The story behind the story: Breaking the news about Froome’s salbutamol case

It’s been a season full of news about cycling, but probably the biggest story came in early December: Chris Froome was battling a doping case, and could lose his Vuelta a Espana title.

Froome’s victory in the Tour of Spain was one of his career’s top results. In taking that race after winning a fourth Tour in July, he became only the third rider in history to take both races in the same season. The confidence he derived from that prompted him to announce that he would aim for another rare double. Namely, winning both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in 2018.

That hadn’t been achieved since 1998, and many believed it would never be done again. But Froome and Team Sky felt otherwise.

Then the bombshell. In the early hours of Wednesday December 13, the Guardian published a story by journalists Sean Ingle and Martha Kelner. Totalling over 1,500 words, the essentials were summed up by the 11-word headline: Chris Froome fights to save career after failed drugs test result.

The details of the Guardian/Le Monde collaboration on the matter was as follows. The Briton was tested on September 7 following the 18th stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana. He had lost time to rivals the previous day, but bounced back to fortify his race lead on the roads to Santo Toribio de Liébana.

When that test was examined, it was established that Froome’s urine contained a staggering amount of salbutamol. The reading of 2000ng/ml in his urine was double the maximum allowed by the World Anti Doping Agency, which permits up to 1000ng/ml for the purposes of asthma relief.

This translates into 16 puffs of salbutamol in a 24-hour period, or eight over 12 hours. The Guardian states that the levels in his urine theoretically mean he took 32 puffs.

Although Froome insists upon his innocence, saying that he didn’t take any more than the maximum allowed, the news is very serious for him and Team Sky. Unless Froome can prove his body metabolises the medication in such a way as to explain the extraordinary result, he will be punished strongly.

His Vuelta a Espana title could well be stripped, as well as his third place in the world time trial championships on September 20. Team Sky’s bronze medal in the world team time trial championship three days earlier would also be under threat.

More seriously, a suspension from cycling would also be on the cards. In 2014 the Italian rider Diego Ulissi was handed a nine month ban in 2014 after a sample showed similar levels of 1920ng/ml. In 2007, Alessandro Petacchi was given a year’s suspension for 1320ng/ml in his urine.

Read on for an interview with Martha Kelner, who talks about the origins of the story, how Team Sky tried to deflate the impact of the news, the potential ramifications for Froome’s career and the team, her thoughts on Dave Brailsford and more.

CyclingTips: First off, Martha, how did the story come about?

Martha Kelner: The story basically came about – without giving too much away, because I wouldn’t want to compromise any of our sources – but it was a number of sources who came forward…it was a bit of a collaborative effort between the Guardian and Le Monde, with their excellent correspondent Clement Guillou.

The story was pretty firm, pretty solid, that Chris had failed a test because of twice the allowed amount of Salbutamol in his urine. Then obviously we, with further investigations, found out what date it was, and when he first became aware of it.

Team Sky released their statement prior to the story being published. Did you feel that they were trying to get ahead of the story to put their spin on it?

Yes, I think there was a bit of media management that went on. They got a statement to us about six minutes before they sent it out to everyone else. As you know as a journalist, we have got to re-legal the story, something as sensitive as this. It is not the case of just slamming in a statement and then sending it off. We have to get it re-legaled, we have to rewrite it in order to insert the statement. Everyone knows that is not going to take six minutes to do.

Given that we had given them a chance to comment and to contest any questions we were putting to them, I didn’t feel like it was great form for them to then release a statement widely six minutes later. It gave us very little chance to get our story out there before everyone had it, basically.

What did you think of the Sky and Chris Froome reaction? To me it looked like they were trying to downplay things considerably…

Yeah, I think it was probably what I expected. Team Sky is obviously an enormous organisation with plenty of monetary, legal and scientific backing. They are obviously very keen for Chris Froome to clear his name over this. He’s their big star, so I didn’t expect them to bow over and accept the findings of it.

They don’t actually contest the 2000 nanograms per millilitre of Salbutamol in the urine. They don’t contest that. It is just they say that they are confident that they have got an explanation behind that. That is what I expected, I expected the statement to be fairly strong in rebutting any allegations of wrong doing.

One line which for me that stands out says, ‘the notification of the test finding does not mean that any rule has been broken.’ It is probably rather generous to say that. But time will tell, I guess.

Yes.

What is your view generally on this case?

I think reputationally it is very damaging. It obviously comes at a bad time for Team Sky after everything surrounding Bradley Wiggins, after the jiffy bag and the TUEs and the pretty poor performance of Dave Brailsford at the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

I think that maybe they had thought they had weathered that storm. Obviously there were no charges from the UKAD investigation, owing partly due to a lack of evidence to lost medical data.

