'Chris Froome's secret battle: Eight doctors, six clinics, four countries and five different illnesses . . . the remarkable personal struggle of Great Britain's Tour de France champion.'
By Nick Harris and Teddy Cutler The Mail on Sunday, June 2014
There was a clip posted on Twitter this week of an old sketch by Les Guignols - the French Spitting Image - on the absurdities of the Tour de France. It opens with a clip of a puppet racer in a yellow jersey breaking clear on a mountain pass to the astonished gasps of the rubber caricatures of Patrick Chene and Bernard Thevenet, who called the race for French TV in 2004.
"What Armstrong is trying to do is quite remarkable," Thevenet observes.
"And to think he almost died from cancer two years ago!" Chene concurs. "What a magnificent revenge."
Then something remarkable happens: Armstrong is caught by the Italian climber, Marco Pantani, who had the kindness to pick up a little girl - she's sitting on his crossbar - who has lost her parents in the crowd. "This is extraordinary, Bernard," Chene observes. "When you think that only five months ago Pantani was on the verge of quitting the sport."
"Yes, it's a lesson in cycling," Thevenet concurs.
Then something even more remarkable happens: French favourite, Richard Virenque, doesn't just close the gap on Pantani, but goes by the Italian towing a five-berth caravan from a harness on his back! "What a performance!" Chene says. "And to think, Bernard, that he started the stage this morning with a 42-degree fever! But he's there. He's there."
"He certainly is," Thevenet concurs. "It's only in sport that we get these kind of emotions."
Then something quite astonishing happens: Eddy Merckx, the 55-year-old legendary Belgian, has broken clear of the peloton and is closing on Virenque accompanied by the skeletal figure of another great veteran on the comeback trail - Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi. "Oh la la!" Chene cries, almost overwhelmed. "It's Eddy Merckx. It's the Eddy Merckx. It's only in cycling you'd see this!"
"Le vélo never forgets," Thevenet concurs. "To think that Fausto was 44 years dead this morning."
Irreverent and absurd, what the sketch captures brilliantly is the bullshit we're served annually on the Tour and how eager we are to swallow it. In 1998, when the Festina affair brings truth, we abandon it for the miracle of the cancer Jesus, Lance Armstrong, Mister Hope-Rides-Again. In 2012, when the Armstrong lie is exposed, we are suckered by the marginal gains of those 'slithering reptiles' (take a bow Madam Wiggins) at Team Sky, with their fresh pillows and their hand creams and their pineapple juice.
"I've never had an injection," Sir Bradley Wiggins assures us, in the chest-thumping autobiography that follows his triumph in the Tour de France. "This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time," Chris Froome pledges in a crois-moi speech on the Champs-élysées. And here we are, four years later, swamped in the mire of their dirty little secrets - the mystery jiffy bag, the mistaken testosterone patches, the unethical corticosteroids, the failed test for salbutamol - and returned to ground zero.
And what hurts most is that we saw it coming.
For six years now, since his extraordinary transformation at the 2011 Tour of Spain, Froome has been an accident waiting to happen battling five debilitating conditions - bilharzia, typhoid, urticaria, blastocystosis, asthma - in his march towards the summit. Forget the astonishing accelerations (Mont Ventoux 2013, La Pierre Saint Martin 2015) and multiple Tour wins, this is the Froome legacy.
He has redefined what it means to be ill.
Take the circumstances surrounding his second Tour victory in 2015, and the infection that struck on the Wednesday of the final week as he braved the challenge of the Colombian, Nairo Quintana. "I woke up all congested, blocked up, sore throat and I could feel it getting down into my chest. Sort of tightening it," he told David Walsh of The Sunday Times. "I was put on a short course of antibiotics but it had no effect.
"I was trying to hold it in, so my rivals wouldn't hear me coughing and wheezing . . . the most difficult times were on the start line where I had Quintana on one side, (and) Contador on the other. I would be standing there with a burning sensation to cough or needing to get some phlegm up, but I would hold my breath to stop myself. I didn't want them to see I was battling with this. Just don't let them see anything. I couldn't wait for the neutral zone so I could get to the side of the road, blow my nose and get it all up."
The penultimate stage to the summit of Alpe d'Heuz was approaching. The team doctor called to his room and suggested they apply for a TUE to treat the infection. "I think it was on about the evening on stage 17," Froome explained. "Richard (Usher, team doctor) coming around to see all the riders. Stopping by my room, listening to my chest, doing other checks, 'Listen Chris, you are sick. One hundred per cent. If we got the official race doctor to have a look, you would be granted a medication that would definitely alleviate that tightness and help you get through these next few days'."
But Froome wasn't having it. "After everything we had been through in this year's Tour, especially the hostility from different people along the way, it just felt that if we go down this route, we are opening the door for a whole new wave of criticism and aggression," he told Walsh. "It would have been within the rules, but I didn't want it to be the Tour de France that was won because he took this medication in the last week."
