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Froome: Normally not normal

Do you believe no clean rider can win the Tour, today and, perhaps, ever?

Pas normal, is he not? Not normal? Of course he’s not normal. He won the Tour de France.

Chris Froome inspires two strains of skepticism. Both are admirably addressed, though not quashed, by his release Thursday of the physiological testing results from mid-August. The first is his quick rise — that he came from nowhere at 26, two years older than Nairo Quintana is today, with the excuse of a strange disease and an inhaler in his pocket. The second is based on an assertion of super-human performance, based on oft-calculated but infrequently measured outputs that must be the result of shady inputs, critics shout.

The Esquire UK article, penned in engaging fashion by Richard Moore, does not absolve Froome of his accused sins. Nor does it prove him sinful. The testing performed — a VO2max test and sustained power tests, which work in tandem to describe his abilities to race a bicycle — was never going to provide a definitive conclusion. Instead it provides a few short, non-abutting chapters in a book we may never get to read. We can draw a line between them, but cannot be sure of its accuracy. We can see the size of his engine but not how it got that big.

Froome should be commended for releasing such information. His rivals have not. Cycling is skepticism in a post-Postal world.

The data presented address the first strain of skepticism, that of Froome’s sudden rise in performance.

Froome underwent a VO2 test as a fresh-faced recruit to the World Cycling Center in 2007, scoring an incredible 80.2 mL/kg*min (milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute), at a weight of 75.6 kilograms (166.7 pounds). The test in August revealed a VO2 of 84.6, at 69.9kg (154.1lbs). Readjusted for his Tour de France weight of 67kg (147.7lbs), this puts him at 88.2. “Off the charts,” said Phillip Bell, one of the sports scientists who conducted the testing.

The VO2 figure marks Froome as an outlier, with among the highest figures recorded by a cyclist. That he is exceptional should surprise nobody; only one man on earth wins the Tour de France every year, so the feat requires outlier physiology by definition.

His excellent 2007 VO2 figure, at a much higher weight, shows that most of his improvement came from weight loss, not power increase.

This is backed up by the power tests, which were also performed in 2007. His peak power figure of 525 watts and a sustained power of 419 watts in 2015 are lower than his 2007 figures of 540 watts and 420 watts, respectively. Donkey to racehorse? Not at all. The engine was there; its chassis was just a bit chubby.

The second strain of criticism, that Froome’s performances are implausibly exceptional, that he simply produces too many watts for a clean racer, is impossible to invalidate. There is no settled-upon definition of what is humanly possible. Some say sustaining 6.2 watts-per-kilogram in the Tour de France is the upper limit; others point to 6.0. Froome’s test numbers do not tell a complete story in favor of his being clean. He could have doped for the August testing; there is no easy way to prove he didn’t.

A vital component is missing: longitudinal data, gained from further testing spread across a long period of time, would help prove that this test was performed while clean. Experts including Ross Tucker of Science of Sport, who predicted Froome’s VO2 figure accurately prior to Thursday’s release, have pointed to the lack of multiple data points as a reason to maintain skepticism.

There are other gaps as well, and questions left unanswered. Just because we now know Froome had exceptional physiology in 2007 does not explain years of poor performance. In fact it exacerbates them. Those years are often defended as the result of Bilharzia, caused by a parasitic flat worm, and asthma, both since treated. If there are blood tests from those years, which would likely show Bilharzia’s effects, Froome could check off another of the skeptics’ boxes.

Pre-Esquire story or post, one thing has not changed. The perceived relevance and logic of the accusations against Froome depend on how one reads the first sentence in this story. By now, the cycling fan exists with an intrinsic bias one way or the other. Do you believe no clean rider can win the Tour, today and, perhaps, ever? Or that victory requires such a level of extraordinary talent as to make any winner not normal, by definition? A negative cannot be proven, and no positives exist. Do you believe?