Chris Froome heads into the Giro d’Italia. which starts on Friday, insisting he is focusing on his attempt to make history by holding all three titles from cycling’s Grand Tours at the same time.
But the 32-year-old Briton is being weighed down by a cloud looming over his continued participation in professional cycling races while waiting for a doping storm to be resolved.
Froome tested positive in September last year for elevated levels of the asthma medication salbutamol, resulting in an adverse analytical finding.
But rather than face a doping suspension, he has been given the opportunity to explain his test result during the Tour of Spain race he won.
The issue has dragged on, with some prominent voices in cycling – such as world governing body chief David Lappartient – expressing his belief that Froome should have been suspended by his British team Sky pending an outcome to his case.
Froome and Sky insist the Kenyan-born athlete has done nothing wrong and simply took more puffs on his asthma inhaler than normal on the day he gave the adverse reading.
“I certainly haven’t been charged [with] anything as of yet and I hope to be fully exonerated of any wrongdoing because I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Froome said last week when Sky announced their Giro line-up.
Tour de France organisers have insisted they want his case resolved before he aims for a record-equalling fifth victory in the world’s most prestigious cycle race in July but there is currently no end in sight to the scandal.
Should he be found guilty of a doping offence, Froome would likely lose his victory in the Tour of Spain and any subsequent results such as a Giro d’Italia success.
But should he win the three-week race around Italy, which starts on Friday with a time-trial in Jerusalem, he would become the first man since Bernard Hinault 35 years ago to hold all three Grand Tour titles at the same time and only the third ever to do so – with Belgian great Eddy Merckx out on his own having won four in a row in the 1970s.
Froome has admitted the whole doping investigation has been “hugely frustrating” because it “is now being played out in the public domain”.
Normally with an adverse analytical finding, which does not trigger a provisional suspension under International Cycling Union (UCI) rules, a rider would be spared public scrutiny.
But that wasn’t the case with Froome as a joint investigation by newspapers in Britain and France exposed the news in December.
Froome’s lawyers are working behind the scenes to fight his case with the UCI but even if he loses, he would likely appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
That would further delay any final decision on whether or not he will serve a ban, meaning he would continue competing for the sport’s biggest prizes.
While Giro organisers seem delighted to have the greatest stage racer of this generation gracing their event for the first time since 2010, when Froome was still a relative unknown, he might not face such a welcome at the Tour.
Froome has endured an at-times fractious relationship with French fans as some media have questioned the validity of his most explosive performances at a time when the sport is still suffering from the fall-out of the systematic doping of the Lance Armstrong era.
Froome has previously been grilled over doping and even the use of a motorised bike, with some fans considering him and his team guilty without trial.
In 2015 he claimed a fan threw urine over him during one Tour stage, while a Sky teammate said he’d been punched.
Many French fans support Froome but his team, and in particular team principal Dave Brailsford, are far from popular.
As for his Giro chances, he arrives in somewhat underwhelming form, although he insists that he’s “had a different start to the season as I’ve obviously been aiming to try and reach my peak quite a bit earlier than usual”.
Whereas in previous years he won a number of week-long stage races before arriving at the Tour, his best result in 2018 was fourth at last month’s Tour of the Alps, won by Giro rival Thibaut Pinot.
Struggling for form and facing the stress that doping suspicions impose on a rider in a sport with a sorry history of drug abuse, it has been a far from serene Giro build-up up for Froome.