Chris Froome could be risking a longer ban as he tries to clear his name in his unfolding Salbutamol case.
That’s according to Rocco Taminelli, a Swiss sports lawyer who represented Diego Ulissi in 2014.
“What he is trying to do is very risky,” Taminelli told VeloNews. “They will try to argue that he did not take more than was allowed. Now he has to prove it, and that is the hard part. If you fail to prove it, you could get two years.”
(See full interview below)
Many have been drawing comparisons from Froome’s Salbutamol case to what happened to Ulissi after testing for high Salbutamol levels in the 2014 Giro d’Italia.
Taminelli, who has worked on many high-profile cases and also served on the UCI’s disciplinary committee, said while there are many similarities between the two cases, there are some key differences that could have a major impact on the final outcome.
Like Froome, the Italian tested for similarly high levels of the asthma treatment. In September, Froome returned levels double the allowed amount at 2,000 ng/ml, while Ulissi was slightly below that at 1,920 ng/ml.
Ulissi underwent pharmacokinetic testing to try to demonstrate how his body reacted to doses of Salbutamol, a procedure that is expected to be vital to Froome’s defense.
Taminelli pointed out there is an important distinction between Ulissi and Froome, at least in terms of how he sees the rough sketch of Froome’s defense. Ulissi ultimately admitted to negligence without the intention to enhance his performance, and eventually received a reduced, nine-month ban.
The stakes are much higher for Froome, and so far it appears his defense team appears to be taking a different approach than Ulissi.
“Ulissi was negligent, but he did not want to cheat,” Taminelli said. “He could explain why he took the Salbutamol for health reasons, and so he only got nine months.
“Froome is trying another approach. They are trying to say that he took the allowed amounts, but that his body did not expel it,” Taminelli explained. “The risk is higher, of course. If he fails he can get two years, and lose the Vuelta or the world championship bronze medal.”
That implies that it could be an all-or-nothing approach for Froome. The Sky captain could be entirely cleared, or he could face disqualification and an even steeper ban that Ulissi and others have received for high levels of Salbutamol in recent cases.
Froome faces a possible two-year ban and disqualification of his Vuelta victory and a world time trial bronze medal after returning an “adverse analytical finding” for high levels of Salbutamol in a test taken after stage 18 at the Spanish grand tour. Because it is classified as a “threshold” product, and not a banned substance, Froome is not facing an immediate provisionary ban.
Froome’s case is still at the investigative stage, and according to WADA rules, he has a chance to explain his high levels of Salbutamol to the UCI’s Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation.
Froome has hired Mike Morgan, considered by many as one of the top sport lawyers in the world. Morgan helped Lizzie Deignan avoid a racing ban over whereabouts controls, and helped defend Alberto Contador and Johan Bruyneel in their respective cases. It remains to be seen how long the case will play out, and Sky have given away few details. Publicly, Froome said he is still planning to race the Giro and Tour in 2018.
Ulissi’s case was settled in less than one year, and the Italian ended up racing the 2015 Giro.
“In our case, WADA and UCI wanted a longer ban, but they did not appeal it,” Taminelli said. “That is the risk with Froome. If he cannot prove it at [CADF], it is a risk he can get a ban. After that, if you don’t agree, then you can go to CAS. Then it can be a pretty long process.”
Here are excerpts from a telephone interview with Taminelli:
VeloNews: What is your first take on the Froome case?
Rocco Taminelli: The Froome case is a little bit different, because he is saying he did not ingest more that what is permitted. He is saying that he took what is permitted, and that his body did not ‘digest’ it in the right way. [Controls] found a value that was much too high. They will try to argue that it was due to natural causes.
VN: How is the Froome case different than what Ulissi faced in 2014?
RT: We had similar values, but we knew it was impossible to argue the case that way. The value can be very different based on different circumstances. We tried to make [lab] analysis, but found it was impossible to re-create the levels. The volume of in-take was correct, but we had particular circumstances. Ulissi was in a bad health situation, and he took too much Salbutamol. He was negligent, but he did not want to cheat. He could explain why he took the Salbutamol for health reasons, and so he only got nine months. In the end, he could race the Giro the next year because the sanction ended 20 days before the  Giro. He won a stage [stage 7]. As a lawyer, I was happy with how it turned out.
VN: So how do you see the Froome case playing out?
RT: Froome is trying another approach. They are trying to say that he took the allowed amounts, but that his body did not expel it. Now he must explain it, and that is the difficult part of the case. The variation of the substance in the body can be very high, depending on the circumstances — you can be dehydrated, you don’t have enough liquid, and other reasons. Now he has to prove it, and that is the hard part. If you fail to prove it, you could get two years [ban]. What he is trying to do is very risky. He has one of the best lawyers for doping cases [Mike Morgan]. He is one of the best in the world.
VN: So by going that way, he could face a higher ban than we’ve seen in other recent Salbutamol cases?
RT: Yes, because he is not trying to say he took too much. He cannot switch his story after that. If he says he took the correct doses, and then it turns out that he did not, then the anti-doping commission might consider that he was cheating. OK, if you say you took more because of a problem, but you cannot later change your story. The risk is higher, of course, if he fails he can get two years, and lose the Vuelta or the world championship bronze medal.
VN: So in the Ulissi case, you tried to use the pharmacokinetic testing to re-create the levels?
RT: We did the test, and we knew that Diego took too much [Salbutamol]. He did not take it to cheat. He took it to treat his asthma. At the tribunal, he admitted to some wrongdoing. It was with the Swiss anti-doping commission, and since he lived in Switzerland, and raced with a Swiss license. The UCI and WADA were parties, but they did not appeal the decision. The procedural rules were different at the time of the Ulissi case.
VN: How much Salbutamol did Ulissi take?
RT: I do not remember how many puffs. It was more than allowed, and he had a problem expelling it. We did the testing there, and the result was different than what he took. He did not take more, but the result was something more.
VN: And the values that Ulissi had are very similar to what Froome produced during the Vuelta, but how are the cases different?
RT: They look exactly the same. Froome has 2,000, and Ulissi was just above 1,900. It looks like the same case, but they are going to argue it differently. With Ulissi, we had the same values, and we thought it would be pretty hard to prove. We did not have the analysis to back us up, so we did not try to make that argument. We just said, OK, Ulissi has a problem with asthma, like many in the peloton.
VN: How long do you expect the process to play out?
RT: In our case, WADA and UCI wanted a longer ban, but they did not appeal it. That is the risk with Froome. If he cannot prove it at the tribunal, it is a risk he can get a ban. After that, if you don’t agree, then you can go to CAS. Then it can be a pretty long process.