Chris Froome tested positive for elevated levels of the drug Salbutamol, more than twice the amount allowed by the UCI. There has been a flurry of articles about it, so I won’t rehash them.
Most cycling fans have only the vaguest idea of what this is really all about, other than perhaps an understanding that it involves an asthma drug. After that, understanding drops off sharply. This confusion is not accidental. The use of Salbutamol by pro cyclists and Froome’s abuse of it have been carefully groomed to confuse the public and to allow athletes to gain incredible performance advantages by exploiting a simple doping loophole.
On a personal level, Froome’s doping is meaningless to me. All successful cyclists in the World Tour dope, in my opinion. The wattages recorded during the heyday of Armstrong’s EPO use have remained the same or increased, indicating that cyclists are as juiced as they ever were. Clean riders like Phil Gaimon have short, unexceptional World Tour careers. That’s how it is.
But on an intellectual level it’s disappointing that there is so much misdirection, and that it has successfully misled so many otherwise smart and informed people. This is my attempt to clear it up.
Let’s start with the basics. Pro road cycling is an endurance sport. This means that improved delivery of oxygen to the muscles makes you go faster. And although drugs like EPO and techniques like autologous blood transfusions are proven methods for getting more oxygen to your muscles, by far and away the cheapest, easiest, tried-and-true, bread-and-butter method is to lose weight without losing muscle.
In other words, most doping for endurance cyclists boils down to weight loss and retention of muscle or, ideally, weight loss and increasing musculature–but not too much. The “not too much” part is important. Cycling strength is measured in watts generated per kilogram of body weight, and there is a point of diminishing return with added muscle mass, where it increases your weight more than its concomitant ability to do the work you want it to, e.g. push you uphill. This is why stage racers are small, and one-day road racers at the pro level are, for the most part, not a whole lot larger.
To repeat, performance, and therefore doping, hinge mainly on weight loss without losing muscle. Leaving out doping methods like EPO, stimulants like speed, drugs that numb you to pain, and the huge variety of other cocktails that can alter your performance, two of the greatest workhorses of doping revolve around weight loss that doesn’t also strip away muscle, and repair of damaged tissue.
Let’s start with maintaining muscle mass. Cyclists tear down muscle when they ride, and they use anabolic steroids to quickly repair those damaged muscles after hard races or workouts. This maintains, and can even increase muscle mass because it allows the cyclist to do another hard effort thanks to the quick repair, when a non-doped competitor has to do an easy day or several easy days. Better yet, it lets the doper keep the gas on during a stage race when the clean rider is on the ropes trying to recover from the day before.
But cyclists also maintain muscle mass by using a class of drugs known as β-agonist receptors. These drugs allow you to lose weight without losing muscle mass. Salbutamol is one such drug, and it is the drug that Chris Froome tested positive for at twice the allowed limit.
This is where the misdirection kicks in, because Froome reminds us that he is an asthmatic (more about that later, I believe he most certainly isn’t), and Salbutamol is a treatment for asthma. As a treatment for asthma, Salbutamol doesn’t have any demonstrable performance enhancing effects. This is why the UCI allows anyone to use it without a TUE.
But if it’s so harmless, why is there a limit to how much you can ingest? Glad you asked. There’s a limit because Salbutamol, when injected or taken in a tablet form in sufficiently high doses, allows you to lose weight and not also lose muscle mass. This is crucial throughout a stage racer’s year of competition, including during competition. You might think that a stage racer is eating everything in sight trying to keep up with the caloric demands of the event, but you’d be wrong. Their diets are tightly calibrated to ensure that they have enough to replace what’s been used, and enough to get them through the next day’s stage. In fact, many stage racers will enter a grand tour one or two pounds overweight, and will count on the racing plus controlled use of β-agonist receptors to shred out the excess fat while keeping the muscle. Clenbuterol, just one such drug, is what brought down Alberto Contador in the 2010 Tour de France.
If you have any doubt at all that this is what Chris Froome has been doing, take a look first at this photo of his legs from 2013. Then compare it with 2017. In four short years he has put on a visible amount of muscle and lost weight. Not a lot of muscle, and not a lot of weight. Just a marginal gain … and not coincidentally one that has gone hand-in-glove with his very public announcement of a lifelong asthma condition that requires constant use of Salbutamol.
Again, to sum up:
- Road racers go faster when they lose weight and maintain muscle.
