Tour de France officials are growing exasperated over the perceived slow progress of Chris Froome’s Salbutamol case and the growing likelihood it could remain unresolved as the 2018 racing season unfolds.
Team Sky’s Froome is set to race for the second time this season at Tirreno-Adriatico on Wednesday, and race organizers across the peloton are waiting uneasily on the sidelines as the case plays out behind closed doors.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme expressed dismay that Froome is competing while his case is adjudicated, and pressed UCI officials to resolve the case immediately.
“This is crazy,” Prudhomme told a French TV channel. “What we want is an answer. Not just for the Tour de France, but all organizers. That there is a [cyclist] who is at the start line who might later be told he shouldn’t be there. It’s completely farcical. We need an answer.”
Froome tested for high levels of Salbutamol in September en route to overall victory at the Vuelta a España. According to rules, his adverse analytical finding was meant to remain confidential while Froome had the opportunity to make his case.
A December leak, however, made public Froome’s test result. Despite rules allowing Froome to race — the UCI has yet to invoke its ability to sideline Froome — many within the peloton believe it would be better for the sport’s image if Froome voluntarily stepped aside until his case is finalized.
Froome and Team Sky, who have tried to limit public comments on the case so far, have decided it is best to race. That’s especially true since any ban he might serve would almost certainly begin on the date of issuance, and not be backdated to the Vuelta.
One legal expert told VeloNews that if Froome were to be banned, any results between the Vuelta and a possible ruling would likely stand. In other words, if Froome won the Giro d’Italia in May and was banned in June, the Giro victory would not be erased. That’s not a guarantee, the legal source said, but very likely since Salbutamol is a “specified” product and Froome has not been provisionally banned.
What race organizers want to avoid is a scenario similar to Alberto Contador, who raced and won the 2011 Giro d’Italia, only to later to see his victory disqualified as part of his Clenbuterol case. There are major differences between Contador’s and Froome’s cases, and the UCI’s procedural rules have also been overhauled in the wake of the Contador case.
Those nuances, however, are lost to many. And race organizers for events such as the Tour and Giro believe the optics of Froome competing while he might later be banned reflect negatively on their events.
That sentiment is not shared by all. Ruta del Sol organizers welcomed Froome with open arms when he decided to make his controversial season debut at the five-day Spanish race last month that drew a big media crowd.
Giro officials have echoed Prudhomme’s concern about Froome’s likely appearance in their event. Giro director Mauro Vegni has pressured the UCI to “guarantee” that if Froome races and wins the Giro in May, he would not be later disqualified of the pink jersey. Vegni will surely be asked about Froome’s case during Tirreno-Adriatico this week.
Speaking to French TV before Sunday’s start of Paris-Nice, Prudhomme demurred when asked if the Tour would try to keep Froome from starting in July if the case remains unresolved.
Race organizers like the Tour have clauses in their rulebook that allow them to keep out certain riders or teams if they are perceived to cause damage to the image of their events. Previous efforts to invoke that rule have been challenged successfully in civil court, creating thin legal ground for organizers to stand on.
“We found out in December, and we wanted a quick resolution,” Prudhomme said. “Well, now we can take ‘quick’ out of the equation. We simply want an answer.”
It remains unclear where the Froome case now stands. Some reports have suggested that it’s moved to the ruling stage of the process, but that remains unconfirmed by official sources.
Froome, meanwhile, is expected to race in Italy starting this week in his buildup toward the Giro.
The waiting game continues, even if Prudhomme doesn’t like it.