As is often the case, such news often comes cloaked in ambiguity. Such news often is initially qualified as an “abnormal analytical finding.” But within hours, the news is simply reported as a “failed drug test.” And this morning on December 13, 2017, news broke that four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome “failed a drug test” during the recent Vuelta a España, a race he won for the first time. And while the news only just broke, the consequences and ramifications for Froome and his Sky team promise to continue for months to come.

Words: James Startt, European Associate to Peloton | Images Yuzuru Sunada

The substance in question is Salbutamol, an asthma drug that Froome is authorized to take in limited doses for the asthma he has had since childhood. But on September 7 after stage 18 of the Vuelta from Suances to Santo Toribio de Liébana—a stage on which he finished at the head of the peloton on a Cat. 3 finish climb, 10 minutes behind the day’s breakaway—Froome’s levels reached a concentration of 2,000 nanograms per millilitre (ng/ml) in a urine test, twice the accepted level.

As race leader, Froome was tested daily and it was his only adverse finding in the three-week race. And because Salbutamol is not considered to be on the International Cycling Union’s list of hard drugs like EPO, Froome was not suspended immediately and his team was not obliged to announce the news when they received it on September 20, the day Froome raced to a bronze medal in the world championship time trial.

Froome racing to the bronze medal in the individual time trial at the world championships on September 20, the day he learned of his adverse finding.

Instead, as anti-doping protocol stipulates, Froome and Team Sky were asked by the UCI to provide additional information. It is assumed that since they were notified of the adverse finding nearly two months ago, the two parties have been preparing their medical and legal defenses.

Today, on the heels of reports from the British daily The Guardian and the French daily LeMonde, Team Sky stated: “During the final week of the Vuelta, Chris experienced acute asthma symptoms. On the advice of the Team Sky doctor, he used an increased dosage of Salbutamol (still within the permissible doses) in the run-up to the 7 September urine test. As race leader, Chris was tested after every stage through this period and he declared his use of the medication as part of the process.

“The notification of the test finding does not mean that any rule has been broken. The finding triggers requests from the UCI which are aimed at establishing what caused the elevated concentration of Salbutamol and to ensure that no more than the permissible doses of Salbutamol were inhaled.

“There is considerable evidence to show that there are significant and unpredictable variations in the way Salbutamol is metabolised and excreted. As a result, the use of permissible dosages of Salbutamol can sometimes result in elevated urinary concentrations, which require explanation. A wide range of factors can affect the concentrations, including the interaction of Salbutamol with food or other medications, dehydration and the timing of Salbutamol usage before the test.”

Froome himself added: “It is well known that I have asthma and I know exactly what the rules are. I use an inhaler to manage my symptoms (always within the permissible limits) and I know for sure that I will be tested every day I wear the race leader’s jersey. My asthma got worse at the Vuelta so I followed the team doctor’s advice to increase my Salbutamol dosage. As always, I took the greatest care to ensure that I did not use more than the permissible dose.”

Indeed urine tests are more vulnerable than blood tests, and dehydration, especially during a long stage race like the Vuelta, can have a direct influence on the levels of drugs such as Salbutamol found in the body. The manner in which the drug is administered can also come into play. But while such levels can be readily explained, they may prove harder to justify in the UCI’s clear-cut anti-doping rules, and Froome could pay dearly, losing his Vuelta title, not to mention being suspended for up to a year, something that would prohibit him from going for his first Giro d’Italia victory or his fifth Tour de France title in 2018.

Asked to comment by Italian website tuttobici.it, Vuelta runner-up Vincenzo Nibali said: “I’ve read the news and the reactions from Chris and his team. It’s still too early to express what I think. Obviously it’s very bad news for cycling and for me, myself. If the positive control is confirmed, no one could give me back the excitement of winning the Vuelta and stepping on the top step of the podium in Madrid.”

Regarding similar cases in the past, Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi was stripped of three of his five stage wins at the 2007 Giro and banned for a year after excessive Salbutamol was found in his body. Petacchi, who also suffered from asthma, received his suspension for a adverse result that registered only 1,320 nanograms Salbutamol.

More recently, Norwegian cross-country skier Martin Johnsrud Sundby lost his 2015 overall World Cup and Tour de Ski titles and he was suspended by the Court of Arbitration for Sport over a similar doping infringement with Salbutamol.

In both cases, the athletes were not found guilty of ill-intent, but rather an infraction. In the case of Sundby, his own federation defended him, claiming that the excessive traces of the asthma drug were the fault of the team’s medical staff. But the suspensions were upheld.

If Froome is stripped of his recent victory in the Vuelta a España, runner-up Vincenzo Nibali (l) would be awarded the title.

This recent doping case, of course, comes on the heels of Sky’s defense during the long, drawn-out 14-month investigation by the UK Anti-Doping Agency regarding improprieties in the doping rules after Russian hackers Fancy Bears published documents showing that Bradley Wiggins had been granted a TUE (therapeutic use exemption) for the powerful corticosteroid triamcinolone before three major races for a pollen allergy. This recent test result can only be considered a blow for Sky, a team that has always insisted on zero-tolerance when it comes to doping matters.

Froome too has been outspoken. During the Fancy Bears Affair he was critical of Wiggins on his own Twitter account stating, “there are some athletes who not only abide by the rules that are in place, but also those of fair play.” He has also stated that, while he had a TUE during the 2015 Tour de France but refused to use it, stating, “I didn’t feel having a TUE in the last week of the Tour was something I was prepared to do. It did not sit well morally with me.”

Now, however, it is Froome that is under scrutiny, although he is clearly aware of the consequences and doing his best to provide a credible explanation. “I take my leadership position in my sport very seriously,” he said. “The UCI is absolutely right to examine test results and, together with the team, I will provide whatever information it requires.”