Category: Commentary

Commentary: The simplest explanation for Froome’s salbutamol test

Warning: The following column contains opinion and speculation about the Chris Froome/Salbutamol anti-doping case. There, you’ve been warned.

In case you missed it, French newspaper L’Equipe reported on Tuesday that Chris Froome and Sky are considering a legal defense that argues his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol was the result of kidney failure.

Yes, kidney failure.

Under this possible defense strategy, lawyers could argue that Froome’s kidneys malfunctioned during the Vuelta a España, retained the salbutamol, and then released it all at once, which is why his urine contained twice the allowable limit of the asthma drug.

Boy, that’s a helluva explanation.

It appears that the British team is prepared to take its anti-doping cases into the realm of what I refer to as the “head-slap zone.” That’s the realm in which the explanations are so unlikely and far-fetched that even casual cycling fans slap their heads in amazement. Yes, this is the realm of Tyler Hamilton’s chimeric vanishing twin, Lance Armstrong’s French conspiracy, Raimondas Rumsas’s “The steroids were for my mother-in-law,” Adrie van der Poel eating juiced pigeons, or Gilberto Simoni taking a cocaine cough drop from Peru. Simply reading those excuses in succession makes me want to slap my head.

There, I just slapped myself.

As a lover of all things cycling, I sincerely hope Froome and Sky back away from the kidney defense, if not for their reputations, then for the good of the sport. Cycling has already produced the lion’s share of slap-worthy doping explanations within the global realm of sports. In fact, no other sport is as synonymous with these excuses as cycling. So do we really need to add another one to the list?

You see, the purpose of these confusing and far-fetched defenses is to override the desire that we, the public, have to find the explanation that is most basic and simple. Yes, we are searching for Occam’s Razor. Chimeric twins and French conspiracies are not Occam’s Razor.

For those who are not familiar with the philosophic principle, here is a quick primer. When given multiple explanations as to why something occurred, the simplest, most basic answer is probably the correct one. The more complex answer — the one with more leap-of-faith assumptions — is likely incorrect.

Since day one of this mess, cyclists and cycling fans have asked me what is the Occam’s Razor for the Froome case. So over the past few weeks, I have posed the question to experts in the realm of medicine and sports science. Doctors, researchers, and so on. You have likely read about some of these experts on our site in recent weeks.

My questions: What’s the simplest explanation in the Froome case? What is Occam’s Razor here, given the facts of the case?

Those facts, as a reminder, are that Froome recorded twice the legal limit of salbutamol after stage 18 of the Vuelta. On the day prior to stage 18 and the day after, his salbutamol levels were fine. Froome is known to be asthmatic, and to take a Salbutamol inhaler. These inhalers are legal to use, and the volume of salbutamol they excrete is not known to regularly record a number that high.

To a person, these doctors and researchers have provided a similar answer to the Occam’s Razor question: Froome either took an oral dose of salbutamol, or he used a salbutamol nebulizer. Both methods are forbidden by WADA code.

Do these doctors know what happened? No—only Froome and his team know. Still, this Occam’s Razor is simple, and honestly, it does not make me want to slap myself. After all, it fits into a logical narrative that is also easy to fathom:

It was the final week of the 2017 Vuelta a España, and Chris Froome had a cold. And the cold inflamed his asthma. Note: many asthmatics (myself included) are familiar with this pattern. Even a basic head cold eventually ends up in our lungs, causing wheezing, tightness, and endless fits of phlegmy coughing.

Froome battled the coughs with his salbutamol inhaler. When a respiratory infection meets asthma, however, the coughing and wheezing can get bad. Using the puffer is akin to squirting a garden hose on a five-alarm fire.

Froome needed a firehose. And in this situation, the firehose was either a salbutamol tablet or a salbutamol nebulizer. Those are the methods that can deliver a big enough dose to douse the flames.

But there’s a problem: Oral salbutamol is banned, and nebulizers require a TUE. And the dose that both of these methods deliver is almost guaranteed to surpass the legal threshold.

Froome faced a tough choice. He could quit; he could continue, and risk his health, or he could gamble with the banned method.

The Occam’s Razor explanation is that Froome and Sky chose to gamble. Perhaps their calculus was that he could over-hydrate the next day and dilute his urine enough to avoid a positive test. Or that Sky’s political relationships within the sport would override what would surely be a minor infraction.

At first, the plan worked. Froome attacked on the stage 18 climb to Alto de Santo Toribo de Liébana, zipping away from Vincenzo Nibali. And then, the plan failed spectacularly. Froome’s pee sample recorded twice the legal limit for salbutamol.

Is this what actually occurred? It’s cycling, so we may never know.

Of course the Occam’s Razor here is comparatively tame when compared to the doping stories of old. Did Chris Froome cheat? I don’t know. He suffered from asthma, and perhaps took a dose of his medication that was above the legal limit. Did he visit a clandestine Spanish blood doping doctor? No. Did he orchestrate an elaborate team-wide doping program, and then get people to sign non-disclosure agreements and have his lawyers distribute “Lack of Credibility” documents when anyone talked? No. Did he blame grandma? No.

But cycling has rules, and athletes must live on one side of a black-and-white divide. So while the Occam’s Razor in the Froome situation presents an explanation we can understand, it also presents one that, according to the rules, is a violation.

The simplest explanation of the Froome case is perhaps not worthy of a head slap — just a head shake.

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Commentary: French book stokes motor fraud rumors

Nobody wants to believe it’s true. Nobody wants to believe that the UCI will ever find a hidden motor in a Tour de France or Giro d’Italia winner’s bike, or that the two French judges, and the FBI investigators, said to be exploring the links between tech fraud, race fixing and high finance, will come up with anything real, any irrefutable proof.

It’s unthinkable. Blood bags, syringes, pill-popping — that’s one thing; that’s bad enough — but riding to victory on a hidden motor?

But a new book by Philippe Brunel — one of France’s most celebrated sports writers, a doyenne among cycling diarists and long the mainstay of L’Equipe newspaper’s coverage of the Tour de France — is already making waves. Given Brunel’s profile in France, these waves are big ones.

