In order to win the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España this summer, Chris Froome was required to ride an incredible 4,265 miles, 1.5 times the distance from Los Angeles to New York, on just his bike. There’s no doubt that being a professional cyclist is arduous, and even finishing one of the Grand Tours (Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and Vuelta a España) is more than a challenge, but to win two of these magnificent three-week stage races in a row requires a superhuman effort. Only 13 cyclists have won two Grand Tours in a single year, with three of that number (including Froome) having completed the Tour-Vuelta double. Clearly, riders who belong to this elite club are unique and extremely gifted, but the question remains: What pushed these riders into the upper echelon of their sport?
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Froome, who rides under the British flag, showed promise early in his career but struggled with inconsistency and reliability issues. However, in 2011, he made a name for himself at the Vuelta, finishing in second place for the British-based Team Sky. Founded in 2009, Team Sky tasked themselves with winning the Tour with a British cyclist within five years. Former track-cyclist Bradley Wiggins achieved this goal for the team in 2012, with Froome racing for him as a super-domestique, a role given to riders who are capable of racing for the overall classification themselves but instead support their team leader (in this case, Wiggins). Since this victory in 2012, the team has captured the Tour four more times and the Vuelta once with Froome (including Froome’s victories this year), as well as the time trial at the Road World Championships in 2014 with Wiggins.
Sir Dave Brailsford, the manager of Team Sky and former performance director of British Cycling, has marked their success down to a program of “marginal gains,” where every detail is carefully inspected and analyzed in order to eke out small performance gains. If Brailsford is to be believed, then these little advantages have clearly added up in a significant way.
One other aspect that is less publicized by the team, but just as relevant, if not more, is the team’s ability to purchase the best riders. In professional cycling, there is no salary cap, meaning that teams with the most amount of funding and sponsorship can acquire the fastest and strongest cyclists. French newspaper L’Equipe estimated Sky’s budget at $40 million, the largest of any team on the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) World Tour; in other words, Team Sky is the Yankees of cycling. Furthermore, all of these top riders, at least at the Tour and the Vuelta, devote their entire existence to Froome and his success. And having riders that support you is crucial to capturing the yellow jersey because cyclists can save up to 30 percent of their energy by staying in the slipstream of a rider ahead. Consequently, having riders who can pace you up Mont Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez can be a huge boon. With Sky, this can lead to somewhat boring and predictable racing, but unless a limit on cycling salaries is implemented, not much can be done to stop the Sky train.
Clearly, there are a few different factors that have contributed to the success of Sky over the past five years, but there is no doubt that it appears eerily similar to the success of Lance Armstrong and Team U.S. Postal Service of the early 2000s. Although Team U.S. Postal did have talented riders on their roster and Armstrong did have certain physiological advantages that separated him from the rest of the peloton, the seven Tours that sociopathic cyclist won came down to the institutionalized doping program that the team, managed by Johan Bruyneel, forced its riders to take part in. It is unwise to make accusations of cheating without evidence, but there are bits and pieces of evidence that suggest that something a little more nefarious than marginal gains is going on at Sky.
Therapeutic Use Exemption documents leaked by the Russian hackers Fancy Bears showed that Bradley Wiggins received injections for triamcinolone acetonide, a corticosteroid that can be used asthma and allergic rhinitis, before the 2011 and 2012 Tour, and the 2013 Giro. While Wiggins did not break any doping regulations and was consequently not disciplined, his actions did cross into a gray area regarding cheating, and his actions were in contradiction his own 2012 autobiography “My Time” and Team Sky’s stated and emphasized “no-needles” policy. In addition, in October of 2016, U.K. Anti-Doping began investigating a suspicious package delivered to the team at the Critérium du Dauphine that supposedly contained some kind of medicine. While it was eventually revealed by Brailsford that the package contained the legal Fluimucil, a mucus-clearing drug, it is suspicious that British Cycling failed to correctly document the contents of the package. Doubts also surround Froome, who was supposedly cured of the parasitic blood disease bilharzia before the 2011 Vuelta, which up until then limited his success. The skepticism surrounding Froome is because you can replace “cured of bilharzia” with “doping” and the events of the story still sound remarkably similar.
Cycling is perhaps too difficult of a sport not to dope and cheat in. Riders push their minds and bodies to the absolute limit, so much so that they often get colds, have diarrhea, or acquire some other malady mid-race, because all their energy is going towards keeping their legs moving and not towards their immune system. Throughout history, riders have always looked for performance gains, whether from cognac, cocaine, or cortisone. And the reality is that anti-doping measures can always be circumvented, no matter how strict they become. But unless Wiggins, Froome, and Team Sky admit they’ve been using banned substances, then a cloud of suspicion will always hang over them. And maybe it doesn’t matter either way. What they have achieved in cycling is remarkable and will certainly be remembered for generations to come.
Cormac Chester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.