Instead of starting a new racing season with optimism and excitement, many in the peloton are frustrated, dismayed, and even angry.
The prospect that Chris Froome might race as his ongoing Salbutamol case plays out behind closed doors is worrying to nearly everyone except the staunchest of Team Sky’s fans.
The Froome Affaire has thrown the peloton into tumult. Despite near-universal calls for Froome to stand down, it appears the four-time Tour de France winner has every intention of racing, perhaps as soon as this month.
“It would be catastrophic for the image of cycling [if Froome raced]. It would be a farce,” Romain Bardet told L’Equipe last month. “How can our sport be credible if the #1 rode the Tour with the possibility of being retroactively sanctioned? It would make no sense at all.”
And Bardet’s scathing comments echo the sentiments of many across the peloton.
Rules allow Froome to race during a review process — and so far the UCI has not invoked its option to suspend Froome after his adverse analytical finding came to light in September — so the 2018 season begins in limbo.
In early season races from Australia to Argentina to Europe, a chorus of voices across the sport has called for Froome to wait on the sidelines until his Salbutamol case is settled.
“When the leader of world cycling has an affair like this, it is all of cycling that is impacted,” said Ag2r La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu. “It is a shame that this is where we are, because it does not help the image of cycling. When a rider has problems, we stop the rider. The first positive test — pffft — they are out. Voila! That is the reality. That is better for the image of cycling.”
So far, Team Sky is resisting calls to bench Froome. He insists he has not broken any rules, and vows to clear his name. Froome hasn’t raced since the world time trial championship in September. Team Sky and Froome’s legal team are showing every intention of not only working to clear its marquee rider but also sending him to races, perhaps as early as this month.
That stance, while completely in accordance with the rules, is exasperating to many.
During last month’s Santos Tour Down Under, VeloNews spoke to several riders and staffers, both on and off the record. There is near unanimity that the optics would be wrong if Froome races before he is cleared of any possible ban.
Voices of concern and consternation range from UCI president David Lappartient to racing rivals Tom Dumoulin and Vincenzo Nibali to sport directors, race organizers, and team owners. There is so much uncertainty surrounding the Froome case that many simply believe the best thing for the four-time Tour champion to do is to stand down.
“There are two riders in peloton that something like this cannot happen to; Froome and [Peter] Sagan,” said one sport director. “It’s already a disaster for the sport, and it will be a circus if he starts to race before this is resolved. Why not just wait?”
That kind of talk must be maddening to those inside the Froome camp.
Cases like Froome’s — with an adverse analytical finding for a specified product — are typically dealt with via the established anti-doping protocol without public notification. Under the rules, riders have the opportunity to argue they were not negligent nor broke any rules.
A leak in December irrevocably changed the narrative of the story. What should have been a private review has been blown open to media scrutiny and public dissection. Froome’s legal team, as expected, isn’t giving much away until the process plays out.
Media speculation has helped fill that void. Two weeks ago, L’Equipe reported that Froome’s lawyers might argue of kidney malfunction (something quietly denied by those close to Froome). Corriere della Sera reported this week that Froome was poised to negotiate a reduced ban, something Froome publicly denied.
On Thursday, La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that the case is poised to move to the anti-doping tribunal, a decisive part of the process where Froome’s fate could well be decided. There was no immediate comment from Team Sky or the UCI.
Now everyone is waiting. Froome could be cleared, or he could face a ban of up to two years as well as disqualification of his 2017 Vuelta a España win and the bronze medal from the world time trial championships. Unless Froome admits to some sort of negligence, a reduced ban seems unlikely. WADA, UCI, the British cycling federation, and Froome could all challenge any ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
There are no specified time limits on how long the review process might take. Lappartient even suggested the process could take months if there are lengthy appeals.
“Chris Froome has the right to explain his point of view and defend his situation. This can take time but we have to follow this,” Lappartient said in Australia. “We can’t be in a hurry and make a mistake. I don’t know how long it will take, but I hope that it will be solved as soon as possible, for him, us and cycling. I don’t know, but with the appeals, it could take a year.”
The pressure on Sky is mounting because no one wants to see a repeat of 2011, when Alberto Contador raced and won that year’s Giro d’Italia as his clenbuterol case played out in the courts, only to see his victories later disqualified.
“We cannot accept a repeat of the Contador case or a trial after the fact,” Giro d’Italia director Mauro Vegni said Thursday to ANSA. “We want a certificate from the UCI that allows the rider to start the Giro.”
As far as issuing a special certificate, that seems unlikely. The UCI could suspend Froome, but so far, the cycling governing body has resisted even though its own rules would allow it. Despite a few public comments from Lappartient urging Sky to sideline Froome, the UCI has tried to remain as discrete as possible.
Race organizers could also step in and try to stop Froome from racing. The Tour de France has a rule that allows it to prevent riders from competing from causing “damage to the image of the event.” Efforts to do that before have been cut short by civil courts, however.
It’s not all anti-Froome in the peloton. More than a few queried at the Tour Down Under empathize with Froome’s predicament and hope he is able to clear his name of potentially career-altering implications. Others pointed out that Salbutamol is not a banned product, such as EPO or human growth hormones.
“It’s a terrible situation for Chris,” said one sport director who wanted to remain anonymous. “He’s a racer that many in the peloton believe. He’s also been a good ambassador for the sport. It’s not easy for anyone.”
Team Sky declined to comment for this story.
Froome, meanwhile, is training in South Africa, and has been posting impressive training rides on his Strava account. And it seems he has every intention of racing this season, with the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France remaining his central goals.
To race the Giro competitively, he would need to complete at least one major stage race, if not more. Rumors have Froome lining up at races from the Ruta del Sol later this month to the Volta a Catalunya in March.