Former Team Sky coach Bobby Julich has told The Times that it would be "idiotic" to question Chris Froome's integrity on the basis of concerns raised by Shane Sutton in an internal interview with team management in 2012.
Sutton’s comments, made during an internal inquiry at Team Sky in October 2012, were read out during former Sky and British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman’s ongoing fit-to-practice hearing. In his interview, Sutton denied any involvement in doping but cited concerns about "Chris Froome going to Italy on a motorbike" and his relationship with Julich as concerns.
The interview took place in October 2012 when Team Sky questioned staff and riders about their pasts in the sport and asked them to sign a declaration stating that they had never been involved in doping. Julich and directeur sportif Steven de Jongh both confessed to using EPO during their racing careers and left the team.
Sutton left Team Sky in January 2013 but remained at British Cycling until 2016, when he resigned following allegations of bullying and discrimination against female and Paralympic riders.
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Julich joined Sky from Saxo Bank at the beginning of 2011 and became Froome’s coach. Later that season, the then 26-year-old Froome made a sudden progression, placing a surprising second overall at the Vuelta a España. He was awarded overall victory last year when Juan José Cobo was found guilty of a biological passport violation.
In an interview with The Times, Julich insisted that there was no mystery behind Froome’s trip across the Franco-Italian border on a motorbike. "The motorbike trip to Italy, I can explain. In fact, you’ll understand it’s idiotic to think there was anything suspicious about it when I tell you," Julich told The Times.
"It was early 2011 and Chris was this young rider living in Italy. I was based in Monaco and was working with Richie Porte [then at Saxo Bank – ed.] down there. Sky had asked me to keep an eye on this kid, even though they weren’t sure he was going to get a new contract at the end of the season.
"Then Chris suddenly contacts me to say he’s selling everything he has to move to Monaco to work with me. From my notes it looks like it would have been late January. I was like, wow, he’s not being paid much and he’ll have to live in a box. But he was that committed.
"Anyway, what I think was April, he shipped the stuff he had in a truck and then rode this motorbike — it was like an off-road bike he couldn’t really use on the highway — to Monaco along all the coastal roads. That bike was his prized possession but the first thing I did was make him get rid of it. I don’t think he ever rode it again."
Julich stopped working with Froome when he left Sky at the end of 2012. He later worked as a consultant with BMC and a coach at Tinkoff-Saxo. He told The Times that he would not have confessed to doping to Team Sky management had he not believed in the team’s ethical stance.
"I believed in what they were trying to do and I never heard anything that has come out in this Freeman hearing, about testosterone patches. That’s all been a surprise to me," said Julich, who was critical of Freeman’s handling of Froome’s struggles with the tropical disease bilharzia.
"I have the notes from the time when I first met Chris and Sky said he was sick a lot. I felt let down by Dr Freeman. He was in Manchester and wasn’t paying the same attention to the things I was seeing. I guess he wasn’t one of Sky’s main riders. One day Chris’s numbers could be as good, if not better, than Brad’s [Wiggins]. The next he could barely scratch himself. I got him to see specialists to sort out the problem."
Froome placed second to Wiggins at the 2012 Tour de France and then won the race in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017. His 11-year tenure at Team Sky/Ineos ended this season and he will ride for Israel Start-Up Nation in 2021.
Freeman risks being struck off the medical register if he is found guilty of malpractice. He has accepted 18 allegations, but he is contesting four others. He has admitted ordering testosterone gels to the National Cycling Centre in 2011, along with trying to cover it up and then lying to UK Anti-Doping investigators. However, he still refutes the central charge, that he placed the order "knowing or believing" the banned substance was intended to be administered to an athlete.
Freeman’s hearing continues with further witnesses expected to be called, including Nicole Cooke’s father, Tony.