LA ROCHE SUR YON, France (VN) — On the eve of the sport’s biggest race, two cases involving riders at opposite ends of the peloton in terms of power and influence are shaking the anti-doping system to its core.
On one end is Chris Froome, undeniably one of the wealthiest and most successful riders of his generation who dodged a bullet with his controversial Salbutamol case. On the other is André Cardoso, an unsung Portuguese rider who is facing a lengthy ban for EPO in a case that’s more nuanced and troubling than even Froome’s.
As the Tour de France prepares to click into gear Saturday, these cases shine a light on the murky and sometimes opaque world of anti-doping litigation and reveal the sharp divide between the peloton’s haves and have-nots when it comes to sporting justice.
“Froome had a robust defense, but what concerns me more is what about the fifty-thousand-a-year pro who wasn’t able to put up a robust defense and just got railroaded,” said EF Education First-Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters. “That’s really concerning.”
The apparent influence that Froome’s top-level legal team had on the outcome of his case leaves many troubled about the fairness of the system.
Froome had the power, influence, and money to hire London-based Mike Morgan, considered by many the top sports lawyer in the business. It’s not been confirmed if Froome paid for his defense alone or if Team Sky helped cover costs, but legal bills would run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Many were flabbergasted to see Froome evade a ban while others who had also tested for traces of Salbutamol were banned, including Diego Ulissi and retired sprinter Alessandro Petacchi.
In another case that few have heard of, reported by VeloNews on Thursday, Cardoso is fighting for his reputation and career in a case that’s even more controversial and troubled than Froome’s.
Froome’s legal had the resources to present a strong and well-prepared case, delivered in June to anti-doping authorities. They also poked holes in the legitimacy of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s testing protocol for Salbutamol. The defense raised legitimate questions and helped lay the groundwork for Froome being cleared of any wrongdoing.
Cardoso, meanwhile, is now working as a bicycle tour guide and has spent much of his personal fortune battling his ongoing case.
About this time last summer, the 33-year-old rider was handed a provisional ban over a failed EPO test just before the start of the 2017 Tour.
Like Froome’s, Cardoso’s case is hardly cut-and-dried. According to official documents, Cardoso’s A sample was positive for the banned blood booster; his B sample, however, was ruled to be inconclusive. The UCI still pursued a sanction against him, prompting Cardoso to hire a lawyer and fight. Now, after a year of mounting legal fees, Cardoso may abandon the fight due to dwindling resources. He says he has expended much of his disposable income on legal fees over the past year and believes that he may lose his ongoing case because he simply lacks the resources to press on with the legal fight.
“I don’t think this is about doping anymore, it now feels like it is about politics,” Cardoso told VeloNews. “The UCI knows that I’m not a star, I’m not a millionaire. I don’t have the big money to fight. They do not want to say, ‘Maybe the lab made a mistake,’ because it is easier to just put me out of the sport.”
The UCI did not immediately respond for a comment, but the Cardoso case raises serious questions about the fairness of an anti-doping system that metes out justice largely behind closed doors.
Cardoso’s case involves EPO, a banned substance, while Froome’s was a specified substance allowed at certain levels. But does the Cardoso case reveal that a lesser rider with fewer resources has the same fighting chance as a wealthy, influential rider on the sport’s richest team?
Speaking to BBC, Lappartient admitted that Froome’s legal team was a deciding factor in the outcome of the case.
“Froome had more financial support to find good experts to explain the situation,” Lappartient told BBC Sport. He added that the UCI aims to treat small and big stars alike, but said the Froome case provoked “a big battle between Team Sky, and the test itself and WADA.”
While everyone admits that riders deserve the opportunity to present a fair and independent defense, many wonder just how fair the system is. Superstars like Froome have the resources to seriously challenge not only the evidence but also the validity of tests. For a rider like Cardoso, when the money runs out, they are often at the mercy of the anti-doping “courts” that operate with impunity behind closed doors.
Many are clamoring for more scientific details and legal documents surrounding the Froome case, but none of the legal parties are required to release any information under current WADA rules. Both WADA and the UCI have since released important details, but many feel the full story has yet to be told.
Froome’s exoneration in the Salbutamol case has many pointing to similar cases involving Diego Ulissi and former star Alessandro Petacchi. Both tested for levels of Salbutamol above the allowed threshold, and both received lengthy bans. Although the UCI released a statement Friday explaining key nuances between those cases and Froome’s, many see a system that does not appear fair or transparent.
“This is a case of double standards,” said Italian star Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) on Friday. “The cases were similar, they involved the same product, and it was a question of just one day. [Ulissi] was banned and another was not.”
Part of the problem comes from the nuanced and sometimes dense legalese and science surrounding all anti-doping cases. Anti-doping institutions and governing bodies need to do a better job at educating the public not only about its own rules but also explaining the rationale for its decisions.
Froome’s case also comes in the larger context of serious challenges to the validity and effectiveness of the anti-doping infrastructure. Doping scandals beyond cycling have revealed serious cracks in the anti-doping movement. Defenders of WADA and other institutions say they’ve made important headway over the past two decades despite being unfunded and understaffed.
The Froome case could see some wider implications beyond the Sky rider being cleared to race the Tour. There is talk of having the entire Salbutamol test scrapped while others see the ruling as a shot into the heart of the legal underpinnings of the anti-doping movement.
“If anti-doping is supposed to level the playing field, this shows us the system is unequal,” said Ross Tucker, a South African scientist and anti-doping advocate. “The burden of proof is getting turned around in this case. Instead of an athlete having to prove their innocence, the argument now is that you, the authorities, have to prove to me, the athlete, that the test is credible and robust.”
Others downplayed the notion that the Froome case is a death-knell for the anti-doping movement but admitted it revealed how vulnerable parts of the WADA code might be against a sturdy legal challenge.
The Froome case revealed that parts of the anti-doping protocol might not be as reliable as everyone would like to believe. And in a case like Froome’s, which involved a threshold substance and not an outright banned product, the science can get a bit overwhelming for people hoping for a black-and-white answer.
“In a case like that, which is a restricted substance, not a banned substance, not a binary issue, this isn’t black and white, there should be the opportunity to deep dive the issue and look at it multi-factors,” Vaughters said. “Meaning environment, health, physiology, dietary, so on and so forth. WADA is after the truth. WADA is not after prosecuting athletes. Apparently, it seems a huge number of people prefer the black and white approach and want a definitive answer. I don’t think that happened here is what the process is all about. It’s unfortunate that that got played out in such a way that pushed people to pass judgment on it prematurely.”
And then there’s Cardoso. Largely abandoned by the sport, he is now leading bicycle tours and trying to scrape together money for his defense.
Despite a few boos from French fans in Thursday’s team presentation, Froome is free to race the Tour de France this weekend, thanks in part to a well-funded legal team he paid for.
“There will be a before and after involving this case,” Lappartient told AFP. “There are some important lessons to learn from this case.