No matter how Team Sky attempt to address this particular situation, there's no getting away from the bare facts. On September 7, in a routine anti-doping test conducted at the Vuelta a España, Chris Froome exceeded the limit permitted for salbutamol. The A and B samples collected confirmed that the Team Sky leader had double the legal limit of 1,000ng/ml of the asthma medication floating around his system.
Although not strictly a positive test – and it must be stressed that Froome has not been suspended at this point – the Team Sky leader is left fighting for his career and reputation, not to mention the Vuelta title that could now be stripped from his palmares. However, with no fixed timeline for the case, and with lawyers now the most important protagonists in any form of resolution, Team Sky once again find themselves centre stage.
Unlike the Jiffy-bag saga, Team Sky were quick off the mark in their response to the news surrounding Froome. Before the UCI statement had even landed, the WorldTour squad – aware that Le Monde and the Guardian were publishing reports on the matter – issued a statement in which they mentioned cooperating with the authorities and providing relevant evidence. But what also stood out within the carefully worded statement was just how much of this was about Froome and not the team.
Take the opening section, for example. Team Sky's first three words – which were repeated in successive sentences – were "Chris Froome responds." Not the team, but "Chris".
Then analyse Dave Brailford's insistence that "I have the utmost confidence that Chris followed the medical guidance." In fact, in the main body copy of the release, Team Sky mention Froome five times. The statement mentions Team Sky by name just once, when they introduce an as yet unnamed doctor who has offered Froome medical advice during the Vuelta. The only person who emphasises "the team" is Froome himself.
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Be under no illusion, this has the potential to be a complete disaster for Team Sky's reputation and is a scandal that once again threatens the existence of the squad. Brailsford's insistence that "of course, we will do whatever we can to help address these questions" is not entirely reassuring given that he and the team were unable to provide any crucial facts and or evidence in the Bradley Wiggins case. Brailsford did not respond when contacted by Cyclingnews this morning.
As for precedents, the UCI has a number of cases on which it can fall back with regards to salbutamol. In 2014, the Italian rider Diego Ulissi was handed a nine-month ban when he returned a reading of 1920ng/ml – or some 80ng/ml lower than Froome – at the 2014 Giro d'Italia. Ulissi struggled to explain such high levels, despite undergoing special tests in Switzerland in order to replicate the conditions. Alessandro Petacchi was hit with a year-long ban in 2007 when he spiked out at 1320ng/ml, but Leonardo Piepoli was cleared during the same year after returning similar readings.
A possible ban and zero tolerance
For now, the case is in limbo. Froome has already sent the UCI his first submission of evidence, but that was done within two weeks of the initial notification on September 20, the day of the World Championships time trial. The UCI has its lawyers, Team Sky have theirs, and one can assume that Froome even has his own counsel checking over the proceedings.
Ulissi returned his adverse analytical finding in May of 2014 but wasn't finally sanctioned until January the following year, meaning that any plans of Froome racing the Giro d'Italia in May could also be jeopardised. If Froome were, for instance, to receive the same, backdated ban of nine months that was handed to Ulissi (and to Alexandre Pliuschin, who also returned a positive test for salbutamol in 2014), then he would be suspended until June 2018.
As for Team Sky, this brings down the curtain on a year overshadowed by controversy and could lead them to terminate Froome's position on the team if they are to uphold their stance of zero tolerance.
The Jiffy-bag saga suggested an inability to keep track of medical records, saw them face questions over their ethical standards and left their claims of being transparent and clean looking hollow. Further bumps in the road came via Josh Edmondson, Gianni Moscon's repugnant behaviour at the Tour de Romandie and reports that riders wanted Brailsford to stand down, but Froome's current position threatens to overwhelm all that came before it.
In 2011, when Froome sprang from relative obscurity to finish second in the Vuelta a Espana, Team Sky took the decision to offer him a new contract and build a team around him. He became their franchise player, and that decision led to success after success. But despite the language used in their statement, there's no separation between Froome and Team Sky. The rider is the team, the team are the rider, and they are inextricably linked by the tally of wins they've rejoiced over in recent seasons, as much as they are by the controversies they have attracted.
There's no jumping ship. It's sink or swim time.
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