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Ewan MacKenna: So how is it then that you explain a freak like Chris Froome?

Chris Froome poses with the trophy of the Giro d'Italia
Chris Froome poses with the trophy of the Giro d'Italia

Ewan MacKenna

George Bennett had been part of one of the most incredible stages of them all, and he didn't even know it. That's because, last Friday, despite coming 12th on the day in a Giro d'Italia he'd top 10 in, he was well over eight-and-a-half minutes slower than Chris Froome by the time he crossed the line. Warming down after, a camera crew from his LottoNL-Jumbo team caught up with him.

"Did he stay away, did Froome stay away?" he asked of the Britain's ludicrously early break.

"Man you should know, I'll tell you all about it. He's in the pink jersey right now," came the reply.

"Bullshit," Bennett said stunned.

"Forty seconds ahead of [Tom] Dumoulin currently," he was told of the overall classification.

"He did a Landis, Jesus," he tellingly surmised.

It was a refreshing and breezy break from the thick smog of omerta that still hangs over cycling, but his team were quick to issue a statement playing down his reference. Little wonder as he was obviously talking about stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France, another of the most stunning in the sport's history. It was then that Floyd Landis, a day after collapse, gave himself a chance in a race he'd eventually win. There was just one problem, he was juicing.

But there were others too that were stunned by the defining ride of this Giro, and one of the defining rides of even such an unbelievable career. One source has claimed that Team Sky chief David Brailsford actually turned to another Director Sportif during it and asked, "Where did that come out of?" It's a quip that cannot be confirmed but it would certainly make sense as this arrived after days of Froome's relative struggles, when he seemed often to be on square wheels.

As for the company line, it was that Froome was simply the most daring on the descent. Only that didn't add up as, regarding time gained, 22 per cent was downhill, with 29 per cent on the flat and 49 per cent on climbs. What it meant was that for over five hours he didn't take a break and was always claiming chunks so, rather than explaining the win, that lot made it yet more inexplicable.

To be fair to the Sky rider, there have been many direct and indirect accusations over the years about what he's been up to, and he has never been convicted of doping. Indeed such a circus is cycling that he's currently awaiting to see if he'll be stripped of his last Grand Tour win - the 2017 Vuelta - while adding another one without suspension, due to adverse findings over the amount of asthma medication Salbutamol he took in Spain. But drugs, or drugs alone, cannot explain the rise of the now 33-year-old from obscurity.

Consider the fact that Chris Froome, if all is above board, can now make a claim to be the greatest cyclist ever. Of those around him in terms of both the quality an quantity of race wins, Eddie Merckx can be scratched due to four positives; as can Jacques Anquetil who famously said, "You can't ride the Tour de France on mineral water"; and there's an asterisk beside Bernard Hinault as he saw a doctor that did hormone replacement, even if such treatment wasn't attributed to him.

The difference between them and Froome though is they were all athletic prodigies, tipped for greatness from the very beginning such was the ability they always exuded. But to suddenly show otherworldly talent shouldn't happen midway into a middling career. Look at it this way, many have done like Jeremy Lin and improved and had their moment. But LeBron was always LeBron.

So how is it then that you explain a freak like Froome?

 

* * * * * * * * * * 

 

The story goes that it was around 2011 when David Brailsford and Team RadioShack manager Johan Brunyeel met and talked business. The former was offering up Froome for a trade however Brunyeel knew far better and was having none of it. "I want a cyclist, not a donkey," he said. Sky were stuck a little longer with an average rider, and it had already been that way for some time.

If you speak to some on the South African scene where Froome had previously raced, he was at best an okay domestique that didn't jump out. And after a couple of years of doing little at Team Sky thereafter, his agent was worried. Set to be let go, it wasn't like there was a line of suitors either. Reports say there may have been an offer of £90,000 a year from Garmin but that was it and he wasn't even due to go to the upcoming Vuelta in 2011 until Lars Petter Nordhaug cried off sick.

What basically amounted to a forced last-minute substitution changed everything forever.

Normally, such mid-career transformations are looked upon critically by cycling specialists. These nothing-to-all rises tend to be indicative of doping, as in the well-known case of Lance Armstrong for instance, who made a remarkable jump in performance between 1998 and 1999. But we can't label Froome's rise as doping for a troubling reason. Doping wouldn't explain the breadth of it.

Thus, in any sport, you'd then want to know how. In power sports, you'd then need to know how. In cycling however, you then rarely get to know how. That's why many struggle to take it seriously.

This is where people need to use common sense, ask obvious questions, and demand good enough answers if they are to accept what has happened before them. For instance Brailsford, not for the last time, couldn't believe what he was seeing in that 2011 Vuelta to such an extent it's a matter of public record that he got one of the doctors to check Froome's blood data. But it's not acceptable that on the one hand this is a team that have tried to quell suspicions with talk of their meticulousness and of marginal gains and of the microscopic attention to detail, and on the other hand we're told they nearly let perhaps the greatest of all slip right through their net.

