Bahrain-Merida's Managing Director Milan Eržen has kept a low profile since it was confirmed that the UCI are investigating his involvement in a Slovenian connection to the Operation Aderlass blood doping ring. Eržen has not attended the Giro d'Italia, leaving his team leader Vincenzo Nibali and his former rider Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) to face the questions about the case on the second rest day of the Giro d'Italia.
Eržen is considered the Dominus of Slovenian cycling after years as a rider, talent scout, coach, altitude training expert, rider agent and manager. He has helped many of the 32 Slovenian riders in the professional peloton, including Roglic, who raced for Eržen’s Adria Mobil Continental team between 2013 and 2015, before moving to what is now Jumbo-Visma.
Eržen has found places for Slovenian riders on the Bahrain-Merida roster, plus head sports director and former rider Goradz Stangelj, sports director and former rider Borut Bozic, team doctor Marjan Korsic, and other staff.
The UCI suspended Bozic and current Bahrain-Merida rider Kristijan Koren – sending him home from the Giro d'Italia, plus UAE Team Emirates rider Kristijan Durasek and Alessandro Petacchi, for their links to Operation Aderlass after details of a Europol police investigation into the activities of Dr. Mark Schmidt, his clients and associates were published by Corriere della Sera and Le Monde.
Eržen, who has yet to receive any formal notification from the UCI, has denied any wrongdoing, telling Cyclingnews through the Bahrain-Merida team: "All and any implications regarding my involvement in Aderlass are absolutely false and unfounded."
Team co-owners McLaren have thus far declined to comment publicly on the UCI's scrutiny of Eržen but the head of McLaren Cycling, John Allert, visited the Giro d'Italia at the weekend and spent time with the riders and staff, reassuring them about the future of the team.
Because of his deep roots in the team, Cyclingnews understands Eržen is likely to keep at active role at Bahrain-Merida unless the UCI decides it has sufficient evidence to formally suspend him and open a disciplinary hearing. Former Team Sky and Team Ineos Performance Director Rod Ellingworth is expected to become the Bahrain-Merida team manager after June 1 when formal contract with Team Ineos comes to an end. He will take over the leading role at the team from Brent Copeland.
When the UCI suspended Slovenian riders during the Giro d'Italia for their links to Operation Aderlass, Roglic described it as 'sad' for Slovenian cycling. On Monday, when asked about Eržen by Cyclingnews, Roglic described him as a friend but claimed they have not had a lot of contact.
"As with the other investigations and all these things, for sure it's not good again. We've had all the shit already with the other guys, so it's not good for Slovenian cycling," Roglic said.
"He (Eržen) was the head coach of the Adria team in 2013, when I started and so was also my coach or my DS for a year. We got along and had no problems. We've not really had a lot of contact. He's tried to sign me sometimes, so we always talk a little. But more like a friend because he's Slovenian."
Koren suspension left Nibali with just six teammates at the Giro d'Italia as he fights for overall victory in the mountains of the third week. Nibali's often difficult relationship with Eržen is believed to be one of the reasons why he is likely to leave Bahrain-Merida for Trek-Segafredo in 2020.
Nibali preferred to focus on the Giro d'Italia and redirected any question about Eržen towards senior team management.
"Let's say that in this moment, we're focused on the Giro, so we don't have other thoughts,” Nibali said when asked by Cyclingnews about the matter on Monday.
"We want to ride this Giro well. Afterwards, there will be the questions of the case, and people more representative [of the team] than me will answer them."
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