Romain Bardet has argued that Chris Froome should not race while his doping case remains unresolved, saying it would be “catastrophic” for cycling’s credibility if the Team Sky rider were to start this year’s Tour de France with a verdict still pending.
Bardet, who has finished on the podium behind Froome at the past two editions of the Tour, gave a very brief reaction last month after it emerged that Froome had returned an adverse analytical finding for salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a España. However, the AG2R La Mondiale rider addressed the issue in depth in Tuesday’s edition of French newspaper L’Equipe, which devoted two double-page spreads to what it dubbed the ‘Froome affair’.
L'Equipe also profiled Froome's specialist lawyer, Mike Morgan and suggested that Froome’s defence could be based on the theory that his high level of salbutamol was due to an accumulation and then release of the drug in his kidneys rather than dehydration. L'Equipe also spoke to Giro d'Italia director Mauro Vegni, who called on the UCI to 'sort out' the case before the start of this year's race on May 4.
Team Sky preferred not to comment when contacted by Cyclingnews about the L'Equipe articles.
Twice the permitted level of salbutamol was found in Froome’s urine after stage 18 of the Vuelta, though the 32-year-old denies exceeding the permitted dosage. Given the asthma drug is a ‘specified’ substance on WADA’s prohibited list, he has not been suspended by the UCI, but the onus is now on him to convince the authorities his sample could have been skewed by other factors.
“I don’t see how Froome can race as if nothing is going on,” said Bardet, who later added that he ‘regrets’ the rules do not stipulate a provisional suspension.
“Seeing as Team Sky are not taking action, nothing is stopping the rider from taking the decision personally to sideline himself while waiting for a decision from the authorities.”
It has very much been business as usual for Froome since he was informed of the AAF by the UCI on September 20. He rode the time trial at the World Championships that day, and went on to set out his plans for the 2018 season, announcing his bold target of doing the Giro d’Italia – Tour de France double. He has not yet raced in 2018 but is training hard in South Africa.
Asked if Froome, who has won four of the past five editions of the Tour de France, were to line up on the start line in the Vendée region this July, Bardet was hard-hitting in his response.
“It would be catastrophic for the image of the race and for the world of cycling, which would be made a mockery of,” he said.
“It would be a farce. How can our sport be credible if the number 1 rode the Tour with the possibility of being retroactively sanctioned? Cycling would make no sense at all.”
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Bardet used similar language when addressing the way the case came to light. Given an AAF for salbutamol does not entail an automatic provisional suspension, the UCI is not required to make the case public, and in this instance the news was only revealed through newspapers The Guardian and Le Monde.
“I’m dumbfounded that, without a leak in the press, this wouldn’t have come out, and we’d maybe learn about it in a few years’ time,” said Bardet.
“We lack transparency. Cycling's existence is at risk if measures aren’t taken to address this. Froome does the test in September and, just by chance, we learn about it in December. The season starts without any decision being taken. We’re ridiculous, we’re a laughing stock.”
Bardet said he “wants to believe in the good faith of Froome”, whose in-race conduct he described as “a credit to cycling”, but added that he wouldn’t be easily convinced.
“I find it hard to see how a rider with that level of salbutamol can be cleared,” he said. “If so, why impose the limits?”
Bardet also made reference to the financial might of Team Sky in calling for a full and thorough inquiry and satisfactory resolution.
“What worries me is whether the UCI has the means to fully shed light on this story. Can the experts establish whether it’s possible to return a high reading naturally? We know about the power of Sky in terms of budget, of expertise. That’s what’s at stake. We’re in a scientific wilderness,” he said.
“I hope for an independent inquiry […] and an independent verdict. The UCI is cautious because, if cleared, they would be asked to pay damages. The financial pressure is very strong. But I hope they do all they can to get to the bottom of it.”