Dave Brailsford has spoken publicly for the first time about the anti-doping case currently hanging over Chris Froome and Team Sky, defending the Tour de France champion and the team's handling of the situation in the face of widespread criticism from the cycling community.
Brailsford's input on Froome's adverse analytical finding for salbutamol had thus far been limited to a few sentences across a pair of press releases – one when the news was first revealed in December, and the other on Monday when it was announced that Froome would return to racing this month at the Ruta del Sol.
On Tuesday, however, he addressed questions from the media in Palmira, Colombia, where he has flown out to spend the week with the Sky team at the Colombia Oro y Paz race.
"For me, there's no question, he's done nothing wrong – no question, no question, no question," Brailsford said, in front of a huddle of Colombian broadcast microphones.
"This situation, it's difficult – I'd be crazy if I didn't say it was difficult. We want the UCI to lead the sport, we've got the WADA rules, then obviously we've got the team and the individual, and my role is to look after the team and the individual, but also I've got to think about the sport in general. But I believe he's innocent.
"It should still be confidential – it should never have been made public at this point – and everyone is entitled to a fair process. That's why I think, at the minute, the approach we've taken is to support him and make sure we do what we can to have a fair process, even though I do understand it's a very difficult situation for everyone."
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Froome and Team Sky have come under scrutiny in recent weeks over their handling of the case. As a specified substance, an AAF for salbutamol does not automatically trigger a suspension, but many riders, managers, race organisers, and even the UCI president see it as damaging to the sport's credibility if Froome were to race 'sub-judice'.
Monday's announcement that Froome will ride the Ruta del Sol – with the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France presumably still on his schedule – therefore confirmed those fears, but Brailsford defended the decision in spite of its unpopularity.
"We've looked at it from the angle of the rider's point of view, from the team's point of view, from other teams' point of view, from the fans' point of view, from the organisers' point of view, and it's difficult for everyone. But, I believe in fairness, and I do believe that in this instance Chris has done nothing wrong and I think he should be given the opportunity to demonstrate that," said Brailsford.
"The UCI have the rules and we're abiding by the rules. They've decided how these situations should be managed. And while there's a fair amount of discussion about this, we feel, on balance – on balance because there is good reason for a lot of discussion here, it's not an easy one – but on balance I think it's the right thing to do. For Chris to continue, and us to work in the background to support him and demonstrate there's been no wrongdoing."
Brailsford moved between groups of local Colombian reporters but refused to take questions from Cyclingnews. In between requests to talk about his impressions of the country and Sky's young rider Egan Bernal, he was asked about Froome's case in the light of another Colombian on the team, Sergio Henao.
Henao was internally suspended by the team on two occasions due to abnormalities with his biological passport. On both occasions, the UCI dropped the case after physiological studies from Team Sky – the results of which are still be published, as promised. Since Henao was pulled from racing, why is Froome allowed to continue?
"The two situations are quite different," came Brailsford's response. "With Sergio, we did some testing where he came back to Colombia, but the situation with Chris is... he's not been charged with anything at the minute, he's just been asked to provide information, and it should be confidential.
"We've looked at each situation on its merits and let's not forget, the reality is that the situation is dynamic, it's changing, it'll evolve, it's moving, so we've got to be watching very carefully and make some very difficult decisions, but at this moment, we totally back him.
"We feel he should have fair treatment, and we should stick to the process. We stick to the rules of the UCI – their rules. The rules of the sport are there, we follow the rules, so that's why on this occasion we've taken the decision that we have."
For those bemoaning the impact on cycling's credibility, the longer this case drags on, the worse for the sport. And it could drag on for some time yet, with nine months needed to reach a conclusion to Diego Ulissi's AAF for salbutamol in 2014. Froome and Team Sky are understood to be preparing their case as thoroughly as possible in order to convince the UCI that Froome's level of the asthma drug – twice the allowed limit – was not caused by exceeding the permitted dosages, but was skewed by other factors.
The onus is on Froome and Sky to prepare their case and, in theory, they can wait as long as possible. Despite suspicions that Sky might purposefully drag it out – Froome could potentially complete the Giro and Tour and keep the titles even if he was later banned – Brailsford insisted a speedy resolution is in his interests.
"We want it to be as fast as possible. The longer it is, for us and Chris himself, the more difficult it is. We want this sorted out and all done," he said. "But, equally, it needs to be done correctly and there's a process. So, on the one hand, we have to be fair and have the process, and on the other hand everybody wants this to be done quickly and to finish and have a decision, so we're trying to move as quickly as we can to get to a situation where everyone can say 'ok we can move on.'"