This was supposed to be the year Chris Froome was warmly welcomed into cycling royalty with an expected record-tying fifth Tour de France title.
Instead, the Team Sky rider finds himself only freshly cleared of doping after an asthma drug case that dragged on for 10 months and revealed divisions with Tour organizers and France’s greatest living cyclist.
Before the International Cycling Union (UCI) cleared Froome on Monday, the Amaury Sport Organisation had informed Sky it didn’t want Froome on the starting line Saturday in order to protect the image of the race, Le Monde newspaper reported Sunday.
Froome had also been the target of a proposed rider strike by five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault, who had suggested the rest of the peloton pull out in protest if he shows up at the start in the Vendee region along the Atlantic coastline.
Froome had been racing under the cloud of a potential ban after a urine sample he provided at the Spanish Vuelta in September showed a concentration of the asthma drug salbutamol that was twice the permitted level.
But the UCI announced on Monday that his sample results did not constitute an Adverse Analytical Finding.
“I appreciate more than anyone else the frustration at how long the case has taken to resolve and the uncertainty this has caused. I am glad it’s finally over,” Froome said.
“Today’s ruling draws a line. It means we can all move on and focus on the Tour de France.”
Froome’s use of asthma medication has been well documented, and the Kenyan-born rider has often been spotted using inhalers during races.
World Anti-Doping Association rules state that an athlete can be cleared for excessive salbutamol use if he proves that it was due to an appropriate therapeutic dosage.
Still, Froome faces the prospect of fan dissent along the roads of France – having already had urine thrown at him a few years ago when he was still emerging as a multi-Tour champion.
“Over the years, we have always had a small crowd who aren’t happy to see us, for whatever reason,” Froome said last week. “We have always come up against adversity over the years. That is something you deal with in the moment. Hopefully that doesn’t interfere with the race.”
With one more Tour victory, Froome will match the record of five shared by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Hinault and Miguel Indurain.
Lance Armstrong won seven Tour titles before he was stripped of them all for doping.
Froome can also match Merckx’s record by winning his fourth straight Grand Tour, having followed last year’s Tour title with victories in the Vuelta and the Giro d’Italia.
Furthermore, Froome can become the first rider since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve the Giro-Tour double in the same season.
The list of Froome’s rivals has grown.
Colombian climbing specialist Nairo Quintana has surrounded himself with two title candidates in their own right in Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde on the Movistar team.
“It’s probably the best squad I’ve had by my side for a Grand Tour,” said Quintana, a three-time podium finisher in the Tour. “We’ve got to take advantage of that strength in numbers to chase the victory.”
Then there’s 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali, Dutch time trial expert Tom Dumoulin, Froome’s former teammate Richie Porte, French hope Romain Bardet, last year’s runner-up Rigoberto Uran and rising British rider Adam Yates.
COBBLESTONES, CLIMBS AND TIME TRIALS
While the team time trial in Stage 3 will shake up the overall classification, the first big individual test should come in Stage 9 in a leg that follows the cobblestoned route of the annual Paris-Roubaix classic.
Held on the same day – Sunday, July 15 – as the World Cup soccer final, the road to Roubaix takes riders over 15 treacherous cobblestone sections: the highest number since the 1980 Tour, covering nearly 22 kilometers (13.7 miles) altogether.
Then the clockwise route heads down to the Alps and the legendary climb up Alpe d’Huez and more ascents in the Pyrenees before a possibly decisive individual time trial in the penultimate stage in the Basque Country.
The Tour concludes July 29 with the usual parade along the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Stage 17 in the Pyrenees will mark the introduction of an experimental grid start.
The top 20 riders in the standings will start first, with the yellow jersey wearer in pole position, in a format that will resemble an automobile race.
Lower-ranked riders will start in four more groups further behind.
If one team has several riders in the first group, it could enhance an early attack.
While the stage is brief at 65 kilometers – the shortest regular leg of the race in three decades – it’s almost entirely uphill. The route concludes with the never-before used Col du Portet, a beyond-category climb of 16 kilometers at an average gradient of nearly 9 percent.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme has labeled it a “dynamite stage.”