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Commentary: On Froome and not knowing

The only way for riders to avoid suspicion is not to win. Do we suspect Froome, or the yellow jersey?

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We have two interns at VeloNews. They’re both 21. They love cycling. They love it with the enthusiasm of youth. They love cycling despite having discovered it while drugs were decimating the sport. They were 12 years old when Floyd Landis happened. Watching cycling without suspicion is as foreign to them as going through airport security without removing their shoes. They never knew life before the inflection point.

Yet they think cycling is the best sport in the world. When I asked one of them how he reconciles that sentiment with what he knows about doping, he said he thinks the peloton is cleaner now but that he can’t fully embrace a lot of winning performances. “I wonder about Froome,” he said. “When he wins like he did, it seems suspicious.”

Our interns might never get to celebrate Tour wins with the unchecked enthusiasm I enjoyed when LeMond pipped Fignon in ’89. But they still love the sport.

No performance in pro cycling happens in isolation. Time is a river, and the waters of 1998, Lance Armstrong, 2006, pot belge, Puerto, and so on, swirl around every current rider. That makes the skepticism about Chris Froome understandable. Or, rather, it makes skepticism understandable. Right now the doubt is directed at Froome less because his performances have truly been otherworldly than because we suspect anyone in yellow.

The only way to avoid suspicion is not to win. Nibali faced repeated questions about doping during last year’s Tour and again in the offseason, when his Astana team continued to be, well, Team Astana. Froome fought off accusations in 2013. Bradley Wiggins had to respond to questions about his Tour win and Team Sky’s dominance in 2012. (His answers were short, and most of the words he used contained only four letters.)

Was Wiggins clean? Was Cadel Evans? Do we suspect Froome, or the yellow jersey? Perhaps if he looked more graceful on a bike, we’d be more accepting. Maybe if he spoke as affably as Jens Voigt, we’d cheer for him more. He might have a bigger fan base if his arms didn’t look like they should be blowing in the wind in front of a used car dealership. But the truth is he’s not a fan favorite, and he’s winning in a sport that has become emblematic of doping. That’s tough to overcome.

The attitude of our sporting era is reflexive doubt. We scoff. We shrug. We rationalize the results until they fit with the way we see things. Wins by riders we’ve decided to believe in are evidence that people can race clean. Victories by anyone else are proof that the sport is still filthy.

But we don’t know.

For a while, cyclists were doping in ways that the tests could catch. Reasoned Decision investigators were able to go back through the years and prove what many thought to be true. Year after year, race after race, the proof was strong enough to remove doubt.

We don’t have that drumbeat of hard evidence now. The testers aren’t catching as many riders. We can take that as an indication that the sport is cleaner, or we can take it as a sign that the cheaters have gotten smarter.

It’s both, and proof of neither. We don’t know.

Which performances can we believe and which ones should we dismiss? We don’t know. Was Froome pumping enhanced blood on Tuesday, or was it just that, as David Brailsford pointed out, his rivals had a bad day? We don’t know. Certainly Froome’s ride wasn’t something out of the ordinary for him. He’s been competitive in stage races at every level since turning pro. If anyone’s rides seemed extraordinary on Tuesday, they were Ritchie Porte’s and Alejandro Valverde’s. Those guys were driving the pace up most of the climb and still finished well.

Calm down. I’m not insinuating that Porte has started doping or that Valverde hasn’t stopped. We don’t know. We don’t know about the guy who grabbed the prime at your Tuesday night crit, the way we don’t know about anyone right up until they test positive or someone finds conclusive evidence. I’m just saying that the accusations leveled at Froome might have less to do with his actual ride than with who he is and what he’s wearing.

I don’t think his win in La Pierre-Saint-Martin was proof that he’s doping, nor even strong evidence of the fact. At 59 seconds over Porte in second place and 1:04 over Nairo Quintana in third, it wasn’t even all that impressive by Tour standards, at least relative to the field. In 1986, Greg LeMond won stage 13 in the Pyrennes by over a minute. Five days later, he and Bernard Hinault rolled across the finish atop l’Alpe d’Huez together more than five minutes ahead of the third-placed rider.

In 1986, rides like that inspired. In 2015, far lesser rides inspire letters like the one we received minutes after Froome had crossed the finish line Tuesday. It began, “One reason there is a proliferation of doping in cycling is because VeloNews and the rest of the media do not call out the obvious dopers,” and ended, “I’m done watching this tour and have loss [sic] respect for the writers at VeloNews.”

We call them out plenty. (Someday maybe I’ll share some of the letters we get begging us to stop with all the doping stories.) Few people love cycling as much as the writers at VeloNews, and few are as aware of its problems. But whether you define “obvious” in journalistic, WADA, or legal terms, Froome’s not an obvious doper. And we don’t know.

We’ll continue to call out the cheats. We’re reporters first. We’ll follow any smoke to see if there’s fire. In 2006, after Landis made a mockery of the Tour, I wrote a column for Outside magazine in which I said I couldn’t believe in pro cycling anymore. (Among the negative responses I got was one from a former pro whose career has since ended in doping ignominy.)

In that column, I wrote, “I refuse to let the cheats take away what has been the defining athletic pursuit of my life. Look, I used to love Woody Allen films, then he ran off with his lover’s daughter, and now “Manhattan” creeps me out. But I still go to the movies. So if the pros want to pack their blood, slap hormone patches on their nethers, and trot out lawyer-vetted statements about how they’ve never tested positive for anything, fine. I’ll be on my bike.”

I’m in a much better place now. The drug scandals never robbed me of the joy of riding. And the efforts to clean up the sport — flawed but earnest — have restored enough of my trust that I’m comfortable being the editor in chief of a cycling publication. That doesn’t mean I think everyone is riding clean. I’m not naïve. But I do think cycling wants to be clean and is doing more than any other sport to get there.

Mostly, though, I’ve accepted not knowing. As Froome has repeatedly said, you can’t prove a negative. When someone fails a test, we know. Otherwise, it’s down to faith. If Froome is in fact riding clean, he is the only person in the world who can ever know that for a fact. The rest of us, even those closest to him, can only believe.

Or not. It’s our choice whether or not to live with the ambiguity. But we don’t know.