Sunday 4 December 2016

Paul Kimmage: Tour de France leader Chris Froome would be well advised to invite questions

Published 19/07/2015 | 17:00

Froome rode the storm to the Champs-Élysées but things got worse in 2014, when he was photographed sucking from an inhaler before going on the attack to win the second stage of the Criterium de Dauphine in June.
Froome rode the storm to the Champs-Élysées but things got worse in 2014, when he was photographed sucking from an inhaler before going on the attack to win the second stage of the Criterium de Dauphine in June.

Sir Dave Brailsford is credited as one of the principal architects in transforming Great Britain's track fortunes over the last decade and can now claim to have replicated that on the road with Team Sky.

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After a sensational season for British cycling in 2012 - which saw Team Sky capture a one-two finish at the Tour de France before going on to win eight gold medals at the London Olympic Games - Brailsford faced the task of sustained success in 2013. The results followed, with a second consecutive Tour de France victory ensuring Team Sky did twice in four seasons what they had originally set out to do once in four.

- Team Sky website

The interview had entered its fourth hour and having regaled me with tales of his unlikely rise from an office job in Gwynedd County Council to the helm of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford was selling me his vision for Sky, a new professional cycling team, and his five-year plan to win the Tour de France with a clean British rider.

But there was a hitch - I wasn't ready to buy and his brow was suddenly furrowed. "You seem a bit anti," he observed. "No, not anti, you seem very . . . sceptical."

"I'm amazed that should surprise you," I smiled.

He handed me a copy of the team's recruitment strategy - a huge tome that must have weighed half a ton - and impressed on me that Sky would be different

Read more: Stephen Roche: My heart goes out to Chris Froome. Media has made a scandal out of nothing

Roger Palfreeman, the chief medical officer at British Cycling, would lead an internal testing programme.

The team would only employ British doctors, have a zero tolerance of doping and would not employ anyone who had been associated with doping. The staff would be "enthusiastic and positive, fit and healthy, and willing to try new things".

Chris Froome
Chris Froome

A week later we exchanged some text messages:

Me: "Is there a difference in doing the right thing and being seen to do the right thing?"

Him: "Good point - the only way is to do the right thing regardless of being seen or not."

Me: "Just thinking out loud."

Him: "I agree with your thoughts but it is hopefully the one thing I will do, ie have a value-and-belief system and actually live by it."

But some of the staff he had hired (and would later fire) had obviously been associated with doping and I wasn't convinced.

Nine months later, in May 2010, he offered me complete and unrestricted access to the team for the Tour de France. The first in a series of behind-the-scenes exclusives started with an interview with Bradley Wiggins during a training camp in the Pyrenees. "Better to have you inside the tent looking out, then outside the tent looking in," he grinned.

The boy does have a sense of humour.

Read more: Chris Froome slams 'unacceptable' behaviour as fan drenches Tour de France leader in urine

Chris Froome celebrates as he crosses the line to win stage 15 of the Tour de France
Chris Froome celebrates as he crosses the line to win stage 15 of the Tour de France

The Tour started in Rotterdam that year. I booked a motorhome, caught a ferry from Harwich and sat down for a pre-arranged meeting with Brailsford at the team hotel on the eve of the race. He wasn't happy. My trip to the Pyrenees had "made the lads edgy" and he had decided to review the terms of the agreement - the complete and unrestricted access could not begin before Thursday.

"But that's almost a third of the race," I protested.

"I know," he said. "But I still think we can make this work."

"How will it work?"

"Why don't you sleep on it," he said.

One of his riders, Michael Barry, was a former team-mate of Lance Armstrong and had just been implicated by Floyd Landis. I met Brailsford the following evening and suggested a compromise: "I'll stay out of the team for a week if you let me sit down with Michael Barry."

Team Sky’s Nicolas Roche leads the yellow jersey of Chris Froome during yesterday’s Stage 13 of the Tour de France
Team Sky’s Nicolas Roche leads the yellow jersey of Chris Froome during yesterday’s Stage 13 of the Tour de France

"No, I can't agree to that," he smiled.

