With Chris Froome, Team Sky and the UCI all preferring not to comment on the Briton's ongoing salbutamol case, the only information emerging is coming via the media, with race organisers and riders left to plea for a rapid outcome while highlighting the damage a drawn-out case involving a four-time Tour de France winner could have on the sport.
Froome returned an adverse analytical finding for salbutamol at last year's Vuelta a España. Some 2000ng/ml – twice the permitted level of the asthma drug – was found in Froome's urine after stage 18, though the 32-year-old denies exceeding the permitted inhaled dose.
Given the asthma drug is a 'specified' substance on WADA's prohibited list, he has not been suspended by the UCI or withdrawn by his team, despite pleas from UCI president David Lappartient for Team Sky to do so. The onus is now on Froome to convince the authorities his sample could have been skewed by other factors.
With neither side willing to show its hand and offer any transparency as they prepare their case, very little is known of what has happened so far and what will happen in the future.
On Tuesday, the highly-respected Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera reported that Froome was perhaps ready to "sign an honourable armistice," to accept responsibility for the excess levels of salbutamol in return for a reduced ban that would allow him to race again this season, perhaps as soon as the Giro d'Italia in May.
Froome quickly took to Twitter to deny the report, writing simply: "I have seen the report in Corriere della Sera this morning - it's completely untrue." He then returned to clocking up the kilometres in South Africa, according to his Strava profile. In less than four weeks he has done over 4,800km.
At a procedural crossroads?
On Thursday La Gazzetta dello Sport suggested that Froome is ready to fight to defend his innocence and so will not strike a quick deal for a shortest possible ban.
The Italian sports newspaper is convinced that Froome will return to action at the Ruta del Sol in Spain that begins on February 14, though the entry list has not yet been published. Froome's name could appear on the eventual entry list, but that does not mean he will ride because changes are possible until the afternoon before the start.
La Gazzetta dello Sport writes that their trusted source believes that Froome’s case is approaching an important crossroads, with the case having left the UCI's Legal Anti-Doping Services (LADS) department and about to be picked up by the UCI's Anti-Doping Tribunal, which handles disciplinary proceedings and renders decisions concerning anti-doping rules violations.
If true, this could mean either that the UCI LADS believes there is a case to open disciplinary proceedings and/or that the athlete has rejected a proposed sanction under an Acceptance of Consequences' agreement.
The UCI's Anti-Doping Tribunal replaced the national Federations in January 2015 and has already handled several anti-doping cases. However, La Gazzetta dello Sport suggests the Froome case is by far the biggest case the tribunal has ever faced.
A 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.
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 race the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France sub-judice.
Contacted by Cyclingnews, Team Sky declined to comment on the story. As far as the team are concerned, there has been no official movement 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.
If Froome were to race before a final verdict is reached, and if the UCI Anti-Doping Tribunal finds against him, he would be likely to lose any results and prize money earned along the way.
A similar situation occurred with Alberto Contador's positive test at the 2010 Tour de France. The Spaniard was cleared by the Spanish Anti-Doping Tribunal, but eventually found guilty and banned by CAS. In the meantime, he won the 2011 Giro d'Italia but that success was cancelled, with Michele Scarponi eventually declared the winner.
- Chris Froome returns adverse analytical finding for salbutamol
- Vuelta a Espana organisers call for 'extreme caution' after Froome salbutamol result
- Giro d'Italia organisers not warned about Froome's salbutamol case
- Timeline of Chris Froome's adverse analytical finding for salbutamol
RCS Sport wants to protect the Giro d'Italia
Giro d'Italia director Mauro Vegni recently called on the UCI to 'sort out' the Froome case as quickly as possible to avoid another Contador case. On Thursday, he said he wants "a certificate from the UCI that allows the rider to be at the start of the next Giro d'Italia."
Froome confirmed he would target the 2018 Giro d’Italia at the route presentation on November 29, with reports that RCS Sport will pay him €1.4 million. Vegni and RCS Sport have said they were not aware of Froome’s salbutamol case when a deal was struck with Team Sky.
"They will have to tell us if the rider is going to be suspended, or if he can compete. We certainly can't accept a repeat of the Contador case or a trial after the fact," Vegni told the Italian news agency ANSA. It is unclear what kind of ‘certificate’ the UCI can give Vegni as they have to adhere to the anti-doping rules and respect Froome’s rights.
La Gazzetta dello Sport, which is owned by RCS Media Group who also organises the Giro d'Italia, also published a comment by its Deputy Editor Pier Bergonzi.
He suggested that the sword of Damocles is hanging over Froome's head and called on Lappartient to get heavily involved and quickly select the judge who will handle the UCI Anti-Doping Tribunal case.
While Contador lost his 2011 Giro d’Italia victory, Bergonzi argues that if Froome is allowed to race while his case is being heard then he should be allowed to keep any results he achieves in races.
The Giro d'Italia starts on May 4 in Israel, in three months time. Bergonzi called for urgency to find a solution to the case.
"There was and is the technical time necessary to reach a solution before the Classics and the Grand Tours," Bergonzi writes.
"In everyone's interests, we ask that the waiting time is reduced. In the past sporting justice (including appeals to CAS) has been or had wanted to be fast.”