Just prior to the start of the Giro d’Italia, La Gazzetta dello Sport cycling correspondent Ciro Scognamiglio told me that he believed that Italian fans weren’t that concerned by Chris Froome’s ongoing salbutamol affair, that having seen so many of their own heroes embroiled in scandals over the years they were indifferent to the travails of foreign riders with question marks over their performance.
According to the Italian journalist, the only situation in which Froome was likely to come under fire from the ardent tifosi would be if the race developed into a duel between the Sky leader and an Italian rider.
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Thanks to Fabio Aru’s catastrophic showing and Domenico Pozzovivo’s exit from the GC contest just as Froome was effectively entering it, that scenario never played out. As a result, the only unsavoury incident in which the Briton found himself was when a spectator spat at him a few kilometres before the finish of the penultimate stage in Cervinia.
Having cruised on apparently oblivious to this disgusting attack and added the Giro title to the other two Grand Tour crowns that he already holds, Froome once again asserted his confidence in his legal team’s ability to clear him of any wrongdoing in the salbutamol affair and confirmed he will go on to defend his Tour de France title.
Given the form he showed in the final days of the Giro, an extra week to recover and prepare for the Tour and the all-round strength of the Sky team that will be backing him, Froome is sure to figure among the favourites for the yellow jersey once again.
However, while the Giro and its fans welcomed Froome’s presence, the Briton is certain to receive a very different reception if and when he lines up at the start of the race in the Vendée on July 7. His first task will be to ensure that the Tour organisation permits him to start.
Ever since the leaking of Froome’s salbutamol case last December, Tour director Christian Prudhomme has repeatedly called on the UCI to reach a decision in the case and has indicated he is ready to consider blocking the Briton’s participation if it isn’t resolved before the race gets under way. Tour regulations appear to give Prudhomme the ability to bar Froome, although any such decision is likely to face a legal challenge.
Like Prudhomme, UCI president David Lappartient has said the best option if the case is not resolved would be for Froome to opt against riding, insisting this would be for the good of the sport and the Tour. But the Frenchman admits the federation’s rules allow Froome to ride if no decision has been reached and has stated that the organisation will respect that right.
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If Froome manages to negotiate potential administrative obstacles in the way of his Tour participation – and there’s good reason to believe he will – he will find it much more difficult to get the French press and fans on his side. Their antipathy towards him has been building ever since news of the salbutamol case emerged.
Almost every article that L’Équipe has written about Froome in recent months includes an asterisk and footnote detailing the affair and has highlighted the negative ramifications for the sport and, just as importantly for the French, the Tour.
Froome’s solo raid to Bardonecchia was reported not with a comparison to similar exploits by Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi, but with Floyd Landis’s drug-fuelled escape to victory in the 2006 Tour at Morzine.
Living in France, my sense is that French fans are far less sanguine about the affair than the Italian tifosi. There’s never been any great love in France for Froome and Sky’s Tour juggernaut, despite Froome’s determination to learn and speak French and his often-stated gratitude for the support he receives. Moreover, unlike the Italians, the French do have serious candidates for the yellow jersey, most notably Romain Bardet, who has been critical of the Briton’s attitude.
Earlier this year, Bardet told L’Équipe that it would be “catastrophic” if Froome does ride the Tour with the result still pending in his case.
“It would be a farce. How can our sport be credible if the number one rider were to race the Tour with the possibility of being retroactively sanctioned? Cycling would make no sense at all,” Bardet explained.
In the wake of Froome’s Bardonecchia success, another leading light in the French peloton, Direct Énergie team leader Lilian Calmejane, called on Froome to be more transparent with his training data, stating that “everyone doubts his performances”.
In the coming weeks, these quotes will be regurgitated and, almost certainly, added to. By the time July 7 rolls around, Froome and his Sky teammates will the away team competing in front of a fervent home crowd, desperate for one of their own to win.
While the rules may say that he has every right to race, some fans are likely to view his participation with a very different perspective, and Froome’s mental resilience, which has been astonishing in recent months given his travails, will undergo its biggest test yet.