Two days later, Froome is standing on the start line on the stage to Alpe d'Heuz with "no other game plan other than "just hang on'." He is coughing and wheezing. He is one hundred per cent sick. The stage is raced at a frantic pace but Froome does enough and the focus of the reports next day is his courage in adversity. "His legs weren't good enough but his spirit sustained him," Walsh wrote.
Hold on a minute.
Froome finished fifth in the stage - a career achievement for a lot of riders. He stuck four minutes into Dan Martin and finished almost two minutes clear of some other elite climbers - Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet and Robert Gesink. A couple of days later - still coughing and wheezing presumably, and sucking on his inhaler - he was racing in Holland for a handsome appearance fee. Some might say his spirit sustained him.
I call it taking the piss.
Given the list and nature of his ailments, it is no surprise that supplements are his friend: protein drinks and fish oils, beetroot juice and energizer greens. He has used Tramadol but only for back pain, an anti-histamine called Loratadine for an allergy to sun creams; Fluticasone, a preventative spray for asthma, and Ventolin (Salbutamol) when he's racing and about to make an effort.
"Is that not using the inhaler to boost your performance?" I asked him once.
"I eat breakfast before a long race," he replied. "Is that not boosting my performance? If I don't eat I won't have any energy; if I don't have my inhaler before a really big effort I'm probably not going to be able to breathe very well. I know I'm not going to breathe very well."
"But is that (health) not the essence of competition?" I suggested.
"Inhalers are not performance-enhancing," he said. "If any normal person who doesn't have asthma takes an inhaler, they're not going to ride any faster. Their lungs are not going to open any larger than they were before. But someone who does have asthma, the airways are going to close up and that inhaler just helps them to close less. It just helps me to be more normal and I definitely don't see that as an unfair advantage."
But that depends, obviously, on how much is used.
On Wednesday, three months after he was informed by the UCI that he had provided an Adverse Analytical Finding for Salbutamol on the 18th stage of the Tour of Spain - his fifth Grand Tour win - and just minutes before Le Monde and The Guardian broke the story that he was facing a possible ban, Froome released the following statement:
"It is well known that I have asthma and I know exactly what the rules are. I use an inhaler to manage my symptoms (always within the permissible limits) and I know for sure that I will be tested every day I wear the race leader's jersey.
"My asthma got worse at the Vuelta so I followed the team doctor's advice to increase my Salbutamol dosage. As always, I took the greatest care to ensure that I did not use more than the permissible dose.
"I take my leadership position in my sport very seriously. The UCI is absolutely right to examine test results and, together with the team, I will provide what information it requires."
The language was interesting. Is there a difference between using an inhaler to "manage my symptoms" and using an inhaler "before a really big effort"? Perhaps, but I don't have the energy to debate that here . . . actually no, that's not true.
Four years ago, after he had pulverised his rivals to take his first yellow jersey in the Tour at Ax 3 Domaines, I listened as Froome announced to the press that he was making it "a personal mission to show that the sport had changed." A year later, when he agreed to an interview in Monaco, he enforced that notion again.
"I'm trying to speak out for clean cycling," he said. "I've always raced clean; I'm always going to race clean; I'll fucking hang up my bike the day I even think about doping."
But here we are with a failed test and what do we get? How does Froome react? He togs out as if nothing has happened at the World Time Trial Championships. He travels to Japan and Australia and the US for some end-of-season jollies and agrees a reputed £2m deal to ride the Giro d'Italia next year.
Yep, it's business as usual folks, no hint of any problem . . . until a call from the newspapers sounds the alarm and now he's reaching out on Twitter: "Thank you for all the messages of support this morning. I am confident that we will get to the bottom of this. Unfortunately, I can't share any more information than I already have until the enquiry is complete."
That enquiry will drag for months and there's a chance he'll be exonerated. And there's a chance he will win the Giro next year and add a fifth Tour de France. But the problem for Froome is that we've been here before. Is he just another cheat or the best we have ever seen?
Frankly, we don't give a damn.
I made a list the other day of the cricketers I've interviewed. It runs something like this: Twelve Brett Lees, three Ian Bothams, three Kevin Pietersens, two Freddie Flintoffs, two Shane Warnes, a Michael Vaughan, an Adam Gilchrist, a Geoff Boycott, an Andrew Strauss, a Justin Langer, a Nasser Hussain, a Mark Ramprakash, a Graham Thorpe and a Stuart Broad. So there's an obvious question here and it's one I can't answer.
Ireland's Greatest Sporting Moment has almost run its course when Ruby Walsh reaches for his whip. The 12-time champion jockey knows a dead horse when he sees one and from the opening credits the programme - a monument to cheap TV - has been out on its feet.