I enjoy posting “biased blow-by-blow” reports of World Tour bicycle races. I label them “biased” because I when I think a rider is doped I can’t bear to bite my tongue like real journalists and commentators do. And, being just a blogger, I don’t have to.
Needless to say, I have never given Christopher Froome, nor his Sky team, the benefit of the doubt. And, with Froome returning an “adverse analytical finding” (i.e., a positive test) for twice the allowed amount of salbutamol, I seem to have my perennial accusations validated. Not surprisingly, Froome came right out and said, “Yes, I have been cheating all along—and I’ve let down my team, my sponsors, my fans, and my sport, and I am really sorry.”
No, of course he didn’t say that! Like so many dopers who get caught, he’s professing innocence (in the standard-issue tricky language, “I haven’t broken any rules”). So I’m going to examine his nascent defense and the possibility that he’s actually innocent. And I’m going to be as fair as possible (with the caveat that of course I’m biased). And for those of you who (quite reasonably) are too jaded and cynical to care about Froome, I’ll examine what all this means to the sport.
In case this sounds boring and like ground that’s been covered before, I promise my analysis will be different. For one thing I’ll be pulling in some experts, like the philosophers William of Ockham, Karl Popper, and Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem).
Because I’m biased, I need to be careful not to commit a classic logical fallacy, petitio principii, otherwise known as “begging the question” or “circular reasoning.” This fallacy occurs when the argument depends on the truth of a premise that is also the conclusion (usually in a disguised form). It’s an absurdly blatant kind of fallacy, but pops up surprisingly often.
Here’s how this would apply to Froome. We start with the premise that he’s a doping, cheating scumbag. Add to that his positive test. Since the test confirms what we already knew (i.e., that he was a doper), we know we can trust the test. And since a trustworthy test produced a positive, he is by definition guilty of doping.
Like many poor arguments, this one is one-sided. That is, it might stoke the coals of other Froome-bashers, but it’s not likely to win over any converts. So it’s non-useful and I won’t use it.
In Froome’s defense
Some riders have come out against Froome with statements that are lame enough to inspire a backlash. For example, Tim Wellens described his own refusal to use inhalers, even though doctors have told him it would help with his bronchial obstruction. “I could improve my breathing capacity by 7 or 8 per cent... but I'm against inhalers. If the public knew the number of riders who have an inhaler… it's enormous.” Another rider, Mathieu van der Poel, was more blunt: “Maybe asthma patients will understand the case better, but cycling and all sports in general are for healthy people.”
I’m not an “asthma patient,” but I do have bronchospasm, which is what afflicts so many cyclists. It’s not chronic the way true asthma is, but involves asthma-like symptoms during hard exercise (which is why it’s often called “exercise-induced asthma”). It’s more common among athletes than the general population, and it’s more common among cyclists than any other athlete. The reason is that cyclists move huge amounts of air through their respiratory systems, without the benefit of it going through their nasal passages to be warmed up and filtered. We can ride for hours at a time, day after day, and cold, damp, or polluted air, or very hot, dry air, can inflame our bronchial passages. (Mountain bikers have bronchospasm more commonly than roadies because of all the dust and dirt.)
I speak from experience when I say Wellens isn’t grasping the benefit of an inhaler. Without it, I will start wheezing ten minutes into my bike ride, which will hamper my performance (far more than 7 or 8 percent) for the whole ride. It’s unfair for van der Poel to accuse me, or any cyclist with bronchospasm, of being an unhealthy person. I’m totally unafflicted by breathing problems unless I’m riding regularly (which is, of course, my lifestyle).
That said, using an inhaler doesn’t give me special breathing powers; it just neutralizes a possible barrier to my normal respiratory function. It won’t give an edge to any person unafflicted by bronchospasm, any more than Viagra will make a sexual dynamo out of a person unafflicted by erectile dysfunction. As Dr. John Dickinson, an expert on asthma, states in this article, “We know that therapeutic doses of inhalers don’t touch performance, so if you’re a non-asthmatic taking a couple of puffs of salbutamol, it’s not going to do anything for you.”
Wait ... not so fast
The person I just quoted was talking about inhaled salbutamol. In the doses inhalers provide, this drug does a great job at reducing if not eliminating the inflammation that dogs bronchospasm sufferers, without conferring any unfair advantage. But taken in high doses through other means, drugs like salbutamol certainly can. According to this article, “Oral or injected beta 2-agonists can have anabolic effects and are banned in and out of competition.” Greg LeMond told Cyclingnews, “Taken orally or by injection [salbutamol] acts as an anabolic steroid, similar to clenbuterol, the drug that Alberto Contador was positive for.”
