(AFP) – Being the number one doping suspect or a normal human being with physiological limits like the rest of the peloton can be a fine line on the Tour de France.
By the end of an epic 18th stage won by Frenchman Christophe Riblon, yellow jersey holder Chris Froome had boosted his quest to be seen as the latter.
On Thursday, Froome awoke to news that his Sky team had handed over reams of his physiological data to a leading French sports scientist for scrutiny.
Hours later, on what was billed as the ‘Queen’ stage of the 100th edition and as he fought to extend his race lead, the Kenyan-born Briton suffered from a bout of hypoglycemia that left him in danger on the legendary Alpe d’Huez.
Froome ultimately came over the finish line with his grip on the race lead even tighter after Spanish rival Alberto Contador failed to keep pace on the 13.8 km climb to the summit.
But as the Kenyan-born Briton fought to increase his advantage, the glucose in his bloodstream fell to critical levels, leaving him in danger of suffering a spectacular collapse 5 km from the summit.
Froome sent Australian teammate Richie Porte back to his team car for a handful of sugar-rich power gels, copping a 20-sec penalty in the process. Feeding is forbidden in the final 20 km of such stages, but Froome was unapologetic.
“If it comes with a 20sec penalty, I have to accept that,” he said. “I’m just happy to have come out with more of an advantage than I had at the start of the stage.”
While the incident added extra drama, it arguably boosted Sky’s campaign to show there is nothing dubious about their impressive performances so far.
Froome, who finished runner-up to teammate Bradley Wiggins last year, has faced doping scrutiny since winning in spectacular fashion atop Ax-Trois-Domaines on stage eight.
It increased when he finished second, at only 12secs behind world champion Tony Martin, in the stage 11 time trial and then intensified after his spectacular win atop Mont Ventoux on stage 15.
On occasion, the headlines in France, where the fallout from the Lance Armstrong doping scandal is still being felt, have not been kind to Froome.
In a bid to prove his innocence, Sky team chief Dave Brailsford has submitted data from Froome’s performances on 18 climbs over the past two years to Fred Grappe, a cycling coach who is also a reputed researcher in sports science in France.
After studying the data, Grappe told Thursday’s L’Equipe sports daily there was nothing to suggest Froome is cheating and Froome was happy to hear the news.
“I’m really happy to hear their findings and to hear their take on it, basically backing us up to say that these performances are very good, strong, clean, sporting performances,” he said.
Brailsford has also written to the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) offering the same data, which is recovered from the cyclists’ power meters and is measured in watts.
Froome suggested after Thursday’s stage that his “hypo” incident had shown he is only human. And he was given a boost in that quest by Riblon.
“It’s crazy hearing people talk like this,” said Froome.
“Of course I’m human and anybody can have a bad day. Any athletes can have a sugar low at the end of the race. As far as my image as concerned … I don’t know.
“I know what I’m doing is right and no one can take that away from me.”
Riblon, who broke the hosts’ victory drought when he caught up with and attacked American Tejay Van Garderen in the last 1.5 km, said it’s time to leave Froome alone.
“I don’t understand this general climate of suspicion around Froome. I don’t think Team Sky should be treated the way they are,” said the 32-year-old AG2R rider.
“They work hard… they have modern training methods and perhaps we’d be better off looking at what they’re doing there than simply looking at them with suspicion.”