Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) has publicly come forward to back his team leader Chris Froome after it was confirmed that the four-time Tour de France winner had failed an anti-doping test at the Vuelta a Espana in September.
While Froome's future remains uncertain, Thomas has also told Cyclingnews that he will be given freedom to race for himself at the Tour de France and that if Froome is suspended then the Welshman may lead the team.
A urine sample collected at the Vuelta on stage 18 (September 7) found that Froome had double the legal amount of salbutamol in his system. The adverse analytical finding (AAF) leaves Froome not just fighting for his Vuelta title but also his reputation and his Team Sky career. If found guilty of doping, Froome could face a two-year ban.
Thomas was speaking exclusively to Cyclingnews from the Team Sky training camp in Mallorca, Spain, and said that he believed that his team leader was innocent and that Froome would not have deliberately broken the rules.
"For a start, I trust him. I don't think that he would do anything to try and cheat. It's just a difficult situation. I don't know the facts that they're going to use to argue their case but it's hard and being who he is I can't see them going lightly on him. I back him 100 per cent. I don't think he's a cheat. I'm sad for him, and his reputation but also for the team as well. That's the main thing. It's another thing against the team but I do trust that he wouldn't have gone out of his way to cheat."
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Froome has yet to submit a full defence but it is understood that he declared his salbutamol use on his declaration forms before being tested at the Vuelta. According to Team Sky, the rider upped his dose of asthma medication at the race on the advice of one of the team's medical staff but in a Sunday Times piece released at the weekend it was put forward that Froome used the medication - via an inhaler - even after stage 18 in a bid to subdue his coughing while conducting television interviews.
That somewhat bizarre idea aside, there are still a number of unanswered questions; not least whether Team Sky would dismiss Froome should he be handed a ban. The team introduced their own form of zero tolerance in 2012 in light of the USADA report into Lance Armstrong, and while the policy is flawed, it would raise the question over whether Froome still had a place on the team if found sanctioned. For Thomas, the issue is relatively clear.
"If the team back him and trust him now then they should stick with him. That's what they've decided now, so I don't see the point in backing him and then if he does have a ban just fobbing him off. But I'm a bike rider and I have to abide by the decisions that the bosses in Team Sky make."
Thomas had the chance to see Froome at the team camp. The two were both at the Team Sky hotel when the failed test was made public. All the riders received a brief text message from the management before an email with more details was circulated. Thomas came down for breakfast that morning having only scanned the email but he soon sat down with Brailsford to discuss the matter. The Welshman also spoke to Froome, albeit briefly, and could see that the recent news over the failed test had taken a toll.
"We talked briefly. It's the first time I've seen him and he's quiet. In the past he's been at the Tour and had things thrown at him, and had people accuse him of things," said Thomas. "He takes that in his stride but this is another level to that. It's on his mind, and we've talked, not really about the details but I've said that I've backed him. You can see that it's affected him but it's going to, something like that."
A difficult period for Team Sky
Team Sky has endured a damaging period in the last two years. In 2016 the Fancy Bears' leaks provided evidence that Team Sky medics had injected Bradley Wiggins with Triamcinolone acetone in the build-up to several Grand Tours – including his Tour de France win in 2012. The contentious injections led to a select committee hearing in which Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton were both called to give evidence. UK Anti-Doping also launched a separate investigation into a potential doping violation involving Wiggins and Team Sky, and although that case was closed due to a lack of evidence the team's credibility has been hit hard. There was also a delivery of testosterone that turned up at British Cycling headquarters, and Brailsford was accused of trying to cover up the 'jiffy-bag' story by providing a Daily Mail reporter with a story involving another team.
Thomas has not been linked to any of the above and to his credit he has regularly fronted up to questions over the team's conduct and ethics. For example, at the Tour de France team presentation in 2017, as Brailsford made a beeline for the exit as soon as the proceedings were completed, Thomas sat and talked to the media about Wiggins and Team Sky.
"It's obviously frustrating for the riders who don't have anything to do with any of it. I don't know how it's happened [with Froome -ed] but it does seem that it's one thing after another, whether it's Team Sky or British Cycling. That's life though and there are things that aren't in your control. At the end of the day, I can only worry about myself. I don't read all the articles or Twitter, where all sorts of things are said. All I can do is worry about myself and concentrate on my training and not eating too much.
