Is Chris Froome’s failed drugs test the end for Team Sky?

More and more questions being asked of the team that are supposedly cleaner than clean

Chris Froome, four-time winner of the Tour de France, has been tested positive for the bronchodilator ‘Salbutamol’ during the 2017 Tour of Spain that he won. Photo: Jaime Reina/Getty Images

Chris Froome, four-time winner of the Tour de France, has been tested positive for the bronchodilator ‘Salbutamol’ during the 2017 Tour of Spain that he won. Photo: Jaime Reina/Getty Images

 

From a holiday in Miami to the launch of a luxury watch boutique and the announcement that he intends to race in the Giro d’Italia next year, there had been no obvious signs that anything was troubling Chris Froome over the past 12 weeks.

But his failed drug test on September 7th, as uncovered by a joint investigation between the Guardian and Le Monde, threatens not only his plans for the coming season and reputation as one of Britain’s finest athletes, it could also be a final nail in the already battered coffin of Team Sky.

Under their stringent zero-tolerance policy Team Sky have parted ways with staff who have a history of doping, including Froome’s former coach Bobby Julich, who left in 2012 after admitting to using EPO as a rider in the 1990s. They also abide by a rule of not signing riders who have served bans. It means that should an anti-doping rule violation be brought against Froome they could be forced to abandon either the very ethos on which they exist or their most successful rider, a four-time Tour de France winner.

The genesis of Team Sky, should it have been forgotten in a blur of Jiffy bags and inhalers, was a response to decades of doping scandals in cycling. Here was a team you could trust to remain on the straight and narrow, said Dave Brailsford, who had previously overseen the transformation of Great Britain’s Olympic track cycling team from no-hopers to world-beaters.

Froome of Sky team addresses the media at the end of the 20th stage of the Vuelta a Espana this year. Photo: Javier Lizon/EPA
Froome of Sky team addresses the media at the end of the 20th stage of the Vuelta a Espana this year. Photo: Javier Lizon/EPA

In an interview with the Guardian in 2011 Brailsford said: “There’s no place for drugs in the sport and we like to think that we’re at the forefront of trying to promote clean cycling. That philosophy will always stay. If we thought it wasn’t possible then I’d be out.”

That philosophy has been seriously examined over the past 15 months. First came the surprise news, courtesy of the Russian hackers Fancy Bears, that Bradley Wiggins had received therapeutic use exemptions – effectively a doctor’s note – to allow him to legally take the banned corticosteroid triamcinolone to treat pollen allergies.

Then there were allegations that a mystery Jiffy bag delivered to Wiggins at the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2011 contained a prohibited substance. A UK Anti-Doping Agency investigation did not bring any charges, hampered by a lack of evidence. That was partly due to the team doctor, Richard Freeman, claiming he had lost the laptop containing Wiggins’s medical data while on holiday in Greece.

Wiggins has always denied any wrongdoing and maintained the package contained the legal decongestant Fluimucil, an answer also given by Freeman in a written statement to a parliamentary hearing. The same doctor, Freeman, who also worked for British Cycling, allegedly took a delivery of banned testosterone patches but he was unable to account for them and said they had been delivered in error.

Sky maintain that Froome’s levels of the asthma drug salbutamol – twice the permitted limit – can be explained. “There are complex medical and physiological issues which affect the metabolism and excretion of salbutamol,” Brailsford said on Wednesday. There is varying medical opinion as to what, if any, performance-enhancing benefit salbutamol offers.

Professor Chris Cooper of the University of Essex said Froome “would have to be really stupid” to try to cheat with salbutamol as it has no performance-enhancing effects when taken via an inhaler, and the rider would have known he was being tested every day. Froome has even said as much in his defence.

Froome did not appear overly concerned when he and his wife, Michelle, were visited at their home in Monaco by the journalists Richard Moore and Orla Chennaoui on October 10th, just three weeks after finding out about the failed test. The pair spoke in a relaxed manner for more than an hour for a cycling podcast reflecting on how hungry he was for more success next year.

Nor had the abnormal test result stopped him riding in a British vest at the world time trial championships in late September. Was this a case of carrying on, business as usual, until the inevitable storm set in? Or the mistaken belief that Team Sky and a crack team of legal experts and scientists would be able to explain away the failed test without it ever becoming public knowledge.

Since their inception Team Sky have sought to portray themselves as a transparent organisation. In 2013 they invited David Walsh, the journalist credited with bringing about the downfall of Lance Armstrong, to spend time with them to prove they were clean. But they freely admitted on Wednesday that if an investigation by the Guardian and Le Monde had not uncovered Froome’s positive test then it may have remained hidden for ever.

Froome crosses the finish line to win the 9th stage of the 2017 La Vuelta. Photo: Javier Lizon/Getty Images
Froome crosses the finish line to win the 9th stage of the 2017 La Vuelta. Photo: Javier Lizon/Getty Images

“This is a process that in normal circumstances would be confidential,” Team Sky said in a statement. “However, in light of media interest, we believe it is important that the facts are set out clearly for all.”

In a story-management technique that could be viewed as an attempt to control the narrative, Team Sky released a statement to the world’s media only six minutes after providing a response to the Guardian and Le Monde. In that statement, they insisted Froome was given an increased – but still legal – dose of salbutamol in the run-up to the failed urine test on September 7th as he was suffering from severe asthma symptoms. On stage 17, Froome had struggled painfully up the Alto de los Machucos, a mountain with a 25 per cent gradient in places, losing 42 seconds to his closest challenger Vincenzo Nibali. But on September 7th he was a rider revived, launching a devastating late break on the road to Santo Toribio de Liébana on stage 18 which led to him extending his lead over Nibali to 1min 37sec.

It was the decisive moment in the race, just three stages from the finish, and it pretty much ensured Froome became the first rider to win the Tour de France-Vuelta double in the same year since 1978, and the first Briton in history to take the Vuelta.

As Froome explained after the stage: “Once we got into the last climb our guys set a really high temp at the bottom and I was feeling a lot better today, so it was great to gain a little bit of time that I lost. I think certainly some guys paid for their efforts on Wednesday and also for their attacks earlier on today. It’s good to bounce back again and morale is still good and the team still strong. We’re just looking forward to getting through these next couple of days.”

One thing is clear. Sky can no longer be breezily given the benefit of the doubt, as they often have been in the past.

How can they be, given the lingering uncertainty over the Jiffy bag delivered to Wiggins? Or the evidence given by Brailsford and Shane Sutton to the digital, culture, media and sport select committee that left its chair, Damian Collins MP, demanding that Sky provide more answers?

Remember that Brailsford also tried to persuade the Daily Mail to bury the Jiffy bag story because he feared it could mark “the end of Team Sky”, while the head of Ukad, Nicole Sapstead, told parliament in March that her investigators had met with “resistance” from Team Sky in their inquiries.

All these questions swirl around a team that promised to be cleaner than clean. – Guardian service

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