The Question


It might be that turning one’s attention to the Tour de France in July is inevitable for the dedicated cyclist. If it’s July, we’re watching the Tour. So being among other cyclists for me means conversations that are as likely to include talk of the Tour as they are talk of the weather.

The conversations are different this year, as compared to other years. This is the first Tour in the wake of USADA’s Reasoned Decision, the first Tour since Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race,” the first Tour since the fall of Lance Armstrong. As a result the viewing public no longer seem to be willing to watch with the general belief that the peloton is clean, that we can watch first and worry about positive tests if or when they turn up. We seem to be asking questions first and watching second.

And of course, the question on everyone’s lips is whether the yellow jersey is clean. It may be that Chris Froome is clean. It may be. However, we, the cycling fans that watch the Tour, are unsure what to believe. The old practice of accepting a rider as clean until a positive test has burned us badly. So while UCI head Pat McQuaid loves to tout just how much better the testing is now than it was when he assumed the office of the president. That may be, but if you’re injured in a car accident, the surgeon asks himself not whether the bleeding is less, but whether the bleeding has stopped. Imagine a doctor coming to you and saying, “Good news, you’re bleeding much less today.”

McQuaid just doesn’t understand that’s not acceptable. We don’t want a pretty clean sport, we want a clean sport. Reasonable people will understand that some riders will always cheat, always seek a shortcut to glory. The assurance we need is that the sport’s governing body is doing all they can to pursue a clean sport. It’s apparent that for many years the UCI has simply wanted the appearance of a clean sport, and this distinction helps to explain why in 2010 the UCI waited until October to reveal that Alberto Contador had tested positive at the Tour de France.

Following the stage 11 time trial, Froome has a lead of 3:25 over Alejandro Valverde. But within a minute of Valverde are Bauke Mollema, Alberto Contador, Roman Kreuziger and Laurens Ten Dam. Froome’s gap begs questions in this era. In watching the coverage we’ve seen how he amassed his gap, but we’re asking not how he got his gap, but what allowed him to get his gap.

The tragedy here is that Froome is being painted with a doper’s brush even though he’s never tested positive. Sure, we can talk about his third-fastest ascent of Ax 3 Domaines, but he’s not new to climbing with stunning talent in a Grand Tour. If Froome goes on to win the 2013 Tour, the ineffectiveness of the UCI will have cheated the rider of his deserved glory and us of the enjoyment of watching a true champion crowned.


Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti

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  1. Pingback: Tour de France 2013 - Page 49 - London Fixed-gear and Single-speed

  2. chris hepp

    As much as I want to believe Chris Froome is what he says he is _ clean _ I have a difficult time getting past his resume. Prior to joining Sky in 2010, he had, at best, a mediocre record as a pro, with inconsistent results as a time trialist. He suddenly became a world beater in 2011 at age 26. It is a rare rider who has shown so little early promise before upending the rankings so dramatically. His explanation, in essence, is that his talent has always been there, but overwhelmed by the performances of dopers. That he now is succeeding is testimony to a cleaner sport. I hope he is right.

  3. 32x20

    To start: I don’t believe.(I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles….)

    BUT, I also don’t believe changing the head of the UCI is gonna make things clean. The equation of pro-level success just doesn’t favor that. If you get caught, you go right back to being the regular Joe you would’ve been had you not used. If you don’t get caught, though, fortune and fame are yours. I think the cost/benefit of doping has to change before things are truly clean…and to be honest, I don’t know if that’ll ever happen.

  4. Lewis Moon

    If nothing changes, nothing changes. I too don’t think that canning McQuaid will clean the sport up completely, but it will (hopefully) get a lot better. It will be bleeding less, if you will, and that’s better than exsanguination. Nothing, short of a complete dismantling/rebuilding of the sport would affect a complete turn around in the time frame we are demanding. Maybe that would be a good thing…except for the racers who are earning their bread and (fat free) butter, and supporting familys by riding.
    Change needs to come. Change will come…but you have to remember, money can be a huge stabilizer…

  5. Eto

    In this year’s tour, my point of view of Froome and team Sky shifted to one of suspecion after their collective performance the first day in the mountains. Even after they fell apart the next day my view did not change. Richie Porte was riding like three men very reminiscent to Livingston, Hamilton and Landis.

