Chris Froome's low-key return in the Spanish sunshine did not mask the storm brewing ahead
Chris Froome's return to competition was the relatively low-key affair he hoped it would be. In the end it was almost overshadowed by the cycling, and one of the more dramatic finishes to a bike race, when the Italian Sacha Modolo prematurely celebrated only to see French rider Thomas Boudat lunge over the line and win by the width of a tyre.
This was the perfect place for Froome to race for the first time since it was revealed he returned an adverse analytical finding for the asthma drug Salbutamol during the 2017 Vuelta a Espana. The five-day jaunt along the Andalusian coast is a European Tour event which doesn’t draw much attention, even from cycling fans. Froome was able to sign some autographs, answer a few questions and ride off into the sunshine.
But it was also a dress rehearsal for a scenario which is becoming increasingly likely – that he will race May’s Giro d'Italia, and even the Tour de France in July, with his case still unresolved.
Froome's return received some criticism from riders, a little skepticism from the few fans there and a couple of tough questions from reporters; at the Grand Tours all that will be magnified a hundred fold. The abuse he receives on the road, particularly in France where he has been spat at and had urine thrown in his face in the past, is unlikely to stop in 2018.
Froome is within his rights to race, based on the UCI's categorisation of Salbutamol as a selected substance rather than a banned one, but many believe he should have waived those rights until his case is concluded, for his own good and for the sport.
In Spain Froome thanked his fellow riders for welcoming him back into the fold, yet he has faced plenty of criticism, most notably from Tony Martin. "It’s super bad he’s racing," said the German this week. "It’s a shame." Belgian rider Philippe Gilbert described the decision as "a big mistake".
It's very possible the Briton will receive a lengthy ban when his case is finally concluded – how would victory in the Ruta del Sol look then? The more pertinent question is to wonder what the reaction would be to him winning the Giro, which begins in Israel on 4 May, while his case is still ongoing. You don’t need a long memory to recall compromised triumphs, like that of Alberto Contador at the 2011 Giro who was later stripped of his title – a hollow victory for the instated winner a year later, Michele Scarponi.
The media thronged the streets at the start in Mijas like never before in this race, almost all of them there to hear from Froome. "This is a process a lot of other riders have gone through and I don’t see why I should have different treatment to them," he told them. "There is a process there which allows me to demonstrate no wrongdoing, and that’s what I intend to do."
What of riding the Giro and the Tour? "Let’s hope it doesn’t get that far, but I’m still allowed to race now – so yeah, I don’t see why not."
The tenure of David Lappartient, the UCI president who took over last September, has not exactly been smooth so far and Froome is now one of his biggest problems. Lappartient ousted Brian Cookson from the sport’s top job on the basis of a five-point plan which included "effective UCI leadership" and "ensuring the credibility of sporting results". The UCI is seemingly powerless to speed up the process of Froome's hearing – an image of the Team Sky rider on the Giro’s start line would only serve to underline how far the UCI is from those goals.
For now Froome rides in the Spanish sunshine, but there is a heavy cloud hanging over him which will become a damaging storm as his case drags on.
Independent News Service