In a normal year, Chris Froome’s Giro d’Italia participation would be cycling’s biggest story. The four-time Tour de France winner’s daring attempt at the Giro-Tour double should be the crowning moment of what’s been a remarkable career. No rider has won the Giro-Tour back-to-back in two decades.
Of course, Chris Froome’s 2018 is, thus far, not normal. The 32-year-old Team Sky captain is fighting to save his career and reputation, due to a complex and controversial case involving the asthma drug Salbutamol. The ordeal has thrown the entire sport into chaos.
Not since the Lance Armstrong scandal has the peloton been so polarized. Froome’s saga kicked open the debate yet again about cycling’s credibility, its ethics, and Team Sky’s place in the peloton.
We still don’t know whether a Froome victory would withstand the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rulebook. Despite near-universal calls for Froome to bench himself, the Sky captain stubbornly and defiantly pedaled toward the Giro.
“I am racing because the rules say I can,” Froome said. “I am not asking for the benefit of a doubt, I am just asking for a fair process. [My case] has been hyped up in the media, anyone can see that.”
GIRO D’ITALIA DIRECTOR Mauro Vegni has seen this movie before, and he doesn’t want a sequel. In 2011, Alberto Contador won the Giro’s pink jersey, only to have it later stripped when he lost a doping case that stemmed from the prior year’s Tour de France. Vegni has nightmares about having to relive that disastrous PR debacle.
“The UCI must guarantee the result of Froome in the Giro,” Vegni said. “We do not want a repeat of 2011 when we had a winner of the race later disqualified because of a disciplinary case. If Froome is allowed to race by the racing authorities, I want it to be assured that his result will stand.”
That dilemma reveals the confusing nature of Froome’s case. Rules allow Froome to compete as his case plays out. Because Salbutamol is classified as a “specified” product, one not requiring a TUE and not banned under WADA code, Froome was not automatically suspended after recording an Adverse Analytical Finding during the 2017 Vuelta.
The big worry for Giro organizers — that Froome could win the pink jersey only to see it taken away later — might not be accurate.
One legal expert told VeloNews that a Froome ban, which could possibly last up to two years, would be served only after a judgment in the case. So Froome’s results after the Vuelta — including those from the Giro — would remain valid. Only his Vuelta result would disappear.
Perhaps the sport should have seen it coming. Salbutamol’s removal from the banned list in 2010 changed the legal process for cases involving the medication. Drugs allowed under certain conditions and doses, such as Salbutamol, are usually adjudicated confidentially. Positive tests for these drugs are not seen as outright offenses. Froome’s case should have been resolved in private; only a leak to the media alerted the world to its presence.
According to a WADA report from 2015, 111 cases out of 11,559 anti-doping controls in road racing returned a positive (less than one percent). Only 61 of those resulted in bans. Nearly half were cleared for medical reasons, dropped outright, or are still ongoing. Based on those numbers, Froome has a decent shot at being cleared.
That gives little solace to grand tour organizers, who want their marquee events free of doping controversies. Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said Froome’s decision to race amid his controversy is “grotesque.”
Could the UCI guarantee Froome’s result, per Vegni’s request? The international cycling body simply lacks that power. Froome’s fate and that of the Giro lies in the hands of a separate anti-doping legal authority set up alongside, but separate from, the UCI in 2015. Any decision it makes can be challenged to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
LEGAL WRANGLING ASIDE, a separate intriguing question swirled around Team Sky in the final run-up to the Giro: Is Froome prepared to win?
Froome’s early season training — he logged massive miles in South Africa — indicated he has every intention to race the Giro and Tour. Yet his form at the early season races Ruta del Sol and Tirreno-Adriatico — races he has previously won — left fans scratching their heads.
At Spain’s Ruta, Froome lacked the high-end speed to follow the fastest riders uphill. At Tirreno, Froome looked lethargic; he finished a lackluster 11th in the race’s individual time trial. Froome had an altitude camp in mid-April to sharpen his form. He looked a bit better at Tour of the Alps, ending up fourth overall when the race finished April 20.
“Chris will be ready for the Giro,” Sky sport director Nicolas Portal said in March. “He needs to manage his shape because he has a big year, with the Giro and Tour. It’s still early days.”
Meanwhile, Froome maintained his calm, even-keeled public persona during the opening months of 2018. He faced media scrums both in Spain and Italy. At both races, Froome politely and patiently answered inquiries, giving away very little information. He showed no signs that the pressure of his case had caused any stress.
“That’s part of something I’ve been dealing with over my whole career as a pro cyclist,” Froome said. “I’ve come up against adversity and I’ve learned how to compartmentalize things.”
Froome’s mild manners could not separate him from the much larger story that enveloped his Sky team during early 2018. In March, the British government released a damning report on Team Sky, asserting the team crossed “an ethical line” by legally using the banned steroid triamcinolone in 2011 and 2012. The story stemmed from the Fancy Bears leak by Russian hackers in 2016, which revealed that Bradley Wiggins obtained a TUE for the substance at critical moments in 2011, 2012, and 2013, including prior to his historic 2012 Tour de France victory, the first by a British rider.
Froome’s Salbutamol case comes as the Wiggins scandal burns a hole through the British illusion that marginal gains delivered Great Britain’s first yellow jersey. Wiggins’s public fall from grace over his triamcinolone use is on par with Armstrong’s implosion in 2012, even if the Brit keeps his yellow jersey. Sky boss Dave Brailsford faces intense pressure to stand down. Caught in the crossfire, Froome has suffered collateral damage even if his case is dramatically different.
Like it or not, Wiggins, Froome, and Team Sky are synonymous. They have won five of the past six Tours de France and have dominated and even transformed modern grand tour racing. The angst surrounding Froome’s case is just as much as about Sky as anything else.
Of course, there might be more coming down the road for Froome. The unraveling of Wiggins’s victory over the past 18 months is proof that no Tour win is truly “safe.” British authorities are still sniffing around Sky — who knows what they might reveal.
The ongoing Sky drama has reignited debates about TUEs, Sky’s integrity, as well as larger questions about cycling’s credibility as a whole.
Froome is finding himself caught up in a tempest just as he tries to take on the biggest cycling challenge of his career. If Froome does end up racing the Giro, climbing the steepest mountains in northern Italy might be easier than what he faces off the bike.