It might be the saddest irony of cycling’s turmoil that the Tour de France’s 100th anniversary champion will also be its most cursed. For that man, most likely Team Sky’s Chris Froome of Great Britain, cannot win – even if he finishes first.
Of all the damage Lance Armstrong and his crew of apologists and drug enablers did to the sport, the blow that will linger longest is the taint of suspicion now foisted upon anyone even appearing to approach greatness in this most grueling of bicycle contests.
Exactly six months from that Oprah confession, Armstrong still gives little indication of caring a bit for the feelings or troubles of others, so it is surely fanciful to suggest he will spare a thought for Froome.
Froome is a rider with no superstar profile or celebrity friends or international charity or bank balance in the tens of millions. He is, however, the greatest road cyclist in the world right now, and barring an epic choke in the final few days to Paris, he will fulfill a career dream by winning this year’s Tour.
Yet while Armstrong’s substance-addled climbs up Mont Ventoux or Luz Ardiden on his way to seven now-stripped Tour titles were hailed as super-heroism and supreme courage of mind and spirit, Froome’s race-defining Ventoux victory during Stage 15 on Sunday met with nothing but accusation and suspicion.
“Here I am, basically being accused of being a cheat and a liar,” said Froome, at a news conference in which all except the first two questions carried a reference to doping. “That’s not cool.”
Cycling is right to be asking these questions. For years lackey journalist after lackey journalist turned a blind eye, bit their tongue instead of asking the tough question, hailed Armstrong as a hero, chose to believe the fairytale, ignored the gut feeling, got swept up in the juggernaut of Texan personality and wore those yellow wristbands.
Yet it is sad for Froome, who scorched home in Wednesday’s time trial to take a stranglehold on the yellow jersey and open a lead of 4 minutes, 34 seconds over Alberto Contador. This is the worst time to be a champion in sports, especially in cycling. The announcement that track stars Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell had tested positive for performing-enhancing substances merely confirmed that nothing will be taken at face value any longer.
All those excuses that were made for Armstrong are no longer available, even for clean athletes. That Armstrong had some kind of superhuman will. That his fight against cancer showed a spirit that could overcome even the dastardly efforts of doping opponents, showing them a clean set of wheels and a swathe of clean drug tests.
In contrast, there is nothing that Froome can do. After Armstrong looked countless people directly in the eye and insisted he had never cheated, the public and the press no longer believe. Denials are not enough, even those of the most vehement variety. Armstong showed there are no depths to which the desperate cheat will not go to protect his name, even if it means ruining the reputations and finances of truthful accusers in the process.
Countless passed drug tests and logical-sounding explanations, those other Armstrong weapons of defense, won’t cut it either.
Yahoo! Sports does not know Froome or his character. And honestly, it doesn’t matter. It is a fact in sports that nothing is cut and dried. There are nice guys who cheat and bad guys who don’t.
The only thing for certain is that the scrutiny and testing is stronger now than ever. Cycling now has back-dated tests, stored samples and a governing body determined to eradicate doping rather than mask it.
If Chris Froome and his team are cheating, they are doing so with a greater risk and must have scientific methods more developed than those used by Armstrong, with all his millions.
If Froome is clean and has managed through his own excruciating physical effort and preparation – and the tireless methodology of his team ¬– to create greatness in the right manner, he deserves a place among the finest of all-time in this famed sporting competition.
Yet it won’t happen for him, at least not in the way he would like. Win by a sliver, and he will go down as just another rider, proof that every dog has its day. Win by a distance, so perception goes, and there must be a malfeasant reason behind it.
Cycling’s past dictates that it needs its skeptics, that success must not be simply taken at face value in order to guard against a return to the dark days, when cheating was inherent. Yet as he wheels toward Paris’ iconic Champs-Elysees and a likely triumph Sunday, that will be of little consolation to the Tour’s most cursed champion.