Pau - Two years on from his scintillating victories at Ax 3 Domaines and
Mont Ventoux, Chris Froome finds himself again in the eye of a storm of doping
suspicions at the Tour de France.
Just as he did in 2013, the Kenyan-born Briton seemingly crushed his rivals'
spirits with a stunning victory up to La Pierre-Saint Martin on Tuesday.
And with two more Pyrenean stages to come on Wednesday and Thursday, the
30-year-old could have killed off all semblance of suspense at the 2015 Tour
before it even reaches the Alps, let alone Paris.
Predictably, after reigning champion Vincenzo Nibali and two-time former
winner Alberto Contador floundered on the lower slopes of the 15km climb to
Tuesday's finish, Froome had to field questions about his legitimacy.
And he awoke Wednesday morning to more incredulity surrounding his latest
climbing demolition job.
"Chris Froome's demonstration did not remove the strange climate
surrounding the Sky team," wrote l'Equipe, the popular French sports
Froome himself reacted with uncharacteristic frankness when asked at a tense
press conference about doping following his success on Tuesday.
"I know I'm a clean rider, I've worked extremely hard to be in this
position and I'm very proud of that," he insisted.
"It doesn't make me angry, I know where the questions are coming from,
I know the history of the Tour and the people that have gone before me.
"But at the same time there needs to be a level of respect. I've worked
extremely hard to be here and I'm not going to let anyone take that away from
He also found some defenders in the shape of former world champion Luc
Leblanc, now a consultant on French TV and radio.
"It annoys me to hear people talking about doping every time someone
puts on a performance like that," Leblanc told BFM news channel.
"If it had been a French rider, no-one would have batted an
Leblanc, world road champion in 1994, himself admitted in 2000 following his
retirement that he had taken the banned blood-booster EPO during his career.
The tale of Tuesday's stage also seems to suggest Froome is being treated
While specialist climbers such as Nibali, Contador and French trio
Jean-Christophe Peraud, Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet all cracked under the
strain of the first high mountain stage of this year's race, modest climbers
such as Frenchmen Tony Gallopin and Pierre Rolland, and Froome's own teammate
Geraint Thomas, lost just two minutes to the Sky leader.
On such a tough climb - 15.3km at an average 7.4 percent gradient - in
baking hot weather, after a mostly fast, flat stage and following a rest day,
which often knocks riders out of their rhythm, the gaps to the likes of
Gallopin and Thomas were if anything surprisingly small.
But the collapse of Froome's 'fantastic four' rivals - only Nairo Quintana
managed to limit his losses to a single minute - seems to have conditioned the
response of the sceptics, not least because of the curious episode of Sky's
computers being hacked and Froome's training data stolen.
Sky manager Dave Brailsford believes that was done to try to prove Froome is
It means Froome will face increased scrutiny during Wednesday's 188km ride
from Pau to Cauterets with the first category Col d'Aspin and the fearsome hors
category Col du Tourmalet to overcome.
Unless Froome cracks spectacularly and lets his rivals back into the race,
the doping suspicions will likely follow him all the way to Paris.