Cycling

There’s Nothing Surprising About Team Sky’s Latest Controversy

Chris Froome

Chris Froome, a four-time Tour de France winner and the first English rider to win the Vuelta a Espana, is currently facing a battle to save his reputation, writes Michael Stokoe. 

Is Chris Froome a Cheat?

Team Sky’s Chris Froome returned an ‘adverse’ test result for Salbutamol, a drug that helps with asthma at this year’s Vuelta — a race he won fairly convincingly ahead of Vincenzo Nibali and Ilnur Zakarin. Froome was found to have 2000 nanograms per millilitre (ng/ml) of Salbutamol in his urine – more than double that which he’s allowed according to WADA rules.

“To some, this revelation has come as a surprise – for me there’s nothing surprising about it at all”.

Admittedly the timing of the news has come as a bit of a shock, considering Froome has just finished his most successful year on the road to date, as he won both the Tour and the Vuelta in the same year. The talk of the cycling world had been how Froome will look to conquer the Giro next year, but the tone has changed significantly.

After everything Team Sky has been through this year they might have thought the worst was over — evidently not. The past year has shown that all the team’s talk of clean cycling and doing ‘things’ the right way at its inception was largely meaningless. Their reputation was hanging on by a thread even prior to this bombshell revelation. And now their reputation, and more importantly their credibility, is all but obliterated.

A lot of talk from media outlets today – and more specifically from Martha Kelner and Sean Ingle, the Guardian journalists who broke the story yesterday – is that this latest episode is the final nail in the coffin for the British team. It’s an assessment that is difficult to disagree with: Not only could it be the final blow for Sky, but their prized asset, Froome, is now fighting not only for his reputation but also his career.

I was beginning to think Froome and co. would attempt to brush the story under the carpet. I assumed they would try to swerve and dodge perfectly legitimate questions much like they did in response to the jiffy bag saga. However, to his credit, Froome emerged and agreed to an interview with the BBC yesterday morning. It wasn’t too revealing, but intriguingly, the 32-year-old said his “legacy won’t be tainted” despite the media storm over his Sulbutamol use. I disagree – just the fact he is a central actor in a toxic story such as this suggests that his legacy is already tarnished, and whether the stain will grow larger in the coming month’s remains to be seen.

Observers now have every right to question Froome. Being the ‘leader’ of the sport  — or in other words the biggest star of the sport besides Peter Sagan — Froome is there to be questioned. He is there to be tested, and tested regularly. And now one of the ‘greatest’ cyclists the sport has ever seen must face the music.

If Sky’s reputation had been sparkling clean and unblemished, the narrative currently surrounding Froome might have differed. But their reputation is at its lowest ebb and this story is just another one for the collection in what has been a long litany of damaging stories against Sky this past year.

“Froome’s Sulbutamol use doesn’t add up”.

I’ve heard of some other drugs which have been associated with asthma, most frequently Ventolin, but I hadn’t heard of Sulbutamol before this story broke. Evidently, it’s well used by asthma sufferers (Ross Tucker of Science in Sport put together an informing article on Sulbatamol here) – but you rarely hear of riders getting caught or banned because of it. However, a handful of riders have — Diego Ulissi and Alessandro Petacchi were banned for the drug in question, and with lower values than Froome produced in his test. Ulissi got 9 months and Petacchi a year. Thus, if found guilty, Froome could be looking at least a 12 month ban.

On his use of the drug, Froome admitted in his statement that along with his doctor at Sky he took ‘the greatest care to ensure that [he] did not use more than the permissible dose’. Even so, there was still 2000ng/ml of the substance in his urine, so one must assume that they fell some way short of exercising the ‘greatest care’.

Contrasting performances

The day in question is September 7 when Froome produced this adverse result. Now, if you watch the Vuelta stages 17 and 18 you will see some contrasting performances – I’m not suggesting the Sulbutamol had an effect; all that information is to come. But his performances were markedly different, and that alone raises questions.

On stage 17, Froome struggled up Alto de Los Machucos – he was allegedly suffering from asthma here and lost 42 seconds to Nibali — a significant chunk of time.

On the next stage, 18, Froome was a completely different animal; you could say it was the Froome to which cycling fans have become accustomed. On the road to Santo Toribio de Liebana he regained 1min 37sec from Nibali. Was that just Froome being Froome or was that the effect of Salbutamol? This is what the UCI have to get to the bottom of.

Some have said it could have been a fluke or a genuine mistake. But being twice over a recommended limit doesn’t strike me as a mistake. If it was a mistake and one of those ‘trusted’ doctors at Sky got the dosages substantially wrong it will have potentially caused the team’s top performer a significant degree of hardship and reputational damage. Such a thesis, however, stretches credulity — you simply don’t make mistakes like that in elite level sport.

Froome said he has been ‘treating’ his asthma for ten years and that he knows the rules when it comes to the drug in question. So how did he manage to get a reading of 2000ng/ml if he’s accustomed to making sure Sulbatomol is administered in the correct dosage?  To me it smacks of something a little more sinister.

In a sporting context his future is unclear. All the talk of the close season had revolved around how Froome was going to target the Giro and the Tour in the same year – that could potentially be put on the backburner pending the outcome of this investigation.

But right now, Froome is in Majorca with the rest of Sky preparing for next season. He might have thought it was going to be a nice quiet training block – instead it’s turned into a career salvage operation, as his credibility and reputation as one of the greatest cyclists hangs in the balance.

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  1. Pingback: Chris Froome facing questions over adverse test result – Stokoe's Blog

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