Chris Froome's signature move of the 2015 Tour de France was his Stage 10 climb up to La Pierre-St. Martin. One by one, cycling's elite fell to Froome's pace. First was defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali. Then Alberto Contador and Tejay Van Garderen peeled away. Then -- and this was most shocking -- Nairo Quintana was forced to back off. The 25-year-old Colombian rider was supposed to be the field's best climber, and had anticipated taking time away from better all-around riders in the Pyrenees. But when locked in a duel with Froome, with more than six kilometers to go, Quintana wilted. He finished one minute and four seconds back of the winner.
No day was more decisive for the now two-time Tour champion, and because Froome was so good, his glory was short lived. Froome immediately faced accusations about the legitimacy of his win, that he had doped or even that he had a motor hidden on his bike. On Stage 14 he was doused with urine. On Stage 19 he was spat on. For having the gall to dominate his competition, Froome was hung without trial by the lunatic fringe of a lunatic sport, and no doubt scores more people are skeptical even if they are smart enough not to exact what they believe is justice.
Cycling has a trust problem. Froome isn't the first rider to be ostracized simply by winning. Vincenzo Nibali, who finished fourth this year, dealt with similar accusations when he won the Tour in 2014 (it didn't help when, months later, four low-level Astana teammates were busted for doping.) Mark Cavendish, one of road racing's all-time great sprinters and Grand Tour stage winners, has consistently had to answer questions about doping throughout his career. Last January, he gave a NSFW response to a journalist.
"Can you tell me 100 percent that one of these journalists isn’t f**king your wife?," he responded, before defending cycling’s testing regime.
"Where there’s money to be gained, there’ll be the odd d***head who cheats but cycling is miles ahead of other sports when it comes to testing.
"I hope everyone’s correct but with human nature, you can never be certain. But the positive that I can take is that if someone is cheating, he will be caught."
Froome's Team Sky manager David Brailsford was more polite when he was forced to address a leak of Froome's training data from his climb up Mont Ventoux in 2013.
"It's part of the game, isn't it? If he does well, the rest of the Tour, it's, 'How do you know he's not doping?'" Brailsford said. "The question of how to prove a negative is always going to be a difficult one."
The reason why cyclists now shoulder an impossible burden of proof is because of the sport's sordid past.
"What really annoys me is the fact modern pro cyclists are tarred with the same brush as a dope-cheat because of what happened in a bygone era," Cavendish told the Sun in 2013, adding, "So why are we carrying the can for Lance and his inner circle?"
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Lance Armstrong remains a strong physical and spiritual presence in cycling, even though it has been three years since the United States Anti-Doping Agency concluded he had used performance-enhancing drugs during his career. He was actually at this year's Tour, riding the course one day ahead of the pro riders for a charity event in support of blood cancer treatment research while making the sport's governing body supremely uncomfortable. In 2014, Armstrong motorpaced a training session for Tejay Van Garderen, the top American rider who was in third place on the 2015 general classification before being forced to abandon on Stage 17 due to illness.
It's clear that Armstrong is still important to the generation of rider he competed against, and the next generation that grew up watching him. Van Garderen, 26, pointed out the uncomfortable truth of Armstrong's ostracization.
"Vinokourov has a team. Lots of sports directors out there. George Hincapie has his grand fondo and he has his development team. Jonathan Vaughters runs a team," Van Garderen told Business Insider, referring to former riders suspended for PEDs. "So to have that double standard I don't think is very fair. So I didn't think anything of it. Just because Lance was the most successful cyclist, I don't think means that what he did was any more wrong than what any of those other guys did."
The reason Armstrong still looms over the Tour is that he won -- seven times in a row. Many still remember his 2001 climb up Alpe d'Huez -- the look back at Jan Ullrich -- and logically connected it to Froome's ascent up to La Pierre-St. Martin. Armstrong took one minute and 59 seconds from Ullrich that day.
One way that we know that baseball players aren't using steroids like they once did is that home runs have gone down. Cycling can't use anything as quantifiable. By the naked eye, a spectacular climb by a doped-up rider can look a lot like a spectacular climb by someone who is clean.
Cycling does use power data, and there's some evidence that today's riders aren't producing as much wattage as riders during the height of the EPO era. Power data has been problematic when applied on an individual basis, however. Brailsford was surprised on French television by a doctor of physiology who estimated Froome's output at 7.04 watts per kilogram up to La Pierre-St. Martin. A normal output, the doctor said, should be no higher than 6.5 watts per kilogram. In response, Brailsford released Froome's, and Team Sky's, race data, which put his corrected watts per kilogram up the final climb at 5.78, a more feasible number.
But even that didn't quell the fervor, really. Mechanical doping -- a.k.a., installing hidden electric motors on bikes -- is the cycling conspiracy du jour, for which Froome was implicated when Cedric Vasseur, a former cyclist now working for French television, said of Froome: "It seems like the bike is pedaling itself." American cycling legend Greg LeMond has been one of the sport's biggest proponents of testing for mechanical doping, saying that he believes the technology has already been used in Grand Tours.
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Though Froome's climb up to La Pierre-St. Martin was iconic, the way he weathered his brief moments of vulnerability climbing up to Plateau de Beille two days later was perhaps even more impressive. Now a marked man, he was attacked by the best riders in the world -- Contador, then Nibali, then Quintana, then Alejandro Valverde. Froome reeled in every offensive.
Then Froome attacked on his own, leaving behind his Sky lieutenant Geraint Thomas and exposing himself even more to his rivals' counterpunches. The move caused a scramble -- Quintana, Contador and Tejay Van Garderen were able to hang on Froome's wheel, and Valverde even tried once more to break away. Order was restored and the stage ended in a stalemate, but a message was sent: Froome would not simply coast into Paris.
Part of cycling's problem is that the conversation about doping is advancing slowly. There's the issue of proving a negative, of course, but there's also the fact that an inordinate amount of attention is paid to just one race. The discourse never becomes rote. Rather, it flares up for three weeks every summer, burning anew with a stockpile of new names and technologies that gathered over the course of a year.
For the Tour de France to become trustworthy again, it may have no option other than to wait out the conversation without incident, and however long that will take is impossible to say. Froome's tenacity is the Tour's hope and guiding example. If it's real, cycling may finally move past Lance.