Chris Froome insisted on Wednesday night that he did not take more than the permitted amount of salbutamol at any stage of the recent Vuelta a Espana and was confident he would be able to prove as much in lab conditions.
Froome’s reputation, and Team Sky’s very future, are in question with the threat of a 12-month ban hovering over the four-time Tour de France champion after it emerged that he had returned an adverse analytical finding [AAF] for the asthma medication salbutamol at the recent Vuelta a Espana.
After a year of turmoil, including questions surrounding their historic use of therapeutic use exemptions and an ultimately inconclusive 12 month UK Anti-Doping investigation, a ban for their star rider could be terminal for Team Sky.
To avoid that, Froome must not only prove that he inhaled rather than ingested salbutamol but submit himself to a pharmacokinetic (PK) study test which will see him given permitted doses of the drug and his urine samples analysed to measure the quantity excreted.
Froome and his lawyers – he is understood to have engaged Mike Morgan, the London-based lawyer who successfully represented Lizzie Armitstead in her case against UK Anti-Doping ahead of last year's Rio Olympics – will have to prove that Froome took less than the maximum dose permitted by Wada, 1,600 micrograms over 24 hours, and no more than 800 micrograms every 12 hours, and that this dosage still generated his high score.
Froome said he was confident he could do this. “There are very clear limits as to how much salbutamol an athlete can take,” he told Sky Sports on Wednesday night. “You have to remember I’ve been racing with asthma for 10 years now. I know what those limits are. I’ve never gone over those limits. I haven’t broken any rules. I’m sure at the end of the day the truth will be told.”
The cycling world awoke on Wednesday morning to the dramatic news that the four-time Tour de France champion – who remains in the running for Sunday’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year award – had returned an Adverse Analytical Finding at the Vuelta, where Froome became the first British winner in the race’s history.
Both Froome’s A sample and B sample, which was collected after stage 18, midway through the third and final week, showed that he had roughly 2,000 nanograms per millilitre (ng/ml) in his urine, twice the permitted concentration of 1,000ng/ml.
The timing of the test is significant as Froome had laboured the previous day, losing 42 sec to nearest rival Vincenzo Nibali on the climb up to Los Machucos where conditions were cold and damp. Froome cut a bedraggled figure at the top of that climb, although he swatted aside rumours that he was unwell, telling Telegraph Sport that health-wise he was “all OK”.
Team Sky said in a statement on Wednesday morning, however, that the rumours had been true; that Froome had been suffering “acute asthma symptoms” during that final week and, on the advice of the Team Sky doctor, had used an increased dosage of salbutamol in the run-up to the Sept 7 urine test. On stage 18, the day of the failed test, Froome took 21 seconds out of Nibali, dropping the Bahrain-Merida rider on the final climb.
It is understood Froome will claim that he took three further puffs of his inhaler after that stage. The first half an hour after inhaling salbutamol is when concentration levels can spike.
Salbutamol, when inhaled, is not generally considered a performance enhancer. But if taken in huge doses, or ingested or injected, there are studies which suggest it can be.
There are various precedents for salbutamol bans. Italian rider Diego Ulissi got a nine-month ban in 2014 for having 1,920ng/ml in his system and Alessandro Petacchi was given a year for 1320ng/ml in 2007. But riders have also been able to successfully explain AAFs. Leonardo Piepoli got no ban for levels reportedly similar to Petacchi's in 2007.
If he fails to prove his innocence, Froome is likely to be stripped of his Vuelta crown and could get a 12-month ban which could rule him out of next year’s Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, both of which he was planning to tackle.
Froome said he would prove that he had inhaled salbutamol in the quantities allowed. “I can understand a lot of people’s reactions, especially given the history of the sport. But I think this is obviously a very different case. This is not a positive test.
“As it stands the UCI has asked for more information regarding my use of salbutamol. I’ve certainly shared everything I have with the UCI. I have a very clear routine, how I use my inhaler, how often.”
Asked what might have gone wrong, Froome added: “Salbutamol is something that can be affected by a lot of different factors. Dehydration, the way the body metabolises it for example, can change from day to day. The more I’ve read about it the more I understand it’s a very complex subject.”