SHEFFIELD, England (VN) — Chris Froome (Sky) is a man of destiny. Last year, after usurping teammate Bradley Wiggins’ throne, he became Africa’s first yellow jersey winner in emphatic fashion.
In 2014, Froome is poised to make history yet again if he can manage to win his second straight Tour de France.
If the Kenya-born Froome rides into Paris on July 27 wearing the yellow jersey, he would become the first rider to officially win back-to-back grand tours in the era of the biological passport. In a sport with as dubious a past as cycling, that would be a remarkable achievement.
Some suggest that the demands of modern racing and winning the Tour in today’s cleaner and more transparent peloton make it all but impossible to remain at the top of the sport year after year.
Froome said he doesn’t agree with the suggestion that the Tour is so hard that a clean rider cannot win it more than once.
“I would have to disagree with you there, with the fact if you’ve won it once, then you’re spent for years to come,” Froome said when asked by VeloNews ahead of the start of the Tour. “I don’t agree with that principle. I do believe that you have pressures coming back as a defending champion having won the Tour.”
Raising the question of repeat victories dips into the messy business of coming to terms with the Tour’s scandal-ridden palmares.
Lance Armstrong’s record seven Tour victories have been wiped clean from the history books, leaving a gaping hole in the Tour’s official results sheet.
In fact, if Froome manages to win, he would be the first rider to “officially” defend his yellow jersey since Miguel Indurain, who won five straight from 1991-1995.
A year after the Armstrong scandal broiled across the peloton, Froome said he’s back to win another Tour, and he claims it will be a clean victory.
“For me, that’s a big goal; to come back, and win it again,” Froome said. “There’s no guarantee that’s going to be possible, but I’m certainly going to try.”
Introduced in 2008, the biological passport is seen as a seminal change for the peloton, a sort of a line in the sand, a demarcation of a “before” and “after.”
Since the biological passport’s arrival, coupled with stepped up doping controls and a cultural shift within the peloton, the sport has visibly changed. The attacks are shorter, the speeds up the climbs slower. The performances seem more credible. Gone are the days of big-ring attacks up first-category climbs 50km from the finish line.
Cases involving Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), however, just ahead of the start of the 2014 Tour served as a reminder that the sport is not out of the woods yet, but there is near-universal agreement that the sport is dramatically cleaner than it was a decade ago.
The talk of the historic significance of a Tour repeat is further complicated by Alberto Contador’s (Tinkoff-Saxo) 2010 clenbuterol case. The Spanish rider, who represents Froome’s most dangerous challenge this year, was the first to repeat under the biological passport, winning the yellow jersey in 2009 and 2010. He later saw his 2010 Tour title stripped, as well as his victory in the 2011 Giro d’Italia, in the wake of his clenbuterol case.
In light of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling against Contador, Froome could become the first rider to defend the Tour title under the biological passport, introduced at the start of the 2008 season.
Froome shrugged off suggestions that the biological passport somehow reshuffles the deck when it comes to remaining competitive at the top of the peloton season after season.
“You definitely have a lot more on your plate after winning the Tour. Time between races just slips away from you, you end up doing a lot more in terms of media commitments, sponsor commitments,” Froome continued. “Life definitely changes after winning the Tour, and if anything, that’s probably a bigger factor compared to being wiped out after winning the Tour de France.”
Though it’s not perfect, the biological passport has served as a decisive tool in helping to clean up the elite peloton. By tracking biological markers, the so-called athlete passport has allowed anti-doping controllers to track parameters and detect evidence of foul play, such as blood manipulation, that are otherwise undetectable. Bans have also been handed down due to passport irregularities.
Some say it’s no coincidence that cycling has not seen multiple Tour winners since the introduction of the biological passport early in the 2008 season.
In fact, only two riders have won multiple grand tours since the passport was introduced. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), winner of Sunday’s stage, won the 2010 Vuelta a España and the 2013 Giro. Contador, meanwhile, has won six grand tours since 2008. The Spaniard doubled in 2008, when his Astana team was kept out of the Tour following the blood-doping positives of Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin the previous season, winning the Giro and Vuelta.
