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Chris Froome, the Tour de France, and cycling deserves better

Chris Froome wearing the yellow jersey on the cobblestones of Quievy, northern France, during stage 4 of the 102nd Tour de France. Newzulu/AAP

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Being a cycling fan and hoping for a Tour de France free of controversy is a little like that.

The 2015 Tour de France has certainly provided its fair share of controversies: crashes claiming race leaders and other big names; rider disqualifications; team official penalties; and, of course, the inevitable speculation about doping.

This time the finger of doping suspicion is being pointed squarely at Team Sky rider and current Tour de France leader Chris Froome. His winning “shock and awe” performance on the stage 10 climb of La Pierre-Saint-Martin made most of his rivals look like amateurs, and prompted the inevitable questions from high profile journalists and others well known for their anti-doping positions.

I don’t know who I feel sorrier for: Chris Froome, pro-cycling, or the Tour de France. It is an ugly state of affairs.

The Froome story is all about the numbers now

Very quickly the story here became one of performance data and physiology, and the question of why a rider like Froome with nothing to hide wouldn’t release his data publicly so the suspicious experts out there could satisfy themselves that he is not doping.

One of the loudest voices has been that of Paul Kimmage – the 1980’s Irish Tour de France rider turned cycling journalist, who had a significant role in Lance Armstrong being brought to account. Kimmage himself exited professional cycling in 1989, and released a book shortly after about his experiences as a professional, including admissions that he had used amphetamines during his racing career.

Paul Kimmage, and other vocal figures (i.e. Antoine Vayer, Greg LeMond, Ross Tucker, Pierre Sallet) say the sport of cycling now needs transparency, and this plus some restoration of credibility can come through rider data being shared publicly. That may indeed help if it could ever be implemented in a complete and appropriate way.

But realistically, what’s the likelihood of that? The most successful teams are rightly protective of their rider’s data because in the right hands it provides the blueprint for their success. As Tim Kerrison (Athlete Performance Head at Team Sky) said at their press conference this week:

We have a lot of data on our riders and the way we apply and use it, we see that gives us a competitive advantage. As in most industries, knowledge and intelligence is giving a competitive advantage.

And the less successful teams would no doubt be very interested in seeing the rider data from winning individuals and teams. They could use that to inform their own training programs, to try and emulate the winning formula of others.

So, the individual riders should indeed feel very protective of their own data. It is sensitive and valuable information that they have every right (probably also the legal right) to keep private for their own and their team’s sole use and benefit.

Chris Froome, 2013 TDF. Wikimedia Commons

Sharing rider data is fraught, even under the banner of transparency and ethics

I don’t agree that Chris Froome needed to release his data to the experts. But this is exactly what happened this week – Team Sky held a press conference on the Tour rest day in Gap, and shared some of Froome’s data.

This move by Team Sky may set a potentially damaging precedent. From here, any professional cyclist who puts in a surprise performance might now have to face similar requests for their numbers and other private information to be released in order to be hauled over the coals in the court of public opinion.

How is that an example of the ethics that Paul Kimmage has been speaking about? Where’s the equity in the notion of transparency if it is used to force only some riders to do extra? All the riders in the World Tour pro-peloton are subject to the same anti-doping system with testing, biological passport, the where-abouts system, and other requirements. Why should Tour de France leaders like Chris Froome, and other professional riders who put in outstanding performances be singled out for additional tests and hurdles to what they already face?

The reason that is given here by people like Kimmage and others who argue for the public release of rider data is in essence “where there’s smoke there’s fire”. They point to the past. “We’ve seen this before” they say. They point to Lance Armstrong. By implication, they’re saying the numbers don’t lie.

And so, under the banner of transparency and ethics, the doping debate around Chris Froome this week entered a new phase with a new narrative about ‘the public right to private numbers and data’. Transparency and ethics are indeed crucial in sport, and especially so for professional cycling given its flawed history. The call for rider data sharing as a means of achieving transparency is well-intentioned, and appears to be a logical step to take.

But defining transparency here as ‘show us all your data’ is the wrong move in my view. My concern is what we’ll get from Sky’s recent release of Froome’s data is just further rumour, innuendo, and speculation - indeed, already some experts such as Ross Tucker and Pierre Sallett are saying they’re not satisfied. The other problem here is it’s almost impossible to prove a negative – it is very difficult to judge with certainty from anyone’s riding and other data that they are not doping.

If you doubt this and believe that the numbers can solve everything, consider for a moment the interesting case of Laurens ten Dam (another professional cyclist in the Tour de France) reported recently in the Rouleur magazine. He gave all of his data to Robin van der Kloor, a Dutch investigative journalist (much more than Froome has provided to date), who in turn got it assessed by doping expert Professor Harm Kuipers from the University of Maastricht.

The outcome? After everything, they could not state categorically that ten Dam was clean. Ten Dam sums it up perfectly:

I can’t prove I never used. But I gave all my values to the journalist who passed it to the professor. He said that he couldn’t say I used, but he couldn’t say I didn’t use either. It’s like that with the biological passport. That’s the problem with it. I gave them everything but it’s still impossible to prove.

Chris Froome, 2013 TDF. Wikimedia Commons

The real problem for cycling and the Tour

In addition to the contribution that journalist authors like [David Walsh]( and Paul Kimmage have made to telling and shaping the story of professional cycling, what they also showed aspiring cycling journalists everywhere was that you could make a name and career for yourself by asking the tricky unpopular questions of suspect Tour de France riders.

In some way, this has been a contributing factor (along with the history of doping in the sport, and the behaviour of some of the high profile cyclists who doped) that helps explain the fog of suspicion that now surrounds professional cycling. Make no mistake, a great many more people out there in the world now have an opinion about cycling power data and other performance numbers because of the recent focus and attention brought to the issue by the cycling media.

Data and numbers aside, the real problem for professional cycling and the Tour de France (and probably other levels of this sport) is that we have reached the sorry moment where all surprising and outstanding performances are now routinely regarded with suspicion. We have forgotten that each and every winner at the highest levels of cycling, and certainly in the Tour de France, are outliers and unusual.

The problem now for cycling is that everything unusual looks like doping. It’s like the old adage: When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

Chris Froome in the Tour de Romandie. Wikimedia Commons

The allure of the Tour de France may be its biggest problem

As a fan of cycling, I am drawn to the Tour de France because it’s an event where the riders are exposed and vulnerable to the elements, the unforgiving roads and mountains, and to each other. During the three-week Tour, the riders test the limits of their hearts, lungs and legs, and exhaust their mental willingness to continue subjecting the body to pain.

The Tour is a very human sporting event, where you can see the limits of human physical endurance and mental strength being tested every day. Importantly, the Tour also provides a global stage on which these human limits can be, and often are, exceeded.

The fact that the massive roadside crowds on every stage can reach out and touch the riders, shout their support and admiration, and feel the rush of air from the passing peloton, makes that human character of the Tour de France even more tangible and accessible.

The Tour de France appeals because it can give us glimpses of human frailty and inspiring individual and team efforts in the face of significant adversity. We identify with this even though the riders are the best of the best elite cyclists in the World. Somehow, the inspiration and admiration we feel from the rider’s triumphs through suffering is made even more salient because they are the best cyclists around.

In short, what the Tour exposes in the riders makes them seem all the more human. And this is what we recognise and identify with.

Froome as machine not human

I’d argue that these aspects of the Tour’s appeal are the real reasons why many people are reacting against Chris Froome’s recent riding. Against the backdrop of the beautiful human appeal of the Tour de France, Froome’s ‘by-the-numbers’ riding appears robot-like and ugly. We now also have a powerful narrative growing around him that is all about numbers and data, measures and equations, and power-to-weight capacities.

It’s as if Froome is regarded by many as a machine – a disembodied cycling performance and set of numbers lacking the familiar human traits or frailties we expect and love to see from the Tour de France. Froome’s riding style is unappealing, and the broadcast vision of it distracts us from seeing the strength and superior fitness he is able to unleash on the riders around him.

We see Froome as machine, not human.

These factors may also help to explain the cup of urine thrown into Froome’s face recently by a spectator. It was thrown at the ‘otherworldly’, ‘off the planet’ #Froominator who many people now believe is doping, not Chris Froome the cyclist with feelings, dreams and aspirations to serve his team and be the best pro-cyclist possible. And certainly not the professional cyclist wearing the yellow leader’s jersey of the world’s most prestigious cycling race.

What Chris Froome deserves

I’m not sure how to answer the question of whether Chris Froome is doping or not. For the moment, I’m not swayed either way by a set of numbers thrown out from Team Sky to assuage the baying pack. Admittedly, some of the signs don’t look good for a professional cyclist at the highest level, in arguably the best World Tour cycling team currently.

But again, everyone is so used to being sceptical about outstanding performances now, that once that mindset becomes the norm everything starts to look like doping. Unfortunately, that’s where pro-cycling is at now, and as I have argued elsewhere this public image problem won’t change for as long as the sport continues to tolerate, celebrate, and reward past dopers (in my view a bigger issue than whether or not riders share their data).

For what it’s worth, at this point in time I believe Chris Froome deserves the benefit of the doubt and the respect owed to a past Tour de France winner, and current Tour leader. I also feel strongly that Froome (or indeed any other rider) shouldn’t have to be forced to prove a negative by showing the almost fatally suspicious world of cycling journalism and opinion that he is not doping.

Irrespective of what you might think of it, we already have an anti-doping system of testing and other surveillance measures to detect doping violations. That system is not perfect. No doping policy and prevention system ever will be. But that fact is not the fault of the riders, and they certainly shouldn’t be made to suffer additional indignities and attacks on their character because of it.

Chris Froome, as the current leader of the Tour de France and the winner of the 100th edition of the race in 2013, deserves our support and admiration – even if he isn’t “the prettiest bicycle rider in the world” or possessed of “the most beautiful pedalling style” as the cycling commentators Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett have said recently.

Even with all the evidence and experiences from the Lance Armstrong story still fresh, it is my strong belief that Chris Froome should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty, and not vice versa. I just hope that this view doesn’t qualify me for Einstein’s definition of insanity. And, for the sake of professional cycling and Australian cycling too, I’m also praying that time doesn’t prove me wrong.

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