “It’s something related to the past, we’re talking about something from six or seven years ago. We acknowledge it and we carry on with one rider less. We can’t do anything about it.”
Koren left the Giro on Wednesday morning, flying from Rome to Trieste before travelling onwards to his native Slovenia. On taking his leave from the race, Koren denied wrongdoing to team doctor Emilio Magni.
“He denied everything. Then the team said there was a communique from the UCI and so, rightly, he couldn’t start,” said Slongo.
Koren and Bozic’s implication in Operation Aderlass is the second doping case to involve personnel from Bahrain-Merida in the past year following Kanstantsin Siutsou’s positive test for EPO in July 2018. Under UCI rules, teams with two confirmed doping cases within the same twelve-month period risk serving a suspension of 15 to 45 days, though it is unclear if Koren and Bozic’s alleged offences – which date from before their employment by Bahrain-Merida – would be counted in this instance.
“I’d say that Koren’s case is related to 2012 and 2013, so it’s not something that regards us,” Slongo said. “I don’t think the two cases would be put together. One was a positive test, this is a suspected violation, so they are two distinct cases.”
In the more immediate future, Koren’s suspension leaves Bahrain-Merida a man short for the remainder of this Giro, though Slongo downplayed the impact his absence would have on Nibali’s prospects. Nibali remains third overall, 39 seconds down on Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) after finishing safely in the peloton on the rain-soaked stage 5 to Terracina.
“Koren’s a rouleur so in the mountains he wouldn’t have been able to help Vincenzo,” Slongo said. “For stages like today we’re a man down but like I said earlier, it will leave us more motivated and united to help our captain.”