Can we trust the Tour, Sky and Chris Froome: Le Monde Op-Ed

06 Jul 2018 Posted by

 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. 

Cycling cannot be accused of forgetting its past.  It’s not for a lack of trying – many in the sport want to.  Those involved often pretend to forget, and even implore the sport’s followers to set aside their tainted memories and “enjoy the racing”.  Yet cycling remembers.

It was twenty years ago that hotel raids, arrests and sit-down protests brought the Tour to its knees.  That was hoped to be the last.  History records it as the latest at the time.

Wave after wave, the scandals continued.  First, came the Tour’s “saviour”, a cancer-surviving American who promised a new dawn with convincing appeals about trust, dreams and the honour of the yellow jersey.

Next came a double-blow – Operation Puerto on the eve of the 2006 race eliminated many favourites before a pedal had turned, and Floyd Landis’ miracle ride to Morzine was later exposed as a drug-fuelled spectacle.

Then followed, among others, the disqualification of Michael Rasmussen while in yellow in 2007, Tyler Hamilton’s collarbone courage tainted by doping, the stripping of Alberto Contador’s 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro titles for a clenbuterol positive, and a Fancy Bears hack that exposed the use of powerful corticosteroids and other possible drugs (the Jiffy bag scandal) by Team Sky ahead of Bradley Wiggins’ Tour victory in 2012.

All the while, sincere appeals for trust and promises of a new era were made by the riders and their teams.  Now, twenty years on, it is logical to question whether there is any reason to be optimistic that these broken promises are about to be fulfilled.

One possible source of optimism might have been advances in anti-doping.  The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was set up in 1999 to promote, co-ordinate and monitor the fight against doping. That mandate has never looked as fragile as it does on the eve of the Tour, thanks to its backpedalling on its salbutamol policy, the latest of a series of episodes that undermines the strength of the science underpinning anti-doping.

For while advances in anti-doping have certainly occurred, most notably the introduction of the biological passport, the reality is that anti-doping catches only a tiny proportion of even self-confessed dopers. 30% to 40% of elite track and field athletes confess to doping, but only 1% to 2% are caught.  There is little reason to think that cycling is any different.

There is also concern that under pressure from improved testing methods, doping behaviour has evolved.  2015’s CIRC report described the ‘medicalization’ of the sport.  This confirmed what anti-doping expert Michael Ashenden warned when he said “…there are pockets of organised, highly sophisticated dopers, even within ‘new age’ cycling teams. Personally, I don’t accept that the ‘dark era’ has ended, it has just morphed into a new guise.”

His words were echoed by Gert Leinders, a disgraced doping doctor who was hired by Team Sky, allegedly unaware of his doping past.  His language was more provocative: “Think of it as shedding your skin. The snake gets a new skin, but underneath it remains the same snake. He takes his past and his problems along with him into the present”.

And so it is that we arrive at the twenty-year anniversary of that cataclysmic Tour, with a champion again asking for trust while pursuing an iconic achievement – a fifth overall maillot jaune, and four consecutive Grand Tour wins.

As recently as 2011, most people would have expressed doubt at the prospect of Chris Froome even finishing five Tours de France, let alone winning them in dominant fashion.  A middle of the pack 26-year old facing transfer to another team, his career was transformed by a second-place finish at the Vuelta after a late call up to support team leader Bradley Wiggins.

Given cycling’s past, the transformation of Froome alone raises eyebrows.  A once-in-a-generation talent, let alone the talent of a historically dominant athlete, has never before expressed itself so late in endurance sport, when the person has already been forging a career for four years.  Bilharzia and four other medical conditions were offered as mitigation for this late emergence.

The medical murkiness of Froome’s career has persisted – numerous illnesses, and the drugs to treat them, have punctuated his race victories.  One condition, asthma, is now central to the Froome legacy, yet didn’t even warrant a mention in The Climb, David Walsh’s biography of Froome after his first Tour title.  That only emerged later, despite allegedly being a life-long condition.

To those suspicious about the medicalization of the sport, these explanations are understandably seen as cover for that ‘new guise’ of doping. At best, they make Froome a medical marvel, able to dominate one of the world’s most demanding sports while requiring powerful medical interventions that severely limit exercise in most people.  At worst? Well, see cycling for the last fifty years.

