The Team Sky rider is leading the Tour after some stunning performances in the mountain and time trial stages, as the British outfit hunts a second consecutive winner of cycling’s most famous race.
But, as is the fashion in the tainted sport of cycling, Froome has had to field countless questions about doping, with rider and team vehemently denying illicit behaviour.
Sky chief Dave Brailsford went to far as to invite the World Anti-Doping Authority to embed officials in the team, to monitor their riders’ training, nutrition and social habits.
WADA does not believe such a move is necessary, but L’Equipe – the French sports magazine that relentlessly hunted the likes of disgraced former seven-times Tour winner Lance Armstrong – acquired Froome’s physical and sporting data for the last two years.
That data was analysed by respected cycling doctor Fred Grappe, who found nothing to suggest anything untoward in Froome’s performances.
Grappe works for rival French team FDJ as their performance expert, and he also is an advocate of stronger anti-doping procedures in all sports.
He has developed a system known as PPR (Le Profil de Puissance Record), which translates as a “Power Profile Record”, a tool to monitor unusual increases in strength and endurance related to time.
There are four parameters the system gauges to ascertain whether anything unusual is afoot which, in theory, allows scientists to isolate suspicious improvements in athletes. Whether a drug test is failed or not, any such marked improvements beyond an athlete’s early 20s indicate suspicious activity.
Here is why Grappe thinks Froome is clean:
Parameter 1: Q. Are there any unusual developments in power? A. No.
“The evolution of his ability over time is similar to that observed with cyclists with whom we have established the PPR. For example, it shows a significant and standard decrease in power of 60 watts (0.88 W/kg) between efforts of 20 and 60 minutes. The average rider loses around 50 Watts in this time interval. Froome’s PPR over two years shows no anomalies. In other words, his power statistics two years ago are consistent with today’s. His performance at Ax 3 Domaines [ED: when he obliterated the opposition to win the notorious mountain stage] can be measured up with his PPR, which has not changed since 2011. His physical abilities now are not much different to 2011.”
Parameter 2: Q. Has his unusual aerobic potential changed? A. No.
“His maximum aerobic ability at extreme altitude (over five minutes) confirms that Froome possesses an aerobic potential that is unusually high and has been throughout the past two years. It requires him to have a VO2max [ED - the maximum capacity of the body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercise, an indicator of natural fitness] that is close to the known limits of man. The exceptional power he generates during this maximum effort over five minutes gives him added reserves of strength compared to others. That is shown in the acceleration he finds in the latter stages of climbs. We can estimate that, compared to his main rivals, he possesses an extra 20 Watts of power in these situations. This is approximately the same margin he had over his main rivals at Ax 3 Domaines and Ventuox [ED - where Froome powered away to claim stage wins].
Parameter 3: Have there been fluctuations in weight? No.
“Froome’s average weight over two years has been 68kg in the mornings, with minor variations of up to 900g. That shows the power he has developed over the past two years to be stable when displayed in Watts per kilo, the crucial index to his performances.”
Parameter 4: Has there been a change in his recovery powers? No.
“It is clear that, to be able to exploit his PPR to nearly 100% capacity, Froome would have to boast excellent powers of recovery between stages. If fatigue sets in, you cannot continue to ride to the maximum. Again, there is no significant change in this over the past two years.”
So, according to Frappe, Froome’s physical abilities have remained constant.
It appears that his success is a combination of having a great team around him, superior training and equipment, and the experience to know when to pick his battles and when to stay with the pack.
Froome’s uncanny natural fitness is likely a result of having grown up and competed in the mountains of Kenya. Young Colombian Nairo Quintana – second to Froome in his most recent mountain win – also grew up in a similar environment, the Cordillera mountain range.
Frappe does not mention anything about his rivals’ relative ability, which – when you consider the ridiculous attacks and breakaways in the Armstrong era – appears to have diminished in the past few years.
While it is impossible to know for sure, Froome’s rise appears to be consistent with him joining a top team – and a weakening of his rivals.