MARCHA REAL (VN) — They left almost as soon as they came. A horde of European journalists parachuted into the unsung, five-day Ruta del Sol. Their cameras and microphones were focused on one man. Their quarry: Chris Froome.
The Team Sky captain’s season debut took on an added dimension this week, as he spoke publicly for the first time since his Salbutamol case blew open in December. No one wanted to miss the next chapter is cycling’s biggest story.
Was it worth the trip? Froome and Co. didn’t give away much, but for Europe’s major media, it was being there that mattered.
“It’s the biggest story in cycling right now. That’s why my editors wanted me here,” said Brian Askvig, a reporter with Denmark’s Ekstra Bladet. “We didn’t come here to cover the race. We came here for the Froome story.”
Fear of missing out is what drove journalists from across Europe to make the long trek to sunny southern Spain to the five-day race. Typically, the early season warm-up race might attract a sprinkling of hard-core cycling hacks joined by local journalists.
This year, 150 press credentials were granted for a race that normally sees a quarter of that. The press room was a bit crowded the first day, but organizers welcomed the spike in attention. They rolled out the red carpet for the unexpected wave of interest. Even if the focus was on Froome, it was a boon for the race.
Scribes from Europe’s biggest sports dailies were on hand, with reporters from L’Equipe and La Gazzetta dello Sport. BBC, Sky Sports, Sporza and Spanish TV also parachuted in. Reporters from London’s biggest mainstream papers, including The Guardian, The Times, and The Daily Mail all descended on the Ruta del Sol.
“We are 100 percent here for the Froome story,” said Jan-Pieter de Vlieger of Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad. “It’s not that big of a story for us, but we wanted to be here more to see how everyone else reacted to Froome returning.”
Sky officials skillfully handled the media crush. After winning five of the past six Tours de France, the team is expert at handling the press rabble. Journalists seemed to want that “gotcha” moment or at least some detailed answers. In that sense, most went home with little more a few platitudes.
“There are certainly more journalists here than at a race at this time of the year,” said Sky rider Wout Poels. “No one’s asking me any questions, unless it’s about Froome.”
Team Sky is used to this kind of attention, and the crowds around the bus were about as big as a typical day at the Tour de France. The team brought it in its security officer to protect Froome’s flank as well as its PR spokesman to handle the many media requests. So in an organization sense, it was business as usual.
The pressure had been building, especially following calls from many across the sport, including UCI president David Lappartient, for Froome to wait on the sidelines. Few of the questions were about racing. Everyone was pressing Froome on why he decided to race when his peers want him home. Or what his defense might be. Or will there be appeals.
Rather than try to put off the media or refuse to comment, both Froome and Sky manager Dave Brailsford patiently answered question after question. They largely stuck to their talking points: “Chris has done nothing wrong, and we have to respect the process.”
The team did not schedule a press conference with Froome and did not schedule private interviews. Froome’s access was limited to a few questions before the start and end of each stage, hardly giving journalists much time to ask many questions.
Right now, Team Sky seems to be willing to lose the PR battle in the short term with the larger goal of clearing its marquee rider. So in that sense, Sky was discreet about what it could or wanted to give away.
Each journalist came with a different angle. For the Italians, it’s the pressing question that if Froome races and wins the Giro, could he later be disqualified. L’Equipe followed a similar plotline for the defending four-time Tour champion. It’s worth noting that La Gazzetta dello Sport and L’Equipe are both owned by media companies that also own the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, respectively.
“This is a big story for us, and we are here to speak with Froome,” said Gazzetta’s Luca Gialanella. “This is a very complicated story, and the challenge for journalists is to try to make sense of it all for the public. But what do the fans see? They see that Chris Froome is ‘positive,’ and he is still racing.”
The Guardian’s Martha Kelner was also on hand. As the paper’s chief sports reporter, she broke the Froome scandal into the public eye in December. For the British media, the latest Froome imbroglio is the latest in a series of reeling headlines involving Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky’s credibility issues.
Froome has never been embraced in the same way as Wiggins, who emerged as a national icon following his Tour-Olympic success in 2012. Yet Wiggins’ reputation is now largely in shatters following a string of revelations. Froome’s story is part of a larger narrative about Team Sky.
“People feel like the cracks are starting to show,” Kelner said. “This is as much as about Team Sky as anything, about the team’s zero tolerance, its transparency, and its credibility. It’s bigger than just Froome.”
What did the media learn during the expedition? Not much new. Froome repeated his mantra that he wants to respect the process, and ask others that he get the same in return, but gave little else away. Journalists got their measure of polemics when several riders, including race winner Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), spoke out against Froome’s presence.
Brailsford staunchly defended his star rider — as would be expected — and confirmed that the team is sticking to its argument that Froome did not surpass the allowed amount of Salbutamol back in September.
So was it worth the trek? For the major European media, they wanted the photo of Froome stepping out of the team bus and the chance to document his first public comments about the case.
By the start of the third stage, most had packed up and gone home. By Sunday, the race was a wrap, with Froome finishing a distant 1:57 back in 10th place.
This story, however, has legs. If the case remains unresolved as the calendar nears the Giro, the pressure will only mount. With Froome’s next scheduled race at Tirreno-Adriatico in mid-March, expect the media scrum to be even bigger.