As a stubborn and perhaps foolish fan of pro cycling, I’m not ready to throw my bike off a mountainside and take up a daffy habit for weirdos, like running. No: I believe my beautiful but forever-tormented sport simply needs to reboot with better branding—and a new, transparent slogan.
Pro cycling: It’s always *!@#!%!! something!
You know, convert cycling’s chronic weakness into an asset…its sinister cloud into a silver lining…its albatross into a beguiling, Spandexed swan, eating a scone at a table inside your local coffee shop, loudly talking about functional threshold power and wind tunnels with a bunch of other Spandexed swans.
Even if you don’t follow every burp of pro cycling news—there must be two or three of you out there who can’t name the winner of the 2017 Tour de Romandie—you’ve probably heard about the latest controversy: the sport’s most accomplished Grand Tour rider, Chris Froome, the winner of the Tour de France in four of the past five years, returned an abnormal drug test at September’s Vuelta a Espana, which Froome also, uh, won.
That’s right: once again, one of the biggest names in bike racing has been sucked, fairly or not, into the big ol’ Finger-Pointy Vortex of Dope.
Say it with me. Pro cycling: It’s always *!@#!%!! something!
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Froome says he’s done nothing wrong. He’s spoken for years now of his travails with asthma, and his inhaler use, and the asthma drug he returned an abnormally high level for—salbutamol—is a permissible substance, so long as the dose remains at or under 1000 nanograms per milliliter.
Froome’s Vuelta test was twice that, however—so the British rider is obligated to explain how he returned such a result.
It’s possible that cycling’s governing body will accept Froome’s explanation—the racer and his team, Sky, are already laying groundwork to establish that salbutamol testing can be an imprecise science. But there’s a history of punishing riders for similar results, among them the Italian sprinter Alessandro “Ale-Jet” Petacchi, who got a year-long suspension for an excessive salbutamol test in 2007.
“I understand this comes as a big shock to people,” Froome told the BBC in an interview. “I certainly haven’t broken any rules here.”
If you love this wacky sport, you probably woke up Wednesday morning feeling like Bill Murray’s weatherman in “Groundhog Day.” Bike racing has been here before, often. Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador…it’s reached the point to the point that these moments feel expected, almost rote.
It’s also being portrayed as a comeuppance for Sky, Froome’s powerful, lavishly-budgeted team. Sky has a Darth Vader-like rep in the pro peloton, not only for its stacked roster and taste in sleek technology but also for its methodical, almost militaristic dominance in races like the Tour. At the same time, there’s a belief the team hasn’t sufficiently explained nagging questions about some of its riders, especially its first Tour winner, Bradley Wiggins, and its use of “therapeutic use exemptions” (TUEs) to permissibly use certain drugs.
That vibe you’re picking up from inside the sport? That’s called Skydenfreude. This mess also comes at a moment when Disney is acquiring not only team sponsor 21st Century Fox, but also 21st Century Fox’s stake in Sky itself. (Rupert Murdoch and his family hold 39% of 21st Century Fox’s voting shares and a similar stake in News Corp, parent of The Wall Street Journal.)
Who knows what Mickey Mouse will make of all this.
To be clear: Sky’s not the only cycling team that’s faced these kinds of questions. But they’re the Yankees of cycling: the biggest winners, the biggest spenders, the sport’s most recognizable brand. They began with promises of full transparency and zero-tolerance toward doping. To have Sky—and its marquee rider—entangled in a fiasco like this is rocket fuel for every cycling skeptic who’s ever said: See, I told you so.
Sure, we could argue the opposite side: that what’s happening here is what’s supposed to happen, that there should be scrutiny of every athlete, regardless of the stakes or accomplishments. Lunatics who love cycling like to point out that cycling is a rare sport that does vigorously (if imperfectly) test, both in competition and out of competition, with longitudinal, biological passport analysis as well. We crack ourselves up about the forgiving moral universes in other sports, and drug-testing wrist-slaps in leagues like the NFL.
And yet…this stinks. There is no silver lining. It stinks because there are cyclists who are trying to do it the right way, to race clean and give the public results they can believe—the kind of rider, it should be noted, that Froome says he’s always been. It stinks because cycling is indeed a gorgeous and compelling sport that once more gets reduced to a glib punchline. It stinks because another crisis can’t help but hurt a fragile business still driven by fickle sponsorship dollars.
That’s what pro cycling’s been for a long time, however.
It’s always *!@#!%!! something.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com