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Froome & Friends

If you’re a cycling fan, Wednesday 13 December 2017 was a big day. News of Chris Froome’s Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) for the asthma medication Salbutamol tore through the Cycling media. Across Europe, it made mainstream headlines. Disappointed is an understatement. I was gutted.If you’ve read the introduction and despaired, worry not. This is not an impassioned defence of Chris Froome and Team Sky. They have lawyers to do that for them.

This is, in fact, a question that should be on the mind of anyone that calls themselves a sports fan, focused through cycling’s prism of narcotic notoriety:

How on earth do we actually feel about dopers?

Let’s get the big one out of the way first. Innocent until proven guilty. In sport as in court. You cannot be found guilty until it has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt.

What does this mean for Froome? Salbutamol is not a banned substance. It doesn’t require the infamous Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) woven into the Wiggins inquiry. Froome’s AAF is not a guilty verdict. He has the right to explain why twice the permitted concentration was in his system after Stage 18 of the 2017 Vuelta a España.

If proven a physiological anomaly, Froome should be absolved and his Maillot Rojo should stand. If not, a lengthy ban and the loss of his Vuelta title will tarnish what would doubtless have been an imposing legacy.

So where does this leave him? There may be better ways to illustrate an answer to my question than the Froome example.

Cycling will forevermore be haunted by the spectre of doping. It is therefore right to be cynical. However, we should not yet doom Froome to villainy. His guilt has not been proven, though public opinion may have condemned him already.

The contrast with how Sir Mo Farah CBE is perceived is stark. One of the country’s most celebrated athletes, he is also inextricably linked with Alberto Salazar. In May 2017, an employee at Nike’s world-(in)famous Oregon Project made accusations that Dr Jeffrey Brown (a doctor working with Salazar at the time) deliberately falsified medical records before sharing them with the United States Anti-Doping Agency USADA.

The accusations, specifically with regards to performance-boosting quantities of the amino acid L-carnitine, were damning. They’re not too dissimilar to those levelled at Froome. Yet Sir Mo is revered still. He was voted Sports Personality of the Year 2017.

There must be more to it than cycling’s chequered past.

Athletics is far from clean. Icarus, Bryan Fogel and Grigory Rodchenkov’s exposé of the Russian state-sponsored doping programme was nominated for an Academy Award. And Sochi 2014 is fresher in the memory than Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France in 2010.

Froome should be the quintessential British sporting icon. Not for him the celebrated British Cycling Academy pathway. Instead, an incomparable work ethic has taken him from humble beginnings in Kenya to four Tour de France titles. The archetypal underdog, a quietly-spoken and modest demeanour is at odds with a supreme athleticism and competitive ruthlessness.

Many point to his birthplace in the heart of Africa. They point to his residence outside the UK. They say he focuses only on marquee events. They complain he has the strongest team, the latest equipment, the best coaching. All this before the doping allegations.

Is that Froome or Farah? For the above could be said of both.

Yet Farah basks in the reflected glow of public affection afforded by his four Olympic gold medals. Perhaps better than any other he has used his Olympic success to nurture a persona adored by sports fans.

That may be the point. Is Froome’s greatest fault that, despite his mastery of his sport, the Tour de France bears no comparison with the Olympics? Olympic success is like no other, and Farah will forever be associated with the Games.

Have his four medals made Mo emblematic of the Olympic ideals? If so, have then Froome’s four Tour titles made him the embodiment of cycling’s pharmaceutical reputation? Is this why he is vilified as Farah is knighted?

What of those pantomime villains, the proven cheats? This should be easy. Yet, again, it isn’t. Yet, again, cycling and athletics are the two sports that best illustrate the discrepancy.

The same Vuelta at which Froome recorded his AAF was Alberto Contador’s last. Arguably his generation’s greatest Grand Tour rider, El Pistolero retired in style. He won the penultimate stage atop the ferociously steep Alto de l’Angliru. The next day he pedalled into Madrid ahead of the peloton, enjoying a hero’s welcome alone.

A fairy-tale ending for a man who was banned from the sport for two years after testing positive for the banned substance clenbuterol (a powerful corticosteroid) at the 2010 Tour. Contador fought the ban, claiming he’d unknowingly eaten a contaminated steak. Whilst it was wild boar for Tyson Fury, for Contador it was beef.

His case ended up in Lausanne, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In 2012 he was given a back-dated two-year ban from the sport and was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia titles.

In other words, he was proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Remember that?

The double-standard is different this time. In this case, it’s Justin Gatlin that provides the insidious foil to Contador the flawed hero. In fact, Gatlin is possibly the most unpopular man in sport.

He was famously booed during the medal ceremony that saw him crowned 100m World Champion ahead of a retiring Usain Bolt. It’s impossible to argue that this was during small-scale competition either. There is no such thing as small-scale with Bolt in the lane next to you.That was before fresh scandal engulfed Gatlin. He is surely now beyond redemption. An investigation by The Telegraph revealed members of his team, including his coach, offered to supply undercover reporters with performance-enhancing drugs.