In Brunel’s new book, “Rouler plus vite que la Mort,” (Ride faster than death) published on January 10, there is a quote from Hungarian engineer and inventor, Istvan Varjas. “If tomorrow, you heard that I had an accident, or that I killed myself,” he tells Brunel, “don’t believe it.”

If that sounds like a line from “Icarus,” Bryan Fogel’s acclaimed documentary that details Russian doping poacher-gamekeeper-whistleblower, Grigory Rodchenkov’s panic-stricken flight from Russia into the arms of a U.S. witness protection program, then it’s almost certainly as loaded as Brunel intended.

Brunel’s chilling book is part novel, part thriller that takes the conspiracy theories of hidden motors back to the late 1990s and after some elegant and atmospheric meandering, drops another accusation of cheating, with a resounding thud, at the door of Lance Armstrong. Like Rodchenkov in “Icarus,” Varjas is the enigma, the supposed keeper of secrets, giving enough away to tease, but never enough to prove anything.

Brunel’s book comes hard on the heels of Phil Gaimon’s otherwise innocuous, “Draft Animals” — with its now notorious passage on Fabian Cancellara, alleging use of a motor — and on the election of David Lappartient, former French Cycling Federation President, as president of the UCI.

Detecting tech fraud, improving the methodology of testing for hidden motors, was a cornerstone of the Frenchman’s toppling of his predecessor, Brian Cookson. Now the whispers are getting louder; the parallels with the build-up to the Festina Affair or Operation Puerto are increasing. There are many who don’t believe motors have been prevalent, but it seems that there are just as many others who believe it’s real.

“I worry that motors have been used,” Lappartient told me when I met him recently. “I have no proof, but it’s not impossible. I want to be sure that we deliver a sport without doping and without motors. That’s the job of the UCI, to guarantee credibility.”

While Brunel’s book doesn’t really contain any smoking guns, beyond again suggesting that Armstrong may have been a Varjas client (something the Texan flatly denies) it puts a lot more flesh on the bones and further details the history, development and increased sophistication of the Varjas-designed motors.

By September 1998, Varjas had developed a motor the size of a USB, capable of generating 140 watts of power for five minutes. By the end of the year, Varjas tells Brunel, he had sold a prototype for $300,000 in cash. Two years later the price had gone up, apparently to $2 million, paid into an offshore account. The intermediary between buyer and seller was, according to Brunel, a Tuscan at the heart of the Italian cycling scene. Yet it’s a tale that’s unverifiable as the Italian has since died.

Brunel links the Hungarian’s progress to Armstrong’s career trajectory, the development of the motors to Armstrong’s famed high cadence, but ultimately there is no proof: It is all speculation and Brunel freely admits it. Yet increasingly there is a sense of reaching a tipping point.

There have now been allegations made against Armstrong, Cancellara, Alberto Contador and famously, in 2013 on Mont Ventoux, Chris Froome. Lappartient says that the UCI’s new and improved post-Cookson plan to tackle tech fraud will be unveiled at the end of this month.

A conspiracy theory that was once ridiculed, that was once laughed off — much as rampant EPO abuse once was — is rapidly becoming much more real.

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CX Nationals: Top 10 women to watch

The USA Cycling National Cyclocross Championships are underway in Reno, Nevada with elite championships on Sunday, January 14.

Five of the four races taking place on super Sunday will be streamed live, right here on VeloNews.com. The coverage begins at noon EST.

Here are the top contenders for the elite women’s race which will start at 3:15 p.m. EST. Stay tuned for our list of top-10 riders for the elite men’s race.

Katie Compton (KFC Racing-Trek-Knight Composites)

Katie Compton’s reign as national cyclocross champion began in 2004 and after 13 consecutive victories in the race, it is hard to bet against her. She is confident ahead of the race. It doesn’t hurt that she is having a stellar season that includes the overall title in the DVV Trofee series, which she solidified with a victory at the GP Sven Nys on January 1 with still one race to go. Compton has spent the 2017-2018 season racing in Europe full-time. Her season got off to a rocky start at the U.S. World Cups in Iowa City and Waterloo. Although she injured her shoulder at the former, Compton bounced back in October and beyond. She has hardly finished outside of the top-five, repeatedly going head-to-head with world champion Sanne Cant. Compton’s dominant victory to start 2018 makes it hard to imagine her losing the Stars and Stripes in Reno.

Kaitie Keough (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com)

If there is one rider that can defeat Compton, Kaitie Keough is the one that can do it. Keough has had a world-class year. She is currently ranked second in the UCI standings and second in the World Cup series. Plus, she won the overall title of the inaugural US Cup-CX series. She finished second at both the U.S. World Cups. Even more telling of her incredible form this year was her sixth-place finish at the muddy Namur World Cup. Namur is considered one of the most difficult courses in cyclocross. Compton finished only two places in front of Keough that day in fourth. The most recent head-to-head battle between Compton and Keough on American soil was at the Pan-Am championships in November. Compton was able to capitalize on a Keough mistake and ride to a comfortable win. For Keough to end Compton’s reign she must have a flawless race and hope Compton makes a mistake. On pure strength alone, the scale tips in Compton’s favor.

Ellen Noble (Aspire Racing)

Ellen Noble is the only rider on the start list that has beaten Compton in Europe this year in a race the national champion has finished. Noble went head-to-head with Compton and Cant at the DVV Flandriencross. The world champion won, but Noble beat Compton in the sprint for second. Noble was nearly flawless the entire race and even put in attacks of her own at the front. If the Noble that raced in Flandriencross shows up on Sunday, she will be a contender. However, Noble’s year has been up and down with victories coming few and far between. This is Noble’s first time competing in the elite race at the national championships. She won the U23 race for the past three years before aging out of the category. Unlike her stellar result in Flandriencross, Noble’s European campaign ended with a 29th place result in Namur, where Keough and Compton finished sixth and fourth, respectively. Noble last raced at that mid-December World Cup, so her form is a bit unknown.

Courtenay McFadden (Pivot Cycles-DNA Cycling)

Like Noble and many others, Courtenay McFadden last raced in mid-December. McFadden didn’t even know if she would be on the start line in September after having surgery to fix a hip-impingement on her right side after 2017 world championships in February. She is slated to go under the knife after nationals to fix an impingement in her left hip. However, the hip complications haven’t stopped McFadden from having a successful year. She captured wins at the U.S. Open of Cyclocross and Resolution Cross weekends. She finished fourth at the Pan-Am championships and was the third American behind Compton and Keough. McFadden continued her run of good form later in November when she finished 26th in both the German and Danish World Cups. While McFadden looks to be a step below the top-two riders on this list, she is definitely a contender for a podium spot. McFadden finished fifth last year in the Hartford snow.

Crystal Anthony (Maxxis-Shimano)

Crystal Anthony finished one place behind McFadden in Hartford. Anthony has had a consistent year, battling in the top-five at nearly every race she started. She last raced at the Resolution Cross in mid-December, winning the second day. She did not race in Europe over the Christmas period and instead focused on honing her fitness through training ahead of the national championships. Anthony finished third on day one of the Derby City Cup, showing she has the ability to secure a podium spot. As with McFadden, expect Anthony to battle in the top-five throughout the race and have a shot at the podium if momentum swings her way.

Rebecca Fahringer (Stan’s NoTubes-Maxxis)

Rebecca Fahringer has been a busy woman this year with the responsibilities of managing her own team, but that hasn’t stopped her from contending at the pointy end of races. While a UCI win has eluded her thus far this season, she has consistently placed in the top-five in the U.S. and powered to top-20 results in Europe. Her consistency paid off with a fifth-place finish in the overall standings of the US Cup-CX. Unlike McFadden and Anthony, Fahringer spent the holidays racing in Europe, not only gaining valuable experience but also getting a bump in form due to the extremely hard racing over there. Coming off the Europe block means that Fahringer should contend for a top-five placing and she’ll look to improve on her eighth-place finish from last year.

Other contenders

Arley Kemmerer (Fearless Femme Racing) will look to improve on her seventh-place finish from last year, but that may prove to be difficult. She has battled in the top-five when the field has not been as deep as it will be at nationals, even scoring a win on day one of the UCI C2 DCCX weekend. However, she has struggled to crack the top five at races with deep fields like the US Cup-CX. Expect her to be in the mix in the back half of the top 10 on Sunday.

A rider Kemmerer could be going shoulder to shoulder with is Sunny Gilbert (Van Dessel Factory Team). She has three UCI wins this year and captured top-20 finishes at premier races in Europe over the holidays. While her UCI wins have come against fields with notable riders absent, she has finished in the top 10 and top five in most of the races she has toed the line in. Expect Gilbert to be in the mix for the top-10 on Sunday and possibly fight for a top-five.

Gilbert’s teammate, Cassandra Maximenko, is another rider that has battled in the back half of the top-10 for much of the season and has been able to capitalize when the fields aren’t as deep and power into the top five. While she scored 19th at the national championships last year, her results made a jump this year and thus she could sneak into the top 10 on Sunday.

Samantha Runnels (Squid Bikes) could find her way into the top-10 on Sunday, but it won’t be easy. The back half of the top-10 thru to 15th place is always a highly competitive affair and expect Runnels to be right in the thick of it. Runnels did capture a pair of UCI wins at the HPCX weekend, but those came against a field unlike she will see at nationals. She also was victorious at the Rapha Supercross in Japan.

The elite women’s race is shaping up to be one of the most competitive and fascinating races to watch on Sunday at the 2018 U.S. national cyclocross championships. Expect battles to be had not only at the front for the win or the podium but for those trying to sneak their way into the top 10.

Editors note: Elle Anderson (Cycling.be-Alpha Motorhomes), who was fourth at the national championships the last two years, will not be racing. She has spent the season racing in Europe and opted not to come back for the national championships.

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Commentary: The gender case that could change global cycling

While the eyes of global cycling were focused on the Tour de France this past July, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) found itself in a small Toronto courtroom, as one of the defendants opposite a little-known Canadian track cyclist named Kristen Worley. As a result of that under-reported hearing, the UCI faced the possibility of losing its Olympic charter and its oversight of global cycling. Worley may turn out to be the one of the most influential cyclists of the last decade, but few people, even within the sport, know or understand the implications of her story.

The specifics of Worley’s background and current situation have been thoroughly documented elsewhere (here, here, and here), but the short story is that Kristen Worley was born male. A talented runner and cyclist early in her life, Worley made her mark in water-skiing at the international level, and then switched her focus to competitive track cycling as a late teenager. After a crash left her with a broken pelvis in 1998, Worley began her gender transition during the recovery period and, after a five-and-a-half year transition, had gender reconfirming surgery in 2002. Her competitive instincts soon returned and she set a lofty target – attempting to represent Canada in track cycling at the Olympics, as the first-ever openly gender-transitioned Olympian. But just as she seemed ready to blaze a new trail in international sports, she was stopped dead-cold by arbitrary International Olympic Committee (IOC) gender testing rules.

The IOC had adopted a policy recommendation (in 2003) to allow post-operative, gender-transitioned athletes to compete in the Olympics, but Worley became the first athlete to actually have to suffer through the IOC’s untested review process. Her gender testing occurred twice: the first, in 2005, involved nine men at one time, who were given authority to assess and verify her gender even though none of them had formal expertise to scientifically do so. Worley was examined again in 2008, when she applied for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) to continue her hormone replacement therapy.

In addition to these degrading physical examinations, her medical files were subjected to extreme scrutiny by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), who, Worley’s attorneys argue, were neither experienced nor qualified to assess gender transition issues. The TUE became a critical factor in Worley’s case, and more importantly, her health. Worley had started medically-mandated hormone replacement following her gender transition – a necessity because her transitioned body no longer produced testosterone or sufficient levels of estrogen. But to add insult to injury, Cycling Canada would not approve a TUE for the proper balance of estrogen and testosterone required to maintain her unique physiological health.

The IOC’s 2003 gender identification rules attempted to define “men” and “women” based partially on a subjective threshold of natural testosterone in the body. In reality however, scientific analysis shows that testosterone levels vary widely in both sexes. This has led to one of the most sexist paradoxes in sport: a male athlete with a high natural testosterone level is labeled as “gifted”, but a female athlete with a high natural testosterone level is labeled as having an unfair “performance advantage” – a cheat.

But a chance oversight by Cycling Canada turned into an opportunity for Worley; she had by accident never signed her racing license, which would have constrained her legal options. This allowed her to go outside of the sport’s normal appeal channels. She and her legal team were now in a position to challenge what they believed to be the IOC’s Achilles’ heel: the IOC’s gender testing policy had little science or background research to support it, yet it was being enforced by sporting federations around the world. So Worley’s team took a leap, and made the argument that the application and enforcement of this policy – on anyone – constituted a violation of human rights.

Worley’s unique circumstances allowed her attorneys to move outside of the traditional sport legal structure and, for the first time, put an Olympic-chartered sport and its policies under scrutiny in a court of human rights – in this case, the Tribunal for Human Rights in Toronto, Canada. If Worley prevailed, the UCI and the IOC would be faced with a precedent which might then allow other athletes to step outside of the traditional process as well. This would obviously have had huge ramifications for the IOC and its member sports, not only for gender testing, but also for anti-doping and a wide range of other eligibility cases.

The IOC reacted quickly, claiming the Canadian courts did not have jurisdiction, but Worley’s legal case was nevertheless heard in mid-2017 by the Tribunal. The evidence presented by Worley and her legal team was strong and clear-cut, and it pushed the IOC and UCI into a corner: they would likely lose the case outright if they could not provide the scientific rationale and evidence to back their gender definition and TUE assertions. The IOC’s gender testing policy would then have been ruled a fundamental violation of human rights and opened the legal floodgates.

In light of the situation, the UCI ultimately decided to circumvent a potentially devastating legal judgment by agreeing to a court-specified mediation process. One condition of the mediation process was that Worley herself be involved with the UCI’s efforts to craft new gender rights statutes for competitive cycling.

Now, with new President David Lappartient at the helm of the UCI, there is a unique opportunity for cycling to tackle this challenge head on, and indeed to chart a new course for the international Olympic movement. If Lappartient can steer the UCI toward a fair gender inclusion solution, it could position cycling as a human rights leader within the Olympic sports movement. While it is still very early in the process, Worley and Lappartient’s UCI have already begun to engage in productive dialogue, to achieve the following goals:

● Review and revise internal policies to embrace basic human rights
● Launch awareness and education programs related to the diversity of participants
● Advocate for the establishment of standards and guidelines related to XY female athletes based on objective scientific research
● Advocate for individualized Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) conducted by medical personnel who possess detailed subject-matter expertise
● Ensure that Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, Canadian Olympic Committee, Sport Canada, Commonwealth Games Federation and the Canadian Minister of Sport advance this advocacy message to international bodies such as WADA and the IOC

For Worley, the legal process and the potential to change cycling for the better is vindication for the pain and suffering she endured over the ten years it took for her case to be heard. For the UCI, it represents the possibility of becoming the first Olympic sport to embed fundamental human rights into its policies and regulations. Although it is not out of the woods yet, the UCI has very strong incentives to work out a solution.

Despite all of the emotional trauma and the continuing legal ordeal, Worley remains committed to cycling and is an avid cyclist today. She has also been advising other sports and organizations within cycling on gender rights for over a decade, with a focus on education, inclusion and accessibility of everyone in the world of sport.

Says Worley, “This is really not about gender anymore, but about how we do sport. Instead of focusing on the simplicity of defining the sexes, it is imperative for us to understand the broader umbrella of features and physiological complexities that we all share as human beings. As our world becomes more intertwined with the help of technology we must embrace the ideas of diversity, inclusivity and accessibility. And we can make this part of our vision for sport – the ideal that we all seek, and what we want the Olympic Movement to be.”

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Commentary: Froome scandal could burst British cycling bubble

Merely a decade ago, cycling was nearly undone by a litany of doping controversies.

Now, another scandal looks poised to rock the sport as a whole: Chris Froome’s 2017 Vuelta anti-doping test that was over the limit for Salbutamol.

While it’s unlikely that Froome’s adverse analytical will torpedo the sport’s global appeal, it may have a sizable impact within the United Kingdom. In the UK, cycling is enjoying a boom. TV ratings, and grassroots events that dwarf that of much larger nations.

Bikes are big business to the Brits. According to its 2016 annual report, British Cycling recorded a membership of 120,000 riders. That number has increased by nearly 75,000 participants since 2012—a growth spurt that is itself bigger than the entire membership of USA Cycling (approximately 60,000). This difference is shocking considering the UK has a population of 65 million versus a whopping 320 million in the United States. Britain’s cycling personalities have enjoyed hero status. Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, and even David Brailsford have all been knighted by the Queen.

British Tour de France viewership has also skyrocketed since the success of home riders. In 2017, Eurosport reported increased viewership numbers across Europe, including Britain, with an average of 785,000 viewers per stage. By contrast, NBC Sports reported flat U.S. viewership from 2016 and a 16 percent decrease from 2015, with an average of 331,000 viewers per stage. The BBC audience research department reported that in 2014, 10.7 million viewers watched the race in Britain, which works out to a whopping 509,523 viewers per stage. Due to Froome’s success, it is likely that number has significantly increased since then.

Would a Froome doping ban crash this wave? The U.S. cycling scene can directly track its exodus of sponsors after the Lance Armstrong doping revelations in 2013.

The major issue is that Froome’s adverse analytical comes after 15 months of bad headlines for British cycling. In August of 2016, World Champion Lizzie Deignan was controversially cleared after missing three anti-doping tests in a year. A few months later, the Fancy Bears hacking story revealed that Bradley Wiggins had received a TUE for corticosteroid triamcinolone immediately before the 2012 Tour de France, which he won. This began a chain of events that led to a UK Anti-Doping investigation into Team Sky and the infamous Jiffy Bag incident. The country’s cycling heroes were dragged before Parliament to explain themselves, and the media covered every twist and turn.

Scandals like these can have a huge impact on sports fandom. USA Cycling’s membership numbers have dropped every year since 2012, the year USADA released its reasoned decision against Armstrong. And in the wake of Armstrong’s 2013 mea culpa, major sponsors such as Nissan and Radioshack left the sport entirely.

Cycling is hardly alone. The National Football League has endured several years of non-stop controversies—everything from domestic violence, to rampant head injuries, to now the polarizing political protests by players. Since 2015 the NFL has seen its television ratings decline by nearly 20 percent. One in five football fans have lost their passion to watch the sport on TV.

Will British fans lose their passion? Of course it’s not guaranteed to happen. One has to wonder how the bombardment of negative news will impact the average cycling fan in Great Britain. After all, controversy breeds cynicism, and cynicism often leads to disenchantment.

Already, sports columnists in the UK are beginning to question Froome’s story. On Friday the Guardian ran a story titled, “Clouds over Chris Froome and Sky will linger despite contrite response.” Writing for Australian news outlet ABC, columnist Richard Hinds started off his story with the words, “Yeah right, Chris Froome.”

Perhaps most damning was a column by Oliver Brown, the chief sports feature writer for The Telegraph. Brown wrote, “So, for now, Froome can spare us any talk of untainted legacies. His sport has the grimmest history, and it is one with which his team, Sky, have failed to make a convincing peace.”

This week British cycling writer Jeremy Whittle went on the VeloNews Podcast to discuss, among other topics, how British fans feel about Wiggins following his very public controversy for his TUE. Whittle said that, after a few beers, the fans he’s interacted with seemed to be somewhat cynical toward the ordeal.

“People are really struggling to understand what was really going on, and people think they were fiddling the system to give those TUEs in advance of grand tours,” Whittle said. “They think the fact that we still don’t know what was in the jiffy bag means that it must have contained something suspicious. It isn’t going to go away anytime soon, to think it is is very naive.”

One bellwether of Froome’s popularity will come this Sunday, at the gala for BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Froome has never won the award—both Mark Cavendish and Wiggins have. Two Grand Tours would likely put Froome high up in the running for the award. But the recent bad press may torpedo his chances.

It’s unlikely that Froome will emerge from this ordeal totally unscathed. The best precedent for punishment is Diego Ulissi’s nine-month ban in 2014 after returning similar levels. While Ulissi was able to serve his time and move on, Froome is a four-time Tour de France winner. He is under far more scrutiny and pressure than the Italian. Come July, when he returns to the Tour, he and Team Sky will face more questions than ever before.

Great reigns always end unexpectedly. The American dominance in the 2000s created a bubble that rose quickly, only to burst dramatically in the wake of controversy. The constant stream of scandals chips away the credibility and creates a decay that paves the way for another scandal to deliver a knockout blow.

Will this scandal be the tipping point for British cycling? Time will tell.

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Commentary: No easy (or quick) solution in Froome case

Fasten your seat belts: It’s going to be a bumpy and lengthy ride. The battle lines are being drawn as you read this, as both sides in the Chris Froome salbutamol case — on one side Froome, his wife Michelle, and a besieged Team Sky, and on the other side of the fence, the new-look, sharpened-up UCI led by Frenchman David Lappartient — lawyer up.

Don’t expect a quick resolution. This affair is likely to take some time and many twists and turns. In fact, it has already been rumbling on behind closed doors since Froome was notified of the adverse analytical finding during the 2017 World Road Championships in Bergen, Norway.

While Froome was picking up achievement awards on stage in Paris at the 2018 Tour de France presentation and the Giro d’Italia organizers were fretting over his appearance in their race next year, Froome and Team Sky were already building their defense of his lung-busting twice-over-the-WADA-limit ingestion of the restricted asthma drug.

There is much at stake here — Froome’s reputation of course but also the continued existence of his team’s big money sponsorship. Team Sky have hired Mike Morgan of Morgan Sports Law, the renowned lawyer who pulled former world champion Lizzie Armitstead back from the brink to avoid a ban, even though she’d missed three drugs tests in 10 months.

Even so, the precedents suggest that Froome’s hopes of avoiding a ban are slim. Italian star sprinter Alessandro Petacchi was given a 12-month ban and stripped of his five stage victories at the 2007 Giro for exceeding the salbutamol limit.

More recently Diego Ulissi served a nine-month doping ban after the 2014 Giro, where he won two stages, showed 1900 nanograms per milliliter of salbutamol.

Pat McQuaid, the former UCI president who oversaw the Petacchi affair believes “it will be difficult for Froome and Sky to disprove” culpability.

“We had the same with Petacchi,” he said, “and he served time for that, despite making many efforts to show it wasn’t deliberate.”

“I think the case will run for a while,” McQuaid said. “I heard Brailsford’s comments about lawyers and it may go to CAS [Council for Arbitration in Sport] eventually but despite how hard they will try to prove he took the normal doses, this will be difficult for them.”

McQuaid sees the case stretching on into the 2018 season. “It could be going on during the Giro d’Italia and even during the Tour. If he is sanctioned soon by the UCI, then it will go to appeal at CAS and then it will take more time.”

In Britain, the reaction has been divisive, with some accepting that Froome’s beyond WADA-permitted level may be simply explained away and others seeing it as further evidence of Team Sky’s loose ethics. Others have gone further, seeing as further evidence of a sinister and sustained attempt to cheat.

Froome speaking to the BBC, insists that he will be vindicated. “I can understand a lot of people’s reactions, especially given the history of the sport,” he said. “I think this is obviously a very different case. This is not a positive test.”

And there has also been some confusion over the potential for misuse of salbutamol, described by various media outlets as having no performance-enhancing qualities. That’s not how Jonathan Vaughters, whose team Cannondale-Drapac placed Rigoberto Uràn second overall to Froome in July’s Tour de France, sees it.

“It’s not a surprise that he was taking it,” Vaughters said of Froome’s salbutamol use. “It’s the amount that is surprising.”

Salbutamol is effective at opening up inflamed airways for those with exercise-induced asthma. It has been common knowledge that Froome has taken the product during his career.

“It’s a tricky substance,” Vaughters added. “I’m not against people taking it for asthma or for an inflammation. In higher doses, such as pills or injections, salbutamol can have a muscle-building effect and a fat-burning effect, like clenbuterol. When you get into the higher doses it can be performance-enhancing, which is why the threshold is where it is.”

Despite today’s revelations, Froome still has influential friends in high places. He is still a nominee for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. For the moment, he has the benefit of the doubt, even if his team is now viewed with widespread skepticism.

And even though Sky’s once impregnable fortress continues to be breached by debilitating allegations, you can be sure that he and Brailsford will fight to the very last to defend their achievements.

Jeremy Whittle is the author of “Ventoux: sacrifice and suffering on the Giant of Provence.”

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Commentary: When the only surprise is that it took so long

Chris Froome’s tightrope walk with Salbutamol could spell his doom.

Cycling’s dreaded asterisk might well soon be added next to Froome, cycling’s most successful grand tour rider in a generation.

Word leaked that Froome tested positive en route to victory at the 2017 Vuelta a España for elevated levels of Salbutamol, a bronchial relaxer most commonly used via an inhaler. By Wednesday morning, the news broke and headlines akin to cycling’s bad old days splashed around the world.

Because Salbutamol is not strictly banned under WADA rules, but is rather a threshold drug, Froome does not face a provisional ban nor was his case required to be publicly revealed. It was thanks only to leaks to British and French newspapers that the story came to light.

Salbutamol is an allowed asthma treatment that many in the peloton regularly use. Froome’s problem, and what could lead to a racing ban and the disqualification of his Vuelta victory, is that his tested levels are double the allowed limit under WADA rules.

That’s going to be hard to explain away, but Team Sky and Froome are certainly hard at work behind the scenes to do just that.

The damage might already be done. Sky’s credibility is near-zero in some quarters following a string of incidents that have left many howling that Sky’s success on the bike is fueled by more than marginal gains. Even if Froome and Sky are given a pass, cycling takes a huge blow with even a hint of scandal involving its star grand tour rider.

This isn’t some unknown rider from some second-rate team. This is cycling’s marquee champion who’s dominated stage racing from the sport’s richest team. As Alessandro Petacchi told VeloNews contributor Gregor Brown, “This is like an atomic bombing falling on cycling.”

Long history in the peloton

Salbutamol has a long history in the peloton, and for good reason. In spray form, it helps alleviate asthma and open up the bronchial tubes. Breathing efficiently is essential to performance in cycling.

Many cases in the more-lax 1990s and 2000s were cleared for “medical reasons,” but riders have been banned over Salbutamol. In 2007, before the rule change, Petacchi was banned for 12 months after he tested for 1,320ng/ml. Petacchi had a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for the product, as the rules then required, but he was 320ng/ml over the limit. Petacchi eventually lost a challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In 2014, Italian rider Diego Ulissi received a nine-month ban after testing for levels at 1,900ng/ml. He unsuccessfully argued that a crash caused his levels to spike. Froome’s levels are higher than both of those cases.

Taken in a spray form, it required a TUE until 2010, when WADA changed the rules to allow its use with imposed limitations. The allowed dosage is 1,600 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) within a 24-hour period, and 800 ng/ml within 12 hours. One puff roughly equals 100 ng/ml.

Anything over a limit of 1,000 ng/ml in a doping control triggers an adverse analytical finding. And if reasonable medical explanations cannot be provided, a ban could be imposed. Froome tested for 2,000 ng/ml, double the permitted limit.

Salbutamol can also be taken in pill form or injected, with much stronger doses that would go well beyond the current limit. The WADA-imposed limitation was meant to serve as a reasonable ceiling to prevent false positives for taking the allowed doses in spray form. The drug in higher doses can also be used as a masking agent and as a way to burn fat and build muscle, but are more easily detected by the 1,000 ng/ml threshold.

So what happened during the Vuelta?

Froome has long been linked to asthma, and he claims he’s been an asthma sufferer since childhood. In 2013, Froome used a TUE to use the corticoid Prednisolone to treat asthma during the Tour de Romandie. His eventual victory kicked up a firestorm when it was revealed he was using a TUE. He used another TUE in 2014. Since then, Froome has vowed not to use a TUE, and since 2015, Team Sky has raced the Tour without any riders using TUE’s.

Froome has long used Salbutamol in the inhaler form. In fact, in 2014, he was caught on camera using an inhaler during stage two of the Critérium du Dauphiné.

It’s no secret that Froome is known for bouts of coughing after hard efforts. This reporter has spotted Froome behind the Tour podium more than a few times wheezing with a raspy cough following big mountain stages.

Leading up to the second half of the Vuelta, Froome was clearly suffering from what appeared to be a minor cold. During a rest-day press chat on September 4 — a day before he won the Logroño time trial and three days before the test — Froome was congested and hiding a cough. When pressed by journalists if he was sick, Froome denied he was ill, something that’s normal among athletes who are not keen to let their rivals know they might be suffering.

The day after the time trial, Froome suffered on the steep summit finale to Los Machucos, losing 42 seconds to eventual runner-up Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). Spanish journalist Ainara Hernando reported that Sky teammate David Lopez, sleeping in a room next to Froome’s, told her he was kept awake by Froome’s intense coughing the night before Los Machucos.

The next stage to Santo Toribio de Liébana, Froome was back with the best, even gapping Nibali to take back 21 seconds. That is the stage that is now under the microscope. Froome told finish-line reporters he “was fine” and felt no ill-effects from a rumored cold, and he later tested positive for elevated levels of Salbutamol.

Damage is done

Even with its tattered image, Sky will now try to convince the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, the stand-alone body that handles disciplinary review within the sport, that Froome’s high levels were unintentional and circumstantial.

Froome’s explanation — that he wasn’t feeling great and wanted to increase his dosage under doctor’s guidance — isn’t likely far from the truth. It’s hard to imagine Froome knowingly taking Salbutamol in any other form, especially when he knew he was the race leader and being tested daily. That would be career suicide.

Yet the numbers don’t lie. Rationalizing double the allowed limit will be hard to take for CADF, more so now that the case has blown open into the media. Even if Froome took what was allowed right up to the limit, Sky will have to be able to prove it. We’ll see if it’s learned any lessons from the “Jiffy Bag” fiasco that torpedoed Bradley Wiggins’ reputation in the eyes of many.

At the granular level, expect a long trail of experts and lawyers to get involved. And they certainly already are working behind the scenes since Sky has known since September 20 about Froome’s adverse analytical finding. Froome could risk seeing his Vuelta win disqualified as well as a racing ban, but since Salbutamol is not a hardline banned drug, a ban would likely be less than two years. If Froome is slapped any sort of ban, expect a challenge to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. With Team Sky’s and Froome’s reputation on the line, this could go on for months, perhaps even years.

By any measure, the news is another blow for cycling. The sport has been lurching since the Lance Armstrong scandal in 2012.

Cycling is in a better place than it was during the Armstrong generation, but it’s clear that some riders and teams continue to push the limits. Team Sky has flirted with going right up to the line, and even if they insist they haven’t crossed it, the optics remains the same.

No one was surprised Wednesday that a Tour de France champion is being called out for a possible doping violation. The only surprise seems to be that it took so long.

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Garbage Takes: Is the TDF Sagan saga over?

The Garbage Takes opinion column has been on hiatus during the off-season. However, when news came down that the UCI and Peter Sagan had settled the Tour de France DSQ case, we couldn’t resist. As always, these takes are purely commentary and for entertainment purposes only!

The UCI and Peter Sagan have settled a lawsuit that goes back to a sunny day this past July in Vittel, France. Sagan was kicked out of the Tour de France for allegedly elbowing Mark Cavendish into the barriers. Cavendish abandoned the race with a broken collarbone. Who was to blame? As we learned this week, apparently nobody. The UCI labeled the entire ordeal an “unintentional race incident,” ending months of Gif analysis by armchair videotape analysts (his elbow DID NOT MOVE ON ITS OWN!)

At last, cycling’s governing body has reached the same conclusion as millions of Twitter users — except it only took the fans about one day to figure it out.

The settlement must be chilly comfort for Sagan and his throngs of fans. If the NFL wrongfully kicked Tom Brady out of the Super Bowl and then apologized in August, would the Boston faithful be satisfied? Not bloody likely. Still, the UCI closed the book on the matter. But did they? I still have three outstanding questions.

How much are 18 Tour stages worth?

Does the UCI plan to reimburse Sagan or his team for it’s big SNAFU? Sagan was kicked out on stage 4, and thus missed plenty of publicity and marketing that comes from all of those victories and podiums. After all, that Tour route was perfect for him. We even predicted he might have won 11 stages! So how does one quantify all of those lost marketing impressions in real dollars? I know that everyone in pro cycling is an armchair marketing executive these days, with lots to say about social campaigns and the CPM value of Instagram pictures. I tell you, I’ve looked at a few handy websites dedicated to all of this marketing BS, and my brain has melted from too much talk about Ad Value Equivalence (AVE) and CPM value. My guesstimate is that Sagan and his team lost out on a billion kajillion dollars worth of advertising. So, my solution is to have the UCI simply post Peter Sagan photos on its Instagram feed 20 times a day for the rest of the decade. And yes, I’ll just take everyone’s word that cycling is the best advertising value in pro sports — so long as the governing body doesn’t accidentally boot out your star rider.

Can the Tour implement ‘coach’s challenge?’

Here’s a tidbit from Bora-Hansgrohe’s statement on the settlement: UCI president David Lappartient says, “The UCI intends to engage a ‘support commissaire’ to assist the Commissaires Panel with special video expertise on the main events of the UCI World Tour.” Video expertise? That sounds to me like cycling is creeping closer to instant replay. This could be a step in a strange direction. Will cycling also impose a coach’s challenge system like we see in the NFL? I sincerely hope so. I’d love to see team directors and riders chucking red challenge flags during the middle of a race. Do riders have to do a penalty lap if they don’t overturn the ruling on the “field?” Or, maybe we should just leave this up to the directors in the team cars. If we aren’t careful, the riders could start chucking these red flags into each other’s spokes like the Italians did with a frame pump to David in “Breaking Away.”

Can Cavendish and Sagan hug it out?

After the UCI and Bora-Hansgrohe issued their press releases, Mark Cavendish’s Dimension Data team issued a statement saying it was “surprised” to be excluded from the hearing. The team felt it should have been part of the investigation that analyzed the race footage, since Cavendish got a front-row seat (or course fence) to the carnage. In all honesty, Dimension Data has a point. Still, I see this complaint as a big publicity opportunity for the UCI. The organization could hold a live televised judgement for all of the kerfuffles that occurred during the season. Hold it during the off-season. Give the fans a show! I’m envisioning a cycling-themed court show, similar to “Judge Judy” or “The People’s Court.” The UCI could hire a charismatic arbiter (Tom Boonen? Jens Voigt?) to oversee the plaintiff and defendant. The arbiter could take a studio audience through the entire proceedings and then, bam! Make the judgement. If that won’t get fans fired up for the 2018 cycling season, I am fresh out of good ideas.

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Commentary: Why Froome’s Giro-Tour double will win you over

Chris Froome sent shockwaves through the cycling world on Wednesday when he announced plans to race the 2018 Giro d’Italia. He will attempt to hold all grand tour titles at once and become the first rider to win the fabled Giro-Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998. This is an absolute masterstroke by Froome and exactly the type of charm campaign the Briton needs to finally win over skeptical fans.

Froome is criticized for being a boring, methodical rider who lacks versatility. Team Sky and Froome have an often contentious relationship with the media that has only helped cement this negative reputation. I believe that the Giro-Tour double has potential to charm the haters. No matter whether he succeeds or not, it is the perfect solution to transform Froome’s public perception.

The thing is, any perceived “risk” of failing at the double isn’t a real risk. I think that failure would only help boost his image and profile.

