The worst victory salute: omertà or naivety?

Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious) was on his way to an impressive victory on Stage 19 of the Tour de France, his second of the race. He posted up in the final metres and made a gesture that has an unfortunate history in cycling, zipping his lips.

On the 18th stage of the 2004 edition of the Tour de France, Filippo Simeoni broke away from the pack, a move which didn't threaten Lance Armstong's yellow jersey, but the race leader chased the group down, forcing Simeoni back to the peloton. He then turned to camera and made the infamous 'zipping lips' or 'omerta' gesture. 

The two had history beforehand, Simeoni gave evidence in 2002 of his own doping past and his dealings with the notorious Dr. Michele Ferrari, the scientist behind the doping of US Postal and Armstrong for all his seven Tour de France victories, wins that were stripped after his doping history was exposed. He then sued Armstrong for defamation after the American called him a liar during an interview, saying that he wanted to donate the money to charity before eventually dropping the suit in 2006. 

"You made a big mistake. You shouldn't have testified against Dr Ferrari and especially not sued me for defamation. I have no problems. I have time, I have money, and I can destroy you whenever I want," Simeoni said of what Armstrong had told him during that stage.

Simeoni was vilified within the peloton after the incident by the immediate reaction of some of the other riders, and some Italians, in particular.

"They insulted me, as if I were a real traitor – a reprobate to be driven into the sewers," said Simeoni.

He later received apologies from some, but not others. Armstrong himself apologised to Simeoni on his post-confession tour, something that the Italian appreciated, so much so that he was prepared to give Armstrong a second chance. 

That's the history that Matej Mohorič reignited with his own zipping lips gesture. Mohorič was 9 when the incident happened, so wouldn't have direct knowledge of the event, but it's such a well-known moment in the sport, all over the internet as a shorthand for silencing voices trying to speak out against doping.

Bahrain Victorious' hotel and team bus were raided by French police after Stage 17 with the investigation looking into the “acquisition, transportation, possession and importing of a banned substance or method for use by members of Team Bahrain Victorious, currently in action at the 2021 Tour de France”. 

It follows reports in Le Parisien that some team managers talked after Mark Padun's second win at the Criterium du Dauphine about the potential of doping existing within the team. Padun was left off the Tour de France team and the Ukrainian Olympic selection for the Tokyo Olympic Games, unusual given the calibre of his mountain-climbing performances in those Dauphine wins.

It's possible that it was a similar tip-off or conversation with French authorities that launched the raid against Bahrain Victorious squad on July 15. If the same meaning to the Armstrong gesture is imputed to the Mohoric gesture, it's a warning, a threat.

If that was what was intended, it is a horrible look, and reality, for the sport. 

On the other hand, it's hard to know just how much Mohorič knew what he was doing, and maybe it was just an emotional response to having his personal space violated in dramatic fashion. Sonny Colbrelli spoke of not being able to sleep after the incident and certainly it would be a disquieting experience, innocent or guilty. It may just be a silencing of the critics, those that have questioned that success, that their wins can only have come by illegal means.

Maybe it's the current generation in cycling being so utterly disconnected from doping controversies that they don't realise the hornet's nest that gets awakened when doping and the Tour de France are in the same sentence.

Here's Mohorič's full response to the question post-race, edited only for clarity, about what he was thinking as he crossed the finish line.

"I was thinking mostly about what happened two days ago," said Mohorič. "I felt like a criminal with all the police coming to the hotel.

"From one point of view, it’s a good thing. It means that there are controls on the peloton, that they are checking all teams. Of course, they didn’t find anything because we have nothing to hide.

"On the other hand, I’m disappointed with the system. It’s not a nice thing when a policeman walks into your room and goes through all your belongings when you have nothing to hide. It’s never happened to me before.

"They went through my personal photos, through my phone, my messages. At the end of the day I have nothing to hide, I don’t care too much about other people checking through my stuff. So, it’s ok in the end I hope."

He then gave further context specifically to the gesture when asked by other media afterwards.

“It was just a sign to show to people that question our performance to be mindful that we are making huge sacrifices with our work, with our nutrition, with our training plans, with our race plans, with all the time we spend away from home in training camps,” Mohorič said. “We all work hard, it is the biggest race in the world, to come here ready. We performed at a good level this year, and we also performed at a good level in the past.”

It's amazing what effect a second's gesture can have, I think a lot of people in cycling would have been significantly more happy if he just gave an emphatic punching of the air. While many are optimistic about the current generation of the sport and how clean it is from illicit performance-enhancing substances, hopefully this brings more attention to this side of the sport rather than shutting down talk like it would have done in the past.

The Tour de France continues with tomorrow's Stage 20, an individual time trial over 30.8 kilometres from Libourne to Saint-Emilion which will see GC riders attempt to battle for second and third on the podium. Watch the action from 8:30pm (AEST) on SBS and SBS On Demand with coverage starting on the SKODA Tour Tracker from 8:55pm (AEST). 

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6 min read
Published 17 July 2021 at 2:27am
By Jamie Finch-Penninger