They can't have it both ways, and still they demand that.

Froome has stressed his own reasons for his transformation, discussed with this parish's Paul Kimmage in their 2014 interview. The problem was that neither he nor his wife Michelle who was sitting in could get their story straight. Froome talked about bilharzia, a disease that eats red blood cells which for sure is not good for a cyclist and would be hugely debilitating in terms of performance, but was stumped when asked about why it didn't come up on his biological passport. It was then claimed by his wife that the disease wasn't yet bad enough to really register. Again, it can't be both, so which is it? And regardless of the answer, another explanation is needed.

The other reason for his sudden improvement was, he claims, an advancement in bike handling. Yet only two weeks before that 2011 Vuelta, in the rather average Tour of Poland, Froome came in in 85th, over 26 minutes behind the winner. What could he change in a fortnight in terms of the basics that meant, so soon after, he was sprinting up mountains in a Grand Tour he should have won? When you turn water into wine, you'll likely need to convince people, and this doesn't cut it.

As has long been the case, there is a core of cycling fans that are well aware and that are anywhere from skeptical to cynical, such is their love for their sport. But then there are the flat-earthers and the latter camp will quote articles like the one in Esquire in December 2015. It was then that the magazine accompanied Froome into the lab as he tried to silence the many doubters via physiological tests meant to explain one of the greatest turnarounds we've ever known in sports.

What they needed though was something to compare his results against in order to make the story credible, and suddenly Michelle got lucky. In a drawer she discovered the findings of a lot of similar tests carried out in 2007, that had never been mentioned in any previous interview despite the fact they would be used to explain his brilliant but cloaked talent as a youngster, and they weren't even hinted at in his autobiography in 2013. Still, the magazine had a comparison and Froome seemingly had his out, as they could show his yesteryear VO2 max and a life-long engine.

Then some started to study the numbers on the 2007 page that claimed, back then as a pro cyclist, he weighed in at 75.6 kilos, and had a body fat percentage of 16.9 per cent. As a reference point according to the American Council on Exercise, 15-17 per cent puts you in the fitness category, while six-13 per cent is athlete status. So Froome was closer to fat than an athlete while being paid as an athlete? Look at photos and you tell us what you think. Besides, interviews with Froome around then have him admitting to training and racing hard and being in good shape.

It gets worse though. Go through the numbers and for scientific findings they are actually wrong. For instance the indicated BMI value, 21, is not compatible with Froome's stated weight of 75.6kg and height of 186cm. The BMI should have been 21.9 (or rounded off at 22). That's nearer to overweight than underweight on such a scale. Ultimately, if true, it has resulted in Froome dropping six kilos of just body fat which, while possible, is according to many experts improbable.

On top of that, there are other inconsistencies around two published photos of those same faxed test results. Far fetched or not, while all other results are bolded up, the VO2 max number isn't, leading to some claiming photo-shopping. Such calls are accompanied by the ring-binder holes being in different place. One again, as is classic Chris, there's a haze of uncertainty.

But put that aside and what have we? Froome had body shamed himself? The difference between obscurity and all-time greatness was that once he was relatively fat, and then he was scarily thin? 

Granted, the mumbles from some in the peloton for a while have been around the sickly skinniness of Sky, and particularly their poster boy. That can be allied to the UK parliamentary inquiry into the team receiving an anonymous whisle-blower's letter stating that they go to camp and take cortisone to lose weight. Not doping when out of competition, that's more to do with the administrative nightmare rather than the drug's big benefits. But while the weight loss can be explained, that's not done so easily when it happened side-by-side with an increase in power. That's just common sense rather than science.

Take 2013 during the famous scale of Ventoux when Froome broke the back of the field with three stunning kicks on the side of the mountain to drop some of the sport's greatest climbers. At that stage he was a mere 64 kilos, leaving him with a BMI of 18.5 that is defined as underweight.

Have a look back at that stage and the video where it's linked up with the data seemingly released by a mole in Team Sky, and if that's true then they clearly wanted to tell us something.

As an example skip forward to 28.17 at the start of the attack as his power surges. Watch the tiny increase in heart-rate to go with that. Skip to 30.13 and see it again, this time as his power goes off the charts to 1,022 watts to the point he cannot keep his legs turning fast enough and has to return to the saddle. Again it occurs with barely a difference in his heart-rate. Crucially, all of these are roughly via a 15-second bursts, an important number as you'll shortly see.

A cyclist attacking while seated with a cadence in the 120s alone was amazing. Then the data comes, and you see these jumps in power with next to no change in heart rate. Perhaps there were problems with the measuring equipment but in a climb that takes over 45 minutes, riders should not be at max heart rate, and so there should be some gain or capacity to increase heart rate. Either that, or Froome was actually riding at his maximum rate, and launching vicious attacks repeatedly. Either is crazy.

