Athletes can come back with adverse test results without getting even temporarily banned from racing. That's like allowing a drunk driver who failed a breathalyzer test to drive away—so long as he has a good excuse.
The case of Chris Froome’s adverse salbutamol test at the 2017 Vuelta a España took another turn last week when reports surfaced that the Briton will argue that he was over the limit for the drug due to kidney malfunction.
Cycling is rife with these sorts of unlikely stories. In 2005, for instance, when Tyler Hamilton was called out for doping, he argued that the small amount of a second type of blood mixed in with his own came from a “vanishing twin,” which, before dying in utero, had left him with traces of its blood. (Of course it wasn’t from a blood transfusion, silly.) The following year, Floyd Landis claimed tests that found synthetic testosterone in his system came from a combination of dehydration and whisky. (Naturally, all pro athletes fuel up ahead of crucial performances with a wee dram.) Perhaps most famously, Alberto Contador claimed that the clenbuterol found in his system at the finish of the 2010 Tour de France was a result of contaminated steaks. (A few athletes, though not Contador, were cleared on this food contamination defense, despite clenbuterol’s known muscle-building and weight-loss attributes.)
Now French newspaper l’Équipe reports that Froome will use a similarly improbable defense. Team Sky has told l’Équipe and other publications that it denies going over the race-legal salbutamol dosage, though experts have said it’s unlikely the bike racer stayed within the permitted inhaler usage given that the test result was double the allowable limit. Meanwhile, salbutamol’s performance-enhancing properties are well established. Belgian pro racer Tim Wellens of Lotto-Soudal recently said that doctors told him he could improve his breathing capacity by 7 to 8 percent by inhaling salbutamol orally, while still remaining within UCI limits. He rejected this advice. And when ingested or injected (which is not permitted), salbutamol helps with weight loss and muscle building, like a steroid.
Let’s be clear: at this point, Froome is guilty of nothing except exceeding the legal limit for the asthma drug. According to the rules, he has the right to exonerate himself from the result by providing documentation and a medical explanation for why it occurred.
No matter how the decision on Froome turns out, it’s clear that UCI and its anti-doping processes are broken. The fact that athletes can return adverse results and continue racing is like giving a drunk driver who fails a breathalyzer test the chance to come up with a good excuse and drive away. If athletes with adverse test results are allowed to keep racing, there’s no motivation for their teams to conclude the affairs quickly and every reason to stretch them—and their possible winning streaks—out.
Meanwhile, many in the sport appear skeptical that Froome will have success with his argument. Quick-Step Floors team manager Patrick Lefevre has called on the UCI to be more clear. This week, UCI President David Lappartient said Sky should suspend Froome until the case is resolved. Three-time Tour de France winner Greg Lemond was even less polite, saying of Froome’s suggested defense, “That is the most ridiculous excuse I have ever heard.”
Perhaps in the most unenviable position is Mauro Vegni, race director of the Giro d’Italia, who courted Froome for the 2018 edition but now appears to fear a repeat of the 2011 race, when Contador won but had the result stripped for the clenbuterol case that went back to the 2010 Tour de France. “The authorities have got eight months to find a solution,” he recently told Cycling Weekly. “I’d like to think that’s long enough, if not it would reduce confidence in our ability to manage our sport. The public wouldn’t understand, and I wouldn’t either.”
Vegni is right. Even more baffling is the question of logic that the case raises: Is it really possible that a guy with asthma and ailing kidneys can win one of the hardest bike races of the season against the world’s top athletes who were presumably racing healthy? As 2015 Cyclocross World Champion and Dutch racer Mathieu van der Poel recently said during an interview on the Dutch television show AvroTros, “[The case] is very stupid, I can't help saying that. Maybe I'm a bit too blunt. Maybe asthma patients will understand the case better. But cycling and all sports in general are for healthy people.”