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Commentary: Froome’s positive test may earn him an asterisk

Chris Froome’s tightrope walk with Salbutamol could spell his doom.

Cycling’s dreaded asterisk might well soon be added next to Froome, cycling’s most successful grand tour rider in a generation.

Word leaked that Froome tested positive en route to victory at the 2017 Vuelta a España for elevated levels of Salbutamol, a bronchial relaxer most commonly used via an inhaler. By Wednesday morning, the news broke and headlines akin to cycling’s bad old days splashed around the world.

Because Salbutamol is not strictly banned under WADA rules, but is rather a threshold drug, Froome does not face a provisional ban nor was his case required to be publicly revealed. It was thanks only to leaks to British and French newspapers that the story came to light.

Salbutamol is an allowed asthma treatment that many in the peloton regularly use. Froome’s problem, and what could lead to a racing ban and the disqualification of his Vuelta victory, is that his tested levels are double the allowed limit under WADA rules.

That’s going to be hard to explain away, but Team Sky and Froome are certainly hard at work behind the scenes to do just that.

The damage might already be done. Sky’s credibility is near-zero in some quarters following a string of incidents that have left many howling that Sky’s success on the bike is fueled by more than marginal gains. Even if Froome and Sky are given a pass, cycling takes a huge blow with even a hint of scandal involving its star grand tour rider.

This isn’t some unknown rider from some second-rate team. This is cycling’s marquee champion who’s dominated stage racing from the sport’s richest team. As Alessandro Petacchi told VeloNews contributor Gregor Brown, “This is like an atomic bombing falling on cycling.”

Long history in the peloton

Salbutamol has a long history in the peloton, and for good reason. In spray form, it helps alleviate asthma and open up the bronchial tubes. Breathing efficiently is essential to performance in cycling.

Many cases in the more-lax 1990s and 2000s were cleared for “medical reasons,” but riders have been banned over Salbutamol. In 2007, before the rule change, Petacchi was banned for 12 months after he tested for 1,320ng/ml. Petacchi had a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for the product, as the rules then required, but he was 320ng/ml over the limit. Petacchi eventually lost a challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In 2014, Italian rider Diego Ulissi received a nine-month ban after testing for levels at 1,900ng/ml. He unsuccessfully argued that a crash caused his levels to spike. Froome’s levels are higher than both of those cases.

Taken in a spray form, it required a TUE until 2010, when WADA changed the rules to allow its use with imposed limitations. The allowed dosage is 1,600 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) within a 24-hour period, and 800 ng/ml within 12 hours. One puff roughly equals 100 ng/ml.

Anything over a limit of 1,000 ng/ml in a doping control triggers an adverse analytical finding. And if reasonable medical explanations cannot be provided, a ban could be imposed. Froome tested for 2,000 ng/ml, double the permitted limit.

Salbutamol can also be taken in pill form or injected, with much stronger doses that would go well beyond the current limit. The WADA-imposed limitation was meant to serve as a reasonable ceiling to prevent false positives for taking the allowed doses in spray form. The drug in higher doses can also burn fat and build muscle, similar to Clenbuterol, but are more easily detected by the 1,000 ng/ml threshold.

So what happened during the Vuelta?

Froome has long been linked to asthma, and he claims he’s been an asthma sufferer since childhood. In 2013, Froome used a TUE to use the corticoid Prednisolone to treat asthma during the Tour de Romandie. His eventual victory kicked up a firestorm when it was revealed he was using a TUE. He used another TUE in 2014. Since then, Froome has vowed not to use a TUE, and since 2015, Team Sky has raced the Tour without any riders using TUE’s.

Froome has long used Salbutamol in the inhaler form. In fact, in 2014, he was caught on camera using an inhaler during stage two of the Critérium du Dauphiné.

It’s no secret that Froome is known for bouts of coughing after hard efforts. This reporter has spotted Froome behind the Tour podium more than a few times wheezing with a raspy cough following big mountain stages.

Leading up to the second half of the Vuelta, Froome was clearly suffering from what appeared to be a minor cold. During a rest-day press chat on September 4 — a day before he won the Logroño time trial and three days before the test — Froome was congested and hiding a cough. When pressed by journalists if he was sick, Froome denied he was ill, something that’s normal among athletes who are not keen to let their rivals know they might be suffering.

The day after the time trial, Froome suffered on the steep summit finale to Los Machucos, losing 42 seconds to eventual runner-up Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). Spanish journalist Ainara Hernando reported that Sky teammate David Lopez, sleeping in a room next to Froome’s, told her he was kept awake by Froome’s intense coughing the night before Los Machucos.

The next stage to Santo Toribio de Liébana, Froome was back with the best, even gapping Nibali to take back 21 seconds. That is the stage that is now under the microscope. Froome told finish-line reporters he “was fine” and felt no ill-effects from a rumored cold, and he later tested positive for elevated levels of Salbutamol.

Damage is done

Even with its tattered image, Sky will now try to convince the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, the stand-alone body that handles disciplinary review within the sport, that Froome’s high levels were unintentional and circumstantial.

Froome’s explanation — that he wasn’t feeling great and wanted to increase his dosage under doctor’s guidance — isn’t likely far from the truth. It’s hard to imagine Froome knowingly taking Salbutamol in any other form, especially when he knew he was the race leader and being tested daily. That would be career suicide.

Yet the numbers don’t lie. Rationalizing double the allowed limit will be hard to take for CADF, more so now that the case has blown open into the media. Even if Froome took what was allowed right up to the limit, Sky will have to be able to prove it. We’ll see if it’s learned any lessons from the “Jiffy Bag” fiasco that torpedoed Bradley Wiggins’ reputation in the eyes of many.

At the granular level, expect a long trail of experts and lawyers to get involved. And they certainly already are working behind the scenes since Sky has known since September 20 about Froome’s adverse analytical finding. Froome could risk seeing his Vuelta win disqualified as well as a racing ban, but since Salbutamol is not a hardline banned drug, a ban would likely be less than two years. If Froome is slapped any sort of ban, expect a challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. With Team Sky’s and Froome’s reputation on the line, this could go on for months, perhaps even years.

By any measure, the news is another blow for cycling. The sport has been lurching since the Lance Armstrong scandal in 2012.

Cycling is in a better place than it was during the Armstrong generation, but it’s clear that some riders and teams continue to push the limits. Team Sky has flirted with going right up to the line, and even if they insist they haven’t crossed it, the optics remains the same.

No one was surprised Wednesday that a Tour de France champion is being called out for a possible doping violation. The only surprise seems to be that it took so long.

Listen to our discussion of the Froome case on the VeloNews podcast:

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