Maybe they thought they had managed to see the worst of it out, and perhaps never expected this adverse analytical finding to become public.

I think reputationally it is very damaging. I think it is an interesting case because it is still very unclear what the performance enhancing benefits of Salbutamol are. It is also very unclear what the timescale is going to be. What exactly their defence – if that is the right word – is going to be.

It is definitely going to be interesting, but I think for the sport and particularly Team Sky, it is pretty bad news.

I am just not sure how long the organisation can continue, given that the whole ethos behind it is a zero-tolerance attitude towards doping, yet it has been 15 months of story after story about Team Sky and grey areas and TUEs and Fancy Bears. It has just been slightly endless. So it will be interesting to see where it goes next.

Do you have thoughts about Dave Brailsford continuing? There have been calls for him to resign over his handling of such matters, and over those matters themselves.

Well, I just happened to be reading an interview that Donald McRae in our paper did with him in 2011. He said something along the lines of, ‘our philosophy is that we are at the forefront of promoting clean cycling.’ He said, ‘when that is not the case, I will go.’

I think that philosophy has been really serious examined over the last 15 months. I think if he was to abide by every word of what he said in 2011, then he probably wouldn’t be there anymore. At the very least, there have been serious mistakes made when it comes to record-keeping. And also with the TUEs, they seem to have strayed into questionable areas, definitely.

And I think the explanations for the Jiffy Bag also didn’t match up when Matt Lawton was looking into the team.

Yes, Matt said that it feels like he may have been offered an inducement not to run that story, which obviously doesn’t sit well. I think it is the image of them being whiter than white, cleaner than clean, is something that has definitely been called into question.

So should Brailsford be there, given what the team was formed on, what that philosophy was?

Probably not, no.

Do you think if he were to go and if somebody completely new was to take over in that position, would that go some way towards giving the team a chance to get back on track?

The thing is, Brailsford has been inexorably linked with Team Sky. I wonder whether people feel like without Dave Brailsford, there is no Team Sky. The problem is that if an anti-doping rule violation is brought against Chris Froome, then they have to decide whether they want this zero tolerance policy to remain in place, or whether they want their best rider. You can’t have both if you have an anti-doping rule violation. But we are not at that stage yet.

Martha Kelner of The Guardian, who co-wrote the Froome positive story with Sean Ingle. The French Le Monde publication also worked on the story and published their own version on the same day.

How were your initial interactions with Team Sky? Did you get an explanation, or was it difficult dealing with them?

To be honest, we only went to them the day before publication when we were sure we had the story. Their press guy is very approachable, very friendly. I have to say he was relatively helpful. We had to bring the deadline to our story forward, we were not planning on launching so early in the morning.

They did accommodate getting us a statement earlier. It was a shame that they had to then send it out straight away to every other media organisation in the world.

I think they are at least trying to be seen doing the right thing. But I think the key thing is that….they alluded to it in their statement by saying that in light of media interest, we have to respond to defend ourselves, I think they said. But if the Guardian and Le Monde had not gone to Team Sky, I doubt that we would be having this conversation right now because I think we would still be in the dark about this. I have no doubt about that.

What do you expect that this will mean for Chris Froome’s career? Do you think a ban is inevitable?

It would be pure speculation. I don’t know what their defence will be. I think there are conflicting opinions from sport science experts about whether dehydration could have had a really marked effect. That it could have resulted in it being twice the legal limit of salbutamol. I don’t know enough about it, but it seems extreme that dehydration or some other issue would result in there being double the legal limit of Salbutamol in the system.

I think if it is not explainable, if they don’t come up with a sufficient explanation, then he is obviously looking at a ban from three months to 12 months. That could mean missing the Giro and the Tour next year.

I think the biggest damage is to his reputation. He is supposedly earning four million pounds a year from Team Sky, and possibly more in endorsement deals. I think is it hugely damaging for his career to have a failed drugs test associated with him.

Are you surprised he hasn’t said he is voluntarily sidelining himself now, given it’s the off season and there are no races to miss? If he did that, it would in theory start the clock now rather than later if a ban was imposed…

I’m not surprised by this because Team Sky are obviously going to invest everything they can into clearing Froome’s name completely. They are hoping they can prove some physiological reason why he had double the permitted level of salbutamol in his urine.

Any anti-doping rule violation, for me, means the end of Team Sky.

You can’t have a team whose whole ethos is zero tolerance policy towards drugs and this obsessive attention to detail having their best rider with an ADRV next to their name. That’s the end of the team completely.

So in that sense it doesn’t matter when the ban starts or what length it is: as I see it, they are putting all their eggs in one basket.