French national coach Cyrille Guimard has criticised Team Sky’s decision to field Chris Froome at next week’s Ruta del Sol, and suggested other riders could refuse to compete against Froome or refuse to undergo anti-doping controls until the case is resolved.
Froome returned an adverse analytical finding for salbutamol during the 2017 Vuelta a España, though news of the case only entered the public domain when it was reported by the Guardian and Le Monde in mid-December.
Froome risks a ban and the loss of his Vuelta title, but because salbutamol is classed as a specified substance, he is free to race until a verdict is reached. In order to avoid a sanction, Froome must provide an explanation for how his anti-doping sample contained twice the permissible salbutamol limit of 1,000nl/mg. Froome last week dismissed reports that he was willing to negotiate a reduced ban.
Team Sky announced on Monday that Froome would begin his 2018 season at next week's Ruta del Sol. Although the rules allow Froome to participate, Guimard, who won the Tour de France as directeur sportif to Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon, maintains that Team Sky ought to withhold him from racing for the good of the sport.
"Sky are taking the liberty of playing with the rules that authorise them to let their rider take part in competition. It's nothing more or less than a provocation. It's even worse than that, it's cynicism," Guimard told L'Équipe. "Froome and his team are putting one over on us. The act of riding the Ruta del Sol is an act of self-importance, because they absolutely don't care about the disastrous image that they are presenting of cycling.
"They're going to draw things out because the longer they take, the more chance they have of finding some technicality in the case that, in the end, will clear Froome. Sky are in the process of putting a well-oiled communications system in place, but nobody should be fooled."
Froome will hope that the Ruta del Sol ultimately serves as the first part of his build-up to a tilt at May's Giro d'Italia, but Guimard maintains that, with the outcome of the salbutamol case still pending, his appearance in Andalusia next week is also an act of public relations.
"Chris Froome is going to become a media star at the Ruta del Sol and, at the end of the day, a victim," Guimard said. "The organiser is going to have all of the cameras of the world there, he'll never have had so much publicity. This is the aspect of it that shocks me the most: making Froome a star on the roads of the Ruta del Sol is scandalous.
"The other riders perhaps have the key to the problem: they could refuse to ride alongside him or refuse anti-doping controls until the affair is resolved."
Cyrille Guimard at the Tour de France
While Guimard argued forcefully against Froome's return to competitive action in L'Équipe, Richard Virenque struck a more compromising tone in the same newspaper. The Frenchman suggested that Froome should be free to ride in early season races, but added that he should make a point of pledging not to ride the Giro d'Italia or Tour de France if the case is still not resolved by then.
"I don't see why he should withhold himself a race like the Ruta del Sol," Virenque said. "I'm not talking about the Tour de France or the Giro, but an early season race. It's exactly this kind of race that he should ride as much as possible while waiting for the end of the affair."
Virenque was part of the Festina team that was eventually expelled from the 1998 Tour de France as a consequence of the Festina Affair, and although he stressed that there was "no comparison" between his and Froome's situations, he said that he regretted remaining in the race for as long as he did against that background. Virenque was later suspended after confessing to doping in November 2000.
"Not being welcome on the Tour is too heavy a weight to carry and persisting was an error that I made," he said. "If I were in his place today, I'd announce that I would not be at the start of the Tour. That would allow him to relieve all of the pressure that he's going to experience from here to the month of July.
"He should take a very clear position while he waits to be cleared. He would then have the front doors open to him on the Tour after having a normal race programme in the first part of the season, where he wouldn't have had to discuss his participation in the Tour."