It is almost unprecedented for a cycling story to go global outside the Tour de France. However, the stunning revelation that Chris Froome failed a drugs test at the Vuelta a España in September, which was made public only due to an investigation by the Guardian and Le Monde, sent shockwaves across the world.
When it came to the most provocative headline, there was a clear winner. As the French sports daily L’Equipe put it on the first of its six pages on the issue du jour on Thursday: “The Sky falls in on Froome”.
But it hasn’t. Or at least not yet. For while there is a chance that Froome will have to forfeit his 2017 Vuelta title after his urine sample taken after the 18th stage on 7 September was found to contain double the permitted amount of the asthma medication salbutamol, the Team Sky rider insists he can clear his name.
The PR battle is already being carried out in earnest, with Froome making confident and contrite appearances on television – the latest of which came on Thursday where he conceded that the failed test had been “damaging” to his reputation, but maintained that he had followed the letter of the law and there was no wrongdoing. Yet it may not be easy for him to prove it.
Froome’s biggest difficulty is that under World Anti-Doping Agency rules it is up to him to explain the elevated concentration of salbutamol in his urine. The burden of proof, crucially, lies with him. Which means his crack team of medical experts and lawyers have to find an explanation that satisfies cycling’s governing body, the UCI, and Wada that he is innocent.
We want facts. And the Anti-Doping Code is very clear: the burden of proof is on the athlete.
To do this they will hope to rely on Froome’s data. As he pointed out on Thursday: “We have a wealth of information from within the team about what I ate every single day, how many times I stopped to pee during the race every day [and] we know the number of puffs of my inhaler I use to treat my asthma, and at what times.”
That by itself is probably not enough. Which is why, according to Dr Tom Bassingdale, a forensic scientist at Sheffield Hallam University, Team Sky and its principal, Sir Dave Brailsford, will almost certainly ask the UCI to provide them with Froome’s urine from other tests at the Vuelta in an attempt to pick up clues about why his 7 September test was abnormal.
“The range of data would be very useful because it would be like a little biological passport for salbutamol,” Bassingdale told the Guardian. “Froome would be able to see how much his levels of salbutamol fluctuated every day. If his values were pretty high but still within the legal threshold on his usual dose and then on the day he took a few puffs extra it went up massively it could indicate that he was dehydrated – or possibly had impaired liver function.
“However, if it was down at 100 nanograms per millilitre for most of the Vuelta and it jumps to 2000 ng/ml in one day it would be much harder to explain.”
That will be the first stage of the process, which Team Sky hope will be enough to clear their man. However, if it doesn’t, Froome could then undergo a pharmacokinetic study to clear this name. This involves a test in laboratory conditions where he would be given the same amount of salbutamol as he took on 7 September.
However, there is an obvious problem. When Froome had an abnormal test at the Vuelta he had been riding for more than a fortnight on a grand tour. He was fatigued. His asthma was worsening. He was often riding at altitude. And he may have been dehydrated. How on earth do you recreate that in a lab?
Whatever explanation he gives, Wada has promised it will scrutinise it closely – and not necessarily wave it through.
As its science director, Olivier Rabin, told Le Monde on Thursday: “An athlete has the right to due process. The interesting fact is to see what explanations he provides. Is it that there has been interfering substances or conditions that could alter the metabolism of salbutamol? Is it that there has been an overdose? It happens, even quite frequently. And the kidneys can also be a substance that interferes with excretion.
“But all this is not based on assumptions. We want facts. And the Anti-Doping Code is very clear: the burden of proof is on the athlete. He had an adverse analytical finding, so he has to come with explanations. Our role is to put into perspective the explanations by experts. Sometimes they are smokescreens.”
This is not likely to be a quick process. And when Froome begins his season in the spring, he might yet find that clouds above his head don’t only come from any inclement weather – but the urine test he took in September.