Will independent testing work for Chris Froome?

Experts discuss the challenges of independent testing

It’s fair to say that if Chris Froome wasn’t currently leading the Tour de France after such a dominant performance on stage 10 the media storm surrounding his ride, and the innuendo and allegations that followed, would probably not have surfaced. At the very least they would have found their way to another team leader with a less expansive entourage of team buses.

However, just like in 2013 when the British rider was in similar form, the questions over his credibility have returned, such is the case to varying degrees for every maillot jaune holder in the post USADA-Armstrong era.

For Froome in particular, this race has been marked by the furore, first over the leaked or hacked videos and the oh-so-easy unfounded comparisons between Team Sky and US Postal. Throw in the fact that Lance Armstrong has turned up and you get a snapshot of the difficulties this sport faces when it comes to the restoring credibility.

And it’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that at this year’s Tour de France Team Sky and Chris Froome appear to face bigger headaches off the bike than they do on it. Yet through all white noise on Twitter is the reported claim that Froome will offer himself up for independent testing.

It’s been around 48 hours since that message first appeared and, while Team Sky might not have thrown their full endorsement behind the idea, it’s certainly one that should be recognised and even encouraged. A Tour de France contender willing to go beyond the rigours of the current testing protocol to try and prove his credibility, what's not to welcome in that?

At this stage, the only conclusion the public can arrive at is that no matter what Froome does subject himself to in terms of testing, and this is on the assumption that he carries through with the idea, it will not be enough in the eyes of some. Independent testing will not categorically provide a final answer, only time will do that, but what independent testing could offer Froome is the chance to be fully transparent and that’s a milestone every rider should be racing towards, and who better to lead them than the current yellow jersey.

Chris Froome drops all of his GC rivals on the way to the stage 10 finish.

The limitations

Robin Parisotto is a leading anti-doping expert and works as part of the CADF’s Biological Passport programme. He believes that independent blood testing is possible but that it throws up a number of fresh challenges for both the athlete and the credibility of any test results.

“Firstly, if we’re talking about testing after the event like the Tour then there’s not much that can be proved there, because whatever benefits gained by a manipulation would have probably disappeared by then. Then while you’re racing it’s hard to have independent testing but not impossible,” he tells Cyclingnews.

“If he gets Joe Bloggs to test him on the side it can’t really be counted as official because we don’t know if it’s sanctioned or controlled. There are arguments over chain of custody and transparency at that level too.”

"For me, all he needs to do is be part of the passport programme but if an athlete were to do this then maybe a national federation could do it but then you need to ask if it’s impartial in the eyes of some.”

In Parisotto’s eyes only one independent body could feasibly carry out the tests needed, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), but with that comes another set of complications.

“For me, the only independent agency that could do it is WADA but then they’d be encroaching on someone else’s jurisdiction. There would have to be agreement between the UCI and another agency, such as WADA and I’m not sure the UCI are in a business of having a private arrangement with a third party.”

However, Froome could still press on and go ahead with independent testing.

“He can go down that route but he needs to ask permission to release all the Passport data. It wouldn’t be illegal to have independent testing but whether it means anything is another thing. It’s like when Lance Armstrong tried to get Don Catlin to do it.”

“Most of this fits with what the UCI are doing but at the end of the day he can choose to do all sorts of testing but if it’s not part of an official testing programme I’m not sure what weight you can put behind it.”

Chris Froome rides in the rain during stage 12.

If the independent testing takes off

The importance of having more than one set of tests through the season is vital, according to sports physiologist Ross Tucker, who makes a case for physiological testing where as Parisotto’s expertise are in blood testing.

“I’d need the tests to be done throughout the year including at the time when he was in peak condition at the right times of the year,” Tucker tells Cyclingnews.

A starting point would be at the beginning of the season when Froome is starting his training, with a second possible test in the build-up towards peak form, so between the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour de France. Tests later in the season, including the winter, would also help to create a better testing sample.

The reason for multiple tests is simple, Tucker says. The tests carried out by Ed Coyle on Lance Armstrong during the Texan’s career were carried out over wide period of time, “but you could tell from that data and that there were fluctuations based off if he was treated in season or out of season. Even just doing a test is potentially misleading if you don’t get the timing right. You would have to get the test done at exactly the moment when you wanted to analyse the performance, which is to say around the Tour de France.

“But also longitudally, because tracking changes is as important as establishing a single baseline. Otherwise you are in danger of setting up a circular argument.”

Each set of tests should include a full round of physiological tests which look at V02 max – a topic that has followed Froome since 2013, a calculation of his maximum capacity and his sustainable capacity for certain periods. These tests would allow for independent analysts. Then, according to Tucker, based off the power output from his performances “you would be able to interrogate it for plausibility.”

The test data alone would not be able to prove if a rider was doping or clean. “If this was a court case and your argument was based off a lab test and some SRM files you wouldn’t make it past the opening arguments. The numbers won’t prove doping but what you can do is start to have a better indication of what’s plausible and what’s realistic because things would quickly not add up if there was a problem.

“Let’s say a rider capable of riding a mountain at 420 watts but your testing shows that he would need to be riding at 95 per cent of his own maximum, given his measured VO2 max, to produce that then you will have identified a problem.

“So someone with a Vo2 max of X and an efficiency of 95 per cent then you’ll have to say that no human being can sustain such a high level for so long unless something has changed since you’ve tested them.”

Here are several key areas Froome could be transparent over.

· Several sets of independent lab tests carried out through a season by an independent tester or testing body with no links to Team Sky, British Cycling or a national federation.
· Full disclosure of all medication including TUEs taken and prescribed since 2010 – the date from which Froome joined Team Sky.
· Full power to weight data released to an independent body for analysis – again from 2010 onwards. The data released in 2013 did not complete the picture.
· Conduct a full asthma examination to prove that the use of current medication is required, along with any relevant backdated prescriptions.
· Provide all Biological Passport data to an independent body.

Team Sky's Chris Froome and Richie Porte at the start of stage 12.

Biological Passport Data

Froome’s Biological Passport data is currently held by the CADF and, like the rest of the peloton, analyzed as an anonymous subject. He can though request that his data - since the Passport’s inception in 2008 - be released for independent study. Riders have done this in the past, such as Lance Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde.

The data around 2010-2012, according to Tucker, could be the most interesting angle of any independent study and could help shed light on the period in Froome’s career when he went from a domestique with potential to Grand Tour contender, as he did at the 2011 Vuelta a España.

“These are some of the things that he could do. You’re asking for five or six years of someone’s data but that’s what you need. And then you need to marry it to the performance data and medical histories.”

Assuming WADA, as Parisotto suggests, are not a viable option then Froome’s next best bet could be from an independent observer such as Antoine Vayer, who has told Cyclingnews that he would be willing to analyse Froome's data. The Frenchman has raised several questions over Froome’s performances.

Vayer and several colleagues in his field have also raised the point that the passport could also include physiological data, therefore giving a more complete set of parameters for analysis.

“Wining trust is about being open and consistent,” Tucker concludes. That’s always easier said than done but transparency would be a mighty starting point.

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