As another Tour de France finishes with a winner from UK team Sky for the second year in succession, Tootlafrance wonders if we can believe anything any more
These are troubled times for cycling, as they have been for more than 20 years now. In that context, the arrival of another super-hero in cycling shorts raises as many questions as plaudits.
In the French media in particular, the lack of unanimity over Christopher Froome starts with how to pronounce his name. Some go for “froom” while others plump for the more Dutch pronunciation “frome”. Then there’s his appearance: many people see nothing but the spirit of goodwill and fair play in his cherubic features while others see them as disturbingly diabolical – the looks of a man who has his magic potion and knows how to use it?
All seem to be in agreement, however, that although most other winners of La Grande Boucle were more elegant riders than the African-born Brit, very few of them were as strong. Although “Froomey” pulled up at the last minute to allow the rest of his team-mates cross the line together with him, he essentially had over 5 minutes on his closest rival going into the final stage in Paris – the sort of domination that we haven’t quite seen since the days of Lance Armstrong.
Despite his stunning performance, Froome has not succeeded in convincing all and sundry from a highly sceptical public that neither his victory nor that one of his former team-mate Bradley Wiggins last year have been clean ones. While he didn’t suffer the urine-spraying that his compatriot Mark Cavendish had to endure, nor the spitting that fellow-Sky-team-member Richie Porte was subjected to, he was whistled at from time to time in a manner similar to the derisory noises that greeted Lance Armstrong during his drug-fuelled reign at the top of world cycling.
Froome has been subjected to a lot of urine testing (about 20 during this Tour alone) – something of the legacy of the last two decades of wholesale cheating that professional cycling has suffered. The public’s confidence in cycling has been shaken to the core by the Armstrong scandal and every explosive effort by the super-lean Kenyan-born cyclist adds as much to mounting suspicion as it does to the mounting plaudits for his powerful performance.At the first mountain stage in the Alps, it was clear that the only uncertainty remaining in the Tour was the question as to who would finish second in this race. There was an air of disbelief too at the press conference afterwards, during which the realisation had settled in that Froome had whizzed up the final climb faster than Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich had done in 2003 during the height of the EPO era.
“Can you confirm that your result today was a clean one?” he was asked at the Ax press conference. “Yes, one hundred per cent. I completely understand why that question is being asked but our sport has really changed. If it hadn’t changed, I would not have been able to achieve this result,” says the British cyclist, who admitted to being “a little surprised” by the size of the corrective action inflicted on the following pack, which included three-times Tour winner and suspended drugs cheat Alberto Contador. “Cycling has never been cleaner and I consider it a personal mission show that that is the case.”
It is worth noting at this point that, three years ago, the Sky team came out and announced itself as a clean team. Irish journalist Paul Kimmage made the offer to allow him to tag along with them on the tour if that was the case. They agreed at first and then refused on the eve of the Tour.
In the Mont-Saint-Michel time-trial stage, Froome displayed his superiority in a race against the clock also. He added a further two minutes to his lead during this 11th stage. Alberto Contador’s sporting director Philippe Mauduit drew a distinction between “an extra-terrestrial and everybody else” in the peleton. Sky’s sporting director Nicolas Portal meanwhile, expressed surprise at the highly impressive performance by his team leader. It was the half-way mark and the Tour seemed to be over already barring accident.
On Mont Ventoux, the acceleration of Froome on the descent was so powerful that it left the press gallery tittering in disbelief as well as Contador looking like a forlorn tourist cyclist. After a brief bout of oxygen, he once more gave the same answers to the same incredulous questions in English, French, Italian and Afrikaans.
But the powerful manner in which he climbed – judged by many to be superior to that of Armstrong and Pantani in 2000 – only served to increase the doubts surrounding his claims of cleanliness. “Finally, cycling has found a clean cyclist who can beat all the records set by the doped-up ones!” The words of Italian cyclist Riccardo Riccò – a man currently serving a 12-year career-ending second successive ban for doping.
Russian businessman Oleg Tinkov – the main sponsor of Alberto Contador’s Saxo-Tinkoff team – is less believing: “Armstrong used to dominate the peleton as much as Froome and I saw him crying on Oprah. I’m too old to believe in fairy tales.”
“With Froome, the supernatural has returned,” adjudges Michel Rieu, former scientific adviser of the French anti-doping agency Agence Française de Lutte contre le Dopage.
The rest day provided no relief for an increasingly beleaguered British cyclist who still found himself at the centre of questions regarding the credibility of his astonishing performances:
“Lance cheated, I don’t cheat. End of story. It’s quite sad to be sitting here, on the morning following the greatest victory of my life, talking about drug-taking. My team-mates and I slept on top of volcanoes to prepare for this. We were far away from home for months, we broke our arses to get here, and here I am being accused of being a liar and a cheat. It’s not cool.”
Some former Tour winners threw in their tuppence worth:
“There’s no reason to doubt him. I have full confidence in his performances,” said Alberto Contador reassuringly. The Spaniard was crowned winner in 2007, 2009 and 2010 but was stripped of his third title because of doping offences.
“I want to believe it,” says Greg Lemond. The American also won three times – in 1986, 1989 and 1990. According to Bernard Thévenet (1975 and 1977), “There are reasons to be suspicious about the manner in which he rides. When he accelerates, he gives a phenomenal impression. If he started in the same manner, it would be less shocking.”
As for Bernard Hinault (winner in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1985), he appears to have opted for finesse in naysaying the “sceptics” who had the audacity to put out those doubts: “They should shut their traps!”
Froome received more support from his compatriot Brian Cookson, a recent candidate for the presidency of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale): “Its very sad for him. Does this mean that an exceptional performance has to be the result of doping?” For its part, the cyclists’ union took to defending the Tour winner “against the unjustified allegations of doping” and to denounce the “consistent paradox of publicly condemning an athlete without any proof of wrongdoing.”
If there is no proof, it’s because “Froome is one step ahead,” according to an informed anti-doping observer toFrench daily Le Monde. “His biological passport is perfectly clean.”
Perfectly clean is how he remains and from his pre-Tour statement of “focusing on the Tour de France over the next six or seven years”, he will hope to remain so.
If this level of performance continues, Froome is odds on to be crowned six or seven-times champion – something only ever achieved by Lance Armstrong, until he had to hand them all back. In any case, the next few years will, if nothing else, allow French journalists to agree on how to pronounce his name.