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The Roar

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Did Dave Brailsford and Team Sky let us down?

Is the TDF becoming boring? (Image: Sky).
Expert
21st July, 2013
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3001 Reads

“It’s probably the worst Tour to try to win, the one where all the Armstrong thing comes out, the lids taken off and everybody realised what was going on,” said Dave Brailsford.

“You come to the first Tour after that… You’d expect that the public who trusted in this sport for a long time to be a bit angry and a bit frustrated with what they found out. It’s understandable.”

It was a remarkable victory for England’s Chris Froome in many ways, not least being the cool, calm and largely unflustered manner in which he dispatched of his rivals for the most famous jersey that professional cycling has to offer.

Crossing the line yesterday in Paris, Froome marked in the history books a four minute and twenty second victory over Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas of Movistar, with Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver at five minutes and four seconds.

Doesn’t seem much really, after nearly 84 hours of racing. Yet in the modern day, that is a sizeable lead.

It was clear to all and sundry, without exception, that Christopher Froome, despite the hunger knock / feeding fine on Stage 18 up Alpe d’Huez, that he was better than all the rest, and by some margin.

The former two-time winner of the Tour, Albeto Contador, limped home in fourth place after putting in a series of rather disastrous and ineffective attacks that not only wrecked his bid for a podium in Paris but also scuttled teammate Roman Kreuziger’s chances too.

Yes, great to see a fighting spirit but this was more akin to seeing a desperate man betting his house and wife all on one color at the roulette table – in fact it was worse than that, as the odds were never even close to 50/50.

“You have to admit that Chris was just much stronger than anyone else in the race,” said Saxo-Tinkoff sports director Philippe Mauduit at the press conference after Stage 18 – to which the assembled journalists collectively and harmoniously shouted back: ‘No shit, Sherlock.’

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It took him 20 days to realise that. Better late than never, as they say.

Contador is worth mentioning here because he fits into a certain, inescapable pattern, and it one that is very clear for all those with their eyes even half open:

When riders come back from doping bans – admitted, or denied – they invariably come back weaker than they were before.

David Millar, Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador – and that is to name but a few.

As my good friend Adam Semple wrote just last week, the drugs make you fast, of that there is no doubt. And it is this pandemic of doping in cycling that informed the Brailsford quote at the top of this article.

He’s no fool, our Dave, he knows the score as well, or even better, than anyone else.

He’d have seen the Froome numbers pre-Tour and surely thought ‘Oh we’re going to have trouble here.’

Which, to my mind is a tad puzzling, because when you are see the angles as acutely as Brailsford then you’d have known that there was going to be one hell of a PR-palava brewing.

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With all that in mind, Froome’s win becomes even more impressive as he faced more challenges off the bike than on it.

So what did Sky do, in the last week of the Tour and facing a barrage of questions and doubts?

“They can have everything we’ve got,” Brailsford said of his offer to give WADA all Froome’s data from the year.

“They can come and live with us. They can see all of our data, every single training file that we’ve got. They can compare training files to blood data, weight; they can capture that information on a consistent basis.

“They could then tell the world whether they think this is credible or not. That would be my best shot.”

But WADA quickly responded by saying that they could not validate any individual rider data.

“It is not specifically in WADA’s mandate to accept specific team or individual requests, however, and we undertake at-event observation programs only if invited to do so by an International Federation,” read the WADA response.

“UCI is the organisation responsible for the sharing of relevant information with Team Sky. UKAD, as the national anti-doping agency, would also be well placed to discuss further with Team Sky.”

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Sky then released the data to French sports paper L’Equipe, which very quickly ran this headline: “His performances are coherent.”

How exactly did they come to this conclusion? They had a French physiologist, Dr. Frederic Grappe study the numbers, and he came to the conclusion that Froome was riding within the rules.

Yet the choice of Grappe was a curious one, as he is the same doctor who once declared that Lance Armstrong was, at the height of his powers, also riding on bread and water without a vial of EPO in sight.

“Certain people say silly things,” said Grappe of the accusations – proven to be very correct – levelled at Lance at the time.

“When we are told that a rider is not able to put out 420 – 430 Watts in a time trial, that is false. Not so long ago, one of the riders with whom I was involved climbed Mont Faron at a power of 400 Watts for 20 minutes, and he is far from being Armstrong.

“Consequently, I am not astonished that Armstrong or others can produce 460 or 470 Watts on a mountain. It is not impossible.

“It is the result of many days of hard work,” he said of the Texan’s dominance at the Tour.

“With what has happened in the past 10 years, many riders are using bigger gear ratios. Some have lost the suppleness, i.e. they are not able to utilise higher pedalling frequencies…a high pedalling frequency makes it possible to relieve the muscles.”

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“We see riders who can reach 50% [of hematocrit] naturally, and that can move to 51%. That does not mean doping.”

And yet Dr. Conor McGrane, one of the Irish instigators in the ‘No’ vote cast by the Cycling Ireland membership against Pat McQuaid’s bid to get its backing for his bid to be re-elected as UCI President, had this to say about hematocrit levels:

“A normal level is between 38 and 44%, occasionally 46. Then all of a sudden, that rule comes in and riders are hitting the high 49s.

“I’m 19 years as a doctor and I have been in cycling for 9 years now and I’ve seen only one natural level above 48%. Then I see the numbers from the late 90s and they are 48.7 and 48.9. These go against all evidence which says that these levels should in fact drop in the course of a stage race. That rule alone took away any chance of drug-free competition for at least ten years.”

So why choose a man like Grappe, who has been proven so spectacularly wrong in the past, to decide on Froome’s numbers? Who made that decision?

And why wasn’t it criticised by Sky?

If truly in the dark on that one, Brailsord and co. must have been aghast.

Why not re-release them to someone with the integrity required, someone like Dr. Michael Ashenden, the anti-doping expert who quit his association with the UCI after disagreements about the implementation of the Biological Passport?

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Or how about – well, just about anyone else in the world of anti-doping research?

Once again I find it necessary to reiterate that I am not accusing Chris Froome of doping.

However, I, like Brailsford, recognise the anger and frustration in the support base of the sport, a disenchantment brought about not only by the doping cases but also by the ham-fisted and ill-conceived attempts to ‘prove’ to us that yes, the peloton is clean.

Time and time and time again this has proven to be false. And you’d be a fool to accept otherwise.

So has Brailsford let us down on this one?

Let’s not forget that this is the architect behind two British wins at the Tour de France in consecutive years with two different riders and, in large part, two different squads.

This is the man who got Wiggins into the winning habit early on in 2012 just so that he would learn to deal with the pressure of being in yellow and in having to face the press daily, a pressure that many thought might derail Wiggo’s mental focus and cost him the Tour.

He leaves no stone unturned. And yet he didn’t expect the storm that Froome’s supposed numbers might bring, the taint it would cast over this win?

So: did Brailsford (and indeed L’Equipe) let us down?

For my money, it has to be a yes.

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