Tour de France 2020

To be or not to be? Debating Froome’s impending Tour start

Should Chris Froome be allowed to race this year’s Tour de France? Is removing him good or bad for the race? Froome’s participation at the 2018 Tour has been a question mark since his Adverse Analytical Finding for Salbutamol from the 2017 Vuelta a España. When VeloNews went to press with its annual Tour…

Should Chris Froome be allowed to race this year’s Tour de France? Is removing him good or bad for the race?

Froome’s participation at the 2018 Tour has been a question mark since his Adverse Analytical Finding for Salbutamol from the 2017 Vuelta a España. When VeloNews went to press with its annual Tour de France guide, the UCI had yet to rule on his case. As that remains true as of mid-June, Froome appears set to make the start next month — which brings even more question marks.

We debate cycling’s biggest issue of 2018.

Not this year

Let’s address the skinny, yellow-jersey-clad elephant in the room: The Tour de France needs to bar Chris Froome from racing in 2018 due to the cloud of uncertainty hanging over his head.

The Tour has been down this road before. In the leadup to the 2008 Tour, defending champion Alberto Contador and his Astana team were embroiled in the Operacion Puerto investigation. Contador was not officially banned, however there was strong evidence of Astana and Contador’s involvement in the doping ring.

What did Tour de France organizer ASO do? The organization took a stand and barred the entire team from the start line, despite pushback from cycling’s governing body.

At the time, such a move sent a clear message to the peloton: involve yourself in doping, and prepare to spend July on the couch. Such a hard-line stance was needed at the time. After all, the previous two editions of the race had been upended by doping (Floyd Landis in 2006; Michael Rasmussen in 2007).

Here we are a decade later. There is a strong belief that cycling’s go-go doping days of the early 2000s are a thing of the past. Yet there are signs that riders have new strategies to sidestep the rules, and have steered into the grey areas between legal and illegal activity. There is strong evidence that Team Sky likely used Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) to give Bradley Wiggins an unfair advantage for his 2012 Tour victory. And there is also strong evidence that Froome may have taken an illegal dose of Salbutamol during the Vuelta a España to gain an edge.

A certain subset of pro racers will always look to gain an advantage, no matter the rules. In an effort to send a strong message — in lieu of a decision by the UCI — the Tour de France should take a stand, make an example, and ban Froome. It’s the strong message that pro cycling needs in 2018.

Let him race!

Until Chris Froome receives an official sanction for his Salbutamol Adverse Analytical, he is free to race, according to UCI rules. If you don’t like those rules, take it up with the anti-doping authorities.

It should never be down to a rider to go above and beyond established rules to guarantee fair sport — the rules themselves should suffice. To expect more of professional racers creates extralegal grey areas that only propagate mistrust and scandal.

Salbutamol is a specified substance for a reason. Riders do ingest the anti-asthma medication for innocuous purposes. To protect those riders who use the drug for legitimate reasons from the lifelong stigma of a “doping positive,” the UCI allows those who return an Adverse Analytical a chance to prove their innocence.

Is Chris Froome one of those innocent riders? Who knows? If he’s not, he should receive a lengthy ban. Until a decision comes down from the UCI’s anti-doping tribunal, however, Froome has a right to race. If you think that system is too lenient, that’s your right, but “them’s the rules” for now. Contravening those rules sets a horrible precedent.

A system that relies on athletes to go above and beyond the rules as written is a system destined to fail. That creates its own unequal playing field of riders abiding by the normal rules, and riders abiding by an expanded set of expectations.

For the sake of clarity in a sport with far too many unwritten rules, Froome should not be expected to stay home from the Tour until he’s explicitly told to do so.

Froome is bad for the Tour

Froome’s mere presence at the Tour will create a huge distraction that will further tarnish the image of a sport that has had a rough go of it lately.

Indeed, his participation will be awful for the Tour de France, no matter how you slice it.

A fierce yellow-jersey battle among a promising crop of younger GC talents — think Nairo Quintana, Tom Dumoulin, Romain Bardet, and Adam Yates — could go a long way toward diverting some of the international focus away from decades of doping scandals at the Tour de France. Hopefully the Tour will give us that showdown — but I’m not holding my breath. Instead, we’ll likely get three weeks of Team Sky dominance and yet another Tour winner that casual fans will simply write off as a doper, no matter how nuanced the case.

For all the talk of a cleaner sport, a Froome Tour victory in 2018 would mean that five of the last six yellow jerseys have gone to riders now facing a cloud of suspicion — thanks to Froome’s former teammate Bradley Wiggins, who has faced the scandal of TUE abuse this past year. Every press conference will see riders, including those who have never had a conversation with Froome, hit with a barrage of questions about Salbutamol, and whether the defending champion should be racing at all.

He has a right to race, undeniably, but Froome will be a huge distraction and his presence could do irreparable harm to a sport that has taken far too many body blows in the last 20 years.

Froome is great for the Tour

Distraction or not, Froome’s chase for his fifth Tour de France is the story that the race needs in 2018. The success of Froome and Sky has ignited British fandom for cycling, and these days, British fans glue themselves to the television each July to take in the race. The success of Froome and Team Sky have singlehandedly introduced a valuable new market to the event. Sponsors for both the race and the teams want more people to watch. Distractions turn people away. For the financial health of the race, having Froome on the start line makes sense.

After Lance Armstrong’s mea culpa for doping in 2013, TV ratings for the Tour de France declined in the U.S., and the participatory cycling market tanked. Would banning Froome have such an impact on British cycling? Perhaps.

Plus, 2018 could be Froome’s final realistic opportunity to win cycling’s greatest prize. This year he will turn 33, about the age when a rider’s top-end speed begins to wane. Froome’s battle against Richie Porte, Nairo Quintana, and father time would be an all-time great. And should Froome face a two-year ban by the UCI, his window to join the race’s all-time greats could indefinitely close. The Tour needs Froome —  controversy or not.