Fasten your seat belts: It’s going to be a bumpy and lengthy ride. The battle lines are being drawn as you read this, as both sides in the Chris Froome Salbutamol case — on one side Froome, his wife Michelle, and a besieged Team Sky, and on the other side of the fence, the new-look, sharpened-up UCI led by Frenchman David Lappartient — lawyer up.
Don’t expect a quick resolution. This affair is likely to take some time and many twists and turns. In fact, it has already been rumbling on behind closed doors since Froome was notified of the adverse analytical finding during the 2017 World Road Championships in Bergen, Norway.
While Froome was picking up achievement awards on stage in Paris at the 2018 Tour de France presentation and the Giro d’Italia organizers were fretting over his appearance in their race next year, Froome and Team Sky were already building their defense twice-over-the-WADA-limit excretion of the restricted asthma drug.
There is much at stake here — Froome’s reputation of course but also the continued existence of his team’s big money sponsorship. Team Sky have hired Mike Morgan of Morgan Sports Law, the renowned lawyer who pulled former world champion Lizzie Armitstead back from the brink to avoid a ban, even though she’d missed three drugs tests in 10 months.
Even so, the precedents suggest that Froome’s hopes of avoiding a ban are slim. Italian star sprinter Alessandro Petacchi was given a 12-month ban and stripped of his five stage victories at the 2007 Giro for exceeding the Salbutamol limit.
More recently Diego Ulissi served a nine-month doping ban after the 2014 Giro, where he won two stages, showed 1900 nanograms per milliliter of Salbutamol.
Pat McQuaid, the former UCI president who oversaw the Petacchi affair believes “it will be difficult for Froome and Sky to disprove” culpability.
“We had the same with Petacchi,” he said, “and he served time for that, despite making many efforts to show it wasn’t deliberate.”
“I think the case will run for a while,” McQuaid said. “I heard Brailsford’s comments about lawyers and it may go to CAS [Council for Arbitration in Sport] eventually but despite how hard they will try to prove he took the normal doses, this will be difficult for them.”
McQuaid sees the case stretching on into the 2018 season. “It could be going on during the Giro d’Italia and even during the Tour. If he is sanctioned soon by the UCI, then it will go to appeal at CAS and then it will take more time.”
In Britain, the reaction has been divisive, with some accepting that Froome’s beyond WADA-permitted level may be simply explained away and others seeing it as further evidence of Team Sky’s loose ethics. Others have gone further, seeing as further evidence of a sinister and sustained attempt to cheat.
Froome speaking to the BBC, insists that he will be vindicated. “I can understand a lot of people’s reactions, especially given the history of the sport,” he said. “I think this is obviously a very different case. This is not a positive test.”
And there has also been some confusion over the potential for misuse of Salbutamol, described by various media outlets as having no performance-enhancing qualities. That’s not how Jonathan Vaughters, whose team Cannondale-Drapac placed Rigoberto Uràn second overall to Froome in July’s Tour de France, sees it.
“It’s not a surprise that he was taking it,” Vaughters said of Froome’s Salbutamol use. “It’s the amount that is surprising.”
Salbutamol is effective at opening up inflamed airways for those with exercise-induced asthma. It has been common knowledge that Froome has taken the product during his career.
“It’s a tricky substance,” Vaughters added. “I’m not against people taking it for asthma or for an inflammation. In higher doses, such as pills or injections, Salbutamol can have a muscle-building effect and a fat-burning effect, like clenbuterol. When you get into the higher doses it can be performance-enhancing, which is why the threshold is where it is.”
Despite today’s revelations, Froome still has influential friends in high places. He is still a nominee for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. For the moment, he has the benefit of the doubt, even if his team is now viewed with widespread skepticism.
And even though Sky’s once impregnable fortress continues to be breached by debilitating allegations, you can be sure that he and Brailsford will fight to the very last to defend their achievements.
Jeremy Whittle is the author of “Ventoux: sacrifice and suffering on the Giant of Provence.”
Listen to our discussion of the Froome case on the VeloNews podcast: