Spirits were high among Team Sky’s riders and staff in the immediate aftermath of the Vuelta a España stage to Santo Toribio de Liébana. For the third day in a row, the overall standings had received a shake-up, and on this occasion Sky leader Chris Froome was very much the beneficiary.
His hold on the leader’s red jersey, which had looked to be in threat at the super steep summit finish of Los Machucos 24 hours earlier, appeared more certain once again. As Froome went to the podium and then to the anti-doping control, it had already been confirmed that the Sky leader had recouped half of the 42 seconds he’d lost to main rival Vincenzo Nibali the day before.
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When he faced the press, the buoyant Froome explained, “I was feeling a lot better today [than at Los Machucos]. As soon as I made an acceleration on that last climb, Wout Poels got on the radio and told me, “Nibali’s dropped, Nibali’s dropped. Keep pushing.” That was exactly the result we were looking for today, so I’m really happy with that.”
He added: “I think a lot of guys perhaps paid the price for making such a big effort yesterday at Los Machucos.”
Coincidentally, the day before, Froome had put down his own faltering performance and loss of time at Los Machucos to the same mistake, pressing too hard in the Logroño time trial that he’d won.
Yet, it is now evident that Froome was also struggling health-wise. According to Sky’s press release that revealed the Briton’s abnormal drugs test result: “During the final week of the Vuelta, Chris experienced acute asthma symptoms. On the advice of the Team Sky doctor, he used an increased dosage of Salbutamol (still within the permissible doses) in the run-up to the 7 September urine test [at Santo Toribio].”
The result of that usage was that Froome’s salbutamol concentration was double the permitted level. That could lead to Froome being stripped of the Vuelta title, although Sky’s release points towards mitigating factors that could have led to this elevated level and will be the basis for his defence against any wrongdoing.
While the UCI and anti-doping experts will deal with that aspect of the affair – and let’s hope they can do so rapidly to avoid the extended uncertainty that dogged the sport following Alberto Contador’s positive test for clenbuterol in 2010 – it can already be said for certain that this could hardly have come at a worse time for Team Sky.
Its reputation has already been severely tarnished by the UK Anti-Doping investigation into the allegation of abuse of the TUE system and ‘jiffy-gate’, which was ultimately hampered by a lack of accurate medical records being available at British Cycling.
In addition, the team’s Italian rider Gianni Moscon is the subject of a formal complaint by FDJ’s Sébastien Reichenbach, who has accused the Sky rider of deliberately causing him to crash at the Tre Valle Varesine race in October. Moscon was previously suspended this last season for racially abusing FDJ’s Kevin Réza.
Throughout this turmoil, Sky, the biggest sponsor in pro peloton, have consistently maintained their commitment to the team. However, that will surely come into question if Froome’s abnormal test leads to a ban and the removal of his Vuelta title.
Previous cases of riders having elevated levels of salbutamol offer Sky mixed reasons for optimism.
In 2014, Diego Ulissi received a nine-month ban after a test at that year’s Giro d’Italia revealed a level of salbutamol just below that recorded by Froome.
In 2007, Alessandro Petacchi was initially cleared by the Italian federation in a similar case, only for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to impose a 12-month ban on appeal. Yet, 2006 Tour winner Oscar Pereiro is among several riders who have been acquitted for medical reasons having recorded elevated levels of salbutamol.
It is interesting to note some of the initial reaction to Froome’s case among scientific experts. Speaking to Marca, the Spanish Anti-Doping Agency’s Zigor Moltavo says of salbutamol that, “It’s a substance that can be used up to a certain level. If you go above that level it could be as a result more excessive use than normal, but in reality the benefits that it can offer are very limited.”
Meanwhile, exercise science and sports medicine expert Jeroen Swart, who oversaw Froome’s independent physiological tests 2015, admitted in a thread posted on Twitter that the news of Froome’s abnormal results are, “naturally disappointing but not entirely surprising.”
Swart added that he finds some aspects of the case bizarre, pointing out that, “The performance-enhancing effects of beta agonists [like salbutamol] are not at all convincing and the balance of literature shows no effect.”
Swart also said that he finds it hard to understand why Froome would take the product for performance enhancement as doing so within competition would almost certainly lead to an abnormal test result.
“If you know you’re going to be tested (as Froome would) then you would basically knowingly commit career suicide,” said Swart.
“That said, the WADA threshold of 1000ng/ml was set so that therapeutic doses would not exceed that limit. Based on the pharmacokinetic studies the limit is set very high.”