Team Sky’s Chris Froome could be stripped of the Vuelta title he won in September and faces a potentially lengthy ban after testing positive for excessive levels of an anti-asthma drug during the Spanish race.
News of the failed drugs test was broken by the Guardian and French newspaper Le Monde following a joint investigation, and has subsequently been confirmed by world cycling’s governing body, the UCI, and by Team Sky.
The anti-doping control, conducted on 7 September after Stage 18 of the Vuelta, found that the 32-year-old had twice the permitted level of the anti-asthma drug, Salbutamol, in his urine.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) permits athletes to use the drug provided the level does not exceed 1,000 nanograms per millilitre. No therapeutic use exemption (TUE) is required.
But Froome, who in July secured his fourth Tour de France victory in five years before going on to claim victory in Spain, returned a reading of 2,000 nanograms per millilitre.
Both the rider, who used the drug with an inhaler to treat his asthma, and Team Sky are adamant he did not exceed the dose permitted under WADA rules, which is a maximum of 1,600 micrograms (mcg) over a period of 24 hours and no more than 800mcg over 12 hours.
Froome was notified of the adverse analytical finding on 20 September. Later that day he won the bronze medal in the individual time trial at the UCI Road World Championships in Bergen, Norway.
Analysis of his B sample confirmed the results of the A sample, and the UCI said that “the proceedings are being conducted in line with the UCI anti-doping rules.”
It added: “Pursuant to article 7.9.1. of the UCI anti-doping rules, the presence of a specified substance such as Salbutamol in a sample does not result in the imposition of such mandatory provisional suspension against the rider.”
In a statement, Team Sky said that due to Froome’s asthma getting worse in the final week of the Vuelta, he increased his dosage of Salbutamol on the advice of the team doctor, but within the permitted level.
It added: “The notification of the test finding does not mean that any rule has been broken. The finding triggers requests from the UCI which are aimed at establishing what caused the elevated concentration of Salbutamol and to ensure that no more than the permissible doses of Salbutamol were inhaled.”
Froome said: “It is well known that I have asthma and I know exactly what the rules are. I use an inhaler to manage my symptoms (always within the permissible limits) and I know for sure that I will be tested every day I wear the race leader’s jersey.
“My asthma got worse at the Vuelta so I followed the team doctor’s advice to increase my Salbutamol dosage. As always, I took the greatest care to ensure that I did not use more than the permissible dose.”
He added: “I take my leadership position in my sport very seriously. The UCI is absolutely right to examine test results and, together with the team, I will provide whatever information it requires.”
Sir Dave Brailsford, team principal at Team Sky, said: “There are complex medical and physiological issues which affect the metabolism and excretion of Salbutamol. We’re committed to establishing the facts and understanding exactly what happened on this occasion.
I have the utmost confidence that Chris followed the medical guidance in managing his asthma symptoms, staying within the permissible dose for Salbutamol. Of course, we will do whatever we can to help address these questions.”
That Froome uses an inhaler to treat his asthma has been public knowledge for several years. In 2014, he was shown using one during Stage 2 of the Critérium du Dauphiné.
He said at the time: "I have had an inhaler since childhood, I have exercise induced asthma. It is ok. I didn't need a TUE.
"I don’t use (the inhaler) every time I race, normally only when I have a big effort coming up.
"Given sports history, people are obviously looking for a reason. There's no reason to make a big deal out. It's completely allowed by the UCI.
"It's a bit of a surprise everyone is talking about it," he added.
The attention that today’s news will bring is less surprising, with Froome at the very top of the sport having won four Tour de France titles and now the Vuelta.
He has said he plans to ride the Giro d’Italia in May as he seeks a third consecutive victory in a Grand Tour, before attempting to win the Tour de France for a record-equalling fifth time.
All of those plans are now in doubt, as is the question of whether Froome will keep his Vuelta title and even if he is found not to be at fault, he could still be handed a ban.
Meanwhile the news alone of the failed test will not only damage Froome’s reputation but also further tarnish the image of Team Sky in the wake of the recent UK Anti-doping investigation.
Riders including Alessandro Petacchi and Diego Ulissi in 2014 have received bans in the past for excessive levels of Salbutamol after failing to satisfy the authorities that they remained within the permitted dosage.
Petacchi, who was found to have a reading of 1,320 nanograms per millilitre at the Giro d’Italia in 2007, was banned for a year, although the Court of Arbitration for Sport was clear that he did not intend to cheat.
Ulissi, with a result of 1,920 nanograms per millilitre at the 2014 Giro d’Italia, got a nine-month ban.
However, Leonardo Piepoli, who tested positive for the drug during the same edition of the Giro d’Italia as Petacchi with 1,800 nanograms per millilitre, escaped sanction.
Last year, Simon Yates missed the Tour de France after he was banned for four months after testing positive for excessive levels of another anti-asthma drug, Terbutaline.
The doctor at his Orica-GreenEdge team had failed to apply for a TUE to permit the British rider to use the drug, and while the UCI ruled that it was a non-intentional anti-doping rule violation, it still imposed the ban.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.