FrUnderdog

Much has been said about the meteoric rise of Sky’s stage racing surprise, Chris Froome. We find ourselves asking how can somebody so suddenly rise from pack fodder to taking 2nd place in two grand tours in such a short space of time? Forums & Twitter are full of people ‘who know’ Froome is doping, but they don’t actually know, they’re just putting forward viewpoints, so it’s rarely you see any explanations for him performing as he does, I’m trying to offer the alternative in this blog. If the Forum/Twitter hordes are incorrect, they are slating the thing they want to happen, a clean winner, it may be true it may not, but none of us have hard evidence either way, so opinion is currently our only tool. I half-expect to get proven wrong in an apocalyptic Rasmussen style expose in July, but here’s why I’m going to give a cautious smile if Froome wins in Paris in July.

Rouleur admissions

It’s well worth getting yourself a copy of the latest Rouleur, it carries a very good interview with Froome, Ned Boulting portraying him as an overly polite octopus killer & for the first time I recall, he’s said that he DID attack on La Toussuire in last years Tour. Seemingly he thought his team leader was fine in the group, dropped back to look at everybody, then had a go for himself, unaware he was about to get chastised over the radio. He was trying to make a race of it, after an almost processional Tour, this is what the fans were looking for, the top two riders vying for supremacy, but only one looked supreme that day, he ended up being the loyal domestique & sacrificing his own personal ambitions for ‘The Team’ and allowing the Sky media machine to process their very British champion (although Belgian born & Australian fathered) over the questionable Britishness of a Kenyan expat. Maybe they didn’t quite believe it either. During the interview I also liked the fact that his girlfriend, Michelle Cound liked to slag him over his ungainly bike riding style, Froome seems to just let her get on with her own style of PR, he seems slightly amused by it, he’s not trying to create a media personality, he seems like somebody who’s just likes getting on with it. You’ll probably get some interesting insights by following her on Twitter, you can see them HERE.

Sacrifices

We’ve seen Froome sacrifice himself for the same team leader on two occasions while in a great position to win a Grand Tour. In the 2011 Vuelta, Sky changed the leadership at a very late stage once it was obvious that Wiggins was faltering, even though Froome had actually been wearing the race leaders jersey after the Stage 10 Time Trial. It ended up with Cobo winning, with Team Sky taking 2nd & 3rd on the podium. Most believe that had Froome been team leader earlier in the race, he would have been victorious, he would not have had to work, would have been able to follow the moves & more importantly, he would have been allowed to attack.

We all know the story at the 2012 Tour, where Froome was obviously the strongest rider in the race & team tactics dictated the winner. It’s no surprise that keeping Froome chained any longer is not going to help Team Sky in any way, he needs to be unleashed as he has been during early 2013.

The Doping Issue

Nobody can say that Froome’s performances don’t seem out of this world, they are incredible. I don’t have any hero’s in cycling, to put it bluntly I can’t trust anybody anymore. On that basis, I’ve given up trying to sum up who’s doping & who’s not just by performances, I don’t base it on court evidence either (if there is some, I’d obviously take that as proof), I base it on history, who they associate themselves with & inconsistency relative to others & themselves (currently or previously). Sometimes I even consider them less likely to dope because I like their personality, but nice guys dope too, I’m sure we all do that, I’m sure most of the online rants start because somebody simply doesn’t like a certain rider, it’s easy to get caught up in it.

Let’s take two convicted dopers, Contador & Valverde, since their return to the peloton I am almost at the point of thinking that these guys are now clean, their performances are way down on where they were previously, each rider still attempts to attack as before but cannot sustain it, they also cannot repeatedly attack like they used to & their time trial performances are much worse than before. We’ve seen Contador beat Cancellara on a relatively flat time trial around Lake Annecy (for those who say it’s got a hill in it, I’ve ridden the course, the hill is nothing to bother these guys), he now finishes time trials around the positions of other climbers, in around 50th place, this looks real to me. I’m not saying that these guys are not supremely talented riders, Contador in particular now looks like an incredibly talented climber, but he has suddenly lost the other talents he used to have while maintaining his climbing ability, which is also diminished but still good enough to perform well against a ‘cleaner’ & less corrupt sport, i.e. you probably can’t buy a test result anymore under closer scrutiny, whether that’s governing bodies, labs, or other forces that allowed that to happen, we don’t know yet.

