We are not certain, we are never certain. If we were we could reach some conclusions, and we could, at last, make others take us seriously. – Albert Camus, The Fall
Thirty-five years ago, on a warm Sunday afternoon in July 1978, an American reporter called Robin McGowan stepped from a station wagon at the summit of L'Alpe D'Huez after the 16th stage of the Tour de France. It was his first time to cover the race and by the 16th stage – an epic 240km ride from St Etienne to L'Alpe D'Huez – he had reached a conclusion, memorably recorded in his book Tour de France.
"As I get out of the car, an English correspondent turns to me: 'This race sure beats anything I've ever heard of. Except for sailing single-handed around the world, I can't imagine anything so demanding.' I myself am in tears, as I have been most of the way up; it's the race and the altitude and the bravery hitting me all at once."
I thought of McGowan's words, late on Thursday evening, as I stood in the same place. The 165km stage from Gap had been one of the best for years. The American, Tejay van Garderen and the Frenchman, Christophe Riblon, had gone toe to toe twice on the mountain and their courage was a joy to behold.
But the battle for the yellow jersey has evoked no such joy.
Chris Froome has delivered shock and awe on almost every stage. He is the best climber in the race, the best time-trialist in the race and has defended the race lead for two weeks now with a severely weakened team.
On Wednesday, David Millar was astonished by Froome's performance in the time trial and immediately took to Twitter: 'For those who've just turned on the TdF coverage, Froomedog is going uphill. Yes, he is climbing, that is not a flat road.'
His performance last Sunday on Mont Ventoux was possibly the greatest I have ever seen. But no one has used that word to describe it; no one qualified to make that call – Merckx, Hinault, LeMond – has described Chris Froome as 'great'. He works extremely hard, they say. His performances have been exceptional, they say. But the 'g' word is off limits for now.
And there was an itch we couldn't scratch at L'Alpe D'Huez on Thursday – something odd, something different – when Froome had looked vulnerable and yet somehow extended his lead. What are we watching here? Where has this guy come from?
What's happened to our tears?
The press room at L'Alpe D'Huez in the Palais des Sports has always been a favourite. They've got these giant posters of previous winners: Andy Hampsten's solo win in 1992; Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond holding hands in 1986; LeMond, Gianni Bugno, Eric Breukink and Thierry Claveyrolat rounding the final corner in 1990; Peter Winnen and Jean-Rene Bernadeau almost falling across the line in 1981.
And my favourite, always my favourite, the day Michel Pollentier brought Robin McGowan to tears in 1978.
The photograph is great: Pollentier – with his crooked knees and elbows and facial contortions – is racing toward the summit with his team car alongside and we can clearly see the tanned and handsome features of his smiling manager, Fred de Bruyne. But it's the mechanic, hanging out the back window that makes it. Jean-Jacques Vandenbroucke's fist is clenched in triumph; his face is a portrait of absolute joy.
And you stand, staring at his smiling, happy face and it makes you want to cry. Why? Because he has no idea what the near and distant future holds.
That his rider, Pollentier, will be stripped of the yellow jersey that evening and ejected from the race for trying to cheat the dope control. That a Frenchman, Bernard Hinault, will take the lead four days later and seal the first of five Tours. That his son, Frank Vandenbroucke – one of the most gifted Belgian racers of all time – will develop a cocaine habit and die by the age of 34.
There have, of course, been many other doping deaths and we've had a succession of doping scandals but that's all finished now. This is a new era, we're told, the cleanest Tour for years. Cycling has only one problem now: the media. How dare they question Froome!
"If I was Froome, there would be no more press conferences," Bernard Hinault opined on Wednesday. "I'd have told the journalists to go fuck themselves."
"I'm really angry when I see all the criticism of Froome," Vincent Lavenu, the manager of the AG2R team, concurred. "They're trying to destroy cycling and the riders don't deserve it. But the public aren't fooled, and that's the most important."
"I know Froome is clean," David Millar chimed to L'Equipe. "The journalists are sceptical and that's normal – it's the Lance Armstrong effect – but in 15 years they will realise: 'Christ! We were horrible to Froome. He really didn't deserve that'."
Was this the same Froome he had tweeted about on Wednesday? The guy who pulverised the field on Ventoux without getting out of the saddle? The guy who races up climbs like he is racing on the flat? Where should we send the apology? Where did he find the 'certainty'?
On Thursday, the morning of the stage to L'Alpe D'Huez, there were contrasting headlines in two of the French dailies. L'Equipe led with 'Le Dossier Froome', a two-page analysis of Froome's power data (provided to the newspaper by the team) by Frederic Grappe, a respected physiologist. He broke his findings into four parts:
(Some edited highlights translated by Cyclingnews)
First observation: His power drops off normally: "The relationship between power and time is similar to what is known and is observed in all the riders that have been established in the record power profile. It shows, for example, a significant and normal power reduction of 60 watts (0.88w/kg) between 20 and 60 minutes effort."
Second observation: An exceptional aerobic power: "The extremely high maximal aerobic power (efforts of five minutes) confirms that he has an extraordinary high aerobic potential which means he has a VO2 max (this has never been measured in the laboratory by his team) close to the limits of known physiological science."
Third observation: A very stable weight: "His average weight over the two years is 68kg (in the morning) with less than 900g variations. This shows that the power he develops over two years is relatively stable when expressed in watts per kilogram (w/kg), a very important indication of the performances he has shown."
Fourth observation: Excellent recovery: "It is evident that to be able to operate with a power profile near 100 per cent of his maximum, Chris Froome must have excellent ability to recover between stages. Because if the level of fatigue accumulates too much, it is no longer possible to be close to his records."
Grappe, who works closely with the Francaise des Jeux (FDG) team, also reviewed Froome's performance in Wednesday's time trial and concluded that "the average power output was very well integrated and therefore completely expected."
The bottom line? Certainty. Froome is racing clean.
But a very different splash – 'The Tour of Doubt: Miracle or mystery? The incredible performances of Chris Froome, who won again yesterday, have reactivated suspicions' – appeared in Liberation, where Antoine Veyer, another physiologist, was one of three experts consulted. "On the Ventoux, Froome was the same as Armstrong and Pantani (416 watts) . . . I've asked Sky (his team): help me to believe you, help me to defend you, put everything on the table – his (power) data, his VO2, his blood values. You have nothing to hide."
They also quoted Gerard Guillaume, the team doctor at FDG since 1999. "Like every year on the Tour, we all want to believe but there are always questions, and doubt and incredulity.
"But things have definitely improved and guys who were humiliating us (with their performances) a few years ago are back in line . . . The thing that concerns me about Froome is how thin he is . . . you should lose muscle when you drop below a certain weight but . . . And Sky are talking about releasing his data to the World Anti-Doping Agency but they are only going to give what suits them."
The bottom line? Uncertainty. Is Froome racing clean?
On Thursday evening, after the stage to L'Alpe D'Huez, Froome was asked by a journalist from AP about 'Le Dossier Froome' and the analysis by Grappe that had appeared that morning in L'Equipe.
"What was your motivation in releasing that data? And what do you hope people will take away from that?"
"Okay, well, just so it's clear – it wasn't a decision that I took. The team owns all that data, and the team made the decision to release that data to the relevant analyst . . . but, yeah, I'm really happy to hear their findings and to hear their take on it, basically backing us up to say that these performances are very good, strong, clean sporting performances."
Then he added: "And just to back up what we've been saying all along . . . it's good that somebody has been allowed to see the data and after seeing the data they've said, 'These guys are doing all right . . . they seem to be doing things according to what they would expect'."
There was one word he didn't use to describe his performances – great. But he is unfailingly polite and modest. He knows, of course, that that's for others to judge and as my friend David Walsh once said, we reserve the right to applaud.