"I've just watched him give an interview to the BBC?"

"No, it might destabilise the team."

"Dave, put yourself in my shoes for a moment," I implored. "What credibility would I have as a journalist if I spent three weeks with your team on the Tour de France and did not talk to Michael Barry?"

"No credibility," he agreed.

Three months earlier, Roger Palfreeman, a cornerstone of Brailsford's anti-doping strategy, left the team. I asked Brailsford in Rotterdam why the press had not been informed? He seemed puzzled. "He was never part of Team Sky," he explained. "He worked for British Cycling."

Read more: Nicolas Roche: I drank 15 bottles and poured water on my legs to stay cool

I asked him for Palfreeman's number; he told me he didn't have one. "But if I can get hold of him, I'll give him your number and he can call you."

Three months later, in October 2010, Geert Leinders - a Belgian doctor who has now been banned for life from the sport - joined the team.

"We agreed as a team that if a rider, suffering from asthma, got into trouble with pollen we would pull him out of the race rather than apply for a therapeutic use exemption on his behalf."

- Dr Steve Peters,'Inside Team Sky' by David Walsh

Few people had ever heard of Chris Froome after his first season with Sky in 2010. Born in Kenya to British parents, he had turned professional in 2007 with a small South African team and progressed steadily through the ranks - 83rd in the 2008 Tour de France, 36th in the 2009 Giro d'Italia - before joining Sky.

Those first months with the team were a struggle. On the 19th stage of the Giro d'Italia, he was disqualified for holding onto a motorbike (he had injured his knee and planned to abandon) and a year later the team were not renewing his contract until an outstanding performance (second) in the Tour of Spain.

The reason for the transformation? Bilharzia, a water-borne parasitic disease transferred by microscopic snails that he contracted while swimming during a visit to his father in Africa. The parasite had been attacking his red blood cells and draining him for months until a treatment - Biltracide - was found.

In 2012, he finished second behind Wiggins in the Tour de France and second in the Olympic time trial. A year later, he won almost every time he pinned a number on and arrived in Corsica as the stand-out favourite for the Tour.

The first major showdown of the race was the eighth stage from Castres to the Pyrenean ski resort of Ax 3 Domaines. One minute and ten seconds separated the (ten) favourites that morning as they rolled out of Castres but Froome had destroyed them - and the race - when they reached the summit finish.

A week later, on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, Froome blitzed the field again but it was the first Tour since the fall of Lance Armstrong and questions were being raised: How had a mild-mannered Kenyan with an ordinary pedigree, and an ugly racing style, delivered one of the greatest performances of all time?

One of those asking questions was a former team (Festina) coach and physiologist, Antoine Veyer: "On the Ventoux, Froome was the same as Armstrong and Pantani. I've asked Sky: 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."

Gerard Guillaume, the team doctor at FDJ, also expressed reservations: "The thing that concerns me about Froome is how thin he is - you should lose muscle when you drop below a certain weight. And Sky are talking about releasing his data to the World Anti-Doping Agency but they are only going to give what suits them."

Froome rode the storm to the Champs-élysées but things got worse in 2014, when he was photographed sucking from an inhaler before going on the attack to win the second stage of the Criterium de Dauphine in June. "Where had the asthma come from?" the sceptics wondered. "He's never mentioned that before."

Then, five days later, a French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, ran a story alleging that the sports governing body had ignored its own rules in granting Froome a TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) for prednisone, a glucocortisteroid, during the Tour of Romandie in April.

Froome had been struggling with a chest infection and applied for the TUE when his doctor noticed him coughing after the opening stage. No rules were broken but many observers were alarmed. The abuse of glucocortisteroids has been rampant in the sport for years and Sky had earned plaudits for their policy of withdrawing sick riders from competition, rather than apply for the TUE's.

What was going on? Had that policy, like so many others, suddenly changed?

