Sliding doors: The legacy of Cobo’s delayed relegation

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Toulouse, France (CT) – For most in the peloton, this morning’s stage start was much like any other. But for a couple of riders, there was a small but significant change. News quietly landed overnight that Juan Jose Cobo had been stripped of his 2011 Vuelta a Espana win – an outcome that left two Dutchmen grappling with a complex mix of emotions about what could have been.

The 2011 Vuelta was striking for two reasons – the stratospheric speed at which some of its climbs were raced, and the out-of-nowhere win by Cobo, riding for an unfancied Pro Continental team in his homeland’s biggest race. That result has now been struck from the record, forcing an administrative shuffle.

Chris Froome – absent from this year’s Tour – is now the first ever British Grand Tour winner, beating out Bradley Wiggins for that honour. No fanfare for him; no adoring crowds lining London streets. Somewhere in Monaco this morning, a convalescent Froome woke up and found himself a seven-time Grand Tour winner.

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For Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), fourth at that Vuelta until today, there’s both disappointment, and delight. “I heard it this morning. I read it on the internet… I didn’t get any official email or notification,” he said before today’s stage start. “I saw it coming, of course, after the news a few weeks ago. I can say that I’m really, really happy now.”

A muted celebration for Mollema’s only Grand Tour podium – just two journos in the carpark of a football stadium in France, standing and asking a gently smiling Dutchman about something that happened eight years ago and resurfaced today.

“It’s so long ago already,” Mollema continued. “All these years I was a bit surprised with Cobo’s performance, and I wasn’t the only one. You come fourth, and you go on…”

He’s asked whether it would have changed his career trajectory, being recognised for the result at the time. A pause as he measures the response. “It’s hard to say… It would have been nice that I could have said for years that I finished on a Grand Tour podium.”

The questions turn to more current concerns: today’s first Pyrenean stage, the mop-up from yesterday’s crashes, team tactics. As he turns to head back into the bus, I thank him for his time and congratulate him on his Vuelta. He laughs. “Thanks.”

Bauke Mollema at the 2011 Vuelta a Espana.

Over to the Ineos bus, where Wout Poels is halfway through an interview with Dutch TV that will conclude with him getting gifted a bottle of a very regional-looking digestif.

The Wout Poels of 2011 wasn’t the super-domestique he is today. Then, he was a third year pro, riding in a WorldTour squad for the first season. He DNFed his first Tour de France, refound some form through August and went to the Vuelta hungry to turn his season around. Until yesterday, he hadn’t won a Grand Tour stage. Now, he’s in the books as having won two, including a prestigious Angliru summit finish.

“I remember I was riding really good. I was up there … I was second on [two stages],” Poels said today. Cobo’s performance that year was, according to Poels, “‘special’… but I find it hard to point at people and say that’s not possible, because someone has to win. But now, if you look back, that’s pretty shit that he was cheating.”

Like Mollema, Poels still seems to be processing the news. “It’s a bit like, you didn’t put your hands in the air, you were not standing on the podium … I didn’t get my bonus…” he chuckles.

“It’s nice to say that I won Angliru, but on the other hand, I also didn’t have the podium and everything. That’s why you become a bike rider, to put your hands in the air.”

Wout Poels (centre) climbs the Angliru at the 2011 Vuelta.

Doping in cycling is not victimless. Its consequences do not stop with abstract injustice and missing prize money, but with tangible lost opportunities and stolen moments of triumph. As Poels said today, “I think later, when you retire… it’s a bit of a shame.”

That’s inarguably true. But you know what’s not a shame?

Two Dutchmen – one from the north, one from the south – whose palmares today got a little brighter, because this time the system worked. Even if it took a while.

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