Commentary: Froome scandal could burst British cycling bubble

Merely a decade ago, cycling was nearly undone by a litany of doping controversies. Now, another scandal looks poised to rock the sport as a whole: Chris Froome’s 2017 Vuelta anti-doping test that was over the limit for Salbutamol. While it’s unlikely that Froome’s adverse analytical will torpedo the sport’s…

Merely a decade ago, cycling was nearly undone by a litany of doping controversies.

Now, another scandal looks poised to rock the sport as a whole: Chris Froome’s 2017 Vuelta anti-doping test that was over the limit for Salbutamol.

While it’s unlikely that Froome’s adverse analytical will torpedo the sport’s global appeal, it may have a sizable impact within the United Kingdom. In the UK, cycling is enjoying a boom. TV ratings, and grassroots events that dwarf that of much larger nations.

Bikes are big business to the Brits. According to its 2016 annual report, British Cycling recorded a membership of 120,000 riders. That number has increased by nearly 75,000 participants since 2012—a growth spurt that is itself bigger than the entire membership of USA Cycling (approximately 60,000). This difference is shocking considering the UK has a population of 65 million versus a whopping 320 million in the United States. Britain’s cycling personalities have enjoyed hero status. Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, and even David Brailsford have all been knighted by the Queen.

British Tour de France viewership has also skyrocketed since the success of home riders. In 2017, Eurosport reported increased viewership numbers across Europe, including Britain, with an average of 785,000 viewers per stage. By contrast, NBC Sports reported flat U.S. viewership from 2016 and a 16 percent decrease from 2015, with an average of 331,000 viewers per stage. The BBC audience research department reported that in 2014, 10.7 million viewers watched the race in Britain, which works out to a whopping 509,523 viewers per stage. Due to Froome’s success, it is likely that number has significantly increased since then.

Would a Froome doping ban crash this wave? The U.S. cycling scene can directly track its exodus of sponsors after the Lance Armstrong doping revelations in 2013.

The major issue is that Froome’s adverse analytical comes after 15 months of bad headlines for British cycling. In August of 2016, World Champion Lizzie Deignan was controversially cleared after missing three anti-doping tests in a year. A few months later, the Fancy Bears hacking story revealed that Bradley Wiggins had received a TUE for corticosteroid triamcinolone immediately before the 2012 Tour de France, which he won. This began a chain of events that led to a UK Anti-Doping investigation into Team Sky and the infamous Jiffy Bag incident. The country’s cycling heroes were dragged before Parliament to explain themselves, and the media covered every twist and turn.

Scandals like these can have a huge impact on sports fandom. USA Cycling’s membership numbers have dropped every year since 2012, the year USADA released its reasoned decision against Armstrong. And in the wake of Armstrong’s 2013 mea culpa, major sponsors such as Nissan and Radioshack left the sport entirely.

Cycling is hardly alone. The National Football League has endured several years of non-stop controversies—everything from domestic violence, to rampant head injuries, to now the polarizing political protests by players. Since 2015 the NFL has seen its television ratings decline by nearly 20 percent. One in five football fans have lost their passion to watch the sport on TV.

Will British fans lose their passion? Of course it’s not guaranteed to happen. One has to wonder how the bombardment of negative news will impact the average cycling fan in Great Britain. After all, controversy breeds cynicism, and cynicism often leads to disenchantment.

Already, sports columnists in the UK are beginning to question Froome’s story. On Friday the Guardian ran a story titled, “Clouds over Chris Froome and Sky will linger despite contrite response.” Writing for Australian news outlet ABC, columnist Richard Hinds started off his story with the words, “Yeah right, Chris Froome.”

Perhaps most damning was a column by Oliver Brown, the chief sports feature writer for The Telegraph. Brown wrote, “So, for now, Froome can spare us any talk of untainted legacies. His sport has the grimmest history, and it is one with which his team, Sky, have failed to make a convincing peace.”

This week British cycling writer Jeremy Whittle went on the VeloNews Podcast to discuss, among other topics, how British fans feel about Wiggins following his very public controversy for his TUE. Whittle said that, after a few beers, the fans he’s interacted with seemed to be somewhat cynical toward the ordeal.

“People are really struggling to understand what was really going on, and people think they were fiddling the system to give those TUEs in advance of grand tours,” Whittle said. “They think the fact that we still don’t know what was in the jiffy bag means that it must have contained something suspicious. It isn’t going to go away anytime soon, to think it is is very naive.”

One bellwether of Froome’s popularity will come this Sunday, at the gala for BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Froome has never won the award—both Mark Cavendish and Wiggins have. Two Grand Tours would likely put Froome high up in the running for the award. But the recent bad press may torpedo his chances.

It’s unlikely that Froome will emerge from this ordeal totally unscathed. The best precedent for punishment is Diego Ulissi’s nine-month ban in 2014 after returning similar levels. While Ulissi was able to serve his time and move on, Froome is a four-time Tour de France winner. He is under far more scrutiny and pressure than the Italian. Come July, when he returns to the Tour, he and Team Sky will face more questions than ever before.

Great reigns always end unexpectedly. The American dominance in the 2000s created a bubble that rose quickly, only to burst dramatically in the wake of controversy. The constant stream of scandals chips away the credibility and creates a decay that paves the way for another scandal to deliver a knockout blow.

Will this scandal be the tipping point for British cycling? Time will tell.

Listen to our discussion of the Froome case on the VeloNews podcast: