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by Peter Flax
May 26, 2018
Photography by Cor Vos
I got punched in the gut at 6am this morning.
I’d just woken up and fired up the coffee when I pulled up the live feed. What I saw just twisted my insides. The rider wearing bib no. 181 was flying up the gravel of the Colle delle Finestre, 75 vertiginous kilometers from the mountaintop finish, all alone.
Chris Froome’s teammates had vaporized the field, tossing Simon Yates out the back like a compact pink anchor, and now Sky’s translucent leader was pedaling like a dervish, his head tilted down and to the side, ripping the general classification of the Giro d’Italia to shreds.
Not too far behind, Tom Dumoulin and Thibaut Pinot and few more of the world’s best cyclists, all of them clearly on the limit, struggled to keep the gap under one minute. They had good reason to chase. There were still a couple of hours and a couple of mountain passes to come, and the final status of the 101st Giro d’Italia hung in the balance.
But Froome was not coming back. Riding solo, he stretched his lead out to three minutes and then held it all the way until he punched the sky in Bardonecchia.
I felt no joy or wonderment at what I saw; no admiration, nor suspense. I just felt a dull pain, like I had just witnessed someone take something of emotional value from me.
Which, I suppose, I had.
To be clear, this essay will not advance the conversation about Salbutamol or the UCI’s disciplinary tribunals or the probabilities of an elite athlete winning races while dealing with kidney failure. This is not the time nor place to rehash Marginal Gains or the jiffy bag or Froome’s legal tactics. I am willing to accept the possibility that he has a legitimate defense for his anti-doping violation. I am willing to admit that there’s something problematic about how his adverse analytical finding was leaked. I believe that people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, in life and in sport.
But none of that justifies the profound insult that long embattled cycling fans have just been forced to swallow. Froome should not have pinned on a number in Jerusalem. He should not have launched himself on the upper slopes of Monte Zoncolan, and he should not have attempted a solo raid, reminiscent of Fausto Coppi, in the Italian Alps. The implications of Chris Froome pulling on a pink jersey in Rome make me sick.
In moments like this, it is sad to have to say this out loud: The sport of cycling belongs to the fans. These are good people whose patience and passion has been tested for decades now. These are the good people who ultimately enable the business of pro cycling to exist and flourish. These who are the good people who camp out on remote mountain roads to celebrate a beautiful sport and be within an arm’s reach of their heroes for a few fleeting seconds.
And Chris Froome is shitting all over these people.
For decades, fans have been pushed too far. They have been through Festina and Ferrari; Postal and Puerto. They have witnessed countless extraordinary performances that turned out to be ill-gotten. They can pull up the record books and see legendary races with no winner or the wrong winner or improbable victors who never will be called out. They can spend an entire day reading the Wikipedia page on doping in cycling, a 41,000-word tragicomedy. Many of them presently wonder if the usage of motors is more widespread than their imaginations might allow. And still, they continue to believe in the sport.
At the same time, pro cycling seems to have authentically turned an important corner. The oxygen-vector doping free-for-all is over. For the first time in decades, it seems like clean riders can win at the highest level. Although remnants of a dark past refuse to go away, the peloton is full of riders who actually deserve the faith of the people who sustain the sport.
This is fragile ecosystem that Chris Froome trampled on during Stage 19. If he and his handlers truly believe that he is falsely accused, why not spare the embattled sport yet another fiasco? Why not resolve this festering controversy and then return to competition? In interviews, he has acknowledged the possibility that his Giro performance could be invalidated, but he defiantly defends his right to compete, as if he can’t fathom the collateral damage caused by that position.
This is what we’re left to absorb. We are asked consider the exploits of a bike racer who overcame a rather ordinary start in the sport to become a four-time Tour de France winner, who rides for a team that proclaimed it could dominate the cycling by doing lots of little things right and has become embroiled in controversy, and who argues that kidney malfunction and/or acute dehydration explains the abnormal levels of asthma medication tests revealed at the Vuelta a España.
We’re also asked to accept that he started the Giro with imperfect form, or was set back with his TT recon crash in Jerusalem. That he couldn’t hold the wheel on a steep finale on Stage 4 and got dropped five days later on the climb to Gran Sasso, but then went from fair to good to great after a rest day. That he really showed his grit on Monte Zoncolan, perhaps the hardest climb in cycling. And then, finding his best form late in the third week of a tough Grand Tour, he struck out for an uncharacteristic three-climb solo attack and put three minutes on two of the strongest remaining GC contenders.
Even if I give Froome and Sky the benefit of every doubt — which is asking a lot — I still believe that the maglia rosa that he will wear at the start of Stage 20 in Susa does grievous harm to the very institutions that have made him rich and famous.
Surely like many people who are reading this story, I wake at odd hours and watch long bike races and sometimes sit on the side of the road because I believe that cycling is the most majestic and magical sport in the world. I feel actual love for cycling.
That, and not my intellectual arguments about jurisprudence or human physiology, is why I felt heartbroken to watch Chris Froome scale the final ascent to Bardonecchia. I felt like my love was being exploited, pulled uncomfortably close to a breaking point.
How long can our faith be stretched before it just snaps?
Peter Flax, former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine and features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, currently works as editor in chief at The Red Bulletin. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore, and he only wears leg warmers when he feels like it.