Alberto Contador said in 2011 that the Giro d’Italia “could be won in the hotel.” While the Tinkoff-Saxo rider was referring to the rest needed head of each day’s stage, a hotel in Slovenia owned by a former pro cyclist goes further, with rooms customised to replicate conditions at more than 4,000 metres of altitude.
Under World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules, there is nothing illegal about the hotel, although its techniques would be outlawed in Italy, where it has been flagged up as part of the long running Padua anti-doping investigation.
Once used as a hunting lodge by Josip Tito, the dictator of the former Yugoslavia who died in 1980, it is located in Goreljeck in the Tricorno national park.
It has 12 bedrooms and is run by former professional cyclist who finished 10th overall in the 2008 Tour de France and was twice a top ten finisher in the Giro d’Italia – Tadej Valjavec, described by the newspaper as a “disciple” of the banned doctor, Michele Ferrari.
La Repubblica says that when Valjavec decided to restore the building at a reported cost of €100,000, he had an “epiphany,” deciding to install a hypoxic tent that would replicate conditions at between 4 and 5,000 metres of altitude.
Also known as altitude tents, the equipment is not in itself banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, although their use in Italy is illegal under a law relating to public health and artificial boosts to sporting performance.
A post in 2012 by insider blogger Inner Ring casts doubt on the effectiveness of such tents, saying they do not provide the same improvement to performance as, say, using banned substances such as EPO.
But Valjavec is clear about what he sees as the benefits. "I can adjust the percentage of oxygen in any room,” he told the newspaper, saying it stimulates the body’s production of red blood cells, and thereby its ability to convey oxygen to the muscles. “I tried it on myself and I can guarantee that it works," he added.
A ringing endorsement comes from Ferrari, banned from working with pro cyclists in Italy since 2002 and, since 2012, from any involvement in sport worldwide following the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into the US Postal team.
Recommending the establishment to one of his clients, he said the tents worked and noted that despite the ban in Italy on their use, “you’re in Slovenia,” so [the authorities can] stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, to paraphrase the Italian word, “vaffanculo.”.
Valjavec said: "In some parts of the world this is doping, in others is isn’t. The federations pretend not to see it, so everyone does it,” naming banned former Olympic champion walker Alex Schwarzer and his ex-girlfriend, Winter Olympic bronze medallist figure skater Carolina Kostner, as among his clients.
He added that some athletes who are wealthy enough use altitude tents at their homes, citing one of the biggest names in the world of tennis, and claiming they are also used by leading sports teams, mentioning two major Spanish football clubs.
But, he said, “In Italy, an hour’s drive from here, they still pretend not to see it.”
The Slovenian, identified by the Padua investigation as one of the mainstays of Ferrari’s team, charged with recruiting other athletes to the doctor’s client list, wouldn’t be drawn on his current clients, but said they included amateurs as well as professionals.
“I always say, don’t expect miracles, but you can get improvements; but you have to follow the life of an athlete, if you don’t, it’s useless.”
He remains full of praise for his mentor, Ferrari. "Michele is a friend of mine and also the best trainer there could ever be, full stop. His method isn’t doping, it’s training, personalised.
“I remember training with him on Tenerife, under the volcano. [Vincenzo] Nibali was there, although with other trainers. But the ones who were with Michele were stronger. Why? He is the best.
“When I opened Villa Triglav he [Ferrari] came here, saw the establishment, and paid me compliments,” he added, saying that it is fully booked for months to come.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.