    Based on yesterday’s ITT performances, it appears most of the other contenders have given up.

  6. Bikelink

    I can’t believe team sky (and others) haven’t realized that their only hope is to become completely transparent and publish everyone’s biological passport. Sure, things could always be ‘misinterpreted’ … But the pro cycling world will never again be in a position to say ‘trust us.’ Even this may not work (publishing BPs) but holding anything back now is a mistake to me. I can’t watch the TdF (or any int’l pro race) without feeling like it’s a farce and a joke on me the watcher.

  7. MattC

    It’s very sad that we the cycling fans have been driven down the road of “suspect first, trust later” by the actions of the (not so) past peleton. I was watching last years tour as Froome was itching to destroy his own captain on the climbs thinking “where did this guy come from?”. Nothing has changed, except I have even more suspicions now. Chris Hepp & Eto, I’m right there with you thinking the exact same things. A friend of mine asked a question the other day to the tune of “in this era of a reasonably clean peleton, wouldn’t a doper stand out?”, and sadly I believe that’s EXACTLY what we are seeing. It’s just too good to be true. If I’m wrong then I owe a few people an apology…however we all know that not failing a test means nothing.

    To watch Cadel (who is an EXCELLENT TT’er) and Contador (same same) get crushed during the TT, and also (along with EVERY other possible GC contender) get flat out demolished in the VERY FIRST mountain stage…sorry…I don’t buy it. And then the ‘O-so convenient collapse’ of the entire team (well, except for Froome, who after an entire day of no support over 5 climbs lost exactly ZERO time)…well, that just does’t ring true either. The entire team falters on the FIRST climb on Sunday? Seriously? Or was it a calculated move to stem the tide of suspicion…show they are ‘human’ after all?

    This is obviously just my 2 cents worth…not a shred of evidence, however we’ve all been in the ‘trust me’ seats before, and I’ve tossed my rose colored glasses in the trash.

  8. MCH

    IMO, the Sky team mantra of, “you can’t handle the truth”, when it comes to power data doesn’t help matters. While I may not be an expert at interpreting power data, there are many experts worldwide who are. Hiding behind such transparent excuses doesn’t fly in this environment.

  9. wayno

    As far as I know, there is still no official methodology/test for autologous transfusions. There is the bio passport profile of course, but as we know, the testing for that has not been as regular as it has in the past, nor is it a foolproof trigger. I assume “they” are all at least blood doping for big events/stages with little to no risk. Well, unless your name is Vino/Kash, Tyler/Santi…

  10. Debi

    I think the disappearance of the Sky team on day two of the Pyrenees showed that the rest of the team is clean. Froome grew up at altitude in Kenya, and I believe that he had some health issues with an infectious disease off and on (bilharzia?).

    Still, he should post his power data if he’s really clean.

    I also think that Contador is lacking because he’s either not doping or doping less. Remember when he beat Cancellara in an individual TT and Cancellara was incredulous a few Tours back?

  11. Bikelink

    I’m all for posting bio passport data, but can someone explain why posting power data would be helpful? Like..if it’s too high it must be that all..but then what’s “too high”?

  12. Debi

    Regarding power data, there are some numbers which are too high to be sustainable, you’d have to look to Padraig or others for that information.

  13. LesBor

    With what’s gone on over the past year, the current state of affairs deems that any pro with a functioning brain will avoid doping.

    It’s a good thing that fans are overly-suspicious. It maintains that state of affairs.

    Please keep being suspicious, even though you’re wrong.

