Chris Froome denies negotiating for six-month ban: Why the revelations don’t stack up

Comment: Il Corriere’s claim that Chris Froome wants to negotiate a backdated ban adds to the confusion over his salbutamol case

Two weeks on from L’Équipe’s report that Chris Froome is planning to base his defence on his Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) for salbutamol on kidney malfunction, Italian daily Il Corriere is claiming that the Team Sky rider’s wife and manager Michelle Froome is negotiating an ‘acceptance of consequences’ that would result in Froome acknowledging negligence in his use of an inhaler to treat asthma.

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In return, says Il Corriere, Froome is hoping to receive a six-month suspension backdated to September 7, the date the AAF was returned at the Vuelta a España, which would enable the Briton to participate in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France later this year.

It would also result in him being disqualified from the Vuelta, with his victory passing to Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali.

Contacted by Cycling Weekly, Team Sky declined to make a comment on the story beyond saying that, as was stated when The Guardian and Le Monde broke the news of Froome’s AAF on December 12, they would be fully exploring all options in the case and to confirm that Il Corriere had not spoken to them before publishing its story. Froome stated on Twitter that “it’s completely untrue”.

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As with L’Equipe’s story, Il Corriere’s scoop is notable for its lack of attribution – although this is alone is no reason to doubt it. However, while Michelle Froome is mentioned, it is Cycling Weekly’s understanding that she has not spoken to the Italian paper and nor has anyone associated with Froome.

In addition, Il Corriere’s claim that Froome could negotiate a backdated ban is flawed. UCI rules set out that, in the event that no provisional suspension is imposed, any ban resulting from an AAF being confirmed as an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) begins on the day on that confirmation is delivered.

The only thing that can be said for certain about Froome’s case at the moment is that there is no clarity to it. The rider and his advisers are continuing to explore all aspects of the affair, with Froome adamant that he has done nothing wrong and determined to demonstrate that while he continues with a hard training regime in South Africa. In the meantime, they are, not unsurprisingly, saying nothing.

At the same time, Sky are coming under pressure, notably from UCI president David Lappartient, to suspend their team leader. “It’s not up to me to interfere,” Lappartient told Le Télégramme earlier this month, either unaware or ignoring the fact that the federation’s rules permit him to do precisely this.

Chris Froome on stage 17 of the 2017 Vuelta a España. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

According to Article 7.9.3 of the UCI’s anti-doping rules, in the event of an AAF for a specified substance such as salbutamol, ‘the UCI may impose a Provisional Suspension prior to analysis of the Rider’s B Sample (where applicable) or prior to a final hearing’. If that suspension isn’t imposed, a rider such as Froome can continue to compete until a verdict is reached in his case.

One reason that the UCI may be reluctant to take this step is precedent. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s 2015 report (published in April 2017 and, therefore, the latest available) on ADRVs reveals that during that year there were 244 AAFs in cycling, of which 144 ultimately resulted in an ADRV.

In other words, 100 athletes had their case closed either for medical reasons (usually a TUE), because they had no case to answer or because no sanction was merited as they were exonerated or deemed to have committed no fault or negligence following a full disciplinary process.

If Froome loses his Vuelta title, it could pass to Vincenzo Nibali who finished second (Sunada)

In these cases, the UCI could only reveal the identity of the athletes concerned with their consent, which the leaking of Froome’s AAF has prevented in his case. Many of those athletes are likely to have continued competing until cleared of an anti-doping rule violation, perhaps against Froome in the Grand Tours and even as a result of registering elevated levels of salbutamol.

Ultimately, we are, as former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld once memorably suggested, in a situation where known knowns (Froome has registered an AAF for salbutamol), known unknowns (what his defence will be and time frame for it) and unknown unknowns (aspects we aren’t aware of yet) are creating turmoil.

In the face of this, we have to trust that the process is fair and will deliver the right verdict, and hope that it comes quickly enough to avoid cycling’s image being tarnished unduly.