When Christopher Froome blasted up the tarmacked slopes of Ax-3-Domaines on Stage 8 of the 2013 Tour de France, he was putting in a ride that brought to mind the great efforts of the past from men like Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and Fausto Coppi.
The resemblance to figures of the past did not stop there however, for there was also a darker likeness in evidence, one that drew comparison to Marco Pantani and Floyd Landis.
Let me say this before I continue. I am not claiming that Froome nor any one else on the British team is using banned substances.
Yet to ignore the question marks that these stellar and, alternatively, inconsistent performances bring flashing across the tv screen puts us at risk of repeating the mistakes of the past.
It is no longer enough to say ‘Well he never tested positive.’
The onus, in this day and age, where our sense of trust and belief has been so ravaged by doping, is on the riders, their manager and the administrators of the sport to prove our doubts wrong.
The endless stream of junkies on two wheels that come and abuse not only their own health but also our love for this sport has sullied all.
The question marks persist because of them and that is a terrible shame for the clean men in the peloton, but sticking our heads back in the sand is going to benefit no one – except the persistent cheats.
Back to Froome on that hillside. In just five kilometres he put 51 seconds into Porte.
Not amazing, nor ridiculous. Froome is clearly a better climber than the young Aussie.
But Valverde could not even stay with Porte.
Nor could Roman Kreuziger, nor Alberto Contador. Nor Cadel Evans. All lost buckets of time to Froome and handfuls to Porte.
These are top climbers that failed to stay even with the Sky super-domestique, never mind the leader.
“I haven’t seen a day at the Tour like this for a long time,” he said.
“You have to keeps your hopes alive. Quitting is not an option right now.
“What I saw was surprising, from what I expected from Sky … Last year they had really good recovery amongst eight riders through every day of the Tour.
“Today that wasn’t the case at all. They had one rider in the front there. That was a strange situation, a bizarre situation for the yellow jersey.”
‘I haven’t seen a day at the Tour like this for a long time.’
Am I too eager to read more into that statement than there actually is? Or rightfully connecting the dots? What is the peleton saying amongst itself? Are there any mutterings here and there?
Question marks, question marks, question marks.
I would be surprised if there were no questions from within the peloton too, going off my own experiences in racing.
Richie Porte’s varying performances are noteworthy as far as this debate goes. Sparkling, flowing and powerful one day, terrible the next.
“It was my worst day of the year,” he said later, making us wonder when in his entire career he had had a worse one.
Inconsistency means that we question what we are seeing, as does the unbelievable (which are often all too aptly labelled).
Back to Froome. In the New York Times a staff writer wrote that Froome’s ride “felt a little like the days of Lance Armstrong.”
Which is telling, given that Froome’s time up the mountain has only been bested by two riders ever, one being Roberto Laiseka and the other Lance Armstrong himself, back in 2001.
Froome was 13 seconds faster on the mountain than Lance and five seconds ahead of Jan Ulrich’s best time.
Does that mean he is doping? No.
It is extraordinary in terms of what a man can achieve on a bicycle? Yes.
And so the question arises, what is to be done? Some of my colleagues believe that it is the responsibility of the UCI and the UCI alone to clean up the sport, but I disagree.
The UCI has failed the sport and in its current condition is in no shape to be in charge of such a mammoth task.
If riders and their managers want to complain about the cloud of doping that hangs over them then there is one very clear step facing them: release blood values throughout the season, consistently.
Froome has declined to do so, and I don’t know of any other big hitters that do.
Dave Brailsford recently gave an interview to VeloNews in which he defended his charge’s position, claiming the refusal was borne primarily out of a fear that people simply “do not understand power.”
“If people could truly understand and interpret power,” he said, “what it is and what it isn’t, and it isn’t what a lot of people think it is.
“You get all kinds of readings. We look at power numbers every day, and you get these anomalies, you get these quirks, if things are not quite calibrated correctly, or if something else is wrong.
“All of those things need to be taken into account, just like the biological passport.
“There is a fruitful area of debate and opportunity in terms of what power data could provide, I am very pro-that, but just releasing it in general is not the right way to go.”
He goes on to say this: “At some point in time, people have to accept that performances are going to move forward.”
And yet that smacks of disingenuity. Riders have been saying similar things for years. And then been busted for doping.
Froome himself talks of being on a ‘personal mission’ to show the sport has moved on from the bad old days.
“I think it’s normal that people ask questions in cycling given the history of the sport,” he said.
“I know the sport has changed. There’s absolutely no way I’d be able to get these results if the sport had not changed.
“Results now are definitely a lot more credible. The questions should be asked about people who were winning races maybe five, 10 years ago when we know doping was more prevalent.
“For me it is a bit of a personal mission to show that the sport has changed.
“Anyone who actually spends a bit of time with the team will see that this is months and months of preparation – going to these training camps at altitude all together.
“The support off the bike from the sport staff, from my fiancee, there is so much preparation that it’s not ‘wow’, it does add up.”
And yet still we will see no numbers from him nor any of the other top guys. They say that would be giving away an advantage, and yet that also makes little sense.
If you are strong you are strong. They all knew Froome would put the pressure on and he duly did.
Seeing his charts beforehand would have done little to change the outcome.
One of the main reasons that people have these doubts in regard to Sky is that they came along from the start trumpeting their anti-doping policy, and yet they have shown a disinclination to put anything out there that would back it all up.
Instead we hear of training camps, altitude, special cherries and a great team morale.
As long as the secrecy continues however, so will the questions.
The sport needs it, and we should demand it.