Blazin' Saddles

TUE be or not TUE be: that is the question for Froome

Blazin' Saddles

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What started as an authoritative two-stage salvo on the Critérium du Dauphiné fast descended - Bradley Wiggins-esque - into a litany of blows for Chris Froome.

Sitting pretty on the summit of the Tour dress rehearsal race with three days to go, Sky's top dog was forced to swap his torn yellow jersey for a less-fetching green one on the penultimate day.

Battered and bruised, he then shipped five minutes on the final climb to Courcheval to plummet out of the top 10 on a day that one Belgian newspaper ran with the headline: "Froome 'doped' by the UCI".

The omens were portentous from the outset. Froome's emphatic display in the opening time trial in Lyon was followed by a brutal demonstration of uphill acceleration on day two overshadowed, it seemed, by the race leader's unorthodox use of an inhaler.

"Does Froome have a Therapeutic Use Exemption for that?" one cycling journalist asked on Twitter:

"No TUE required," came the curt reply of Froome's ever-defensive girlfriend. "He has asthma, hence the coughing after exertion."

This was succeeded by the rather gnarly hashtags #duh and #trolls - a bit much, considering Froome had never once previously mentioned his asthma, not even in the recent book that purports to be the "definitive story" of his career.

Funnily enough, in the build up to last year's Tour, Froome was interviewed by a BBC reporter and asked whether he was prepared to take the brunt of the doping inquisition that came hand in hand with being the favourite for the Grande Boucle.

"Definitely - and I'm going to be there, to be open to those questions," said Froome. The reporter then asked him outright whether or not he had any Therapeutic Use Exemptions.

"Any TUEs?" Froome repeated the question, before looking upwards. "Er, no, I don't."

Emphatic shake of the head. End of story - fine. Until, clearly, the subject of TUEs returns a year later amid the sudden emergence of the previously unmentioned asthma that has apparently forced Froome to use an inhaler since his teenage years.

Once the inhaler story became public knowledge in a swirl of nefarious online aspersions - leading Froome to make a statement to confirm that the UCI had allowed his use of an inhaler and that "you don't need a TUE for it".

You'd probably think that, perhaps, this was the perfect cue for him to say that, contrary to previous BBC assertions, he had since had need for a TUE, and fairly recently too. After all, seeing that it was all above board and correctly ratified - then why bother shielding such a thing from the public?

Far better, surely, to control the narrative rather than let it control you. Instead, Froome, Sky and the UCI have found themselves in a massive pickle after Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD) stuck one in the jugular with a deliberately provocative - and unfairly misleading - headline that led UCI president Brian Cookson on a Twitter rant about "smears and innuendoes":

For those not up to speed about the story, sit tight and cast your minds back to the spring. Remember when Froome pulled out of Liege-Bastogne-Liege because of a chest infection that followed a block of altitude training in Tenerife?

Well, a couple of days later Froome was in action in the Tour de Romandie - although it has now emerged that his symptoms were so "acute" that an emergency TUE was required; to wit, Froome was legally allowed to take 40mg of the corticosteroid prednisolone on a daily basis throughout the race en route to victory.

"I gave everything I had in the Romandie prologue but I was coughing so much that we decided to ask for a TUE that evening," Froome said. "It was just an oral [corticosteroid], there was no injection."

(Interestingly, when Froome gave a rather chesty interview following his Romandie win the previous year, his girlfriend assured her followers on Twitter that her man was fit and healthy, claiming that "hard work and cold air always makes him cough a bit". No mention of asthma back them, mind.)

But according to the JDD, the "rushed" TUE was granted without following the right protocol: UCI scientific advisor Dr. Mario Zorzoli is said to have signed off the request from Sky without submitting Froome's medical dossier to a TUE committee, as per WADA regulations.

The preposterous insinuation was that Team Sky and Froome enjoyed some kind of preferential treatment by dint of the fact that Brian Cookson's son, Oli, works for Dave Brailsford's team.

In a strongly-worded statement, the UCI on Sunday stressed "nothing out of the ordinary occurred" and the TUE was granted "following the usual procedure".

Despite the JDD's claims that applications had to be carried out through a panel of three experts, in emergency situations this was not necessary, they said; one doctor's ratification is enough.

For his part, Froome also denied the favourable treatment and defended his decision to continue racing despite his ailment.

"We went through the legitimate process and the UCI has confirmed that today. It's a pity that everything is perceived in a negative light," he said.

"Therapeutic use exemptions have their place in sport. They exist for a reason."

Froome is, of course, right; and it's hardly the first time even zero-tolerance Sky have requested a TUE: Rigoberto Uran was granted one through Zorzoli during the 2011 Tour de France to combat an allergy.

But Froome's claim that it's a "pity" that people view his own TUE in a "negative light" is naïve at best and rank stupidity at worse.

Is it any surprise that people are so suspicious when it all seems to have been handled in such a cloak-and-dagger way?

It's the second time in a week that Froome has found it a "pity" or a "surprise" that he and Sky are being singled out. But what planet is he living on?

The reality is this: in the past few months Froome has knowingly ingested both corticosteroids and salbutamol; he has taken these performance enhancers legally; if Sky and Froome had been more transparent about it when it happened then it wouldn't be so much of an issue.

While dancing around one issue (the inhaler) he has made the other (his TUE) much more controversial than it needed to be - particularly because he went to such lengths stressing that he didn't need any Therapeutic Use Exemption for his asthma in the first place.

That it then emerged that he has needed a TUE for the chest infection that waylaid his Liege-Bastogne-Liege weeks earlier further muddied the water. And that's even before you asked the question of whether or not riders should ethically be allowed to race if they need to do so by taking a legal pick-me-up.

The fact that Froome, with an illness so bad that it required an oral costicosteroid to treat, can then beat the world time trial champion Tony Martin in the Romandie ITT, could be seen as both a further surprise or a pity, depending on which way you look at it.

As we approach the midsummer solstice, the course of TUE love never did run smooth.

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Of course, looking at the actual racing aspect of the Dauphiné gives fans great cause for celebration. What looked like it was going to be a Team Sky procession was totally blown apart by some beautifully unpredictable attacking racing - not to mention the usual gamut of crashes and unforeseen twists and turns.

At first, Sky seemed so clinical in the promotion of their feted WattsApp on the second stage to Col de Béal that they rode clear of Richie Porte. The race looked like a Gewiss-inspired procession of black drones metronoming themselves to the summit of a succession of peaks.

That Alberto Contador was the only rider who could ultimately match Froome's numerous out-of-the-saddle surges at least questioned the theory that July's Tour will be a one-horse race.

But as the week progressed - and no doubt aided by Froome's crash - Sky's inability to control matters blew the race apart way beyond Contador.

The Spaniard's decision to follow the wrong man - Froome, not Garmin-Sharp's Andrew Talansky - was a monumental gaffe and gave us an unexpected winner in the overwhelmed Talansky, who currently looks like he could beat both Froome and Porte up the Madone on his lunch break.

For the first time in four years, the Tour's curtain raiser went off script - and it was a total delight to witness.

While Spain's national football team were forced to abdicate at the hands of the clinical Dutch - whereby hammering the final nail of the coffin of the tiki-taka football that has sunk alongside Barcelona's recent demise - so too were we witnessing the end of Sky's suffocating hegemony, which had become cycling's equivalent of George Graham's old Arsenal team's measured, grinding 1-0 victories.

Cycling's become interesting again - at least, until July.

Felix Lowe | Follow on Twitter @saddleblaze

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