Five days before the start of the Tour de France, the UCI has announced that it has dropped its investigation into Chris Froome and his threshold-exceeding levels of Salbutamol during last year’s Vuelta a España.
The surprise announcement came from the governing body on Monday morning and, while short on specifics, made clear that the case against him would go no further.
It noted that according to the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), “inhaled salbutamol is permitted subject to a maximum dose of 1600 micrograms over 24 hours, not to exceed 800 micrograms every 12 hours (the permitted use), and that a concentration in excess of 1000 ng/ml is an abnormal finding which is presumed not to be the result of a permitted use.”
It added that WADA’s rules state that if an athlete can prove that their abnormal finding “was the consequence of a permitted use,” that it would not be considered an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF).
“The UCI instigated disciplinary proceedings in accordance with the UCI Anti-Doping Rules (ADR), during which Mr Froome exercised his right to prove that his abnormal result was the consequence of a permitted use,” the UCI stated. “The proceedings started with an evidentiary phase, with the UCI and Mr Froome agreeing that the UCI Anti-Doping Tribunal would decide whether certain information could be provided to Mr Froome in preparing his defence. The UCI already sought WADA’s advice at that stage, during which a significant number of expert and scientific reports were submitted on behalf of Mr Froome.
“After the evidentiary phase, Mr Froome requested additional information from WADA about the salbutamol regime. Following receipt of information from WADA, Mr Froome then filed his explanation for the abnormal result on 4 June 2018, together with significant additional expert evidence.
“The UCI has considered all the relevant evidence in detail (in consultation with its own experts and experts from WADA). On 28 June 2018, WADA informed the UCI that it would accept, based on the specific facts of the case, that Mr Froome’s sample results do not constitute an AAF. In light of WADA’s unparalleled access to information and authorship of the salbutamol regime, the UCI has decided, based on WADA’s position, to close the proceedings against Mr Froome.”
Froome issued a reaction via a Team Sky press release. “I am very pleased that the UCI has exonerated me. While this decision is obviously a big deal for me and the team, it’s also an important moment for cycling,” he said.
“I understand the history of this great sport – good and bad. I have always taken my leadership position very seriously and I always do things the right way. I meant it when I said that I would never dishonour a winner’s jersey and that my results would stand the test of time.
“I have never doubted that this case would be dismissed for the simple reason that I have known throughout I did nothing wrong. I have suffered with asthma since childhood. I know exactly what the rules are regarding my asthma medication and I only ever use my puffer to manage my symptoms within the permissible limits.
“Of course, the UCI had to examine these test results from the Vuelta. Unfortunately, the details of the case did not remain confidential, as they should have done. And 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.
“I am grateful for all the support I have had from the Team and from many fans across the world. Today’s ruling draws a line. It means we can all move on and focus on the Tour de France.”
Neither Froome nor the UCI provided any specifics about how he was cleared.
Neither did Sky Team Principal Sir Dave Brailsford, who said the team had backed him from the start of the matter.
“We have always had total confidence in Chris and his integrity. We knew that he had followed the right medical guidance in managing his asthma at the Vuelta and were sure that he would be exonerated in the end, which he has been,” he said. “This is why we decided that it was right for Chris to continue racing, in line with UCI rules, while the process was ongoing. We are pleased that it has now been resolved.
“Chris’s elevated Salbutamol urine reading from Stage 18 of the Vuelta was treated as a ‘presumed’ Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) by the UCI and WADA, which triggered a requirement for us to provide further information.”
He said that a ‘comprehensive review of that information, relevant data and scientific research’ led the UCI and WADA to conclude that no rule had been broken.
Background to the case:
Froome, a four-time Tour de France winner, was tested on September 7, following stage 18 of last year’s Vuelta a Espana. He went on to win the race.
The sample was subsequently found to contain 2,000 nanograms per millilitre of salbutamol, double the permitted maximum set by WADA. However, as per the rules for specified substances, it was not obligatory for the news to be made public.
The Guardian and LeMonde received information about the adverse analytical finding and approached Team Sky for comment. The newspapers published stories about the matter in the early hours of Wednesday December 13, although Sky sought to control the narrative by issuing a press release shortly beforehand.
According to the Guardian, the level of 2,000 nanograms per millilitre of salbutamol translated into 16 puffs of salbutamol in a 24-hour period, or eight over 12 hours. The paper stated that the levels in his urine theoretically mean he took 32 puffs but, when dehydration was taken into account, the 2,000 nanogram level was downgraded. It still remained over the 1,000 nanogram threshold.
Froome’s case was preceeded by several others, including those of two high-profile riders. In January 2015, Diego Ulissi was given a nine-month ban after testing positive for Salbumatol at the 2014 Giro d’Italia. He was found to have 1,900 ng/ml of the substance in his urine.
A second Italian, Alessandro Petacchi, was given a one-year ban in 2008 after returning a sample with 1320 ng/ml of Salbutamol.
Froome resisted calls by race organisers and others not to compete until his case was resolved. He initially appeared far from his best in the Giro d’Italia but won the event with a final week fightback, including an 80 kilometre solo breakaway.
Although Tour de France organisers were reported on Sunday to be blocking Froome under rules intending to limit damage to the image of the race, those organisers will presumably have to withdraw their objection now.
That would clear the way for Froome to chase a fifth Tour win and, if he achieves it, his fourth Grand Tour victory in a row.
Brailsford said that the team had said from the start that the metabolism and excretion of Salbutamol is affected by complex medical and physiological issues.
“The same individual can exhibit significant variations in test results taken over multiple days while using exactly the same amount of Salbutamol,” he assserted. “This means that the level of Salbutamol in a single urine sample, alone, is not a reliable indicator of the amount inhaled. A review of all Chris’s 21 test results from the Vuelta revealed that the Stage 18 result was within his expected range of variation and therefore consistent with him having taken a permitted dose of Salbutamol.
“Chris has proved he is a great champion – not only on the bike but also by how he has conducted himself during this period. It has not been easy, but his professionalism, integrity and good grace under pressure have been exemplary and a credit to the sport.
“The greatest bike race in the world starts in five days. We can’t wait to get racing again and help Chris win it for a record-equalling fifth time.”
Despite the complexity – and controversy – of the case, the UCI has provided zero indication that it will give any further explanation as to why Froome was cleared.
“Whilst the UCI would have obviously preferred the proceedings to have been finalised earlier in the season, it had to ensure that Mr Froome had a fair process, as it would have done with any other rider, and that the correct decision was issued,” it said. “Having received WADA’s position on 28 June 2018, the UCI prepared and issued its formal reasoned decision as quickly as possible in the circumstances.
“The UCI understands that there will be significant discussion of this decision, but wishes to reassure all those involved in or interested in cycling that its decision is based on expert opinions, WADA’s advice, and a full assessment of the facts of the case. The UCI hopes that the cycling world can now turn its focus to, and enjoy, the upcoming races on the cycling calendar.”