Defending champion Chris Froome, Team Sky head Dave Brailsford, and the seven other riders who will support Froome in his bid to win a fifth Tour de France faced the press on Wednesday – with all questions directed to Brailsford and Froome in the wake of him being cleared in his salbutamol case.
Before getting their pre-Tour press conference underway in the Vendée town of Saint-Mars-la-Réorthe, Team Sky played a promotional video for 'Ocean Rescue' – an anti-plastic campaign they are supporting with a special-edition team kit and re-branded vehicles.
The waters surrounding the British team, however, still seemed far from clear on the eve of their ninth Tour. Despite being cleared of wrongdoing this week, Chris Froome's salbutamol case still lingers like a non-degradable plastic bottle.
Before taking questions from the press, Froome gave a short speech in which he described the upcoming Tour as the "greatest challenge of my career", touching as well upon the different challenge he has faced since learning of his adverse analytical finding (AAF) last September.
"This has been a very challenging past nine months for me, for my family as well, and for my colleagues, and obviously I'm extremely grateful now that all the facts have been established, and to be able to draw a line under this episode and move on and focus on bike racing again," he said.
That soon proved slightly optimistic. All eight of Sky's riders were assembled along the top table, but only Froome and team manager Dave Brailsford were called upon. Of the numerous questions asked, only one concerned the bike race per se.
On three occasions, Froome used the image of "a line in the sand", but the waves of salbutamol questions only washed it away.
Asked whether the nine-month case, made public via a leak to newspapers in December, had damaged his reputation, Froome simply acknowledged: "Of course it has been damaging."
If the salbutamol case is lingering, it is perhaps due to the nature of the resolution which came five days ahead of the Tour's Grand Départ, and a day after it emerged that Froome and Sky were appealing a decision from Tour organisers ASO to prevent Froome from taking part.
Neither the UCI nor WADA have published the Reasoned Decision or any of its finer details and, while Froome initially suggested the technical details would emerge in due course, Team Sky later clarified that they would not be making public the evidence they submitted as part of Froome's defence. On Wednesday, Brailsford suggested that some aspects would be published in scientific journals but confirmed that Sky would not be sharing their dossier of data.
Asked if he would like that information out in the open, Froome claimed that "most of it is in the public domain already".
"A lot of data about the case has been made public in the last few days. It's very complicated data, but it is there nonetheless for people to see," Froome said, insisting the damage to his reputation would be repaired as the data was digested.
"I think people are getting there, as more information has been published over the last two days. I think it might take time for people to get their heads around the science because it's very technical data.
"As we've seen already from the responses, it's not easy to understand, but that data is available, and as soon as people understand that more, I'd like to think they'd understand my reasoning to continue racing, knowing that I've done nothing wrong."
On Saturday, Froome will start racing, and it's easy to lose sight of what's on the line. Last year he won his fourth yellow jersey in the space of five years, and victory here would see him become only the fifth rider in history – after Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain – to claim five titles.
Already – after his victories in the most recent editions of the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España – one of seven riders to have won all three Grand Tours, and one of three to hold all titles at the same time, he could become the second rider, after Merckx, to win four in a row.
"This year's race is going to be the biggest challenge of my career," Froome said.
"Given this is the fourth Grand Tour I'm doing consecutively, it's a massive goal for me, trying to target a fifth Tour de France victory, a fourth consecutive Grand Tour, on the back of a Giro, which I've never done before. So this is a complete unknown for me."
Indeed, Froome's form is the other great question mark. An inconsistent Giro ended in a spectacular turnaround, but the tallest hurdle is doubling up in France: a feat last achieved by Marco Pantani in 1998, and one which has proven too much for Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador in recent years.
"It's obviously a challenge I've got ahead of me. I don't have answers to that, but I'm here to try," Froome said. "Naturally, last year doing the Tour and Vuelta back-to-back, I learned a lot there in terms of periodisation, when to be recovering, when to be training hard and pushing on. I'd like to think that's put me in good stead, and I've learned a lot from that to come and attempt the Giro-Tour double this year."
Froome talked of the two contrasting phases of this Tour de France – the "Classics-style" opening nine stages in the north, followed by the mountainous terrain in the Alps and Pyrenees – and of the long list of rivals lining up to end his run of yellow jerseys.
"I think we're in for an exciting month ahead," he added.
It certainly won't be dull, but, as has been the case for some time now, the turning of the pedals is only half the story.
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