Chris Froome is an opportunist. All great riders have to be. It’s the faculty that allows them to spot the moment at which to strike. The first time we saw that in Froome was when he sensed a weakness in Bradley Wiggins on the ascent of La Toussuire during the Tour de France five years ago, and had to be ordered to cease his attack on his own team leader.
When Froome joined Team Sky, he was simply taking another opportunity. Born in Kenya to British-born parents and educated in South Africa, eight years ago he left behind the country of his birth, with its limited resources, to sign a contract that also helped him to win a place in Britain’s lottery-funded Olympic cycling team, run from the same building in Manchester as the professional team, with shared facilities and personnel.
Maybe that piece of opportunism lay behind the reluctance of the British public, although they admired his five grand tour victories in Team Sky’s colours, to take him to their hearts. He has barely raced or even stayed in Britain. He lives in Monaco – where, presumably, he pays a friendly rate of tax on the £4m a year that makes him the highest paid competitor in his sport.
If he wants to know how his popularity has been affected by Wednesday’s revelation of twice the permitted level of salbutamol, an asthma medication, in a urine sample taken during his winning ride in this year’s Vuelta, he will get a swift answer at Sunday’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Third in the ante-post post betting a week ago, behind Anthony Joshua and Lewis Hamilton, he will learn from the results of the combined live phone-in and online poll whether the public has lost its faith in him.
He denies that the findings of the test were the result of improper behaviour on his part. But the wider world of British cycling will also be awaiting the Spoty result and wondering whether the sport’s remarkable rise in national popularity over the past decade can withstand the latest doubts over the conduct of Team Sky. While no one would suggest that salbutamol occupies the same universe of performance enhancement as the EPO and blood-doping employed by a previous generation of riders, it may be that the steady drip of stories concerning various relatively innocuous medications is once again eroding trust. Having had to mug up on the properties of triamcinolone and fluimucil in considering the allegations against Bradley Wiggins, who denies any wrongdoing, the public might be feeling that the introduction to salbutamol is one doctor’s prescription too many.
Cycling as a leisure activity was already on the upswing when the gold medals started to flow for British riders at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 under a programme masterminded by Dave Brailsford, who used the platform as the basis from which to launch Team Sky two years later. But success on road and track certainly added impetus to a phenomenon which has filled the lanes of Britain with lycra-clad weekend warriors, many of them women, and provided huge numbers of spectators for stages of the Tour de France, Tour of Britain and Tour de Yorkshire.
The foundations of the revival of interest in cycling seem firm enough to help it survive the awkward questions asked of Wiggins, Britain’s and Team Sky’s first Tour winner, and now of Froome. Whether Team Sky itself will survive is another matter.
Twenty four hours after this newspaper’s reporters and their colleagues at Le Monde revealed Froome’s adverse analytical finding during the Vuelta, Team Sky’s bosses had their thoughts diverted towards an announcement that may carry an even greater existential threat. Rupert Murdoch’s decision to sell a large chunk of his empire to the Disney corporation – including his 39% stake in the Sky TV channels – carries with it the fear that the satellite broadcaster’s sponsorship of the world’s No1 cycling team will not long outlast the change of ownership.
Team Sky is the pet project of James Murdoch. A cyclist and a fan of the sport, the younger son of Rupert Murdoch has enjoyed being close to the team during its successes. It was he who persuaded Sky’s board to put up an initial £25m and the subsequent annual investment that began at £10m and has since risen to £23m.
This makes Team Sky the richest team in a peloton whose lesser squads are required to get by on a fraction of their budget. That alone would make them an obvious target for critics, never mind their self-imposed mission to crusade for 100% clean cycling, which has always raised the hackles of those resentful of what they see as a holier-than-thou attitude.
Schadenfreude, a delight in others’ misfortunes, is never far away when Sky appear to fall below their own declared high standards of behaviour. Familiar accusations of pomposity and sanctimoniousness were given a further airing this week in the wake of the Froome revelations.
The employment of salbutamol by means of an inhaler does not require a therapeutic use exemption certificate, but in other forms – oral and intravenous – and bigger doses it can have a performance-enhancing effect, which is why the upper limit is imposed even via inhalation. Froome has admitted that he needed extra puffs on the inhaler – sanctioned by his team’s doctor – that day in the Cantabrian mountains, but he will be required to show, with thorough medical evidence, that other factors played a part in raising the level above the acceptable limit.
The onus of providing proof of innocence in order to avoid a suspension rests entirely on Froome’s shoulders. It will be a lengthy process – and an expensive one in terms of laboratory and legal costs. Given their resources, his team can certainly afford it. In fact, they cannot afford not to make every effort to provide it, in order to defend their own reputation as much as Froome’s. The attitude of Sky’s new owners, taking stock of the terms of the present two-year rolling contract, could depend on it.
Others could be forgiven for concluding that, despite all Team Sky’s achievements in a tumultuous few years, the sport would now be a better place without them: without their “marginal gains”, without their pretentious corporate culture, without the outsize budget that inflates riders’ salaries and distorts competition, without their race-suffocating tactics, and without the miasma of doubt and innuendo that has settled over them and which no fresh breeze seems able to dispel. Perhaps their job is done.