  14. TucsonMTB

    To me the other question seems to be, “Are there any US riders in this year’s tour?”

    While scanning the classifications list, I did not see any American flags. Am I missing something?

  15. jaimie fuller

    love this article and really love the comments. great to see such a sensitive and important discussion being handled so well by all. we do have a right to question heavily after such a checkered past and it’s true that changing pat doesn’t guarantee a clean peloton but it’s the best chance we have to try and get there. the current leadership has shown absolutely that they’re more interested in scandal avoidance as opposed to doping eradication.
    Thanks padraig and thanks all

  16. jorgensen

    First, a disclaimer. I have not followed this Tour much. I am aware that there are time bonuses awarded. If one backs those out, how does the leaderboard tighten up or shuffle?
    As to doping, the monitoring will periodically and may be still behind what is being done.
    That history will be a difficult legacy to overcome.

  17. Patrick O'Brien

    I am not sure what to think anymore. Profit and clean sport are like oil and water. One thing is clear in my mind and opinion. The Tour is about making money, and the stages this year show that, both in difficulty and location.

  18. Full Monte

    Regarding sustained power output, Antione Vayer, former Festina trainer, writing for Le Monde, estimated Froome’s average power output at well over 440 watts on the final climb Saturday. Froome responded saying that’s not physically possible, yet when asked what his own power meter was saying as he climbed, he refused to say. Brailsford, when asked, also refused to answer what Froome’s computer logged — interpreting it is not simple, was his excuse. More can be found at Velo Nation’s website.

    Getting deeper into power analysis as it pertains to Froome, head over to Cyclismas. Sure, they’re generally doing cycling humor/satire most of the time, but they also get into the nitty gritty science as well. Froome, on Stage 8, was 4.5% faster than the 2008-13 GT baseline. 1.9% faster than the 2002-2007 dopers. And was third fastest all time on the climb — putting him “elbow to elbow” with Armstrong (2001), and faster than Ulrich (2003) and Basso (2005).

    The clock don’t lie. Froome is riding at the front of dopers’ times. And to do that, he’s putting down power that’s “not natural.” The estimate of 440+ watts may indeed be spot on.

    I’m not saying he’s doping; Froome may be the fittest, strongest clean cyclist of all time, and if so, we’re watching a once-in-a-lifetime performance. It’s just that we’ve seen this play before, more than once, and we kinda know how it always ends.

  19. Kevin

    jorgensen – There are no time bonuses in this year’s Tour, so the time you see is the time they got.

    As for Froome coming “out of nowhere” –

    Cyclingnews mentions him as an up and comer back in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, 7 years ago. That he has significantly improved since then should come as no surprise since he was only 21. Also, some riders simply do well in a certain team structure – Froome might just fit well at Sky. Hesjedal appears to have blossomed at Garmin and cracked a GT top-10 at age 30, then went on to win a GT at 32. I don’t remember the same outrage about his rise.

    Could he and Sky do more to address the questions that have been raised? (e.g. by releasing power data) Absolutely. But I think too many people are saying “I don’t remember this guy being amazing his entire life – he most be doped.” That is certainly not proof.

  20. Big Mikey

    Padraig, you are spot on as usual. Great, balanced look at the issue.

    Remember, Froome IS new to climbing like that. He came out of nowhere in 2011, and this is a guy tossed out of a GT for hanging onto cars. Now he is far and away the world’s best climber.

    Also, every time we have previously seen the best climber top the field in ITT’s, he has been doping. He is absolutely destroying his competitors.

  21. Janet D.

    I for one, don’t exit the theater unless someone says fire. There’s no fire here, and only a suspicion of smoke. I’ll continue to enjoy and be impressed with Froome, especially after today’s Mont Ventoux win, unless he comes out with a testing “anomaly”.