"It's frustrating when we're all tarnished by whatever happens. You've just got to deal with it and as long as I've got a clear conscience, then that's all I can do. I can't change what others do, I can just be the best I can be.”
Ban TUEs and introduce more life-bans
Thomas would like to see the 'grey area' of TUEs removed by banning the entire process. He has told Cyclingnews that he has never had a TUE and that he would shy away from having one because of the reputational damage it could create, even if it were medically approved. The Welshman would also like to see lifetime bans introduced for certain doping infractions, but he is all too aware that no matter what he says, there will always be doubters.
"Let's say I was at the Tour and I was leading and then I got sick. I could technically have a TUE but I'm not sure I would because it's going to come out, it's going to be leaked, and then I'm going to be seen as a cheat even though I've had a genuine reason.
"I don't really know what else I could do really. I'm not going to come out and preach how good I am and that I'm whiter than white. They're just words so it's down to how you act and even though I've not had TUEs, even if I had it doesn't mean I've cheated. It's hard. I've just got to be myself. How many times did Lance stand up and talk about how many tests he'd had? The damage that was done to the sport was massive and nowadays some people just won't believe you. So there's no point in standing up and giving speeches. I've just got to… I don't know… I have a strong stance on anti-doping. So I'd get rid of TUEs and I'd ban people for life for blood doping, and EPO. Why give them a second chance? This life is a luxury, and I feel I'm in a privileged position, so if someone goes out of their way to break the rules then they're just not needed.
"Why don't they just get rid of TUEs and that whole grey area. If you have something that affects you then having an inhaler is one thing but if you're having intravenous injections then it might cure you, but if the side effects are also beneficial, then I think you should just get rid of all TUEs. Let's not have them because it would make things a lot simpler. And there are other side effects. So you might lose a bit of weight so let's just get rid of them. Maybe it's easy for me to say because I've never had one."
Planning a season around the Tour
While the Froome case is set to rumble on Thomas still needs to plan his race schedule for the coming campaign. Heading into the final year of his current Team Sky contract, he has grand plans.
Before his salbutamol test had been leaked Froome had announced that he would aim for a rare Giro d'Italia and Tour de France double. Those plans remain on hold as he looks to save his career, but they also leave Thomas with an air of uncertainty over his own race calendar.
Team Sky are planning as if Froome will be eligible to race come January and at the team camp this week Thomas was given the chance to ride either the Tour, Giro or both. He chose the Tour but with the caveat that if he was in form he would be able to race for himself and that if Froome was either struggling or not at the race for obvious reasons then the Welshman would be given his own opportunity to lead the team.
"I sat down with Tim [Kerrison] and Dave the other day and said that I wanted to target the Tour. If Froome rides the Giro, then that preparation is always different. I want to be in the best shape possible and make the most of the situation as it comes but I want to have a go myself," he said.
"Given the choice out of the Giro and the Tour I'd like to do the Tour as the second back up really. A lot can happen and we saw this year that Landa committed to Froome but he still ended up fourth. It's not a given that Froome will be as strong as ever and rock round and win again. Hopefully, I can be in a similar situation going into the Tour as was with the Giro this year in terms of form. I could have done both but I said that I'd rather do the Tour and then back-end the year. I think mentally, when you're on it from November to July, like I was this season, it's hard for me to stay on it."
Making such a plan comes with risks attached. While Froome could escape a sanction and be cleared he could also be suspended for anything between a few months and two years. A similar case in 2014 involving Diego Ulissi saw the Italian found guilty of negligence and sentenced to nine months on the sidelines. Froome and Team Sky waved the possibility of suspending when the failed test was first raised, meaning that if a suspension is handed down then it cannot be retrospectively applied.
"None of us [in the meeting] really had to say it," Thomas said when asked if he had discussed Froome's situation with Brailsford and Kerrison. "We all knew it so we're just going to treat it like it's another season and he's going to be the leader but that I'm going there to get the best result for myself.
"Whatever happens, happens. I can't affect any of that but I'll have a free role. That will suit me, especially in the first week if there's wind and we've got the cobbles. I can just stay near the front and then maybe have a bit of an advantage after the first nine days. If I'm good enough I'll have a free role to see what I can do."