My point is, that it’s easy to compare Froome to Contador and assume the worst, but we’re comparing him to something that has changed dramatically, the Contador of today has no turbo fitted, he’s normally aspirated these days. Likewise with most riders from the previous era, they’ve suddenly lost a lot more than just the dope, they’ve lost years of information & progress while under the tutelage of tarnished individuals. The old-school teams are (and were) run by people of that era, they have no idea how to gain a Tour winning performance clean, they never had to & their riders never had to, they presumably just injected it & one large time-consuming area of training was overlooked for potentially two decades. These teams & riders may have a hugely diminished idea about how to bring their riders to that kind of aerobic level naturally, than teams who have invested heavily in sports science & not just employing one of the blood manipulation centres or doctors.

Meanwhile, during that period, other teams had been developing coaching & training methods, we can assume not the top flight teams (they wouldn’t have been competitive), but perhaps amateur teams, this is where working within the rules has potentially became a bit of an art form (Chris Boardman said himself that the position rules were something to ‘bump up to’, a guide to show how far you can go). So we know that formerly amateur outfits, like the GB track team, were working just inside the guidelines on dimensional rules to gain advantage, can we also assume they were using sports science to replicate what made the EPO era riders go so fast, that’s where the smart money is? Attempting to discover what physiological characteristics the EPO enhanced in riders & how could similar enhancements be replicated without the use of drugs & without compromising rider safety or health?

The New Peloton

My assumption is that the massive changes stated above are happening right now within the peloton, that we’re currently in a very important transition period, that the new methods which evade the positive tests but get similar physiological results are state-of-the-art training, coaching & facilities. In a bizarre manner, these advances may not have been possible without the EPO era, after all where would sports science have gathered their data for turning increasing blood volume & haematocrit translating into exceptional performance, with EPO charged riders they could now measure this & set a target to aim at. This current transition period makes the old-school riders look relatively poor & the new-school riders look superhuman. It won’t last, the old-school teams didn’t have untalented riders, they used different methods, it will take a couple of years to catch up as new-age riders filter out of the coach led teams & into the old-school teams, spreading the knowledge. The managers of these teams must be having a very hard time right now, time-consuming & expensive coaching & facilities require a much larger budget than black market pharmaceuticals, they have to justify their budget increases & they have some hard questions to answer to their sponsors.

So things are changing rapidly, there’s plenty of riders getting popped right now, plenty of biological passport transgressions getting aired & hopefully this is reducing the attraction of taking shortcuts. As I’ve said in previous blogs, we’re moving back into an era of specialists, climbers who can’t time trial, time trialists who can’t climb, Colombians, if you remember 80’s pro racing, it looks a bit like that.

So Why Froome

I’ve stated the scene pro cycling is currently operating within above (as I see it). So how has a mid bunch level climber become a Grand Tour winner, bearing in mind he’s not actually won any yet, but you get the idea.

For all you watts-per-kg nerds out there, lets first of all take a look at that, Froome looks like skin & bone now, but google-image some photos back to 2010 & you’ll see quite a difference, he’s lost a lot of weight. His own website says he currently weighs 69kg, so some websites have reported that he can average 6W/kg for some 30 minute climbs. That would give us an estimate of 414W for his 30 minute critical power (CP30), you’d normally take about 5% off this to give a rough estimate of functional threshold power, so we then get the figure of about 393W for critical threshold power, that equates to about 5.7W/kg.

