Chris Froome – It’s a matter of faith
The 100th Tour de France was won today by Chris Froome, riding for the British team Sky. His dominance of the race continued the British stranglehold on the race which started last year with Bradley Wiggins’ strong victory with the same team, but opinion is divided as to whether this is a good thing – not because a close contest would be preferable (although this would be the view of most people), but because the margin and manner of victory suggests that he might be doping.
Cycling’s a sport with a long and shameful history of doping. Everyone is very aware of this history, still particularly raw after Lance Armstrong’s exposure over the last year or so, and everyone wants to see a truly clean sport. So when a rider and a team start to dominate the race in a manner with certain similarities to Armstrong and US Postal, it’s natural that questions are asked.
The case against is based on Froome’s apparent sudden improvement a couple of years ago, the fact that he completed some key mountain ascents at a speed comparable with known dopers in the 90s and 00s, his strength in both mountain stages and time trials, rough estimates of his power output over sustained mountain ascents which put him at the very limits of natural human capabilities, and Sky’s method of riding and reluctance to release data on their riders’ performance.
In response, the case for the defence is that Froome was always considered talented as both a climber and time triallist even though he suffered with illness, clean performances can match the level of past dopers just as East German athletics records have been broken, Sky have built on British Cycling’s track successes with marginal gains, have always been vociferously anti-doping, and would be naive to release important information on their riders’ performances just to prove themselves.
So who’s right? No one can say. My interest, apart from an obvious love of cycling, is in the way a question whose answer can’t be known (at least, not now) has caused so much division among followers of the sport and so much certainty, with both believers and cynics adamant that they’re right, and anyone with a slightly nuanced position constantly required to distance themselves from the views of one side or the other.
Need I say that it reminds me of disagreements about religion?
However strong or weak the case for doping, there’s no satisfactory way of proving that someone’s clean. Point to clean tests, and they might not be picking up your doping. Submit to extra testing or anti-doping oversight, and you’re obviously confident that you’re able to conceal your cheating. Publish your performance data, and it could be fabricated. But many seem to view this inability as confirmation of their claims. A rider like Froome is expected to prove a negative, regardless of the evidence against him.
That could be taken as a statement that there’s no obligation to offer any evidence in his support, but that’s not the case. Froome must be expected to answer specific questions and accusations, but not vague insinuations. So if an ex-teammate makes a statement that Sky were using drug X and had technique Y for evading detection, that demands an answer. If it’s just that he’s quicker than everyone else, there’s nothing he can say. His inability to satisfy critics isn’t evidence of his guilt.
I don’t want to take a set position on whether he’s doping or not. I want him to be clean (dangerous in itself), and I don’t see any compelling reason to consider him suspicious, but history suggests that you’d be a fool to bet on any cyclist being clean, especially a successful one. Still, I like living in the uncomfortable middle.