Chris Froome (Team Ineos) believes that even though cycling has improved anti-doping measures, he and his generation of riders are still paying for the widespread shame and skepticism brought on the sport by the Lance Armstrong era.
The four-time Tour de France champion was asked how much damage Armstrong did to the sport during an Instagram interview conducted by former international cricketer Kevin Pietersen. Froome also discussed several other topics with Pietersen – who clearly took the position of a relative new-comer to the sport – including Tour de France leadership at Ineos, the speed of racing on climbs, and how Froome is coming through the novel coronavirus lockdown.
Conducted in a relaxed setting, Froome addressed beginners and experienced cycling fans about his experience at the 2008 Tour de France. He was a young pro thrown into the deep end and watched on as several high-profile riders such as Ricardo Ricco were ejected from the race for doping. Froome’s Barloworld teammate Moisés Dueñas was removed from the race after stage 11 following a positive test for EPO.
“It’s a good point to talk about because I don’t think that a lot of people on the outside don’t see what’s happened in the sport. I turned pro in 2008 and I thought it was a good time. I thought that the crazy years were behind us but I got the shock of my life when I was 23 and was put into the Tour de France,” Froome told Pietersen.
“I couldn’t believe what was going on. Guys were being pulled out of the race for cheating, for doping. One of my own teammates who sat just across the team bus from me was marched away in handcuffs. It really was a bit of an eye-opener.
“Since then the authorities introduce the biological passport and that had a huge impact. They’re so tight on the controls now. We literally have to register where we are every day of our lives so we can be tested. I think cycling is in a great place now.”
Pietersen used Armstrong to illustrate how he as a fan had fallen out of love with the sport for several years. Armstrong was banned for life in 2012 by USADA and saw his seven Tour de France titles removed from the record books. Although Armstrong would eventually confess to doping he was held up as a scapegoat for a generation - if not more – of widespread and systematic doping.
Froome did not use Armstrong by name in response to Pietersen’s question, instead choosing to highlight a time period rather than an individual.
“We’re still having to justify ourselves. It’s 15 years on at least, and we’re still talking about it. It did a lot of damage. That era has damaged the sport to a great extent but I do really believe that the sport has turned the page. I don’t think that I could have won the Tour de France four times if it hadn’t changed. I think the sport is in a great place now,” he said.
“Of course it’s challenging with the negativity and always having to answer the same questions year in, year out to the skeptics who won’t believe any performance but at the same time what can we do? We just get on with it and we know that what we’re doing it right. We’ve got nothing to hide.”
Froome was also asked about the speed on climbs that riders can produce, and how if the sport is cleaner, athletes can beat times that were set by dopers. The Ineos rider pointed to the new technologies and his feeling that although times were being broken the knock-on effects could be felt in the peloton when it came to recovering.
“Obviously we know what was happening 15 or so years ago,” Froome said.
“I’d say that the majority of the field were using something to go faster. The sport is 100 times cleaner yet we’re going faster up climbs than they were then. The best way to explain it is that as a sport we’ve evolved so much in terms of technology and nutrition and ways of training. As athletes, we’re probably better than they we were 15 years ago. Having said that, I don’t think that our ability to recover is the way it was back then. Using whatever it was to manipulate their blood back then would have meant that they could have done that day in day out. Now we’ll have one massive stage and you can visibly see that there’s a change in pace for the next two to three days. The whole group needs to go slower.”
Tour de France leadership
Froome is looking for his fifth Tour de France title that would put him on par with the likes of Eddy Merckx other legends of the sport. Although the British rider hasn’t raced a Grand Tour since the 2018 Tour and is still building back up after a career-threatening crash at last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, he is confident of challenging for another title.
The matter of leadership at Ineos is rather complicated, however, owing to the fact that the last two winners of the Tour – Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas – are both teammates. However, Froome is confident that the squad will make the right call when it comes to dividing up duties and roles.
“When we go into a Grand Tour, you want to go in with a leader, and you want to go in with a back up as well. If that leader crashes our or gets sick then you have someone who can take over. They can get a team victory because at the end of the day, whether it’s Bernal, Thomas, or me, the most important thing is that one of us wins it. If other teams win then we win nothing. The most important thing is the team but it’s a management decision before the race based on the course and the form of the riders,” he said.
Petersen asked what would happen in a scenario in which Froome was asked to hold back even though he was stronger than Bernal. The Ineos leader explained that team tactics and communication were key and that the squad would work as a collective.
“That’s where it starts to get complicated and you can have a bit of grey area but the team does have a pretty good idea on everyone’s strength. We’ve got power meters on our bikes measuring every pedal stroke. Before we go into the race the team will have a good idea of where we are all at and who has the best chance of winning. We all get on well. You see on some teams that the leaders literally don’t speak to each other and that can be toxic in some cases. We get on well though and we’ll make it work.”