The organizers of the Tour de France, looking for a clean race this year and — is there a God in heaven? — perhaps a chance for a Frenchman to win the damn thing, took the unusual step of attempting to bar British rider Chris Froome, who had won four Tours, including the previous three.
The French had something of a case to make. Froome, the leader of Team Sky, won the Vuelta, the grand tour of Spain, in late summer last year, but he was found to have a level of asthma medication in his system that was twice the allowable amount. Two riders from other teams recently served significant suspensions for lesser levels of the same offense, but Sky is a very rich and powerful team, and the authorities dithered and delayed on this one. Sky also has a bit of a dodgy history when it comes to doping accusations, so that added to the general mistrust of what was taking place.
As the cycling world waited for the sport's international governing body to rule on the matter — Sky presented 1,500 pages of medical argument in his defense — Froome went out in May and won the Giro, the Italian race that is the other cycling grand tour. This made Froome one of a handful of riders to win the three tours consecutively and the first since French hero Bernard Hinault in the early 1980s.
That was just about enough for the Tour de France folks to swallow, and they said, for the integrity of the race, it might be best if Sky didn't bring Froome until this doping allegation was settled. The integrity of the race, of course, has always been a subject of debate, going back to the earliest iterations, when riders rubbed cocaine on their gums to ease the pain of climbing the high mountains on two wheels. The debate has gotten more analytical in recent years, as testing methods improved, and the sport has paid the price for its vigilance.
In the 20 Tours beginning with Lance Armstrong's first of seven consecutive wins in 1999, the race has seen nine winners stricken from the books after the fact because of doping. Two others were won by Alberto Contador, who also owned one of those deleted wins, and now the powerful and slightly shady Team Sky has been on the top step of the podium for six of the last seven races. It's been a zig-zagging run to daylight for Tour de France organizers, and you can understand why they are sensitive.
Just days before this year's Tour — which concluded Sunday with another Sky win, this one by Geraint Thomas of Wales — the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency cleared Froome to race. It was an odd ruling because, while the high level of salbutamol couldn't be explained, the agencies decided that disproving Sky's explanation wasn't possible, either. (The team said Froome experienced a kidney imbalance that caused his body to hoard the drug until the exact moment the urine test was taken at the Vuelta. I missed the week in journalism school when they taught endocrinology, but that seems like a mean trick for Froome's kidneys to pull. It also seems as though any explanation of innocence that requires 1,500 pages is likely poppycock, but nevertheless.)
As it turned out, Froome's hopes of winning a record fifth Tour — which would have tied him with four others, including Hinault — didn't last the first afternoon of the race, although that would have been impossible to say at the time. He crashed on the flat first stage and lost nearly a minute to the other big-time contenders for the overall win. Those contenders included Sky teammate Thomas, who was in second place when he crashed out a year ago and was evidently ready to take advantage of better luck.
This time, Thomas had a mostly uneventful clockwise circuit of France. He claimed the yellow jersey when the road went up into the Alps, impressively winning back-to-back mountaintop finishes, including the legendary, sinuous climb of Alpe d'Huez. With a decent lead on Froome and the rest of the pack, the only question was whether the Pyrenees would change anything.
As it turned out, they only confirmed his grip on the race, and, as the last mountains fell away with one final, hairy descent, Thomas was still easily the best of the bunch. He sealed the ceremonial ride into Paris with a strong individual time trial on Saturday that snuffed the last hope of second-place rider Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands, the world champion time-trialist. Froome reclaimed third in the time trial from Slovenian Primoz Roglic, who spent himself the day before on the final mountain stage.
The French couldn't keep Froome off the podium and had to settle for seeing him on the third step. Froome was booed relentlessly from the side of the road during the Tour and was shoved by a spectator on at least one occasion.
As always, the crowds were just this side of manageable, and you wonder whether the passion that nearly overflows when there isn't a French rider in serious contention would spill loose if there ever was one. Romain Bardet of Ag2r-La Mondiale took sixth place, his fourth straight top-10 finish in the Tour, but he was nearly seven minutes behind Thomas.
The last French winner of the Tour de France remains Hinault in 1985, and Le Blaireau — "The Badger" — fumes every year about the dopers who have stolen his sport. He said Froome, even if he had won a fifth Tour, didn't deserve to be compared to himself or Belgian great Eddy Merckx, another five-time winner. (This fails to account, of course, for the three times Merckx failed a drug test or that time in 1982 when Hinault refused to take one. C'est la vie.)