Before Jan Polanc could think about defending his maglia rosa, he was called upon to defend Slovenian cycling. The UAE Team Emirates rider moved into the overall lead of the Giro d'Italia following stage 12 from Cuneo to Pinerolo, leaving him more than four minutes ahead of fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), but their achievements have been overshadowed by the implication of some compatriots in the Operation Aderlass blood doping inquiry.
Last week, the UCI announced that Bahrain-Merida rider Kristijan Koren and directeur sportif Borut Bozic had been provisionally suspended for potential anti-doping rule violations uncovered by the investigation, which is centred on the activities of German-based doctor Mark Schmidt. Croatian rider Kristijan Durasek of UAE Team Emirates was also provisionally suspended by the UCI on the basis of information gleaned from the inquiry.
On Wednesday, the UCI confirmed to Cyclingnews that it has been following the activities of several Slovenian individuals since 2015, with Milan Eržen, the managing director at Bahrain-Merida, at the centre of their attention. Speaking via Bahrain-Merida, Eržen said that allegations of his involvement in Operation Aderlass were "absolutely false and unfounded."
"I think it's really sad this situation in Slovenia, especially with the good results we've had in the last few years," Polanc said in Pinerolo on Thursday. "Since I was a kid, I've been in the team of my father, so I was never in contact with the team of the other guys. I'm proud to be Slovenian. I'm happy to be Slovenian. I'm happy to live in Slovenia. I can say it's sad. I can't tell you any more."
Polanc began racing at age 12 under the tutelage of his father, Marko, who was a prominent rider in the former Yugoslavia. As an amateur, Polanc raced for the Radenska Continental squad (now Ljubljana Gusto Santic), where his father was among the coaching staff. The team's recent alumni include Tour of California winner Tadej Pogacar, also of UAE Team Emirates.
Eržen was involved with the rival Adria Mobil Continental team, and Polanc said that he had never had any connection the man who was recently described by Il Corriere della Sera as the Dominus of Slovenian cycling. Eržen later helped to establish the Bahrain-Merida team after serving as a triathlon coach to Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
"When I was racing in Slovenian teams, I saw him at the races, but I don't have any connection with him because, as I said, I was always working with my father and not with him," Polanc said of Eržen. "I think I have good support at home, I don't need to go to other guys. My father is a good trainer, and he was also with me when I was a junior. I don't have any connection with him [Eržen]. I know how he looks, for sure, but I don't have any connection."
Jumbo-Visma deny links between Roglic and Eržen
Earlier on Thursday, Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Addy Engels insisted that Roglic had no links to Eržen despite racing for the Adria Mobil team from 2013 to 2015. "The fact reported in various media that this man is the discoverer of Roglic is incorrect," Engels told AD. "Primoz has never had anything to do with him."
Two Slovenian riders now lie atop the overall standings on the Giro. On Friday's mountainous leg to Ceresole Reale, Polanc will wear the maglia rosa that he inherited from teammate Valerio Conti after infiltrating the early break on the road to Pinerolo, while Roglic lies second overall, 4:07 behind.
These ought to be heady days for Slovenian cycling, but Polanc acknowledged that the news emanating from Operation Aderlass has cast a shadow over this recent period of success.
"Now there's a black moment but I hope that everything will be resolved and a better moment for Slovenian cycling will come," Polanc said. "Now people are thinking badly of Slovenia but I'm here to ride for my team and give everything I can to race for my team. I'm proud to be Slovenian."