As the Tour de France reached its second rest day yesterday, there was much debate over where Chris Froome’s spectacular lone victory on Mont Ventoux on Sunday ranked among cycling’s great rides – and, it was time, too, for a fresh layer of speculation and suspicion, which any such performance now inevitably provokes.
First, the good news: Froome being the first rider to win on Ventoux dressed in yellow since Eddy Merckx in 1970 drew comparisons with the great Belgian. Attacking as he did seven kilometres from the line of the Tour's hardest climb, catching and dropping Nairo Quintana and riding himself into a state of total exhaustion to the point where he needed oxygen was suggestive of a rider as driven to win as "The Cannibal".
Froome is not a Marco Pantani or a Charly Gaul, one of the lightly built mountain climbers who, for decades, have blasted away on the Tour's steepest ascents with scant regard for the gravity which holds down mere mortals. His crucial acceleration when he dropped his main rival Alberto Contador and effectively netted both stage win and probably the Tour outright - seated, legs flailing and elbows out - was anything but elegant.
"He looked like a junior racer," Nicolas Portal, Sky's sports director said, "were it not that he was in yellow."
However, L'Equipe's "Froome Naturellement" front-page headline yesterday was arguably as ambiguous as their "Extra-Terrestre" when one Lance Armstrong soared away for another key mountaintop win back in the 1999 Tour. L'Equipe presumably meant that after such strong individual performances in the race and in the season, it was only normal that Froome should hammer the opposition. However by the afternoon, as French television headlines read "The Tour Under Suspicion", the sense of déjà vu was becoming inescapable.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, rather than being allowed to savour the flavour of an epic victory, Froome was not his usual cheery self in an unprecedentedly short and typically packed press conference yesterday.
"Sitting here after a historic day, we're talking about doping. My team-mates and I have worked our asses off for months and here I am accused of being a cheat and a liar and that's not cool," were Froome's last words before standing up and leaving for TV interviews outside. A few days ago, the Briton had said, "It's normal that people ask questions in cycling, given the history of the sport." But yesterday, at least, it seemed like he was growing increasingly frustrated by the way they did not stop coming.
Sky have, as L'Equipe also pointed out, never had a rider test positive in their ranks. They also conducted an all-out campaign to remove all members of staff who had links to doping in the past, will not sign riders with past doping problems and did not join the Movement For Credible Cycling (MPCC), the association of teams which address anti-doping issues most intensely, because Sky operates even more hard-line policies. When they made mistakes, like signing a doctor, Geert Leinders, associated with doping, they admitted their error and Leinders was removed from the team.
However, the innuendo continues to swirl, and for all an equally frustrated Sir Dave Brailsford, the Sky principal, yesterday called for teams' physiological data to be reviewed by an independent World Anti-Doping Agency panel of experts to try to clear out some of the suspicion, it is hard to see how cycling will escape from the shadow of its many scandals in the near future.
Above all, cycling's doping episodes are very fresh in the memory. Not even six months have gone by since Armstrong, previously considered the Tour's greatest rider, confirmed he regularly took banned drugs in what was described by United States Anti-Doping Agency as "the most sophisticated doping programme that sport has ever known". When Armstrong claimed before the Tour, too, that it was impossible to win it without banned drugs, it was instantly taken to be a reference to the present. In fact, as it later emerged, Armstrong was only referring to his era. As for the present? Armstrong said he had no idea.
Froome, though, gave short shrift to any comparison between himself and Armstrong, who rode strongly on the Ventoux in 2000 before gifting the stage to the late Pantani. The Briton was also adamant he did not see such associations as positive. "I'm not sure I said I was honoured, I said I would only take it as a compliment," Froome said. "Obviously, Lance won those races, but to compare me with Lance… I mean, Lance cheated. I'm not cheating. End of story."
Froome may not like being the latest target for seemingly perennial suspicions, but, just as was the case with Sir Bradley Wiggins last year, the underlying issue, in fact, is much more complex. It is how cycling can live with its label - often self-imposed - of being tarnished by doping.
Releasing medical data, confidentially, to Wada experts, as Brailsford suggest, would do no harm. But arguably it would hardly do much good, given, as a senior member of another team pointed out to me later yesterday, "What would stop us from falsifying the data we sent Wada?"
Rightly or wrongly, doubt has become encrusted in cycling reporting, to the point where the sense of "heard this one before" is sometimes overwhelming, the cynicism stiflingly toxic. For example, Armstrong would claim he had "trained his ass off" for months, too - as the Texan put it once "where was [arch-rival, Jan] Ullrich whilst I was out in the pissing rain?" However the ultimate proof for some fans may only come with Sky's results withstanding the test of time - as Froome is repeatedly adamant they will.