Sunday 27 May 2018

Even start in Holy City can't silence Froome talk

Chris Froome is bidding for a unique triple crown of Grand Tour wins. Photo: Getty Images
Chris Froome is bidding for a unique triple crown of Grand Tour wins. Photo: Getty Images

William Fotheringham

Win or lose, Chris Froome will dominate the Giro d'Italia. Unfortunately it will not be in the way that he or the race organisers would have wished when they reached a deal - rumoured to be worth €2m - to ensure the presence of the four-time Tour de France winner when the race starts in Israel on Friday.

The Team Sky leader is bidding for a unique triple crown of Grand Tour wins: Tour, Vuelta a España, Giro, all in a row.

It should have been the cycling story of the decade but instead Froome travels to Israel with the outcome of his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol at last year's Vuelta hanging over his career. The 32-year-old has been adamant that he will prove his innocence but if he does receive a ban, whatever he achieves in the Giro may be rendered null and void.

The race's organisers have been in a similar situation in the recent past, with Alberto Contador winning the 2011 race as his clenbuterol positive hung in abeyance. That was subtly different to the Froome case, clenbuterol being a banned substance rather than a "specified" one - ie one whose usage is subject to certain limits - as is the case with salbutamol. The feeling is the same, however: although Froome might eventually be cleared, the race could be decided in the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland rather than on the other side of the Alps.

For Froome, it is a public-relations disaster. Team Sky, meanwhile, have blundered into another heffalump trap after 18 months when they have persistently shown a cloth ear to the wider interests of their sport. The organisers are caught between a rock and a hard place, unable to exclude Froome even if they wanted to and desperate for him to be exonerated. In the longer term, they will have to hope cycling fans forgive and forget as they have done on so many occasions.

The Froome fiasco has removed some of the focus from the choice of start location, the first time a Grand Tour has begun outside Europe in what may prove a model for other relatively distant launch points. For its Israeli backers, the partenza is a chance for cycling to do what it does best, which is to enable a location to present a face of festive normality to the world, according to the philosophy of the former Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who would wax lyrical about his sport's capacity to convey joy to where it was needed.

Cycling has always had its political moments: in the 1970s, the Irish question tipped over into the sport at Munich while the Vuelta avoided the Basque Country for many years to avoid ruffling separatist feathers. But there is no tiptoeing around recent issues in the region, with Palestinian protesters being shot dead by Israeli security forces.

The acute sensitivity was demonstrated after the race route launch when the start location had to be rapidly amended from West Jerusalem, with the "West" ­deleted. There have been calls for a ­boycott but cycling does not do that: this is a cash-strapped sport with a long history of shuffling rapidly past awkward questions over the sources of some of its finance.

Against the background of the Froome controversy and questions over the start, Lance Armstrong breezing into town is a sideshow, albeit one that underlines cycling's enduring difficulties when engaging with its doping past. The seven-times Tour de France winner is banned with his victories stripped, but he is heading for Israel to present his (rather good) podcast. The organisers' response is that he will do it from outside the race environment.

That is a marked contrast with 2009, when Armstrong made his comeback (which eventually precipitated his downfall): the Giro organisers fell over themselves to make him welcome. Cycling is hypocritical in singling out the Texan. Other convicted drug-takers will be present at the race in various capacities and the tragic Marco Pantani will be celebrated as usual - this is the 20th anniversary of his lone Giro victory - although he, too, was a doper.

The "real Giro" will start on May 8 when the race returns to Italian soil, in Sicily. That is not in the slightest a reflection on Israel's suitability as a venue for a race but rather the reality that no Grand Tour feels quite right when it is outside its homeland, no matter how warm the welcome and how expansive the hooplah.

There are eight mountain-top finishes, with names that have historic resonances - Etna, Gran Sasso, Monte Zoncolan, Sappada - with a final week heavily loaded with climbing as is usual, including the unsurfaced Colle delle Finestre, topping out at 2,178m, on the final Friday.

Last year, a desperately tight four-way battle was won by Tom Dumoulin despite a most public and hotly debated of toilet stops. The Dutchman returns, buoyed by the inclusion of a 34km time trial in the final week, while the Frenchman Thibaut Pinot is on fire and Fabio Aru will carry Italian hopes in the absence of Vincenzo Nibali. Nicolas Roche (BMC), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Ryan Mullen (Trek-Segafredo) represent the Irish interest in this year's edition. Philip Deignan had been included in Team Sky's provisional squad but has since been replaced by France's Kenny Elissonde.

This year could surpass last year's epic, but every move involving Froome will be watched with the depressing thought that the suspense over the result will endure beyond the finish in Rome on May 27.

Observer

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