Chris Froome's salbutamol case is reportedly set to be heard by the UCI Anti-Doping Tribunal, with Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport suggesting that "from the end of this week or the start of next week, every day could be good for the start of opening of a procedure under the Tribunal."
Froome is due to start his 2018 season at the Ruta del Sol race in southern Spain on Wednesday, February 14. It will be his first race with Team Sky since his salbutamol case became public knowledge on December 13 following an investigation by Le Monde and TheGuardian.
Froome is expected to arrive in Spain late on Tuesday and so will not attend the traditional pre-race press conference. He is likely to speak to the media at the Team Sky bus before the start of stage 1 of the Ruta del Sol from Mijas to Grenada.
There was 2,000ng/ml of salbutamol, more than double the allowed limit, found in Froome's urine sample taken after stage 17 of the Vuelta a España on September 7. Because salbutamol is a specified substance, Froome is allowed to continue to race until the case is resolved, although the UCI president David Lappartient and a number of riders have called on him and Team Sky to avoid racing during the investigation.
Team Sky preferred not to comment on the latest La Gazzetta dello Sport report, despite the paper correctly reporting that Froome would return to racing at the Ruta del Sol. The UCI did not respond to questions from Cyclingnews.
It is believed that Froome and his legal team are still providing information to the UCI as he tries to explain his high limit of salbutamol despite five months passing since the case first emerged. The French newspaper L’Equipe has suggested that Froome's defence could include suggestions that his kidneys somehow retained a quantity of salbutamol and then released it on the day of the test.
According to the Daily Mail and the Times, Froome has appointed London-based lawyer Mike Morgan, whose list of previous clients in cycling include Lizzie Deignan, Sergio Henao, Alberto Contador and Johan Bruyneel. Morgan was named sports lawyer of the year at the 2017 Who's Who Legal Awards.
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Froome took to Twitter on January 30 to deny a report in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he was about to plea-bargain and accept a possible ban. So far he has only tweeted about his returning to racing at the Ruta del Sol, writing: "About to head to Ruta del Sol. I want to thank everyone for their support & patience over this difficult period. I am doing my utmost to ensure that things are resolved as speedily as possible. Can't wait to get this season started!!"
Froome and Team Sky have pushed back against pressure for Froome to avoid racing while his salbutamol case is ongoing, believing he has every right to race until a final verdict, including a possible appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, is reached.
As far as the team are concerned, there has been no official change from the stance set out when the story first broke on December 13 – that Froome did not exceed the permitted dosage and that the focus is on exploring variables that could have skewed the sample readings.
Froome has always denied any wrongdoing but insists he is keen to move his case forward as quickly as possible.
"I'm confident that we will be able to get to the bottom of what has happened and I'm working hard with the team to do that," Froome said when Team Sky confirmed he will ride the Ruta del Sol.
"Obviously I understand that this situation has created a lot of uncertainty. I completely get why there has been so much interest and speculation. I hope that people will appreciate there are limits to what I can say whilst the process is still ongoing but no one is keener than me to move things forward as quickly as possible."
The UCI Anti-Doping Tribunal
Froome’s case is currently considered as an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) under the UCI anti-doping rules. However, if the UCI Legal Anti-Doping Services (LADS) department makes an assertion that an anti-doping rule violation was committed, the case is referred to the UCI Anti-Doping Tribunal.
The UCI's Anti-Doping Tribunal replaced the national Federations in January 2015 and has already handled a number anti-doping cases. However, La Gazzetta dello Sport suggests the Froome case is by far the biggest case the tribunal has ever faced.
Under the rules of the UCI Anti-Doping Tribunal a single, nominated judge hears each case. The UCI currently lists five judges for its Tribunal: Denmark’s Helle Qvortrup Bachmann, Ulrich Haas of Germany, Emily Wisnosky of the USA, Andreas Zagklis of Greece and Julien Zylberstein of France. The judge studies evidence from both sides and calls on the rider involved and specialists to supply evidence and attend a hearing.
A UCI Tribunal hearing would end with either Froome being cleared of an anti-doping offence or being found guilty. He could face anything from a reprimand to a four-year ban for the 'specified substance' case, and could lose his victory at the 2017 Vuelta a España and his bronze medal in the time trial at the World Championships in Bergen.
During the whole process Froome can change his position and reach an ‘Acceptance of Consequences' agreement. This would end the Tribunal hearing and could see Froome admit he took too much salbutamol. Considering previous cases any admission could mean he would face a ban of between six and nine months.
Froome, the UCI, WADA and UK Anti-Doping can each appeal any verdict at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The legal process would obviously lengthen the time needed to reach a final verdict, meaning Froome could perhaps race the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France sub-judice.
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