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Commentary: The simplest explanation for Froome’s salbutamol test

Fred Dreier /
Photo credit: TDWsport.com

Warning: The following column contains opinion and speculation about the Chris Froome/Salbutamol anti-doping case. There, you’ve been warned.

In case you missed it, French newspaper L’Equipe reported on Tuesday that Chris Froome and Sky are considering a legal defense that argues his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol was the result of kidney failure.

Yes, kidney failure.

Under this possible defense strategy, lawyers could argue that Froome’s kidneys malfunctioned during the Vuelta a España, retained the salbutamol, and then released it all at once, which is why his urine contained twice the allowable limit of the asthma drug.

Boy, that’s a helluva explanation.

It appears that the British team is prepared to take its anti-doping cases into the realm of what I refer to as the “head-slap zone.” That’s the realm in which the explanations are so unlikely and far-fetched that even casual cycling fans slap their heads in amazement. Yes, this is the realm of Tyler Hamilton’s chimeric vanishing twin, Lance Armstrong’s French conspiracy, Raimondas Rumsas’s “The steroids were for my mother-in-law,” Adrie van der Poel eating juiced pigeons, or Gilberto Simoni taking a cocaine cough drop from Peru. Simply reading those excuses in succession makes me want to slap my head.

There, I just slapped myself.

As a lover of all things cycling, I sincerely hope Froome and Sky back away from the kidney defense, if not for their reputations, then for the good of the sport. Cycling has already produced the lion’s share of slap-worthy doping explanations within the global realm of sports. In fact, no other sport is as synonymous with these excuses as cycling. So do we really need to add another one to the list?

You see, the purpose of these confusing and far-fetched defenses is to override the desire that we, the public, have to find the explanation that is most basic and simple. Yes, we are searching for Occam’s Razor. Chimeric twins and French conspiracies are not Occam’s Razor.

For those who are not familiar with the philosophic principle, here is a quick primer. When given multiple explanations as to why something occurred, the simplest, most basic answer is probably the correct one. The more complex answer — the one with more leap-of-faith assumptions — is likely incorrect.

Since day one of this mess, cyclists and cycling fans have asked me what is the Occam’s Razor for the Froome case. So over the past few weeks, I have posed the question to experts in the realm of medicine and sports science. Doctors, researchers, and so on. You have likely read about some of these experts on our site in recent weeks.

My questions: What’s the simplest explanation in the Froome case? What is Occam’s Razor here, given the facts of the case?

Those facts, as a reminder, are that Froome recorded twice the legal limit of salbutamol after stage 18 of the Vuelta. On the day prior to stage 18 and the day after, his salbutamol levels were fine. Froome is known to be asthmatic, and to take a Salbutamol inhaler. These inhalers are legal to use, and the volume of salbutamol they excrete is not known to regularly record a number that high.

To a person, these doctors and researchers have provided a similar answer to the Occam’s Razor question: Froome either took an oral dose of salbutamol, or he used a salbutamol nebulizer. Both methods are forbidden by WADA code.

Do these doctors know what happened? No—only Froome and his team know. Still, this Occam’s Razor is simple, and honestly, it does not make me want to slap myself. After all, it fits into a logical narrative that is also easy to fathom:

It was the final week of the 2017 Vuelta a España, and Chris Froome had a cold. And the cold inflamed his asthma. Note: many asthmatics (myself included) are familiar with this pattern. Even a basic head cold eventually ends up in our lungs, causing wheezing, tightness, and endless fits of phlegmy coughing.

Froome battled the coughs with his salbutamol inhaler. When a respiratory infection meets asthma, however, the coughing and wheezing can get bad. Using the puffer is akin to squirting a garden hose on a five-alarm fire.

Froome needed a firehose. And in this situation, the firehose was either a salbutamol tablet or a salbutamol nebulizer. Those are the methods that can deliver a big enough dose to douse the flames.

But there’s a problem: Oral salbutamol is banned, and nebulizers require a TUE. And the dose that both of these methods deliver is almost guaranteed to surpass the legal threshold.

Froome faced a tough choice. He could quit; he could continue, and risk his health, or he could gamble with the banned method.

The Occam’s Razor explanation is that Froome and Sky chose to gamble. Perhaps their calculus was that he could over-hydrate the next day and dilute his urine enough to avoid a positive test. Or that Sky’s political relationships within the sport would override what would surely be a minor infraction.

At first, the plan worked. Froome attacked on the stage 18 climb to Alto de Santo Toribo de Liébana, zipping away from Vincenzo Nibali. And then, the plan failed spectacularly. Froome’s pee sample recorded twice the legal limit for salbutamol.

Is this what actually occurred? It’s cycling, so we may never know.

Of course the Occam’s Razor here is comparatively tame when compared to the doping stories of old. Did Chris Froome gain an unfair advantage? I don’t know. He suffered from asthma, and perhaps took a dose of his medication that was above the legal limit. Did he visit a clandestine Spanish blood doping doctor? No. Did he orchestrate an elaborate team-wide doping program, and then get people to sign non-disclosure agreements and have his lawyers distribute “Lack of Credibility” documents when anyone talked? No. Did he blame grandma? No.

But cycling has rules, and athletes must live on one side of a black-and-white divide. So while the Occam’s Razor in the Froome situation presents an explanation we can understand, it also presents one that, according to the rules, is a violation.

The simplest explanation of the Froome case is perhaps not worthy of a head slap — just a head shake.

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