Although Team Sky said it would not be releasing the details of the evidence that led to Chris Froome being absolved of an anti-doping rule violation for excess levels of salbutamol in the 2017 Vuelta a Espana, Froome himself gave further information in an interview with The Times, refuting the oft-stated assertion that his sample tested at twice the allowed limit.
"The most frustrating part was when I'd see stuff that was totally incorrect but supposedly leaked. Because then everyone would assume it was a fact," Froome told The Times' Matt Dickinson. He went on to confirm that his sample was adjusted for dehydration, which was not part of the standard procedure for doping control analysis until this year.
Froome's uncorrected salbutamol level was 2000ng/mL, as reported last year in the original story published by The Guardian and Le Monde on December 13. That value is double WADA's limit of 1000ng/mL (eg., the maximum concentration that it considers as evidence that an athlete used the permitted therapeutic dose).
However, WADA's technical documents, which date back to at least 2014, allow for uncertainty in lab measurements of 10 percent. When deciding whether or not a reading warrants further investigation as an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF), they use a 'decision limit' (DL) of 1200ng/mL. Froome's sample was 66.7 per cent over that limit.
WADA's newest rules allow for even further adjustment of the limit.
There has also been an allowance for urine samples that are highly concentrated because of dehydration, but a correction for this was only applied to 'endogenous substances' (growth hormone, steroids) before a WADA 2018 technical document was issued on November 15, 2017.
Although TD2018DL did not go into effect until March 1, 2018, by Froome's comments, and The Times' previous report that his corrected salbutamol level was 1429ng/mL, it can be concluded that WADA retroactively applied the correction to his pending case, bringing the decision limit up from 1200ng/mL to 1680ng/mL*.
With an adjustment for dehydration, Froome's stage 18 Vuelta sample was still 19.05 per cent over the decision limit.
"The classic [inaccuracy] from the start was of my result being double the limit when it was less than 20 per cent over with the figure corrected," Froome told The Times.
While Froome was still clearly over the decision limit, 20 per cent over is a bit easier to explain away than 66.7 per cent. While WADA rules allow for riders to undergo a controlled pharmacokinetic study to demonstrate under laboratory conditions that their bodies excrete more salbutamol than normal, the agency acknowledged that given the unique conditions of a Grand Tour – variability in Froome's doping controls over the Vuelta, which he led from stage 3 to the finish, and other factors – it would not be practicable to reproduce this kind of salbutamol excretion result.
The case also led to a rare WADA admission that "in rare cases, athletes may exceed the decision limit concentration without exceeding the maximum inhaled dose".
The entire proceedings lasted from the date of notification, which came during the World Championships last September until he was cleared on July 2, 2018. That is over nine full months of limbo.
When he was informed of his anti-doping control results while warming down on his turbo trainer, Froome says, "I actually felt dizzy. I climbed off and immediately just started googling to learn what I could about salbutamol, about thresholds."
Since then, he and Team Sky worked with Froome's lawyer, Mike Morgan, and a team of scientific and legal experts to build their case to defend Froome's reputation.
According to The Times, the team argued that most scientific studies on the excretion of salbutamol have been done over a single day, not over nearly three weeks of intense competition, and they built a statistical model showing the chances of a false positive for someone who is regularly using salbutamol and tested frequently, as Froome was when leading the Vuelta from stage 3 to the finish.
According to The Times, the UCI ran its own model and "discovered that there was an alarmingly high chance of a false positive". The UCI has not responded to Cyclingnews' attempt to verify this claim.
Over these past nine months, Froome and Team Sky have been accused of purposely delaying the process so that he could continue to race, as is allowed in the rules, in particular at the Giro d'Italia.
"It's bizarre people would even think we would delay it," Froome says. "I wanted this over yesterday. To train and race with this over my head? Why would I want that for a minute longer than it had to be?"
Rumors that he had been offered a deal that would allow him to race the Tour, Froome says, was never true. "It was said that I would do some kind of plea bargain which was never on the table. I would never have accepted anything other than a full exoneration from the word go. Knowing I had done nothing wrong, I was going to fight to clear my name, absolutely."
Bernard Hinault, who works with Tour de France organisers ASO, even called on the other riders to strike if Froome was allowed to compete in the Tour.
With mounting pressure and a move by ASO to attempt to bar Froome from racing, the case finally came to a conclusion on Monday, less than one week before La Grand Depart.
Froome doesn't hold a grudge against Hinault. "He's one of the great champions. I imagine with age sometimes your wires get a little bit crossed, but if I see him I'll very happily explain it all in a bit more detail ... because he certainly got the wrong end of the stick," Froome said.
Froome considers himself fortunate to have been able to have been cleared and his decision to continue racing justified. That he employed expensive lawyers and experts to do so is beside the point.
"There are a lot of athletes who have been through this process and been cleared of wrongdoing without the cases being made public," Froome says. "People need to remember that. They are comparing mine to two or three others who received suspensions, but have failed to mention — because they aren't public — all the other cyclists and other athletes who have been through a similar process and been cleared. Quite a few reached out to me, shared their information and explained what they have been through. That gave me some hope."
For those who expressed skepticism, Froome says he has empathy. "Cycling has its troubled history, and being a multiple Tour winner comes with a level of suspicion and questions that need to be asked. I appreciate where people come from with those questions, but I am pleased to be able to put those questions to bed and continue being an ambassador for the sport and clean cycling."
For now, Froome is focussed on his Tour de France defence and the impending birth of his second child, which is due to come just days after the Tour's final stage.
"I'll hopefully be back in time but there are no guarantees," he says. He could be racing up a mountain while his wife is in labour. "I've had teammates miss births to stay and support me in the Tour, so if I was in that position I couldn't let them down. Michelle understands that 100 per cent. It's a huge sacrifice but that comes with the territory."
Using The Times previously reported corrected salbutamol level of 1429ng/mL and WADA's formula for correcting the Decision Limit (DL): (adjusted DL= (measured specific gravity - 1)/ (1-1.020) * 1200), it can be concluded that Froome's sample had a specific gravity of 1.028. The normal range for adults with normally functioning kidneys is 1.005-1.030, meaning he was dehydrated after a 169km Grand Tour stage in Spain.
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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.
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