There are a whole host of studies that show the best way to ride a long race is at cadences around 100 to 110. Above and the metabolic demand is too high. So why did Froome do it? That was five years ago, so why is it that nobody copied this method since? If cycling and attacking while seated at a cadence of 120 was better, then others should've done it by now, only no one can. Why not? In fact Froome doesn't do it himself always but if he has a method to destroy the field, why be selective? Instead, sometimes while looking like he's in fast forward, often he's just like the rest.

It doesn't end there. His ascent of the mountain in 2013 was the fourth quickest ever, ahead of Marco Pantani in 2000 and Armstrong in 2000. Those guys were on EPO though, which conservative estimates says gives you about an eight per cent advantage. Are we saying he's eight per cent better naturally than some of history's fittest athletes? If so, that is certainly not the sort of marginal gain that Team Sky like to talk about as an excuse. We'd of course like to compare this with last Friday in Italy also, but while riders in the Giro were hooked up and providing live links to parameters on television, Froome's wasn't working. Make of that what you will, but this is all fact.

Ultimately Phillipa York, formerly Robert Millar, on Monday noted that if he has a very high cadence on mountains, why is this different in time trials as he ought to be consistent? It was obvious what was meant as, if you lose weight, what best takes advantage of that?

 

* * * * * * * * * * 

 

In 2016, French television show Stade 2 came out with an accusation that cycling's governing body, UCI, had tried to disrupt police work during the previous year's Tour around mechanical doping. It went that Hungarian engineer Stefano Varjas was there working for Typhoon bicycles at the time, when police spoke with the UCI regarding reports that Varjas had been trying to sell teams motors.

While so much focus has been on doping, you cannot ignore this second strand of suspicion that runs alongside it. That programme showed screen-grabs of emails between Mark Barfield, UCI's technical manager, and Harry Gibbings, CEO of Typhoon bicycles, from that July. Stade 2 claimed Barfield's email was a tip-off about the investigation and it read: "Hi, Do you have a phone number I can all you on straight away. I'm sitting with French police who believe an engineer 'Hungarian' is visiting TDF today to sell a bike and visit teams, could this be your guy???" Varjas got out of dodge and, while Gibbings confirmed the emails, he denied disruption of police work.

It's not the first time the UCI attitude to mechanical doping has turned heads. Take the 2013 Cycling Independent Reform Commission report. There have been whispers that the original version was redacted by Brian Cookson - until recently the head of world cycling – although no proof came of that. But the issues around the version we do have were best highlighted on the blog of Michele Ferrari, the man that doped Armstrong. He reviewed that CIRC report on his site, stating: "On page 85, a fleeting reference to the 'Technical Cheating' showed up: frames, saddles, tubes, clothing, while only half a sentence is dedicated to 'motors in frames', when this problem has existed for 10 years, with the UCI never devoting a single comment to well known events."

There are more damning claims in this area. Jean-Pierre Verdy, the head of French anti-doping, told CBS that, "Yes, of course. It's been the last three to four years when I was told about the use of the motors. And in 2014, they told me there are motors. And they told me, there's a problem. By 2015, everyone was complaining and I said, something's got to be done". He went so far as to say that by the 2015 Tour, he was told 12 racers were using motors. This makes sense as are we really to believe Belgian under-23 rider Femke Van den Driessche who was caught using one at the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships was the only one to try and pull such a stunt?

Varjas himself has since talked openly about how these new motors work. "You can activate it remotely by Bluetooth, by remote control, or by a watch. It can be controlled from the team car and the rider may not even be aware that he has a motor. It could just feel like they're having a very good day." The Hungarian also mentioned how when a heart rate gets to a certain level, they can kick in for 15 second bursts and how they are worth more than any form of doping.

It lead us back to the UCI and to that rabbit hole of why they aren't catching people if this is the case. But why didn't they catch Lance? Varjas for instance has said how easy it would be to find out who is using them. "Just weigh the rear wheel," he stated. "If there is an engine, the wheel weighs at least 800g more than the usual weight. If a wheel weighs two kilos, it must be disassembled (to be checked)." Basically, give us a look at the bikes for a few minutes and this can all be solved.

That hasn't happened though and, rightly or wrongly, because of his wins and because of his sport, it brings us back to Froome. The problem is that were we to give him the benefit of the doubt around literally all the issues he has helped cloud with confusion, he's still too good. So we are left wondering how, in a sport with a century of filth behind it, we have really come across greatest if he's actually doing nothing at all wrong? It's one more lonely question without its answer.

There are of course many parameters that would wash away theories Froome himself has tried to merely ridicule into submission. Tellingly though such facts and figures are kept from public viewing

So how is it then that you explain a freak like Froome? This being cycling, you'll have to use your imagination.

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