Inside the lab with Chris Froome

Chris Froome undergoes physiology tests in the GSK lab. Picture: onEdition

Chris Froome undergoes physiology tests in the GSK lab. Picture: onEdition

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ON Friday, Chris Froome’s physiological data was published in Esquire magazine and the world learned that the Tour de France winner has the physiology of a Tour de France winner.

Some had been poring over the (likely) data and offering their reactions to this story well before it was published. Back in August, when a clip of the final stages of Froome’s Vo2 max (oxgen uptake) test was posted on Twitter, with cheers of encouragement in the room audible, there was scorn – it is not the done thing to encourage an athlete in a max test, apparently. Froome couldn’t even do a max test without illicit help!

It isn’t entirely clear why Froome has become the lightning rod where doping suspicion in cycling is concerned. But he has. And that’s why he was in the GSK Human Performance lab in August undergoing the tests – it followed repeated inquiries about his Vo2 max. I was there, too, having been invited to witness and report on the events and the subsequent analysis.

I was being flippant at the top. Froome’s tests did demonstrate his exceptional physiology, that is true. In the business of converting oxygen into energy there are few better. Froome is, as the scientists say, at the right hand side of the bell curve. And he can generate and sustain immense power. There is significant value in the data because so few athletes at Froome’s level have submitted to such tests before, and allowed the findings to be published. He deserves credit for that. But of course the more pertinent question is not how much power can he produce, but how can he produce such power?

His lab tests were never going to offer answers to every question – and besides, it is inevitable that the more information he releases, the more he will be asked to release – but they did help fill in some of the blanks in what had been an incomplete picture of Froome the athlete. How, for example, did he go from relative obscurity to a Grand Tour contender in the space of three weeks? That is what appeared to happen in late 2011 when Froome, on his way out at Team Sky after two years of under-achievement, began climbing with the best in the world on his way to a remarkable second-place finish at the Tour of Spain.

Sudden transformations just don’t happen at the highest level: athletes do not change from donkeys to racehorses. Or when they do, the racehorse is invariably exposed as a doping donkey. Since his Vuelta performance Froome has finished in the top four of each Grand Tour he has finished, winning two. Beyond his exceptional performances, no evidence has emerged that he is a cheat, but the white noise of suspicion has got louder, rising to a crescendo, and tipping into roadside abuse, at this year’s Tour.

A report from lab tests undertaken by the 22-year-old Froome in 2007, only tracked down after his lab visit in August, does show that there was no transformation. He was always a racehorse, but a “flabby” one. The engine was there, but he was overweight, more than 8kg heavier than his Tour-winning weight.

With this piece added to the jigsaw picture, attention – or rather, suspicion – turned to his weight loss. When Froome was tested in the GSK lab he was almost 3kg heavier than he had been at the Tour, with 9.8 per cent body fat. Yet cyclists have been recorded as low as 5 per cent, so he perhaps isn’t as lean as he appears. It is true that he lost a lot of weight. It is also true that he had a lot of weight to lose. Or did he? As if to demonstrate that any release of data will only lead to demands for more data, or questions about the accuracy of the released data, on Saturday morning a photograph was posted on Twitter showing the entry for Froome from the handbook for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, where Froome competed for Kenya. The accompanying comment read: “Chris Froome was 68kg in the Commonwealth games in Melbourne 2006. Funny how easy is to get caught lying.”

Trouble is, his height was listed in this handbook as 5ft 8in – he is 6ft 1in. Since it is unlikely that he put on five inches in height, it is likely that his weight in the handbook is incorrect. There is also documentary evidence, from the Swiss Olympic Medical Centre, that he was 75.6kg (and 6ft 1in) in July 2007.

As well as the physiological information, Froome released data from three blood tests: From 2007, mid-way through this year’s Tour, and the morning after his lab tests in August. These blood values did not raise any red flags. But another question followed: Why not release more? What would he have to lose? One explanation for not releasing more is that analysing blood for signs of doping is fiendishly complicated. It requires expertise that most people do not have. And of course Froome’s blood samples are monitored by experts as part of the biological passport programme.

There is an interesting discussion to be had here. For while faith in sports bodies (FIFA, anyone?) and anti-doping (there are questions for WADA relating to the Russian athletics scandal) could be at an all-time low, would the universal release of athletes’ blood and other medical data lead to greater insight or risk generating more confusion? Lord Coe may have been the master of obfuscation when he sat before the culture, media and sport select committee this week, but in his insistence that athletes should not be forced to release all their blood and medical data, he was surely right. It would be an attempt to appease everybody that would end up satisfying nobody.

The biggest problem in all of this is that we crave certainty. We don’t want the ambiguity of fluctuations in blood data. We don’t want to know about discussions over lab protocol in determining an athlete’s Vo2, or to consider that an athlete with an inferior Vo2 might beat one with greater physiological gifts – it is too confusing (yet it does happen; it’s sport, not a science experiment). We need black or white, not grey.

But it is disastrous when scepticism – which is healthy and essential – mutates into cynicism, when trust is so eroded that it disappears. One of Froome’s most vocal critics, Antoine Vayer, told me that “nothing” would persuade him that Froome is clean. Judging by some of the reactions on Twitter, he is not alone. Yet – and this is worth re-stating – there is no evidence that Froome has ever doped. This is not the same as saying that you know with 100 per cent certainty that he is clean; as Froome himself acknowledged, only he can know that.

Naivety would be silly, clearly, but cynicism is fatal, especially when supported by “evidence” that shows a startling lack of rigour or knowledge of the sport. Besides, as a default position cynicism is too easy, too lazy and, far from demonstrating bravery or courage, it is a cop-out. As Henry Rollins said: “Cynicism is nothing but intellectual cowardice.”

Not that it’s all bad. As the fall-out from Froome’s unprecedented (if incomplete) release of data has shown, it can get you lots of re-tweets and a large following on Twitter.

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