So if we don’t even consider any training advances since 2010 & assume he’s only lost a conservative 3kg, we’d calculate his old W/kg at threshold as 5.45W/kg. He wouldn’t make the front group on the Tour mountains with that power to weight value. The difference between being an also ran & making one of the front groups in the mountains is marginal. He was previously an also ran, he couldn’t go with the big ‘turbo’ attacks, he was heavier, he didn’t have access to modern coaching & he was from a far away land. The last point is possibly the most crucial, an African racing in the Euro peloton is going to be treated with suspicion, not what they’re used to, perhaps Froome avoided getting involved in EPO due to being an outcast, could he be trusted? This could be why his current performance seems so unnatural, it could be that he performed against a doped peloton in the past, then when the doping gets less he looks better & better. I’m not saying he didn’t want to dope, but he may not have been in the gang, like an English student appearing in 2nd year of a Scottish inner city secondary school, he’s not going to have lots of friends, he’s not in ‘the club’.

I’ve also got this niggle about his improvement after he was awarded the full support of Team Sky, there hasn’t been much, it happened at the very beginning of his step up to the top squads, once he had access to the coaching system. If there was some mystical team wide doping programme going on, I’d assume that they wouldn’t allow their riders of lower stature, or riders they may not have been keeping, to know what was going on. Froome only rose to the top during the 2011 Vuelta, up to that point he was still looking for a team for 2012, surely only the most idiotic DS would introduce him to the top-level doping programme at that point. It just doesn’t add up, if there was a top-level programme for their top riders, surely Froome would have improved dramatically since then, he’s not, he’s just remained extraordinary. So if they have a ‘super programme’, it doesn’t work. I don’t think they do.

Public Opinion

The reason I wrote this piece is because I like Froome, he comes across as a very polite man in TV interviews, there’s no bravado & he seems to value the position he’s in without mocking anybody. The French love him, he does his French interviews first, where some of his English-speaking predecessors were asked questions in French, they responded in English, there is no such thing here. In one l’Equipe headline he has now been given the tag ‘Froome le Patron‘. On the other hand, the impression I get with Wiggins is that he’s uncomfortable in public, the way he deals with it isn’t meant in the manner it comes across, but it comes across badly to the public worldwide. It seems like Wiggins public personality isn’t managed in a positive manner. He won BBC Sports Personality, but outside the UK he’s misunderstood in the extreme, he doesn’t deserve the kind of ridicule he gets, but the French take offence to speeches that liken the podium ceremony of the Tour to a chipper bike race or village fete raffle, perhaps more than Armstrong’s ‘miracle’ speech.

My view is that there are various reasons why we can believe his extraordinary performances are real, but I can also see why there are serious doubts, we’ll just have to wait & see. I just hope the sport has cleaned up as much as the riders are telling us, but in the past it’s been proven you can trust a rider as much as you can an MP, an Apprentice contestant or a TV presenter, I’ll not hold my breath.

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6 Responses

  1. George

    Do we all know the story where Froome was obviously the strongest rider in the Tour 2012? Despite Froome being 2 minutes slower in the time trials, you may well be right, but not everyone shares your view. No doubt Froome was weakened by working for Wiggins, but he didn’t have the burden of team leadership and managing the Yellow Jersey responsibilities.

  2. Vanilla_Thrilla

    Points I’d add that further support your thesis:
    – Valverde and Contador are on their final strike, get caught again and they’re gone for life, which is a stronger incentive to ride clean.
    – Suggestions that in previous testing Froome’s always put out “big numbers” (JV on the clinic, real peloton podcast)
    – His reported bilhazia, which may have affected his early career training/results
    – Teams with corporate sponsors (Sky, Garmin, etc) are more likely to want to avoid doping scandals than ‘hobby’ teams (eg Katusha)

    1. Matt

      I don’t know if the corporate sponsors want to avoid scandal. Doesn’t seem to fit well with the modus operandi of News Corp.

      The organisation close to Sky Pro Cycling that *does* have s significant amount to lose is British Cycling and the UK Sport World Class Performance Program. If Sky are doping, or even doing something that is currently not banned but falls into the ‘questionably ethical’ category, and this comes out down the line, then this calls into question every performance by a British cyclist (road and track) over the last 10 years.

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