  22. Sam

    What has not been mentioned are the time gaps between the top ten on the GC (as of the second rest day). All are within one minute of each other (Ten Dam to Kreuziger at 1m26s), which appears statistically consistent for the upper end of a bell curve. Froome at 4m14s ahead is an anomaly no matter how he got there. I’m not drawing any conclusions when proof doesn’t yet exist, but the circumstantial evidence is interesting and fits a familiar pattern. And it sure would help if SKY staff and riders were a little less dismissive, unfortunately the burden of proof is in their hands.

    1. Author

      Janet: I think the problem is that (to use your analogy), most theaters have been catching on fire. We sit, watching the movie, nervously awaiting for someone to exclaim “fire.” It has happened so often, we’ve come to expect the cry.

  23. Alex TC

    This TdF is a bit weird for me indeed. Can´t point exactly what it is, but certainly the performances of Froome on the mountains and the ITT seem a little bit out of what I´m used to in the “cosmic order of things” for cycling. If you ride and follow cycling for a long time you just have a feeling, and intuition of things, even without ever taking part on a GT or classic.

    Prior to the start of this Tour I was cheering for him or Contador to win. He had a great season so far, he seems like a nice guy and certainly very talented. But I would never expect such a big margin and encroyable performances both against gravity and the clock. Good, yes. Excellent, perhaps. Incredible, not – and on comes the red light in the back of my mind.

    Sure, someone has to win and time gaps may not tell much. Almost beating down the WC and flying away from pure climbers after 200+km of hard racing… I´ll keep following and enjoying as always but really dunno what to make of this.

  24. Shawn

    Molly Cameron wrote:

    “Last paragraph!”

    The last paragraph is the tails-side of the coin. It’s the part that says, “Having said all that, I sure hope I’m wrong.” It’s the part that reflects the willingly unquestioning optimism of millions of yellow-braceleted Americans lining small roads in the 2003 French summer sunshine.

    Today, cynicism is good. Today, a day after yesterday, the day following Ventoux, is a good day for questions. It’s an even better day for demanding answers.

    Count me among the cynics. I love pro cycling, but to think it will ever be clean is to believe the Vegas house will give up its advantage. Maybe it’s time to stop demanding a clean sport and celebrate cycling for what it is — a special place where Cat. 3 chumps take test and growth to slay the Tuesday Nighter. We hate hypocrisy but love winners and flawed characters. Why won’t that work in cycling? That’s a question to which we should demand an answer.

    Heads I win. Tails you lose.

  25. Full Monte

    In just 48 hours, Froome sets the all-time record for what is regarded as the hardest climb in pro cycling, and several of the top sprinters in track-and-field just popped positive (with officials raiding the Jamaicans’ hotel rooms and finding all sorts of goodies).

    It confirms what we always (still) suspect about top track-and-field athletes. And, sorry to say, our favorite cyclists as well.

    Froome’s samples may not pop this Tour, but as long as electricity keeps running to the freezer, he’s got reason to be nervous. One day, the test will catch up, and whatever’s suspended in his samples will be discovered.

    Shawn is on to it — it’s how it is, how it was, always will be. We either accept it by looking the other way, or by embracing doping as a new science. Or we, as fans, walk away from sport. All sport. Every league has its “asterisk” era, and it’s obvious that era has no expiration date.

  26. brucew

    In order to get the right answer, you need to ask the right question. “How can we stop doping?” isn’t the right question. I think Dave Bailsford has the right question in asking “How can we convince you we aren’t doping?”

    I understand the importance of out-of-competition testing. I don’t know enough about it to have—let alone express—an opinion there.

    In competition, the consequences of doping must be so high, that teams as a whole wouldn’t dream of doping.

    Since cycling is a team sport—and everyone this year is thanking their teams for getting them to the win—in-competition testing and consequences must also be moved from the individual to the team level.

    After each stage (or single-day event), test the entire team of everyone on the podium and wearing a jersey. If anyone on the team tests positive, the whole team forfeits any wins, points and jerseys on the day, and the rider who tests positive is suspended in the usual way.

