No sign of closure as Sky, UCI and WADA pass the parcel
Team Sky have been here before at the Tour de France, and not just in the sense that the 2011 race started in the same region, the Vendée, that hosts this year's Grand Départ. It is all familiar: the questions, the doubts, the innuendo, the attempts at spin-doctoring, the less than entirely warm welcome from the French public and press.
It is has become part of the furniture for the favourites at the Tour, to the extent that one French newspaper - justifiably - wondered on Saturday just how Chris Froome gets his head around it all. The team's head, Dave Brailsford, has spoken of the necessity for elite level sport to be an uncomfortable place to be - it keeps a team on its toes - and he has certainly achieved that with Team Sky, although in a way that has not been entirely intentional. But his close-knit band seem to thrive on the feeling that it is them against the world and there is no reason why it will not be that way yet again in the next few weeks.
There was good reason to circle the wagons after the revelation on Monday that there would be no further proceedings in the case involving Froome's high salbutamol reading at the 2017 Vuelta a España. As the team took to the stage at the pre-Tour presentation on Thursday night, in La Roche-sur-Yon, there were boos and catcalls and at least one anti-Froome poster brandished, in spite of calls for calm from voices ranging from the French favourite Romain Bardet to David Lappartient, president of the sport's governing body, the UCI.
There was limited sympathy from one rival at least: "We hope that people will avoid doing it," said Nairo Quintana. "But sometimes you reap what you sow." The booing, in the view of Lappartient, was a shame but related to cycling's past and, he said, a lack of clarity: "When you don't have clear answers, that's always difficult."
Sky went on a PR offensive early in the week, with publication of information about Froome's weight loss and diet regime on certain stages in the Giro d'Italia, including stage 19 to Bardonecchia, where he sealed his victory in the race. The information was termed fake news by former Team Sky rider Richie Porte. The Australian added: "We're all pros, we know how to fuel, we don't need to read what Sky say they're doing. We've been doing this long enough to know how to eat."
On Friday, an open letter came bearing Froome's byline in Le Monde, amusingly enough the newspaper that - together with the Guardian - in December broke the story of his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol. Froome called for "the publication by Wada [the World Anti-Doping Agency] of the scientific studies they relied on both to create the current testing regime and to exonerate me. I am sure these will help everyone understand the complexities of the case".
The irony of Froome calling for transparency will be lost on no one. There have been so many calls for Team Sky to tell the world about some affair or other over the years that there is an element of Groundhog Day about them. The argument has always been the same, that Sky can only benefit from transparency, given they have repeatedly committed to it, and given the 20 years of suspicion among the minds of cycling fans and media that have followed the Festina scandal of 1998.
Most Tours since 2012 have included them making such appeals, the subjects different but all with the sport's doping past as at least a subtext: the hiring of Dr Geert Leinders; the team's due diligence on Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, who tested positive for blood doping in the period before he joined Sky; Froome's cadence, Froome's power output, therapeutic use exemptions, the British parliamentary inquiry into the Jiffy bag affair.
Froome was not the only one calling for more information on the case. "We've heard very little about the elements that led to the decision," said Bardet, complaining of "a great opaqueness".
"It's not very clear to everyone why he was cleared. We know there's a full written verdict but we've not seen why, in detail," added the 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, who felt there had been double standards applied compared with the case of his friend Diego Ulissi. The UCI, in a press release on Friday, said it felt this was not the case.
"If there's someone to blame it's not Froome, it's the laxness of the rules," said the Frenchman. "An adverse analytical finding, a positive test, this thing about thresholds - we don't really know where we stand. That creates doubts and suspicions and I'm the first to regret that because cycling loses its credibility."
The stage is set for a game of pass the parcel with Wada, the UCI and Team Sky each claiming one of the others was responsible for making information public. The game took another turn on Friday when Lappartient stated he would be happy to publish the information but that it was dependent on Froome giving his permission. That, in turn, appeared to contradict the UCI's press release, stating that it understood why Wada would not release information and that it would put nothing more in the public domain.
The final word on the Froome verdict should go to Nibali, asked by the veteran French writer Philippe Brunel for his feelings on the Froome verdict. The Italian replied that he would rather fight Froome than his shadow; in other words, it is better to have Froome at the race with the affair settled than for him to be banned or awaiting the outcome. Any verdict was to be welcomed. A neat, complete ending will, as always in cycling, be harder to find.
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Sunday Indo Sport