So, in answer to my question, how we feel about dopers is simultaneously logical and illogical. Sport is built upon this nebulous passion.

We fickle fans choose our heroes carefully. We select those athletes we think reflect our values and abilities. That’s why it’s possible for some to simultaneously condemn Froome and revere Farah, applaud Contador and boo Gatlin. After all, who would boo themselves?

A VERY NECESSARY (R)EVOLUTION

Recently I became a fully paid up, lycra-clad member of the cycling community. And it strikes me that there might not be another sport so out of touch with my generation.

Using the sport’s own parlance, cycling is getting dropped. Participation isn’t the problem – British Cycling report a 1.7m increase in regular cyclists since 2008. No, I think there is a more fundamental problem.

There is no emotional investment in the sport. The Brompton bike commuter, Box Hill weekend warrior or Richmond Park Strava guru have no connection to the professional elite.

Let’s address the elephant in the room immediately. I don’t think this is because of cycling’s well-documented history of doping scandals, although the ongoing Jiffy bag saga doesn’t help much.

Perhaps the biggest issue is how the sport is broadcast, particularly the prestigious Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España).

Mainstream sports now accommodate our dwindling attention spans by producing high-quality, high-value highlights, real-time highlights content. Highly watchable, easily shareable and in/on-demand.

Cassandra say that younger audiences are more likely to follow sport via social media (68%) than watch it live on TV (50%).

By contrast, I could watch this year’s Giro D’Italia in one of three ways:
1. Spending up to six hours that I don’t have (I work in an agency for God’s sake) watching the live broadcast on a pay TV channel I don’t have a subscription to (Eurosport)

2. Waiting for 22:00 when I could watch Jonathan Edwards host the hour-long highlights package on Quest (a channel I’d never heard of before)

3. Watching a five-minute highlights package that doesn’t even have commentary on the Cycling Weekly website

Radical innovation isn’t necessary, but cycling needs to at least be brought up to the standards being set. Broadcasters will point to stage-racing as ill-suited for on-demand coverage. Six hours, with the peloton in formation for most of it, is a long time to wait for the excitement of a bunch sprint to the finish.

To be fair to cycling, this isn’t a problem unique to them. The IOC – custodian of the greatest sporting event on the planet – is struggling to reach younger audiences. Golf is suffering the same affliction.

Enter Velon – a collection of World Tour teams including Team Sky that have acknowledged this and reacted with the Hammer Series.
Three race disciplines over three days (the Hammer Climb, Hammer Sprint, and Hammer Chase) have distilled the most exciting elements of the sport into one event. It has the potential to become the next Twenty20.

This simple, short format produced some frantic racing at the inaugural Hammer Sportzone Limburg. Team Sky claimed the victory during the final event, edging out rival Team Sunweb by a matter of metres.

The riders’ suffering on crossing the line is plain. Velon have found a way to give this meaning, sharing rider data (power, cadence, heart rate and speed) across their website, app, and social channels. Onboard GoPro footage should be the crowning glory of the riders’ newfound connection with their fans.But it isn’t. Not for me.The crucial missing ingredient is storytelling. For too long the cycling narrative has been nothing but negative. Lance Armstrong and his infamous US Postal team have done significant damage, but there has been no attempt to recover.

There are stories to be told as well. Mark Cavendish is a former World Champion. He is 4 Tour de France stage wins behind the legendary Eddy Merckx’ total of 34.

We’ll have to wait until next year to see if he goes past it after retiring due to injuries sustained from a crash caused by talismanic World Champion Peter Sagan.

However. His riding style has also courted controversy. He has been accused of brashness, even arrogance ("when journalists at the Tour de France ask me if I am the best sprinter, I answer yes”). He is married to a former glamour model.

He is as charismatic as he is talented. But we don’t hear about any of this.

We have been spoiled by the ongoing success of British Cycling and British cyclists and so their stories have been lost amongst the medals and les maillots jaunes whilst we root for the underdog.

The rise of boxing, in tandem with the rise of Anthony Joshua, is testament to the power of storytelling. What was once a minority sport has been made mainstream by the man that still lives in a council flat with his mum.

It is an interesting idea that a brand could come in and play the role of storyteller; becoming endemic to the sport, creating the missing connection and increasing fans’ emotional investment in the sport and riders.

Crucially, however, it must be the right brand. Values must align and stories must be complementary. Something to cut through the cluster of B2B logos currently plastered across the riders’ kit would be a welcome relief as well.

Don’t waste the Hammer Series. Work with an innovative broadcaster; a partnership with Vice would be a real break with tradition. Peel back the curtain, work with influencers as well as athletes. Bring the reams of data to life and we will take notice.

Velon have a huge role to play in cycling’s millennial makeover. They should be saluted and applauded for the role they have already played. But storytelling is the final, crucial missing ingredient in interesting a notoriously disinterested audience.

Get the stories right and the sport will be rewarded with the attention long denied it. Build it and we will come.