Chris Froome’s hopes of winning a fifth Tour de France are reportedly under threat, with race organiser ASO ready to try to block the Team Sky rider from starting this year’s race due to his on-going salbutamol case.
The Press Association Sport news agency has claimed that ASO will refuse to let Froome line up in the Vendee region on July 7 if his case has not been resolved. PA sport cited “two senior cycling sources”. Two sources have also confirmed the possibility to Cyclingnews.
Froome exceeded the allowed levels for salbutamol en route to victory at last year's Vuelta a España, but because salbutamol is considered a specified substance, the Team Sky rider remains free to race pending the resolution of the case.
Froome has always denied any wrongdoing, saying that he respected medical guidelines for the use of his salbutamol asthma inhaler. He began his season at the Ruta del Sol and recently rode Tirreno-Adriatico. He has been announced for the Tour of the Alps stage race in Italy and Austria next month and is determined to push on with his plans to target the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in 2018.
UCI president David Lappartient has previously tried to pressure Team Sky to suspend Froome from racing but he acknowledges that Froome has a right to race under UCI rules. Lappartient has accepted that a verdict is unlikely to be reached before the Giro d’Italia but on Wednesday, after he UCI presented its new strategy to fight mechanical doping, he said that the decision “must be on the table before the Tour de France,” adding, “I hope so because it would be a disaster for everybody if it's not the case.”
ASO seem determined to push Lappartient and the UCI to expedite the Froome case before the start of the Tour de France on July 7. Under UCI WorldTour rules the 18 WorldTour teams must accept the participation of all UCI WorldTeams. However, Cyclingnews understands that ASO traditionally have unique rights in the contracts with teams for the Tour de France, which may give them extra powers to safeguarding the image of the race and so stop a rider competing in their race.
The Tour de France rules allow ASO to “refuse the participation in – or disqualify from – the event, a team or one of its members whose presence is liable to damage the image or reputation of ASO or those of the event.”
UCI rules state that “The exclusion shall be imposed by joint decision of the president of the commissaires panel and the organiser. In case of disagreement between the president of the commissaires panel and the organiser, the decision shall be taken by the president of the Professional Cycling Council in the case of a UCI WorldTour event,” Belgian national president Tom van Damme is the current president of the PCC.
The UCI rules add that “The licence holder or the team must be heard” and that “If the decision is taken by the president of the Professional Cycling Council, he may decide solely on the basis of the report from the president of the commissaires panel.”
For every race apart from the Tour de France, “if the UCI and/or the team and/or one of its members does not agree with the decision taken in this way by the organizer, the dispute shall be placed before the Court of Arbitration for Sport which must hand down a ruling within an appropriate period.” However, in the case of the Tour de France “the dispute shall be placed before the Chambre Arbitrale du Sport (Sports Arbitration Chamber).”
ASO is understood to be confident it could resist any legal challenge from Team Sky, possibly dragging the case into the French civil courts. However, ASO was forced to back down in a similar case in 2009 when it tried to stop Tom Boonen from riding the Tour de France following his out of competition positive test for cocaine. Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme also accepted that Alberto Contador had the right to ride the Tour de France in 2011 as he awaited the appeal process of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Contador finished in the 2011 Tour de France, but was later stripped of his results after the CAS banned him for two years.
ASO refused to comment on the reports it may try to block Froome from the Tour de France. However, during Paris-Nice Prudhomme described the delays in the Froome case as “completely grotesque” calling on the UCI to act.
“What we want is a response. We need a response, not just for us at the Tour de France but for all the organisers, so that there isn't a rider they'll later say shouldn't have been at the start. It's mad. It's completely grotesque. We need a response."
Lappartient stuck in the middle
Lappartient seems stuck between an obligation to respect the UCI's rules concerning the Froome case, the pressure of ASO, and trying to defend the wider image of the sport as the case is mired in legal discussions and arguments.
On Wednesday, Lappartient appeared to acknowledge ASO's pressure to ensure Froome’s case is resolved before the Tour de France. He argued that it is the UCI's responsibility to handle the case and does not want race organisers to try to refuse a rider on ethical grounds. He again confirmed that the UCI would not try to provisionally suspend Froome before a verdict is reached.
"We can't force a decision without respecting our own rules and the process. This case, believe me, is not so easy. We will not take an urgent decision just to have a decision before the Tour de France and not respecting the rules and also not respecting the rights of the rider," he told media at the presentation in Geneva on Wednesday, including Cyclingnews.
"I think it's the job of the UCI to deal with this matter, it's not up to the organisers. Some of them are worried about the consequences for their race and they wonder if they will have to try to refuse a rider. I hope we will be able to resolve the matter as soon as possible, so that we will not have this discussion with the organisers. It's not their job or mission, it's up to the UCI, WADA, CAS, all the key stakeholders.”
The UCI Professional Cycling Council – the body that regulates professional cycling, is due to meet today, with Prudhomme due to attend as a representative of the AIOCC race organisers association.