News of Eduard Vorganov’s positive test for meldonium broke just as Alexander Kristoff was preparing to leave for the airport on Friday evening, and the Norwegian checked in wondering if his long trek to the Tour of Qatar would prove in vain.
The Vorganov case is Katusha’s second anti-doping violation in the past twelve months, following Luca Paolini’s positive test for cocaine at the Tour de France, and under the UCI’s revised rules, the entire team could face a suspension of between 15 and 45 days.
“Immediately when I saw the news, for sure, I thought I might be coming on a day trip down here,” Kristoff told reporters in Doha on the eve of the Tour of Qatar.
“The UCI said they would be really strict with the new rules on anti-doping. These are two special cases; especially with Luca, it was a lifestyle problem he had, and now this. We will see what the reaction will be.”
In a statement on Friday evening, the UCI said that its Disciplinary Commission would issue its verdict on Katusha’s status “in the coming days". As of Sunday evening, however, no white smoke had emanated from Aigle, and, for now at least, Kristoff will begin his season as planned at the Tour of Qatar on Monday.
“I thought they would give us some idea tomorrow or the day after but if they don’t say anything tomorrow, then for sure we will start,” Kristoff said. “I am prepared to start and I hope I don’t need to wait another 15 or more days to start my season.”
Katusha had to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to retain its WorldTour status for 2013 after the UCI Licence Commission had queried its ethical record. Asked if he was worried that this latest doping case might tarnish his own reputation, Kristoff said that he was more concerned about the possible practical consequence, namely sitting out some early-season racing.
“I cannot control what they are doing at home, so I don’t feel my image personally is ruined, but for the team, it’s shit to have a positive case, and that can damage me if we get a penalty for the whole team. It can affect me for sure,” Kristoff said.
“We were of course a bit surprised and shocked with the positive test. I’d actually never heard of it [meldonium] before, but it seems like it can be in some substances they use in Russia or Latvia. I’ve never seen this in Norway. But for sure it’s on the list and it’s not legal to take it. I don’t know if he knew it or not, because it was newly illegal since January 1.
“But anyway, he was positive for it, and that means we’ve had two positives in one year, so now it’s up to the UCI to give us a penalty or not.”
Qatar, Classics, and Worlds
Unless a Disciplinary Commission verdict is dispatched in the early hours of Monday morning, however, Kristoff looks set to begin his 2016 season at the Tour of Qatar, where he lines up as the favourite for overall victory in the absence of the Etixx-QuickStep team, which has produced the winner in eight of the past 10 editions.
Kristoff claimed three stage victories a year ago, but lost the leader’s gold jersey to eventual overall winner Nikki Terpstra in the short individual time trial on stage 3, eventually finishing in third place overall.
“We will start with the overall as an objective but we’ll see day by day. We’ll try not to lose time and try to win stages,” Kristoff said. “Last year I was close because I had a lot of bonus seconds from winning three stages. I lost it in the time trial but I didn’t lose too much there, so hopefully I can do more or less the same again.”
The five days of racing in Qatar will also provide Kristoff with an opportunity to sample the 2016 UCI Road World Championships finishing circuit on the Pearl – “It should me quite well because I’m fast but there are many guys the course will suit,” he said – but his primary order of business in the Gulf is laying the foundations for his Spring Classics campaign.
“You get good race speed here and it’s normally quite hard racing with many other Classics riders,” he said. “You see often the guys doing well in Qatar go on to do well in the Classics.”
The race was initially expected to host the first clash of the season between Kristoff and John Degenkolb, the two best Classics riders of last Spring. Degenkolb has since been ruled out of Qatar and the cobbled Classics, however, after he was one of six Giant-Alpecin riders injured when a car drove head-on into their training group in Calpe last month.
“Cancellara looks in really great shape for his final season, then there’s Etixx-QuickStep, Sky are focusing on the Classics, and [Peter] Sagan, of course – there are many guys for the Classics, so it wasn’t going to be just me and John,” Kristoff said when asked how the German’s absence this Spring would affect him.
“Actually for me, it was maybe better if he was there because he is a similar type of rider, so his team would for sure try to work with us. But now it will be more difficult to make the race our way. If it was good for John, it would also suit me, because he is also fast in a sprint.”