Contador won the Tour for a second time in 2009, and returned to repeat in 2010, but later saw that victory stripped away after testing positive for traces of clenbuterol on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour. Contador continues to maintain his innocence, and said that contaminated steaks brought from Spain triggered the minute traces of the banned substance detected in his system.
While his case slowly worked through the CAS, he also won the Giro for a second time in 2011. Both the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro victories were later disqualified as part of his back-dated, two-year ban. Upon returning to the peloton, Contador promptly won the 2012 Vuelta.
Some believe that the biological passport is not as effective a deterrent as its proponents say that it is, that riders have become more effective at manipulating and controlling their markers, and can thus avoid the red flags that trigger more vigorous doping controls.
Froome, who became the first Tour winner following the Armstrong scandal that rocked cycling late 2012, engendered suspicion with the impressive manner by which he won the race.
Earlier this year, Froome was caught up in a controversy en route to winning the Tour de Romandie by receiving a TUE (therapeutic-use exemption) to orally ingest corticoids, something banned under anti-doping rules without the use of a TUE.
Late last week, Team Sky principal David Brailsford testily defended Sky’s track record, saying that both Froome’s and Bradley Wiggins’ 2012 victory came clean.
“We set out to try to win this race with a British rider, and to do it clean,” Brailsford said. “We did that. We race clean, and we operate by the rules. We’ll continue to do that.”
When asked by VeloNews before the start of Sunday’s stage if is there is a special significance of Froome’s possible double in the biological era, Brailsford said it’s too early to look that far down the road.
“I think in this moment in time, it’s like a hurdles race. We’re focusing on the next hurdle that is in front of you,” he said. “We’re focusing about today, and what happens today, and maybe we can answer that question when we get to Paris.”
Perhaps Froome’s possible Tour double is something more anecdotal. Cycling’s history is replete with riders who have dominated their respective generation. Before Armstrong won seven straight, there were four riders — Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Indurain — who each won five titles, each dominating their era.
In the aftermath of the Armstrong years, ending with his first retirement in 2005, no rider has been able to emerge as the peloton’s new dominator. Contador looked poised to fill that vacuum, but his career has been forever marked by the clenbuterol case, and he enters his year’s Tour intent on regaining his Tour crown.
This year’s Tour could see the beginning of the Froome era.
“Froome is already the best stage racer right now in the peloton,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “Had he been on another team, he would have already won a Vuelta and another Tour. It’s going to be very hard to beat him.”
Froome has proven his reliability in stage races, with second places in the 2011 Vuelta a España and the 2012 Tour.
Sky also says that the measuring stick of Froome’s “arrival” shouldn’t begin with his 2013 Tour victory, but rather the 2011 Vuelta. That consistency over nearly three seasons, which included other major wins such as the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2012, and back-to-back wins at the Tour de Romandie in 2013-14, proves that Froome is already performing consistently at a high level.
“Chris is a pretty patient guy. He did have to wait his turn, in a way,” said Sky director of performance Tim Kerrison in an interview with VeloNews earlier this year. “He served his apprenticeship, he learned a lot, and he deserved his chance last year.”
Like Brailsford, Kerrison believes that Froome is just beginning to hit his stride.
“Chris is still in the early stages of his development. If you look back at his progression, his actual raw numbers haven’t improved that much,” Kerrison said. “What’s improved is his ability to deliver that power in real race situations. There are still a few rough edges that we can smooth out over the next couple of years so he uses his talents more efficiently.”
Despite some hiccups in his approach to this year’s Tour, including some crashes and health problems, Froome seems confident and as strong as ever.
In the opening two days of racing so far through 2014, Froome has revealed a new aggressiveness, sprinting to sixth in the opening stage, and leading the peloton off the final climb Sunday.
And Froome knows that if and when he slips back into the yellow jersey, the questions and skepticism will return with it.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath on that,” he said when asked by journalists last week if he expects fewer doping questions. “But I do think it’s a good thing that we talk about it, that we put all of our cards on the table, and we tell people how it is now. It is a shame that with cycling’s past we find ourselves in this situation now. But the only way we’re going to move on from it is to accept what has happened. Get it all out there. And then move on. Show people this is not how it’s done anymore.”
Convincing the skeptical public and media that the peloton has turned the page for good on its collective doping past might take a few more Tours without any scandals.