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GAP, France (VN) — It’s a parasite called bilharzia that thrives in the murky waters of Africa. Its larvae are deposited inside a human host. It’s tough to diagnose and even tougher to eradicate.
Almost unknown beyond rural Africa, few had heard of bilharzia until Tour de France yellow jersey leader Chris Froome (Sky) came down with it a few years ago.
While Froome is battling for the maillot jaune, he’s been battling an enemy from within over the past several seasons.
On Tuesday, Froome said he continues bi-annual check-ups and treatments to rid the parasite entirely from his system. “I do go for a check-up every six months. The last was in January and it was still in my system,” he said. “I take Biltricide. It kills the parasite in the system.”
Biltricide, also known as praziquantel, blasts the parasites out of the human body. In an interview with VeloNews in 2012, Froome said he only discovered the bilharzia in 2010.
Here’s how Froome described Biltricide, the bilharzia treatment he underwent in early 2012: “It’s a very strong pill. It basically kills everything in your system, and hopefully at the same time, kills the parasite. It’s something that I have to try to get rid of it. You cannot train when you’re taking that. The treatment is pretty rough stuff. I have had a bit of a slow start to the season. There was more than a week when I could not even touch the bike.”
Froome also confirmed Tuesday he does not have a TUE (therapeutic use exemption) during this Tour, not for bilharzia treatment, nor anything else. Biltricide is not included in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substances list and does not require a TUE.
“TUEs are a rather personal issue, but I am able to say I do not have any TUEs during this Tour,” Froome said. “Hopefully I will not have any.”
TUEs can be somewhat controversial, as they allow doctors to prescribe medical products or treatments that are otherwise on WADA’s banned list. Some claim that TUEs can be a backdoor for cutting corners among the peloton. Though not illegal, they can be abused.
Team Sky principal Sir Dave Brailsford told French television in an interview, broadcast Tuesday, that all TUEs should be publicly released before the Tour, as a step to be transparent and to rebuild credibility.
One source told VeloNews that none of the Team Sky riders have TUEs during this Tour de France.
Froome said he’s been struggling with bilharzia over the past several seasons. Doctors initially thought the symptoms pointed toward mononucleosis, but the parasite went largely undiagnosed until Froome underwent extensive blood screening with a switch to Sky in 2010.
Brailsford said the parasite might be one reason Froome could not reach his potential earlier in his career. Some have wondered how Froome, who did not make much of an impression in his early grand tours, has suddenly emerged as the dominant grand tour rider of his generation.
Froome was 83rd at his grand tour debut at the 2008 Vuelta a España, 34th at the 2009 Giro, and was disqualified from the 2010 Giro after taking a pull on a motorcycle for what he said was a planned abandon after suffering a knee injury.
That’s in sharp contrast to Froome’s breakout ride during the 2011 Vuelta, when he lost the race by just 19 seconds to Juanjo Cobo.
Brailsford said it wasn’t until the bilharzia was diagnosed and treated that the real Froome could emerge.
“There was an inconsistency about him,” Brailsford said. “The question wasn’t why he was good, the question was why we’d only seeing glimpses. Why isn’t he like that all the time? When the illness was discovered, retrospectively, it made a lot of sense. There would be certain stages in the front group, you’d see these glimpses, but he couldn’t put it together with some consistency.”
Brailsford said team doctors continue to monitor Froome for bilharzia because it’s difficult to completely eradicate.
“It’s not something that just disappears. It’s a parasite. It lays eggs. They might be dormant, then the eggs hatch, then they lay more eggs,” Brailsford said. “You have to stay on top of it, be vigilant, that’s why he keeps having treatments so it’s completely eradicated over time.”
During an interview with VeloNews during the 2011 Vuelta, Froome said he believed he came in contact during off-season trips back to his native Africa.
“I must have touched some contaminated water somewhere in Africa. I probably had it for a year before I found it,” he said in 2011. “That just drained my immune system. I was always getting little colds and coughs, nothing serious, but it always kept me from being at 100-percent fitness.”