By David de Winter, TLE Sports Editor
Britain’s Chris Froome is currently leading the world’s most prestigious and gruelling cycling race – the Tour de France. This three-week long epic around France (and Holland) requires immense stamina, skill and determination to complete, let alone win against the world’s best cyclists. As holder of the yellow jersey, Froome should be revelling in his status as ostensibly the world’s best cyclist. However, as has been all too familiar in the cycling world in recent years, he and his team (Team Sky) have been accused of doping due to their dominance of the peleton thus far. So are we looking at another Lance Armstrong/US Postal fraud of the late 90s and early 2000s, or are Froome and Team Sky genuinely the real deal?
There has always been a dark and murky link between all sports and performance enhancing drugs. To think otherwise would be enormously naïve. With the riches on offer in modern professional sport, the temptation to take shortcuts to find that extra advantage over opponents has never been greater. But there has always been an inexorable link between cycling and illegal substances since the Tour’s inception. British cyclist Tom Simpson died whilst competing in the Tour de France in 1967 – he was found to have a cocktail of alcohol and amphetamines in his system – and there have been a whole host of scandals and cover-ups and allegations ever since, culminating in Armstrong infamous confession in 2012.
There is no doubt the sport has cleaned up its image. New UCI chief Brian Cookson has been admirably transparent and vigilant, unlike his predecessors Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid, who both had very suspicious links to Armstrong and various doping conspiracies (although neither has been found guilty of wrongdoing…yet). The number of high-profile cyclists returning positive tests has steadily declined in recent years and there has been a palpable effort by teams, riders, the UCI and anti-doping bodies to root out and expose cheaters – which can only be a good thing.
However all is not as rosy as it seems. There have been widespread claims that professional riders these days micro-dope – i.e doping in small amounts so as to be almost imperceptible to testers. Also, anti-doping bodies currently don’t have 24 hour access to riders, meaning that there is an opportunity to micro-dope late at night and, potentially, never get caught.
Team Astana (the team of reigning Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali) has had its own doping scandal in the past year after two of its senior riders and three development members returned positive tests. The UCI reviewed Astana’s racing licence following an audit of its doping controls but they were eventually cleared to race in April under greater scrutiny. However, this highlights that doping still takes place at the highest level and, more worryingly, possibly on a team-sanctioned basis, recalling the dark days of the infamous Festina affair at the 1998 Tour.
Whilst the professional cycling has worked hard to clean up its image, it is still constantly dogged by its past. The number of convicted drugs cheats either still riding in the peleton or in positions of authority is alarming. Recent Giro d’Italia winner Alberto Contador (Team Tinkoff-Saxo) was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title after testing positive for the banned stimulant clenbuterol. Contador also had direct links to the Operacion Puerto investigation and disgraced former doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. Alexander Vinikourov, winner of the road race at the London Olympics, was caught blood-doping at the 2007 Tour de France and banned for two years. He is now manager of Team Astana which has been under such scrutiny this season.
Other convicted drugs cheats in the current Tour de France peleton include another Team Tinkoff-Saxo rider Ivan Basso (who unfortunately had to withdraw due to cancer) and Team Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde. A third Tinkoff-Saxo rider in this year’s tour, Australian Michael Rogers, was known to be a client of Armstrong’s former doctor, Michele Ferrari (Rogers also left Team Sky in 2012 after they implemented a zero tolerance policy to anyone with a history of doping). If the sport is to really clean up its image, should these riders be allowed to race?
Then there is the recent revelation that there is an acknowledged doping culture in amateur cycling. If this is the case, what sort of message does this send to young, talented riders who have aspirations of a professional career?
Ironically it is Team Sky which has been extra rigorous in stamping out drugs cheats within its staff. In 2012 it created a zero tolerance policy to doping, asking all employees to sign a document stating that they had never been involved in, administered or taken any performance-enhancing drugs. Team Sky also sacked rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke after he was found guilty of doping around the time of his Tour of Britain victory in 2012 following discrepancies in his biological passport.
Sky have done everything in their power to prove that they are not doping. They have welcomed calls for more rigorous drug-testing and whilst they are understandably reluctant to reveal the secrets that give them an edge over opponents, they are said to be willing to share relevant data with the UCI to prove they are riding clean.
The reality is that Team Sky train very hard, they are at the cutting edge of cycling technology and training methods, and are meticulous in their preparation for each race. This is unsurprising given Team Manager Dave Brailsford’s penchant for the tiniest detail which might perpetuate an advantage – the approach which has made the British track cycling squad so successful for the past decade.
So does Chris Froome deserve all this vitriol and abuse (which includes having urine thrown at him on stage 14 of this year’s tour). In short, no. Until he fails a drugs test he has no right to be subject to such a level of suspicion and allegation. Giving cycling’s murky recent history it is understandable that the general public are severely doubtful when a rider produces a breath-taking performance. But until Froome actually fails a test, all these accusations and allegations, without any cold, hard evidence, are only harming the sport further.
My two pence worth? Only 10 winners of the Tour de France since 1961 have never been tainted or linked to doping in their careers. This is a damning statistic. The future is looking brighter – the past four winners have never failed a drugs test (although 2011 winner Cadel Evans is a documented client of Michele Ferrari). Team Sky are a brilliant success story in road cycling. However, if it turns out they have achieved this success by illicit means, it would be catastrophic for the sport. Let’s hope Froome and Team Sky can enjoy the yellow jersey with a clean conscience.
For further reading, the following aricles may be of interest: