Why Does Chris Froome Have So Many Doubters?

Chris Froome has never failed a drugs test and has repeated promises that he is ‘100% clean’. So why does a prominent French anti-doping campaigner think there’s reason to doubt the leader of the Tour de France?

Jul 24 2015, 11:59am

Photo by PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

After a string of consistent, impressive performances over the past three weeks, Chris Froome is odds-on to be crowned as winner of the Tour de France in Paris on Sunday.

But many in the French capital will stop short of giving the mild-mannered, Kenyan-born Brit a hero's welcome. He might even consider himself lucky if he manages to avoid anymore unwelcome run-ins with angry locals – earlier this week a spectator jumped out from the side of the road during the race and shouted 'dopé!' as he threw a cup of piss in Froome's face.

During the final week of the Tour, speculation about the credibility of the man in the yellow jersey has increased. This is largely because of a YouTube video[1] that combined TV footage from the Mont Ventoux stage of the 2013 Tour (which Froome won) with detailed data about his power output and heart-rate during that day's stage. The data, which is usually kept under lock and key by the riders' team management, was apparently 'leaked' to French anti-doping campaigner Antoine Vayer [2].

The doubters – and Vayer is among them – reckon that the crucial power-to-weight ratio (expressed as watts per kilogram) from Froome's 2013 performance was so high as to be suspicious – a throwback to the days of Lance Armstrong during the 2000s.

Photo by PA Images

To make the point, the TV broadcaster France 2 used images of Armstrong in their coverage about Froome. Articles in the French printed press – several of them written by Vayer – continue to cast doubt on Froome.

In an attempt to take some heat out of the situation, Froome's team, Team Sky, staged a press conference on Tuesday at which head of performance Tim Kerrison took the unprecedented step of walking the assembled media through detailed data from Froome's performance in stage 10 of this year's Tour. It was a stage that Froome won comfortably, beating his closest rival for the yellow jersey by over a minute.

The power-to-weight ratio calculated by Team Sky for Froome's performance was much lower than the figures produced by those in the French media (5.78, compared to 7.04 watts per kilogram). The sums are complicated – there are too many variables to list here – but the upshot is that instead of settling the argument, the press conference gave rise to more questions. Many people weren't satisfied by Sky's numbers, and Froome still has his doubters. We spoke to Antoine Vayer – the man whose leaked data helped to create that now infamous YouTube video – to find out why.

Hi Antoine. So, does your suspicion just come from the numbers, the data and Froome's performance?
No, of course not. The suspicion comes because I am an insider. It's just the tip of the iceberg, and I know the iceberg.

Naivety is a [stock in trade] of people who [lie and cheat]... you understand.

What else is there apart from the data? Are people telling you that Chris Froome is a doper because they've seen evidence? Or is there a feeling among the peloton that he's doing something wrong? Is there anything apart from the numbers?
There are things, but I cannot tell you. The fact is that Froome took corticosteroids in the Tour de Romandie. [In 2014 Cycling's governing body, the UCI, granted Froome a 'Therapeutic Use Exemption' for the normally banned substance, permitting its use to treat a chest complaint – a decision that has been criticised.]

Of course, for English people, when they look at Froome being interviewed, when they look at him with the rhinoceros [a logo on his bike to show his support for a wildlife charity] – it's not cancer, it's rhinoceros[3] – they say he must be a good guy. I know the English.

We haven't seen performances like this. Except very few, with Contador in the Giro [Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title and 2011 Giro d'Italia victory following a positive test for Clenbuterol] or Froome – it had disappeared. Then it appears again.

So you believe that Froome is doping?
I don't believe he is doping. I am like St Thomas ['Doubting Thomas'].

I would like to be a fan of Chris, I would like to be excited. I've got five boys and my kids say 'Oh, Froome, Froome, Froome!' and I say: 'No.' It is my opinion, but it is shared by many people.