The history of cycling compels scepticism. It is the canvas on which Froome’s words “Trust me” are painted.  When any champion, let alone a historically dominant late-developer, insists that he is different, that he should be trusted, that his victories will stand the test of time, we must recognize that these are extra-ordinary appeals.

For such appeals to be believable, they must break a decades-long cycle. They ask for history to be set aside.  For patterns to be ignored. It is in this regard that honesty and transparency would have been welcome.  Openness, and the absence of contradictions and denials may have gone some way to reassuring those whose memories sow mistrust.

Instead we have been given the opposite.  Team Sky, who rode into cycling with promises of transparency, have avoided, diverted and obfuscated even the most basic questions. They avoided questions in British Parliament, are linked to unexplained testosterone and jiffy-bag deliveries, and have failed to deliver on numerous promises of transparency.

These range from a promised study on suspicious blood values in Sergio Henao, to commitments to providing data from their race-winning exploits. The marginal gains philosophy has been exposed to be, at best, a PR campaign, patronizing not only to followers of the sport, but also to rival teams, who by insinuation are incompetent, unable to do basic things like keep riders healthy, recover properly, or figure out how to eat and drink enough to provide energy during stages.

The most recent faux-transparency attempt is a classic example of this.  It was heavy on the detail of how they’d analysed Stage 19 of the Giro, broken it into segments and determined the exact carbohydrate load required in each segment.  This was trotted by in collaboration with some journalists who simply peddled the required tropes of attention to detail and false claims of innovation, in what ultimately amounted to a long advertorial for a sports drink, and little else, except for data that doesn’t even match some that the team themselves declared at the time of the race.

Richie Porte said it correctly: “I think it’s fake news. Maybe they put it out there and hope that guys read that and under-fuel. We are all professional athletes and know how to fuel. We don’t need to read online to see how Sky’s doing it, I’ve been doing this long enough to know what to eat”.

Speaking of the famed Sky attention to detail, this is something we are meant to believe is responsible for their success, but we should set it aside about basic things like losing laptops, failing to back up medical records or histories of orders of medical products, and allegedly not knowing the weight of their riders (though they themselves have contradicted this assertion).

Perhaps the the ultimate failure of attention to detail, though, was having in their team a rider who was fat (17% as a professional cyclist), who allegedly had the underlying physiology to be a champion, but who was under-performing before a breakthrough he achieved thanks not to the team’s support, but to external support on his diet and the weight loss it caused.  That rider is Chris Froome, now standing on the edge of immortality.

At worst, the marginal gain shtick has been diversionary and deceitful, a cover for practices that they’ve since acknowledged included the use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions to gain advantages.  It is no wonder mistrust exists – the same tactics were in play during the Armstrong years.

These are not actions of a clean, transparent team.  Is it any wonder that fans who have followed the sport, in particular the Tour, and who mostly accept that the sport is tainted by drugs, are so deeply suspicious of Sky and Froome.

The most recent example concerns the assertions of Froome and Sky that the “facts are out there” regarding his controversially closed salbutamol case. This is false. We have very few facts. And Sky will not release them, instead saying that the UCI or WADA can explain the decision.

Surely the beneficiary of transparency, in this and many previous instances, would be Sky? Indeed, the UCI and WADA have every reason not to publish the data in detail, for it would further call into question their own policies and anti-doping credibility.  Their retreat on the issue is a blight on anti-doping, and every bit of detail stands to weaken the thin-ice on which they stand.

However, Sky and Froome lack such a disincentive.  If data and evidence clearly exonerates Froome, then why would the party who stands to benefit most be asking the party that would be hurt most to do the job of disclosing it?  Surely it is Sky who gain from being open? The same has been said for the last six years, but as yet, only a drip-feed of filtered, highly selected, and often contradictory information to sympathetic journalists has been made public.  Transparency is binary – it either exists or it does not. Providing some, but not all the data, is not a step in the right direction.  It is the exact opposite, a tactic used to manipulate under the guise of transparency.  This is the legacy of Sky’s transparency platform and commitment.

This is not good enough. On the canvas of the Tour’s recent history, better artistry than the deflection and misdirection of Sky is required.

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