The Unprovable Challenge: Is Froome clean, or not?

July 21, 2015

Once upon a time, there was a myth. That myth was that there was a golden age of Cycling, long ago, when no-one took drugs and every rider – well, most of them – were clean. The myth took occasional batterings, when occasionally some riders tested positive for something, but it held pretty much until the mid 1990s. Then, EPO arrived….

It’s a myth because cycling has always had its problems. Some of the early TdF riders resorted to ether, strychnine and other drugs to deaden the pain as much as anything, and then stimulants became de rigeur; it wasn’t until the 1960s that any testing came in, and even then it’s debatable how useful it was. Then came Steroids, and finally the focus on blood with EPO and transfusions.

All this time, the authorities were playing catchup. All this time, many cyclists were taking something, and as some of the memoirs have shown, were often not only ahead of the game in terms of tests, but also enjoying a testing regime that lacked thoroughness.

Lance Armstrong represented the apex of this era; by that point, doping became not just expected, but close to institutionalised although teams became a lot more cautious following the Festina Affair. Armstrong ruled with a rod of iron; US Postal ruled the Tour; and once it was proved that this was built not just on the best training, best planning, best equipment, but on the best use of PEDs and transfusions, it left a nasty taste in the mouth of cycling fans – their theme song ever since has been “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. And currently the one that some think is trying to do just that is Chris Froome.

Froome has been dominant in this year’s Tour de France, winning one stage imperiously and with strong support from Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte and the like has rarely looked in trouble. And because he and his team are so dominant, the suspicions rise and Team Sky are faced with the conundrum at the heart of all sports that are based on physical endurance or athletic ability as opposed to innate skill: how do you go about proving someone isn’t doped?

It’s a hard question in cycling because of Lance Armstrong. Armstrong was facing suspicions, and attacked them head on. He’d never failed a dope test. He challenged anyone who said he doped head on – including in the courts – and won. After his final victory, he went as far as to say he pitied all of those who didn’t believe he was clean. And all the time, it was a lie. So when Froome insists he’s clean, allows power data to be released (as Sky have done today), even offers suggestions on how to tighten the doping regime, some remember Armstrong and decide that Froome must be about the same game.

Is he? I don’t know. And for all the jaundiced comments on various cycling blogs, neither does anyone else except Froome and his inner circle. He will never be able to prove the negative – or at least, not enough to satisfy some, who even if Froome was tested on a daily basis would no doubt argue that he was taking something so far undetectable. The balance of probabilities is that he’s clean – but no-one can be certain. And that lack of certainty inevitably means that some cycling zealots will never, ever, believe that Froome is clean.