Can you understand that lots of people won't believe Froome is doping until there is real evidence? The power data is not real evidence.
It was the same with Lance for 10 years, so tranquilo. [In 2000, Vayer said publicly that he thought Armstrong was doping. It wasn't until 2012 that the American was stripped of his titles.]

But with Lance Armstrong, David Walsh [the Sunday Times journalist who pursued him and contributed to his downfall] had been told by a soigneur and former teammates that something was going on. No one is saying that about Froome. [For his part, Walsh said recently that he believes that Froome is clean.]
You can be more clever.

Now we get into a discussion about the idea that some riders may be guilty of 'technological fraud' – in other words, that they have a motor or some kind of power-storing device hidden in their bike which can be activated to give them an illegal boost. Vayer made reference to rumours about this in a recent article in Le Monde, where he asked Froome to 'prove to us that we can believe in you'.

If there is something going on, and people know about it, what do you think is stopping them from coming forward and announcing it publicly?

Because they are fed by cycling – everybody is eating [from the same trough]. Even if you win a lot less money, you eat [from the same trough].

Some British journalists have said that, in the absence of real evidence, it's irresponsible to cast doubt on Froome's performances in the way that the French media has.

There is no conflict about this, but it's really good to have pressure, that's what I think. Maximum pressure on the UCI, on the riders, is good – because everybody knows perfectly well that doping is not finished. Everybody wants to see pure cycling, and the only way is to [apply] pressure everywhere 'til we have evidence that there is no doping. If [in the future] I will be convinced that Froome is quite normal, everything will be good and I will write poetry. But until that moment, it's necessary to have pressure, because there is not enough transparency in the sport. I speak with people who dope. I speak with riders who dope.

The riders who are still doping now, do they want to stop doping? Do they do it because they think it's the only way to compete?
Some want to stop. Some stop because they don't want to be controlled. There are some riders who win 7,000 Euros a month and you say to them, 'have this and you will win maybe 70,000 Euros a month' and they say, 'I'm not interested.'

So is it the teams that encourage them to do it?
It depends. If you look at Froome, he is alone in this team – he can do what he wants, where he wants, how he wants.

But Froome has said that there should be more tests when the teams go out to Tenerife for altitude training. Isn't that strange?

But why is it in his interest to say that? Have you asked that question to yourself? Why does he say that? Riders always have [a reason] to say something – sometimes money, or sometimes it's because they use something that the others don't use.

Vayer then says that he has doubts about the benefits of training at altitude, and that one of the reasons that pro cycling teams go out there is to do blood transfusions.

When you see Chris Froome look into the camera and say that he's clean, isn't he believable? He's so different from Armstrong. There's no aggression.
I'm a teacher [Vayer now works as a PE teacher in Brittany] – I teach pupils from 12-16 and quite often they lie. It's the age. Some look at me, and when they look at me, I know that they're taking the piss out of me because they are like Lance. But some seem to be angels and speak to me perfectly – and the best liars are the best angels. Don't be so naive, you English!

Some people might think that the French are going for Froome like this because a Frenchman hasn't won the race for 30 years – that they're bad losers. What do you think of that?

In one of your recent articles you included a quote from Greg LeMond [American three-time winner of the Tour de France]. He said that if Froome were as talented as his performances suggest, then he would be the most remarkable and talented bike-rider that the sport had ever seen. But isn't that possible?

Yes, I hope so. I hope so for him and for us. I hope he will manage to convince us. I'm not in conflict. I want to believe in him.

[1] The original video has been taken down, but other versions keep springing up.

[2] From 1995 to 1998 Vayer worked as a trainer for the Festina team, which was faced charges and sanctions when a stash of doping products was found in team car shortly before the start of the 1998 Tour de France. After leaving Festina, Vayer began to campaign against doping and cheating in cycling and has devised a system of calculating riders' power outputs. Team Sky general manager Dave Brailsford has described Vayer's methods as 'pseudoscience'.

[3] Lance Armstrong set up a cancer charity in 1997.