“Oh, Henny Penny, the sky is falling and I am going to the lion to tell him about it.”
“How do you know it?” asks Henny Penny.
“It hit me on the head, so I know it must be so,” says Chicken Little.
Chris Froome was the subject of so much attention prior to the 105th Tour de France you'd be forgiven for thinking the race was all about him.
The critics and the non-believers wanted Froome barred from the Tour because of his adverse analytic finding for salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta. The thinking was the Froome saga would have a negative impact, and cause reputational damage to the biggest Grand Tour of them all.
Implicit in that view is an assumption the four-time Tour de France champion is guilty of doping. Given the adverse analytic finding and apparent irregularities surrounding Team Sky it must be so, goes the logic.
As we know, Froome was cleared by WADA and the UCI, and he started the Tour last week to the displeasure of many along the French roadside, and countless more watching across the world. Social media lit up with proclamations of the ‘death of pro cycling’, questions about WADA's relevance, and impassioned declarations of personal Tour boycotts from cycling fans and at least one prominent cycling writer.
Despite the near hysteria, the widely predicted shadow Froome was to cast over the event never appeared. Nor is the Tour in disrepute. The sky is not falling.
In fact, the Tour so far is free of the usual omnipresent Team Sky and Froome narrative. The biggest Sky news so far is Luke Rowe’s placard tantrum, and Froome’s minor tumbles on stages 1 and 9. Even Geraint Thomas sitting 43 seconds off the GC lead has almost gone unnoticed.
For now, thankfully, the Tour is delivering a wider mix of positive stories and points of interest.
We’ve witnessed the courage of Lawson Craddock after his bone breaking crash in Stage 1 (finally a Texan cyclist we can all like and admire again). The rise and rise of the young Columbian sprinter Fernando Gaviria with two stage wins so far. And the early flat stage nerves and mayhem denting the plans of some GC favourites.
And Dion Smith made some nice history becoming the first New Zealander in the polka dot mountains classification jersey, and the first time in yellow for the World Champion Peter Sagan (also with two stage victories already).
So, amidst the forecasted doom and gloom, the WorldTour cycling show rolls on. Most are now focused on what is shaping up as one of the more interesting Tours we’ve seen in recent editions. Most, but not everyone it seems.
A week into the Tour, an undercurrent of negative sentiment is still visible along the roadsides and in daily social media denouncing Froome and Team Sky. It feels like that sentiment could escalate further should Froome (or Thomas for that matter) take hold of the race and the yellow jersey again.
The backlash from Froome’s presence at this Tour de France, and the ongoing campaign against him is perplexing. Given the history of cycling (think Festina, Operación Puerto, Armstrong and co), the focus on Froome and Team Sky makes me wonder what disgruntled cycling fans actually expect from professional cycling these days.
Should we ever expect a clean peloton free of human error and frailty when it never has been?
Is it right to expect professional teams and riders to resist pushing the rule limits when the sport itself and the legal frameworks around it facilitate such behaviour?
Will we ever see something nobler from professional cycling like equity and integrity?
Whatever our expectations, the history and culture of pro cycling may mean the most this sport can offer is entertainment, bike gear marketing to the middle classes, and the shallow aesthetics of ‘panache’ and ‘glory through suffering’.
For some that’s enough. But if I’m right about that, then I think cycling fans and the UCI WorldTour have much more to worry about vis-à-vis the reputation and future of this sport than one Team Sky rider under a cloud.
For better or worse, the pro cycling we all love delivered us Chris Froome. He is currently attempting to win his fifth Tour de France, and if he does it will be his fourth consecutive grand tour victory. In spite of all the questions and allegations surrounding Froome, he may yet become one of the greatest ever (if not the best) cyclist this sport has seen.
The sky is not falling. Or is it?