French police have searched the hotel and bus of professional cycling team Bahrain Victorious during the Tour de France, after prosecutors opened an investigation into alleged doping by the team.
In a statement, Bahrain Victorious said it was met by police officers on arrival at the team hotel in Pau, southwest France, at the end of stage 17 yesterday.
“The investigation involved a search of riders’ rooms,” it said in a statement. “The team was also requested to provide all training files which were compiled and presented to the officers as requested.”
Technical director Vladimir Miholjevic added it would cooperate in “a professional manner” but said the episode had affected their riders preparations for today’s stage, from Pau to Luz Ardiden in the Pyrennes. The three-week race is due to finish in Paris on Sunday.
Allegations of cheating have been a perennial feature of the sport. The raid on Bahrain Victorious comes after a rider in another team sponsored by a Gulf country – runaway race leader Tadej Pogacar of UAE Team Emirates – has had to field questions about his performance on multiple occasions during this year’s race. The Slovenian rider’s response has been to point to the number of doping controls he undergoes.
The Bahrain Victorious raid will revive memories of past doping scandals at the Tour de France, many of which have centred on the same town of Pau, near the foothills of the Pyrenees. They include the Festina affair of 1998 which saw hotel raids by police against six teams. In 2007, the Astana team was thrown out of the race after one of its riders, Alexandre Vinokourov, was found to have had an illegal blood transfusion. In 2012, U.S. rider Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven race wins and given a lifetime ban by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) over doping charges he did not contest.
Last year, French team Arkea-Samsic was the subject of an investigation by Marseilles prosecutors.
There are a few reasons why France is so often the venue for doping scandals. One is that the Tour de France is the sport’s most prestigious race, which motivates some to seek advantage by any means possible. In addition, unlike in many other countries, doping is a criminal offence in France.
Bahrain Victorious riders were also the subject of skeptical mutterings by other teams following their performance in two other races earlier this year, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Giro d’Italia, as aired in French newspaper Le Parisien last month.
Bahrain Victorious was set up by Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, son of Bahrain’s ruler King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, in 2016. It is sponsored by a rollcall of major state-owned companies from the country, including sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat, telecoms company Batelco and aluminium producer Alba.
Sheikh Nasser is a controversial figure in the world of sport, having been accused of the torture of athletes and other protesters during the country’s pro-democracy protests in 2011. The government of Bahrain has consistently denied the allegations.