A few days later, I requested an interview with Froome and (against the advice of his team) he agreed. I liked him. He wasn't aggressive or menacing like Armstrong and gave a couple of answers the team would have hated:

He knew Geert Leinders had come from a doping past.

(The team had no idea.)

He had used the painkiller, Tramadol.

(The team denied it.)

And he had just started working with Tim Kerrison at Sky.

(The team attributed everything to the performance director.)

Two questions intrigued me: the first was about his astonishing transformation in the 2011 Tour of Spain.

PK: There were flags raised in the team about your performance. Did anyone from the team ever raise this with you at all?

CF: No.

PK: Nobody asked: "What's going on here, boy?"

CF: No, never.

PK: Now this parasite (Bilharzia) attacks your red blood cells?

CF: Yeah.

PK: Richard Freeman (a Team Sky doctor) told David Walsh that your performances had tripped an alarm in his head. He looked at your (blood) profiles and there was no inconsistency. But if you've had a parasite attacking your red cells, surely there should be (some inconsistency). Surely that should show up?

CF: I would imagine so. I don't know what the blood passport looks like. I've never looked into it . . . Logic says your red blood cells would be lower because your haematocrit is being eaten by those parasites . . . I'd imagine if it was outside the (normal) parameters questions would have been asked.

The second was about his seeming refusal to submit himself to tests:

PK: There's a tirade of noise on social media asking: "Why won't he do a VO2 test?" And experts like Antoine Veyer saying he has asked but the team has refused. I don't understand why you're not banging on his door saying: 'Antoine, what's the problem here? How can I help? Show me the bike and I'll do the test. What other questions do you have?'

CF: What's going to be gained from a VO2 test other than being submissive to people who are basically just going to use that in one way or another to try and prove their point?

PK: You say, 'Why should I be submissive?' What do you have to lose?

CF: Yeah, maybe it is something we would look at doing one day . . . I mean, people with really low VO2s have been amazing bike riders. And people with high VOs have been useless bike riders, so it's not a measure the team uses. I've definitely never done a VO2 max test with the team.

PK: And you don't see the point in doing one just to shut these people up?

CF: At some point I probably will.

PK: Do one next week before the Tour.

(He laughs.)

The interview ended. We shook hands and I offered him some advice: "Start every press conference you do for the next year with an invitation to the journalists to ask questions about doping. And sit down with Veyer and do everything he asks."

He did not take that advice, and this week it came back to bite him . . .

Tour de France leader Chris Froome has said he is willing to undergo physiological tests after this year's race to put to rest any suspicion of doping. The Briton astonished rivals and pundits on Tuesday's 10th stage with a brutal attack in the final climb that left him nearly three minutes clear of his closest rival in the overall classification.

Perhaps a million words have been written since Froome's win on Tuesday on the poisonous mistrust that has afflicted the Tour: climbing speeds and power rates and physiologists interpreting numbers; bloggers running scared and lawyers issuing writs; old pros asking questions they have never asked before; racers blaming journalists.

"It's getting to the point where some of the journalists who are whipping up the rubbish that they are, need to be accountable for our safety a little bit as well," Froome's team-mate, Richie Porte, said on Friday.

"Do I deserve to be booed? Does Chris Froome deserve all this? I don't think so. Maybe in ten years' time they're going to see these victories are legitimate. It's a disgrace how some of these people carry on."

Thanks Richie, you'll be waiting for an apology.

And what are we to make of the return of Roger Palfreeman and yesterday's curious report in The Times: "His arrival will provide confidence in the zero tolerance anti-doping policy adopted by Sir Dave Brailsford, Sky's team principal, and in an interview yesterday, Palfreeman talked about the internal procedures used by Sky to eliminate the dangers of drug-taking among its riders and staff, as well as about innovations in drug-taking that the sport needs to head off in the future.

"I am absolutely confident in the cleanness of Team Sky," Palfreeman said. "The procedures are the strongest in the sport and the culture, which I have seen close up, gives you huge confidence."

Perhaps Roger, but we've heard all that before.

The only thing that can save this sport is transparency.

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