Richard Moore: Sketchy evidence behind Chris Froome’s ‘performance-enhancer’

The evidence that the salbutamol Chris Froome took might be a performance-enhancer is sketchy. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The evidence that the salbutamol Chris Froome took might be a performance-enhancer is sketchy. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
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On 12 October I went to Monaco to interview a relaxed Chris Froome. It was peak off season: the brief sweet spot between ending racing and resuming training. He’d been for a run the day before and mentioned that his legs were aching. How far did he run? “About 5k.”

We had lunch in a restaurant on the beach, did the interview, and then his wife, Michelle, appeared with their son, Kellan. Froome was transformed into doting father. The conversation turned to where they’d live when eventually he retires. Possibly England, he said.

I had asked the questions I wanted to ask, about the Tour de France, which he’d won a fourth time, and the Vuelta a España, which he’d won for a first. He talked about how hard the latter had been. But he didn’t say – and I didn’t ask – whether he had failed a drugs test on his way to victory.

Had I asked, he would have said no, he hadn’t. And technically he’d have been right. But after stage 18 he did give a urine sample that contained double the permitted dose of salbutamol, the asthma medication that is a controlled rather than a banned substance. When we met, Froome had known about this for three weeks. He knew that he would have to provide an explanation to avoid a doping charge that would leave a terrible stain, if not trash his reputation.

Yet in Monaco in mid-October Froome didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Clearly his ability to compartmentalise is a big part of what makes him so good at what he does.

Last week in southern Spain Froome began his season at the Ruta del Sol, a five-day race which finishes today. He is allowed to race because his case remains in limbo – neither an anti-doping rule violation nor exoneration.

Gazzetta dello Sport reported on Tuesday that the UCI was poised to bring doping charges, giving him 15 days to explain the excess salbutamol, but there has been no confirmation from the world governing body, which, under its new president, David Lappartient, is under intense pressure to deliver the ‘right’ verdict.

But what would that be? Froome insists he broke no rules, that he took the permitted number of puffs on his inhaler and that the test is the result of some anomaly. His problem is that both claims – that he didn’t exceed the permitted dose and that a physiological aberration is to blame – appear very difficult, if not impossible, to prove.

For some, Froome’s adverse analytical finding – to use the official term – was the latest red flag as far as Team Sky is concerned: the cherry on a cake made up of Bradley Wiggins’ therapeutic use exemptions, jiffy bags, medical practices that take them up to the line of what is and isn’t permitted, as well as – the original basis for scepticism – consistent success in the biggest races.

The Froome case is curious. Unlike triamcinolone, the product that Wiggins, pictured, used before the 2012 Tour, which he won, the evidence that salbutamol might be a performance-enhancer – as a stimulant, anabolic agent or even as a masking agent – is sketchy (though the fact it is banned above a certain threshold surely suggests that WADA think it could enhance performance).

Discussing it on his podcast, Lance Armstrong expressed surprise at the substance. The first thing he did was to borrow his fiancée’s inhaler to try it before a bike ride, proving the lengths he is willing to go to demonstrate his ‘gonzo’ credentials in his new role. Still, it was interesting that Armstrong’s response was curiosity. There can’t be many doping products with which he is not familiar, even if only by reputation. (After dosing up on salbutamol he reported dizziness.)

Froome uses salbutamol because he suffers from asthma. I can hear the groans. But it’s odd that people are surprised at the number of elite endurance athletes who are asthmatic. It’s a bit like being suspicious of the number of cruciate ligament injuries in professional football, or hamstring problems among top sprinters, or black eyes in boxers. They are occupational hazards. More to the point, salbutamol is not going to help someone who is not asthmatic. It opens the airways, but only as far as the airways will go. It doesn’t give you super lungs.

One theory is that Froome was suffering from a bad chest, and that he took salbutamol by pill or nebuliser – methods that are banned without a TUE. He denies this, but for some it offers the most plausible explanation for such a high quantity in his urine. And yet it would have been a suicidal gamble. As race leader, he was tested every day. Excess salbutamol was always going to be detected.

The cases of Wiggins and Froome arguably highlight a paradox of anti-doping. It is possible to argue that Wiggins gamed the system and gained an unfair advantage but stayed within the rules, while Froome gained no discernible advantage but did break the rules. This second point overlooks another argument: that the restoration of health – salbutamol might have been performance-enabling if he was suffering from bronchial problems – is the same as performance-enhancing in an event expressly designed to break down the body, as a three-week stage race is. If you fall ill, tough.

Regardless of any of these arguments, the likeliest outcome for most observers is that Froome will be found guilty and served with a doping ban.

And yet, and yet. We don’t know what we don’t know. Under the rules, Froome’s AAF should be confidential. It isn’t, thanks to a leak to the Guardian and Le Monde newspapers. Froome insists that many other athletes have gone through a similar process, confidentially, and been exonerated. It isn’t clear how he knows this, unless the athletes concerned told him. And we don’t know this for a fact – we only know about the salbutamol cases that were prosecuted as anti-doping rule violations, and there have been a fair few of those.

The complexity and nuance is ignored in most of the coverage, and in our craving for doping cases to be black and white and to have a clear, unambiguous outcome. Distrust anybody who says they know, one way or the other, why such a quantity of salbutamol was found in Froome’s urine after just one stage of a race in which he was tested after 18 consecutive stages. Froome might know the explanation. It is also possible that he might not.