As the case over Chris Froome's elevated salbutamol levels slowly churns on, cycling officials are preparing for a protracted battle
Last week saw a flurry of public relations and politicking in the case of Chris Froome and his September Vuelta a España blood sample, which showed twice the permissible limit for the asthma drug salbutamol. Now news has surfaced that the Tour de France could prevent the defending champ from starting this year’s race.
On March 20, UCI president David Lappartient said that, due to legal wrangling, Froome’s salbutamol case is unlikely to be resolved before the Giro d’Italia. The following day, Lappartient added that he hopes a decision will be rendered before the Tour de France, saying “it would be difficult for” Froome to race the Tour under a cloud of suspicion.
This is not the first time Lappartient has publicly advocated for discipline of the controversial British cyclist. Following the report by the British Government’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee alleging that Team Sky used steroids to enhance its riders’ performances in the 2011 through 2013 seasons, Lappartient, in an interview with the BBC, called for a UCI investigation into the team. He also repeated his belief that Sky should withdraw Froome from competition until the case was resolved and said it would be “a disaster for the image of cycling” if the defending champ were to ride the Tour de France with the investigation still pending.
Team Sky, however, has rejected calls to bench its top racer. Froome fired back at the UCI president’s remarks. “I saw [David Lappartient’s] comments yesterday, and I think what I would say is I’m doing my best to follow the due process,” Froome said from Tirreno-Adriatico, his second race of the 2018 season. Because the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) lists salbutamol as a “specified” substance as opposed to one that is banned, Froome is allowed to race until the investigation is resolved. Continued Froome, “Given [Lappartient]’s concern for the reputation of the sport, I think it would be more sensible of him to raise his concerns in person or at least though the right channels as opposed to through the media.”
Despite growing unease over how long the case has lasted—both Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme and Giro d’Italia race director Mauro Vegni have pled for a resolution of the Froome situation ahead of their respective races—that seemed to be the end of the discussion. Froome would continue racing until he had mounted his defense and a decision was handed down.
Then came the UCI president’s back-to-back comments last week. In his remarks, Lappartient said it was up to cycling’s governing bodies, including the UCI, WADA, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to deal with Froome, not race organizers such as the Giro and Tour de France. Indeed, Vegni has said he is powerless to stop the Briton from racing. However, the Australian website News.com.au reported on March 22 that Tour de France organizer Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) will refuse Froome entry into the 2018 edition of the race if his salbutamol case is unresolved. The story quoted two unnamed senior cycling sources as saying that ASO feels confident it can exclude Froome based on clauses in its rules about safeguarding the image of its race. “ASO…has more discretion on who it registers for its event and has no intention of letting a rider with a potential anti-doping violation hanging over them to race,” the story said.
Such an exclusion has precedence. ASO has denied entry more than once to racers suspected of doping, perhaps most famously in 2008, when it barred the entire Astana squad, including 2007 Tour de France victor Alberto Contador, from all of its races. That sort of ultimatum could put pressure on the UCI to help wrap up proceedings, especially considering that the Tour de France start date will come nearly ten months after Froome’s over-the-limit salbutamol test.
However, ASO’s athlete exclusions have all occurred prior to the creation of the UCI WorldTour, the rules of which state that licensed events “must accept the participation of all UCI WorldTeams.” Those rules aren’t clear about whether an event has the right to exclude an individual athlete. So, if ASO were to bar Froome from the Tour de France, the act could put the world’s biggest bike race organizer in conflict with cycling’s organizing body. Indeed, ASO has distanced itself from the Australian news story. “The Press Association ‘news’ is not based on any official ASO statement, press release, or interview, so it is wrong information,” a spokesperson told Outside this week. “The only thing we keep saying is that we hope for a fast outcome.”
It’s unclear from the carefully worded statement if ASO is actually denying that it may seek to exclude Froome or whether it simply didn’t approve of that message being leaked. Team Sky, however, seemed unperturbed by the story, dismissing it as speculation that doesn’t reflect any dialogue it has had with the UCI or ASO. “Chris and the team have been clear that we want to see this resolved as quickly as possible, and we are continue to do everything we can to work toward this,” a Sky spokesperson said when asked for comment.
Only time will tell if the doping case will be wrapped up ahead of the Tour de France or whether ASO is serious about excluding Froome. A UCI spokesperson has said there is no timeframe for a decision, and that the governing body has not spoken with ASO about the topic of Froome's possible exclusion from the race. Regardless, the continuing conversation in the media about the case is an ongoing public relations headache for Team Sky, and the specter of having its top racer excluded in July heaps more pressure and scrutiny on the British team.