What I’m more concerned about in this whole Froome saga is the weak culture of cycling on display. The Froome story isn’t really about drugs and doping behaviour. Instead, it's about broader factors in and around the sport of cycling which influence the way we think about doping and how to respond.
There are two examples of weak culture I want to highlight. The first has to do with the absence of the collective athlete voice about issues that have been impacting the sport for a long time. Since the announcement of Froome’s adverse analytical finding at the 2017 Vuelta a España, the peloton has been silent save for one or two individual riders.
It seems there are two possible explanations for the lack of rider reaction. The pro peloton is silent because the old omertà is still alive in a sport where many are pushing, and some overstepping, the boundaries of what’s permitted. Or no-one’s saying anything because even with the existence of bodies like CPA, a strong and unified pro-cyclist voice doesn't exist, and they fear legal ramifications or loss of contracts. It’s a bad look either way.
Another possibility is that what we’re seeing emerge in the Froome saga is increasing evidence that the sport of cycling is post-doping now. Because of the flaws of the anti-doping system and the still apparent problems at the highest levels of cycling governance, the simple question of what constitutes ‘cheating’ or ‘doping’ is becoming ever more opaque. That way lays the ruin of pro cycling.
The second example of weak culture evident in this latest controversy in professional cycling is the way that cycling fans and the media have fetishized cycling panache and style, and how that impacts the line people take in cases of alleged rules violations. The aesthetics of panache and style (and the beauty and glory of suffering on two wheels) are now go-to themes used by many cycling brands and magazines.
So impactful has this been, that I’d argue a large part of the reason why Chris Froome has become the target of so much scorn is that we don’t like the way he looks on a bike.
Ungainly, ugly, mechanical, like a spider on two wheels, robotic, boring by the numbers riding – all common descriptions used for Froome in the cycling media and social media. Spend a moment digging around online if you doubt this. The criticism and shallow disapproval is everywhere. Froome doesn't fit the mould.
The Chris Froome problem then is not about the drugs. The real gripe we have with Froome is that he has no panache or style, in a sport where such things are regarded as the hallmark of legends, and therefore virtues we aspire to.
In fact, I’d even suggest that there’d be no general public or media heat at all in the current Froome saga if he had panache or actually looked good on the bike. Think for a moment about all the past riders who admitted to or were sanctioned for anti-doping rule violations, but are still widely feted today because of the way they rode and how they looked. Check the long list if you have to.
And think about this. If Froome wins the 2018 Tour de France, he’ll join the other five-time champions - Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. All of them still loved and honoured for their panache and beauty on the bike, and all of them with rule violations:
- Anquetil freely admitted doping during his career and refused a number of drug tests.
- Merckx tested positive and was sanctioned three times during his career (1969, 1973, 1977).
- Hinault refused a drug test at the 1982 Critérium de Callac and was fined and suspended for one month.
- Induráin was a client of the infamous Dr Francesco Conconi and tested positive at the 1994 Tour de l'Oise for salbutamol, which was prohibited in France at that time but he was not sanctioned.
I for one am looking forward to the 105th edition of the greatest bike race in the world. I don't mind that Chris Froome will be on the start line at Île de Noirmoutier this Saturday 7 July. I think it’s funny to see so many on social media declaring their personal boycott of the Tour, or pro-cycling altogether, because of Froome’s recent exoneration. I wonder what alternate universe of pro cycling they’ve been watching all this time.
Personally, I’m hoping for some luck for Richie Porte this year and a strong showing to become the second Australian to win the Tour de France, or at least get to the podium. The possibility of that is certainly reason enough to watch this years Tour.
But I’d also be equally interested if Froome does win again. Come late July if he does win his fifth Tour de France title, I want to see how all the Froome critics respond.
Will they say he doesn’t deserve to be there because he’s a doper and a cheat? Would they argue he’s bringing the sport into disrepute or tarnishing the virtuous pantheon of five-time Tour winners? Surely not.
At this point in time, the Froome saga boils down to two things. He has no panache and looks ugly on a bike, unlike those past still-loved riders who were busted for or admitted much more. And there’s is no united peloton voice or representation to query the anti-doping system and related processes impacting the riders.
The Froome story isn’t really about drugs and doping. It’s about the weak culture of cycling. If you can’t see that, you’ve got the cycling you deserve.
Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer based in Melbourne.