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LA GUARDIA DE JAEN, Spain (VN) — Chris Froome was quick to thank fellow riders for their support Wednesday when he made his controversial return to racing in this week’s Ruta del Sol.
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Yet it appears that not everyone is tickled to see the four-time Tour de France winner back in the bunch with his Salbutamol case remaining unresolved.
Droves of journalists have descended on this small five-day race in southern Spain to gauge reactions to Froome’s presence.
Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) was among the most outspoken. He told Belgian journalists Wednesday that the reaction inside the peloton to Froome’s presence is not as rosy as the Sky captain would paint it.
“Froome said he has seen incredible support inside the peloton,” Wellens said. “That’s not what I’ve experienced.”
Wellens has been among the most critical voices about the Froome case since it blew open via a leak in December. Over the winter, Wellens even equated taking puffs on asthma medication with cheating. Last year, Wellens abandoned the 2017 Tour de France after refusing to use a TUE to treat an allergic reaction to heat and pollen.
“If you did a poll, nine out of 10 riders would say it’s better that he’s not here,” Wellens said Wednesday. “On camera, a lot of riders are afraid to say what they think. Behind the cameras, they are not so happy about it.”
Speaking to Cycling Pro Net at the Volta ao Algarve in nearby Portugal, Katusha-Alpecin rider Tony Martin also had harsh words: “It’s super-bad for cycling. I absolutely don’t understand Team Sky and Froome that he comes back before this case is clear. It’s a shame.”
That’s in sharp contrast to the feel-good scene Froome portrayed at the end of Wednesday’s first stage at the Ruta del Sol. Froome said he chatted with several riders during the nearly 200km stage and said he was “amazed” by what he said was a positive reaction.
“What was really touching was that so many riders from so many teams came to offer their support,” Froome said. “It’s the first time since I’ve seen a lot of guys since this all happened, and it’s amazing to see how much there is out there in the peloton.”
Riders across the peloton are reacting in different ways to Froome’s return. Some seemed resigned to his presence and others say they’re not wasting energy over something they cannot control.
“He’s met all the requirements to race, so he’s welcome to be here,” said former teammate Mikel Landa (Movistar) with a shrug. “Those are the rules.”
Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang echoed the thoughts of many when he said it would be better for cycling if the Froome case was resolved before he returned to the races.
“I would have preferred that it was resolved before he came back, especially in the instance that he gets a suspension and the results could be disqualified,” Fulgsang said Tuesday. “It would be good for cycling if the case had been cleared before Froome comes back to racing.”
After speaking with VeloNews on Tuesday, Fuglsang was spotted chatting to Froome as the came into the finish line together. He later told a Danish journalist that he softened his opinion about Froome, adding, “He told me some things I did not know about his case.”
That ambivalence is typical across the peloton here in Spain. No one welcomes the bad publicity that might come with the Salbutamol case unresolved, but the rules allow Froome to race.
Team Sky has resisted calls for Froome to stand down while his case is adjudicated. Instead, Froome defiantly lined up Wednesday to race with a phalanx of cameras and TV crews documenting his every move.
Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) said he’s been so exasperated by the frequent press inquiries about Froome that he rode up to Froome during Wednesday’s stage to ask him to put out a Twitter message to request journalists “to stop asking other riders about me.”
“It’s such a complicated case,” Naesen said. “It’s not so easy to speak about it when Froome might even not serve a ban.”
On Thursday, Wout Poels won the stage to take the overall lead. The inevitable Froome question didn’t take long in coming.
“There is nothing I can do about it,” Poels said. “I just do my work and keep focused on the job.”