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The cycling world woke up to a bombshell Wednesday: Cycling superstar Chris Froome could be facing a racing ban after urine tests revealed elevated levels of Salbutamol during the 2017 Vuelta a España.
Details were confirmed by Team Sky and later the UCI ahead of reports from The Guardian and Le Monde.
There are a lot of layers to the story, so here are the facts: A urine sample from a test taken after stage 18 of the Vuelta — which Froome later won to become the first rider to win the Tour de France and Vuelta in succession since the race was moved to late summer in 1995 — revealed 2,000 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) of Salbutamol.
That’s double the level allowed under WADA anti-doping rules. Salbutamol is a bronchial treatment for asthma that does not require a TUE (therapeutic use exemption) but is limited to 1,000 ng/ml. None of the other controls Froome underwent during the Vuelta revealed abnormal levels.
Under existing procedural rules, the high number triggers a review, requiring Froome and Team Sky to explain to anti-doping authorities what caused the elevated concentration of Salbutamol. Right now, Froome is not facing a provisional ban.
If Team Sky is unable to make its case, Froome could be facing a racing ban. How much is hard to say, but it could be as little as six months. It would also mean that Froome might be disqualified from his Vuelta victory.
With the story poised to break, Team Sky was quick to respond. Froome claims he is a lifelong asthma sufferer, and said he took an increased dosage under doctor’s guidance as his condition worsened during the Vuelta.
“My asthma got worse at the Vuelta so I followed the team doctor’s advice to increase my Salbutamol dosage,” Froome said in a statement. “As always, I took the greatest care to ensure that I did not use more than the permissible dose.”
Team Sky and Froome were notified of the “adverse analytical finding” on September 20, the very same day Froome won the bronze medal in the world time trial championship in Norway. A B-sample confirmed the initial finding, and there is an ongoing official review by the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, the stand-alone body that handles disciplinary review within the sport.
According to WADA rules, levels higher than the allowed 1,000 ng/ml threshold will be considered an “adverse analytical finding,” unless the athlete “proves through a controlled pharmacokinetic study that the abnormal result was the consequence of the use of the therapeutic dose (by inhalation) up to the maximum dose indicated,” the UCI said.
That’s what Team Sky is now trying to demonstrate: that Froome took the allowed dosages, but that the levels spiked on the day of the control.
“There are complex medical and physiological issues which affect the metabolism and excretion of Salbutamol. We’re committed to establishing the facts and understanding exactly what happened on this occasion,” said Sky principal Dave Brailsford in a release. “I have the utmost confidence that Chris followed the medical guidance in managing his asthma symptoms, staying within the permissible dose for Salbutamol. Of course, we will do whatever we can to help address these questions.”
Behind the prepared statements, the implications couldn’t be bigger.
Salbutamol, typically taken in the form of an inhaler, was removed from the WADA banned list in 2010. Up until then, athletes needed a TUE to use the product. Following 2010, no TUE is required, but limits have been imposed on the legal dosage. As WADA rules indicate, anything over the prescribed limits could trigger a ban.
In its statement, the UCI confirmed that Froome is not currently facing a provisional ban. That could change.
“As a matter of principle, and while not required by the world anti-doping code, the UCI systematically reports potential anti-doping rule violations via its website when a mandatory provisional suspension applies,” the UCI wrote. “Pursuant to article 7.9.1. of the UCI anti-doping rules, the presence of a specified substance such as salbutamol in a sample does not result in the imposition of such mandatory provisional suspension against the rider.”
If anti-doping authorities are not satisfied, there is a possibility that Froome could face a racing sanction.
Others have been banned for high levels of Salbutamol. In 2007, before the rule change, Alessandro Petacchi was banned for 12 months after he tested for 1,320 ng/ml. Petacchi had a TUE for the product, as the rules then required, but he was 320 ng/ml over the limit. Petacchi eventually lost a challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and was disqualified for 12 months and saw five Giro stage victories taken away.
In 2014, Italian rider Diego Ulissi received a nine-month ban after testing for levels at 1,900 ng/ml. He unsuccessfully argued that a crash caused his levels to spike, and was handed down a ban.
Both of those cases saw levels lower than what Froome’s Vuelta sample revealed. Remember, Froome also had used TUE’s in the past, as confirmed in the Fancy Bears leaks in 2016.
The latest imbroglio comes just as the UK anti-doping agency ruled last month it was closing an inquiry into Team Sky’s “Jiffy Bag” case involving 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins. That inquiry, along with the Fancy Bears leaks, has cast a pall over Team Sky’s legacy.
What’s sure is what is already happening behind the headlines: the lawyers are very busy.
Listen to our discussion of the Froome case on the VeloNews podcast: