Chris Froome finds out no rider is bigger than the Tour
Organisers try to blackball the defending champion from this year’s race
Since the start of the year there have been calls for Chris Froome to stand down from racing. Photograph: EPA
There is an old mantra in French cycling that no rider is bigger than the Tour de France and, in dramatically seeking to block Chris Froome from starting this year’s race, ASO, the promoter, has the bitter legacy of Lance Armstrong in mind.
In 2009, when Armstrong made his ill-fated comeback, the Tour brushed away suspicions and welcomed him with open arms. American audiences were flagging, the racing was pedestrian and the Tour lacked drama. The Texan was box-office and guaranteed profile and revenues. Three years later, however, came the American’s confession to a career built on doping. Since the Tour recognised he had made fools of it, new sensibilities have come into play.
The attempt to blackball Froome from racing may prove futile but it is as much about commercial realities - TV revenues, sponsors’ sensibilities, merchandise and marketing - as it is about ethics.
The move to prevent Froome from joining the starters next Saturday in the Vendée may seem a last-gasp attempt to save face but, with private conversations between Sky and Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), having reached a dead end, it has been increasingly likely for months. Froome has stuck throughout to his mantra that, under the regulations of the UCI, the sport’s governing body, he has every right to race but Team Sky and their principal, Dave Brailsford, cannot argue that they have not been warned.
Since the start of the year there have been calls for Froome to stand down from racing while his appeal against his adverse analytical finding (AAF) was resolved. Froome’s test at last year’s Vuelta a España indicated twice the permitted level of the asthma drug salbutamol in his system. Froome insists he had not taken more than the allowed amount of the drug, which is a specified substance.
In January the president of the UCI, the Frenchman David Lappartient, said: “Team Sky should suspend Froome. It’s up to Brailsford to take his responsibilities.” A month later Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour, was equally frustrated by the lack of progress with the Froome case. “We need a response, for all race organisers, so that there isn’t a rider that they’ll say later shouldn’t have been at the start,” he said. “It’s mad, completely grotesque.”
Yet even after the Jiffy bag controversy around Bradley Wiggins, the damning findings of the DCMS select committee report and now the painfully slow process surrounding Froome’s AAF, Team Sky have carried on regardless, choosing to ignore the disquiet of others.
But there are precedents in Froome’s favour. ASO has attempted and failed to ban riders from competing in the past and it is widely expected Froome will win his appeal against ASO’s move and join his teammates in the Vendée.
Meanwhile, the lucrative love-in between the Tour and British cycling that has seen the exuberant growth in the Tour de Yorkshire and five British Tour winners in six years, as well as Britain become a global cycling power, is now tipping into simmering resentment.
The complexities of Froome’s AAF, lost in a sea of acronyms, are so byzantine and complex that they have become for many, what Danny Dyer might call a “mad riddle”. Certainly in France there is little interest in listening to Froome’s point of view.
Under UCI rules Froome is free to race yet, if Team Sky was a member of the French-led MPCC (the Movement for Credible Cycling), a voluntary collective of leading teams, Froome would have suspended himself.
Even this week there was a stark contrast when Team Sky’s fellow World Tour team Movistar, “as an advocate of cycling’s credibility and fair play”, announced they had suspended Jaime Rosón because of his own AAF. But despite the exhortations of the Tour de France organisation, Sky, driven by Brailsford’s hubris, are not part of any collective. They are just Team Sky, giving the impression that they are seemingly playing everyone - the media, the therapeutic usage exemption system and now the Tour itself, for fools. Judging from the mood in France, this may be a game too far.