The Giro d’Italia today was the scene of some incredible drama, in a day some pundits are saying will go down as one of the most historic stages of Grand Tour racing.
The scene was set; stage 19 would take the riders over the highest point of the Giro, the Colle delle Finestre, at over 2100m. Normally that would be enough to end a stage, but not today. The actors were kept onstage for a further 75km and another two climbs; one up to 2035m on the Sestrière and the second up the Monte Jafferau, a 7.5km climb with an average gradient of 7.9%.
However, it was certainly a different cast who were leading the pack by the first few kilometres into the CdF. Team Sky saw the climb as their window of opportunity. The main protagonist, Simon Yates, had cracked, and we saw a familiar sight at the front of the peloton as Henao, Elissonde, Poels and Froome start to eat into his lead.
Froome flew off past a grimacing Elissonde with 80km to go to fly to victory on the hardest stage of the Giro in recent memory, meanwhile taking to the podium to claim the maglia rosa before its former wearer had even crossed the finish line.
It was not long before the sunshine dimmed and the clouds rolled in. Across social media, the usual calls of ‘doping’, ‘cheat’, ‘unfair’, ‘salbutamol’ and others cropped up. Click on any article from Velonews, Cycling Weekly, Cyclingnews on Facebook and the likes of
“Let’s give Landis, Armstrong, and Contador their titles back, shall we? Let’s apologize to Ricardo Ricco. Doped racing is the most entertaining racing! Legalize it all . . . for everyone!”
“A doping team helping a doped rider…I understand Dave, I understand…”
“Froome does not have any credibility. He shound not be riding this Giro in the first place. And his Salbutamol issue casts lots of doubts of any victory he gets until proven he did not commit any wrongdoing.”
Not much has been said of Froome’s salbutamol case during the Giro. In one of the Cycling Podcast’s earlier Giro issues released after stage five, there was word the case could be days away, but nothing has since materialised.
In an article in The Times yesterday, David Lappartient, president of the UCI, said there was a “50/50 chance” of Froome’s case being concluded before the Tour de France starts on July 7.
That article was titled ‘I believe Simon Yates is clean, says cycling chief’. Immediately I let out a rasp of exasperation that this has had to be established as headline-leading news. I am not naive, we should expect this, but has British small-c and big-c cycling been completely tarnished due to the revelations of the past few years?
Team Sky has been the team in the spotlight, with both Wiggins and Froome coming under the microscope for misuse or overdosing on therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs). By association, British Cycling has also been scrutinised for their links to Sky and to accusations of packages of testosterone being delivered to headquarters.
Now attention has been drawn to Yates. Unfortunately for the former white jersey winner and twin brother of Adam Yates (another former white jersey winner), Simon has a bit of a black spot against his name already thanks to an accidental doping ban of four months last year.
The reason? Failure to register a TUE for – you guessed it – asthma medication.
Because of the attention now being drawn to phrases like ‘TUE’ and ‘salbutamol’, and the fact these have cropped up against the names of three British riders in the past couple of years, people are instantly making leaps towards the doping drum and beating it loudly in everyone’s ears. “All of them have asthma, it seems!”, a friend said to me.
Yesterday, after reading that article in The Times, we heard there was blood in the water as chinks showed in Yates’s armour. However, today that chink turned into a total hole punched into his chances of keeping the maglia rosa into Rome this weekend.
Who took his place? None other than Froome, aforementioned “doping rider” for a “doping team”. This puts British cycling as a sport between a rock and a hard place, despite this amazing success of two British riders having lead the tour.
The narrative around doping in cycling is a long one, and one which people reach to simply because the idea of riding around 100-plus miles a day for 21 days seems frankly impossible without the use of drugs.
In an interview with Brig Newspaper, renowned expert on sport doping, Paul Dimeo, said: “Again, we can talk about categories of dopers. Clearly we have those people who have a long-term record of participating in organised systematic cheating, and they may well get a four-year ban or they may get a lifetime ban, but in my personal opinion that should almost be enough to have a lifetime of stigma and not be allowed to participate in the sports industry.
“Lance Armstrong is a good example, but previous to that, people like Ben Johnson were just never allowed to have a career. So, I think that’s questionable, from an ethical and moral point of view.
“Another category of dopers are those who have done it accidentally or not done it that badly, but that, even relatively innocuous cases, can still hang over athletes for a long time. A famous case in Scotland is that of Alain Baxter, who used an American version of a Vicks inhaler, lost his bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics, and that is what he is most well-known for, so his reputation has never really recovered from what was essentially an accidental case of doping.”
Another example, Froome’s “adverse analytical finding” and Yates’s “accidental doping charges” cannot be put in the same category as Armstrong.
We need to be careful as viewers, journalists and participants in cycling to make the distinctions between the good and the evil in the sport. However, if Armstrong managed to hide it for so long, perhaps Froome has.
Yates and Froome have both undergone far more frequent and scientific tests than before, but there are also much more cunning methods of evading detection than before.
Greg Haff of Edith Cowan University writes: “One way athletes appear to be circumventing the biological passports model is by small, frequent use of EPO. In 2011, Australian researchers found frequent micro-dosing allows athletes to use rhEPO without abnormal changes in the blood variables that are currently monitored by the athlete blood passport.
“As the fight against doping continues, athletes appear to be continually searching for ways to elevate their performance and evade detection. The biological passport offers a great tool for limiting the practice of doping, but it seems that many athletes have already found ways to circumvent it.”
This all comes at a time when more people are cycling than ever in the UK, but also when more tensions are appearing between drivers and cyclists.
There appears to be a tipping point approaching in cycling in Britain, both professionally and recreationally, and as methods of doping (such as gene-editing) become a looming possibility, more must be done to restore the trust in the sport to continue to grow a healthy recreational cycling community in the UK and so improve relations with other road users.