    I could be wrong, but it seems to me that under the current system, a clean rider could be pulled to the win by an entire train of doping domestiques, test clean on the podium, still keep the win if someone in the train gets popped on a random check.

    If the whole team also gets tested and any positive forfeits for the entire team, that can’t happen.

    If two riders on a team test positive in a season, the DS is suspended as well.

    Then, the zero-tolerance policies teams crow about won’t just be empty words. Every rider and the DS will have skin in the game and will be watching his teammates. If even a pack fodder rider can bring down the entire team, you can bet the team will police itself darned thoroughly.

    Forget publishing power data, and forget arguing experts. As a fan, I can’t follow that stuff anyway.

    Let WADA (not the UCI) do all the tests. Let them have the power data, let them improve out-of-competition tests, let them have whatever they need. And make plasticizers in the blood the same as a positive. Then let them make the determinations.

    Just make sure that when the chips fall, they fall like boulders, not like dandruff.

    Then I’ll believe they’re not doping.

  27. noel

    so a guy wins a 245k stage in a shade under 6 hours – by 29 seconds from a 23yr old debutante – and suddenly he’s off the bell curve?. I know we need to be vigilant, but collectively I think we need to get a grip here…

  28. gmknobl

    It’s been before the tour that I was on this site. I’m commenting here and now knowing it is likely no one will read this but what the heck.

    A good look at the Ax climb may be found at

    Later articles on that site (cut everything in the url after .com) address performance issues in the tour again. I hope the people behind that site round up all the data they can and do more calculations. Also, after Sky released some of their data, apparently gave it to the person who proclaimed Armstrong not suspicious many years ago so that’s simply not useful at best and a smokescreen at worst. Lemond also implied the Froome was clean but I don’t think he’s seen the data yet.

    I enjoyed watching the tour this year but found Froome’s performance on the not to be believed side of things. I think we should find the times, compare the performances of the past to it and test the heck out of everyone (figuratively). But that’s not happening. Of course, a real T&R would do wonders too. On another site someone suggested the Netherlands had a T&R but they didn’t as those who came forward were punished, albeit, lightly. Jeroen did not tell all though and will pay the price for lying about his past. In a real T&R, there is no punishment for revealing the truth, which PERHAPS explains why Mr. Blijlevens didn’t tell the truth.

    I believe without a T&R AND significant change in the UCI (and IOC) the situation will remain the same.

    That said, I still watch the sport for the same reasons I used to. The best races have magical moments of transcendence that those of us who do ride for fun can identify with on a very personal level. And no, I’m not talking about a solo climb up a steep hill, but of someone giving their all and failing or succeeding against the odds while suffering physically and mentally to do so. Remember the man who was bumped into the barbed wire but got back on his bike? Remember those who were inspired by a tremendous loss or gain and expressed this on a bike? Not all those performances were drug enhanced nor should we even feel the fool or hurt if one was if it inspires something good in us.

  29. LesB

    With all due respect and apoloigies, I find all this doubting of Froome very toxic.

    This, despite the fact that the suspicions and accusations may well be correct. It’s the paradoxical current state of affairs resulting from our heritage of a culture of doping, and more so UCI’s continuing heritage of head-in-the-sand management.

    I don’t like hearing the naysayers but we need them to keep the pressure on for a clean sport (not that any professional or college sport is really so clean).

    Here’s a dose of that “toxicity” I mentioned, from the “Science of Sport” link shared in a posting here:

    “That’s because with the exception of Froome and perhaps Porte, the rest of the peloton performed in a manner that is typical of cycling over the last few years.”

    So Science of Sport would be comfortable in a world where every athlete:
    >>performs in a manner that is typical of other athletes<<

    Forget about champions who perform above the average. Forget about Eddy Merckx, Willie Mayes, Muhamad Ali, (insert your favorite athletes here).

    Hopefully someday we can look upon this era as a dark ages, or rise out of the dark ages.

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