Chris Froome and Mo Farah are united in success and disputed legacy

Croak

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Authors: Rio Sports

For many British sports fans success remains a powerful amnesiac. We saw an ample demonstration of that on Sunday as Mo Farah was roared on to victory at the Great North Run and Team Sky steered Chris Froome to a staggering triumph at the Vuelta a España to the delight of the union flag-waving supporters. The exuberant TV coverage barely mentioned that some of those responsible for both men’s success are under investigation by anti-doping agencies, either. No one, it seems, wants to pass wind in church.

Froome’s performance was particularly remarkable as he became the first cyclist to claim consecutive grand tours in the same year since Marco Pantani’s Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double in 1998. At the end of July he had admitted his fourth yellow jersey had been the hardest; yet 27 days later the Team Sky train was back setting a tempo so high it took the breath away not only of their rivals but of spectators too.

Last week Jeremy Whittle, respected author of the classic cycling book Bad Blood, said he had “never seen a collective performance to compare with Sky in La Vuelta - that includes Banesto, Telekom, Mapei, USP” in his 24 years of covering grand tours. And that strength was emphasised on the penultimate stage, up the steepest 24% incline of the Alto de l’Angliru. While the Italian Vincenzo Nibali, who was more rested having missed the Tour, wobbled and then wilted, Froome and his loyal lieutenant Wout Poels made a devastating incline look like a minor inconvenience.

In fairness to Farah he regularly faces questions about his association with his coach Alberto Salazar – whose Nike Oregon Project has been scrutinised by the US Anti-Doping Agency since 2015. He is also regularly pressed on other issues, such as his relationship with the controversial coach Jama Aden and the leak by the Russian hackers, Fancy Bears, which suggested that at least one expert in 2015 thought he was “likely doping” based on his athlete biological passport, a verdict which was reversed six months later. Froome and Team Sky, however, get nowhere near the same level of badgering.

It is hard to work out why, given there are obvious similarities between the two which go beyond their achievements. Both were late developers – Froome won his first grand tour at 28, Farah his first world title at the same age. Both have defied Father Time by producing their best performances in their 30s. And both race for teams who remain under scrutiny by sport’s sheriffs.

If anything Froome’s transformation from a journeyman on the verge of being released by Team Sky in 2011 into a five-time grand tour winner is far more dramatic than Farah’s improvement.

Perhaps the tide is turning. Not so long ago the overwhelming response to Sky’s Vuelta success would have been yet more breathless reportage about marginal gains, talent and technology. But does Sir Dave Brailsford’s stump speech about finding small improvements in thousands of different areas to beat his rivals still hold, given it is known that Sir Bradley Wiggins was aided in his 2012 Tour de France victory by a therapeutic use exemption certificate for the corticosteroid triamcinolone? This strips fat from the body with no loss of power and the experience of riders who have used triamcinolone suggests that was a massive, not a marginal, gain. It hardly helps either that throughout the claims and counterclaims into what was in the mystery package delivered to Wiggins at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June 2011, Brailsford’s behaviour has been confused – to put it kindly.

He wrongly claimed that the British Cycling courier Simon Cope had not travelled to France to deliver that package to Wiggins but to see Emma Pooley – an explanation that quickly unravelled when it was revealed she was competing in Spain at the time. He denied that Wiggins and Dr Richard Freeman had been together on the Team Sky bus at the Dauphiné – video evidence proved they were. He also told parliament that his understanding was that Wiggins’s medical records had been made available to UK Anti-Doping, which they had not. And it took weeks for Team Sky to come up with the story that the package for Wiggins contained the legal decongestant Fluimucil. Others close to the investigation, however, remain unconvinced.

If the rap sheet was not damaging enough, Brailsford also tried to persuade the Daily Mail to bury the story because he feared it could mark “the end of Team Sky”, while the head of Ukad, Nicole Sapstead, told parliament that her investigators had met with “resistance” in their inquiries.

True, when it comes to Sky there is no smoking gun. But only the most blind-eyed patriot would deny there is a bonfire’s worth of smoke. No wonder their credibility was described as being “in tatters” by Damian Collins MP, the head of the culture, media and sport select committee, barely six months ago. Froome is not accused of any wrongdoing but, like Farah, he risks becoming defined by his associations.

Meanwhile it is worth remembering that when Team Sky launched, Brailsford promised to create a team “in which riders are free of the risks of doping and in which fans – new and old – can believe without any doubt or hesitation”. Despite the greatest season in the team’s history, the ambition behind that pledge seems more frayed than ever.

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