Scenario one: He wins both the Giro and the Tour, he would have his name etched in cycling history and would have to be considered one of the all-time greats.

Scenario two: He wins the Giro and fades in the Tour de France (likely, since all who won the Giro have lost the Tour since 1998). That means we will get the rare treat of Froome racing from behind. He will be a maverick who went down swinging and raced with aggression and panache. Cycling fans love a fading star who takes big chances to make up for their waning powers (Exhibit A: Alberto Contador. Exhibit B: Tom Boonen).

Scenario three: He fails at both races. Regardless, he will line up for the 2018 Tour de France as an underdog and fan favorite for taking a tilt at the Giro. He may squander a record-tying fifth Tour victory this season, but in 2019 he will be 34 years old, still two years younger than the oldest Tour de France winner. I bet he would be able to eke out a fifth victory before retirement.

The only thing that I see stopping Froome in 2018 at the Tour de France is misfortune in the chaotic first week, especially the brutal cobblestone-ridden stage 9. However, an ill-timed flat or crash could happen regardless of if he races the Giro. Why not take a shot at immortality (and increased net worth) while he has the chance?

Since the announcement, some have said Chris Froome is exhibiting hubris and greed with this double attempt. Greed? Maybe. Hubris? No way — that takes willful ignorance. I think Froome knows exactly what he is doing by taking on this challenge. He realizes that he is simply better in grand tours than his competitors. This is his chance to boost his legacy before victories stop coming so easily. Plus, I imagine he won’t have trouble making room in his bank account for the reported 2 million euro start fee from the Giro organizers.

Sure, he might not truly need the 2 million euro bonus (if it even exists). But pro cyclists have short earning windows. When Froome looks around his Monaco neighborhood, I would guess that he wants to cash in while he still can.

I truly believe that Froome possesses the necessary talent and the mental and physical strength to handle the strain to win both the Giro and Tour. No one in the current peloton possesses superior skill in both time trialing and climbing, not to mention a team that can control a race from start to finish. He won the 2015 and 2017 Tours; both editions had the fewest individual TT kilometers in modern history and featured stages designed to foil him and Sky. While his 2017 margin of victory was less than a minute, and he suffered numerous mechanicals during key moments, the race never looked out of his control.

Chris Froome has the ability and team support to make history while rewriting his own story. His decision to make a run for this historic feat isn’t folly, it’s a stroke of genius.

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Commentary: Froome’s Giro plans will spoil the Tour

It’s still hard to believe, but after months of rumors, Chris Froome finally confirmed it on Wednesday: The 2018 Tour de France won’t be the race the sport deserves. Instead, the four-time defending champion will try for the elusive Giro-Tour double.

In May, we’ll rejoice at Froome’s presence on the Giro start, but in July, we’ll be robbed of a pure showdown on the sport’s biggest stage. Sure, there are thousands of fans celebrating that Froome and the suffocating Sky train will be more vulnerable in July, possibly opening up the race. But I’m having a hard time getting excited about a Tour that doesn’t actually pit the sport’s top stars against each other at their very best.

We can all agree that the Giro is an amazing event, a scenic spectacle that is an expression of so many things people love about cycling. It has earned its place in the sport’s pantheon of great races with a long history of brilliant battles. It managed to stay thrilling in recent years with an always-grueling route and plenty of exciting mountaintop finishes.

Nevertheless, the Giro d’Italia is not the Tour de France. The French grand tour is cycling’s undisputed marquee event — and it should be cycling’s marquee showdown of the sport’s top stars at peak form. But no matter how you slice it, with a Giro in his legs, even Froome will struggle to match the likes of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Richie Porte (BMC), or Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First-Drapac) if they show up fresh to France. Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin might Froome a huge favor in joining him at the Giro, but most of the other top Tour contenders won’t be so kind.

Froome has won the Tour and the Vuelta España in the same season, of course, but the Giro-Tour and Tour-Vuelta doubles are not one in the same. His competition doesn’t target the Vuelta the way they target the Tour, and most of the Vuelta contenders each year have already raced one grand tour, and are therefore on a level playing field of fatigue.

Alberto Contador tried the double in 2015. He proved to be in brilliant form at the Giro, but as great as his successful bid for pink turned out, he fizzled at the Tour. Quintana gave it a go this year, trying to win the Giro at 90 percent while saving something for the Tour, and came up short on both accounts.

Understandably, there’s something tempting about being the first rider since Marco Pantani to pull off the rare feat — but perhaps there’s a reason “Il Pirata,” whose climbing panache was matched only by his sky-high hematocrit levels, was the last guy to pull it off.

Modern cycling requires its stars to have a shorter list of season objectives than the laundry list of targets Eddy Merckx might have laid out in January each year. Delivering peak performances worthy of topping the GC hopefuls in both races is just too much to ask. In the immortal words of Bruce Hornsby and the Range — or Tupac and Talent, for the (slightly) younger crowd — “That’s just the way it is,” at least in this day and age.

By lining up for the Giro, Froome will torpedo his opportunity to join the exclusive five-time Tour winner club next year. And if Quintana then goes on to win the Tour? For 12 months, cycling analysts will be forced to preface every statement with, “Well, he only won because Froome rode the Giro.”

Plus, while the four-time Tour champ has good years remaining, at 32 years old, he’s reaching his apex. Quintana is 27 and so is Bardet, so theoretically their best years are ahead. Now’s the perfect time for a thrilling battle between the very best cyclists. Everyone should show up fresh to this rumble.

What if Contador had brought his blazing form directly to France for the 2015 Tour? What might a fresh Quintana, reaching his prime, have managed against Froome this past July?

Instead of yellow jerseys, Contador and Quintana were left with excuses and overcooked legs at the end of July.

Froome should spare us the excuses in advance and come to terms with the fact that the Tour is cycling’s main event. He is cycling’s biggest grand tour star. Could you imagine a top athlete like Mikaela Shiffrin or Michael Phelps not giving the Olympics top priority? Froome’s July appointment is mandatory, the rest is just a prelude.

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