- Salbutamol in large doses lets you lose weight and maintain muscle, and is legal in small doses.
- Chris Froome has suddenly tested positive for a large dose of Salbutamol.
- Chris Froome claims he uses Salbutamol because he’s an asthmatic.
Did you catch that? No. 4 is entirely compatible with No. 2, it just sounds somehow like a denial that he was doping.
The misdirection is quite effective because it takes our eyes off the performance enhancing effects of Salbutamol when taken intravenously or orally, and focuses instead on its legitimate and non-performance-enhancing effect as an inhalant for asthmatics. And by the way, we’re reminded, Chris Froome has always been an asthmatic; suffered terribly all his life from it, in fact.
Before we pick up on the hard-to-swallow story about Froome’s asthma, though, let’s remember that large doses of Salbutamol help you lose weight and keep muscle and therefore go faster. And Chris was very lean and very muscly and very fast on the day he tested positive. In old Perry Mason shows that would have been called a “smoking gun.”
However, we’re asked to ignore the smoking gun and look in a different place, the world of asthma, where Salbutamol has no performance enhancing effects because it is inhaled. We are asked to forget that Chris Froome is an endurance athlete, that endurance athletes go faster with weight loss and retained muscle, and that Salbutamol is very effective at doing just that. It’s as if we found the smoking gun in the defendant’s hand and were asked to consider not that he had murdered someone with it, but that he was a lifelong collector of guns, and we’re not allowed to point out that the truth of the latter statement doesn’t in any way negate the truth of the former.
In other words, the fact that Salbutamol as an inhalant can alleviate asthma does not controvert the fact that it also enhances weight loss and muscle retention in large doses when injected or taken orally. In fact, it does both, and the fact that Chris Froome’s Salbutamol level was double the allowed amount should prove to any reasonable person that he was injecting it or taking it orally in order to benefit from its performance-enhancing qualities of weight loss and muscle retention.
Yet we’re asked not to be reasonable, but to be stupid, so let’s play along and assume that the issue really is whether or not Chris Froome is an asthmatic. Is he?
In his public statement regarding the positive test for excessive Salbutamol, 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.”
What is well known is that he has claimed to have asthma only recently, and has only recently claimed to have been an acute sufferer since childhood. The principal reason to disbelieve Froome’s self-serving medical diagnosis is that his lifelong condition was a closely kept secret until 2014, when Froome very publicly took a puff from an inhaler in front of the podium at the Dauphine. Froome used the ensuing media scrutiny to explain that he was a lifelong sufferer of asthma and that Salbutamol was legal, after which Team Sky dutifully confirmed that he had been using an inhaler since he was a teenager. One wonders how David Brailsford knew about Chris’s childhood in Kenya.
Yet there’s not a single mention of this terrible affliction, one which would have had incredible implications for an aspiring cyclist, in his autobiography, whereas he has made a lot of media hay over his infection with the parasitic disease bilharzia, which he claims hampered his progress for years. Prior to that Froome was never seen using the inhaler he now takes with him everywhere he goes. Is it plausible that he would be a severe, lifelong asthmatic fighting for a career in the pro ranks and that it would be a secret?
Three years ago, writer Felix Lowe completely skewered Froome’s late discovery of asthma, pointing out that Froome never mentioned asthma in his book, though he “talks ad nauseam about his propensity to pick up a cold; but not once did he think of mentioning that these colds could come down to asthma – something that would arguably make it even more of ‘a journey unlike any other in the history of cycling’ that the back-page spiel [of Froome’s book] claims his to be.”
Lowe also points out that after a full year of being embedded with Team Sky, muckraking cycling journalist David Walsh never mentioned, discovered, or noticed Froome’s asthma. Keep in mind that Walsh is one of the protagonists who brought down Armstrong for doping.
So what does this all mean? In short, it means that in 2014 Froome and Team Sky hit upon a very clever way to take the Salbutamol doping issue off the table: Do it publicly, then defend it to the hilt as a legal, non-banned, crucial inhalant for a very sick athlete. This forced the skeptics to train their guns on Salbutamol’s performance enhancing effects as an inhalant (there are none), and dragged everyone into the “Is Chris an asthmatic?” debate, while artfully sidestepping the only issue that matters: Salbutamol is easily obtained, legal, easily abused, has a very short half life so is hard to detect, is defensible when you’re busted for it, and helps you lose weight and retain muscle mass and win grand tours.
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