It’s not outlandish to assert that a very large dose of a drug can affect you in an entirely different way than a small dose. If you take the normal dose of Latisse, you’ll enjoy longer eyelashes. If you take the normal dose of Lumigan, you’ll effectively treat your glaucoma by lowering intraocular pressure. But guess what? They’re exactly the same drug! Only the dosage is different. So you see, one man’s side effect is another man’s performance-enhancing drug. This is why there’s a legal limit on salbutamol.
How was Froome using salbutamol?
According to this article, “Froome will argue that he took three puffs of his inhaler just before providing his sample to anti-doping after stage 18 of the Vuelta.” I’m not sure exactly where this assertion came from but it’s backed up by this quote from Froome: “I have a clear routine when I use my inhaler and how many times I use it. I've given all that information to the UCI to help get to the bottom of this." (Click here for the context.)
Naturally Froome would like us all to believe he took this drug the normal, therapeutic way, by inhaling it. As Cyclingnews explains, “Inhaled, [beta 2-agonists] are not considered performance enhancing. Inhaled doses are allowed in competition without a TUE at doses up to 1600 micrograms over 24 hours or 800 micrograms every 12 hours.”
Froome’s adverse analytical finding (AAF) is the result of having double the allowed amount of salbutamol in his system. That’s a lot, because the legal limit is very generous. I can say this with some authority because the amount of albuterol I need is just 180 mcg—less than a quarter of the legal limit.
Beyond my personal experience, I’ve been around road and mountain bike racers for decades, and I’ve done some calculations based on the most salbutamol I have ever known a person to take. During a full-blown bronchospasm attack, clearly audible to anybody in a 50-foot radius, this person needed two 90-mcg puffs, having taken the standard 2-puff preventive dose before the exercise. So that's a total of four puffs, which is 360 mcg. (All these inhalers provide the same dose.) Simple math tells us Froome would have had to take 18 puffs on his inhaler to reach twice the legal limit.
Giving Froome the benefit of the doubt, let’s suppose he really did get all his salbutamol via inhaler. What might that look like? Suppose he took two preventive puffs before the race, and then forgot he’d done so, and took two more. And let’s say that for some reason he had some breathing problems anyway, but that nobody heard him wheezing, maybe because of all the cheering fans, and nobody saw him use his inhaler during the race because he’s always surrounded by and thus eclipsed by his Sky teammates. So he was able to take a couple more puffs without being seen. That’s six total. And that’s a lot. The person I witnessed having four puffs total suffered jitters and shakes and was not comfortable and probably would have hesitated, to say the least, to take any more salbutamol.
But let’s say Froome is just tough as nails and shook off these side effects ... we’re still only at six puffs. Remember, the legal limit works out to 18 puffs ... so we’re supposed to believe that he took a dozen more puffs, all without anybody noticing, because the wheezing still wasn’t controlled? This seems pretty damn unlikely. Froome would like everyone to believe that the legal limit is really low, so an accidental overuse of the inhaler (e.g., one puff too many) could put him over ... but the numbers say otherwise.
Drug level detected vs. ingested
The rest of Froome’s defense centers around a possible discrepancy between the amount of salbutamol detected in his urine and what he actually used. As described here, “The threshold of 1000ng/ml was set by a scientific study, but metabolism of the drug varies greatly from person to person. In cases of an AAF exceeding the threshold for inhaled salbutamol, athletes can submit to a pharmacological study of their metabolism of the drug to try to prove exceeding the dose was unintentional.”
The logical explanation for a higher concentration of the drug in a rider’s urine (mentioned in two of these articles) is dehydration. Is it plausible Froome was just really, really dehydrated on stage 18 of the Vuelta, when he returned the AAF? Well, two circumstances suggest otherwise. First, he had a great race, cementing his lead over Vincenzo Nibali. I, for one, do not ride well when I’m so dehydrated as to return double the concentration of any substance I could (hypothetically) be tested for. Second, according to the Cyclingnews blow-by-blow report, the temperature was only 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) that morning, and two other riders commented on it being generally rainy toward the end of that Vuelta. (That’s about all I can glean about the weather.) If Froome has always meticulously followed the same salbutamol dosing regimen—“I have a clear routine when I use my inhaler and how many times I use it,” he told Cyclingnews—then how has he not had an AAF for salbutamol at any time in his decade-long career when he’s surely been tested after very long, hot days on the road that would have left him dedydrated?
But you know what? We could spend an eternity considering the various possible factors that could lead to the test results being so far off, and that’s the wrong approach. If you’re asking, “Who says?” then my answer is, “Philosophers.”
Scientists—including Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein—have long made use of a heuristic principle known as Ockham’s razor, devised by the philosopher William of Ockham. As described by Wikipedia, “His principle states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected or when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.... One justification of Occam’s razor is a direct result of basic probability theory. By definition, all assumptions introduce possibilities for error; if an assumption does not improve the accuracy of a theory, its only effect is to increase the probability that the overall theory is wrong.”
If we apply this principle retroactively in assessing past doping cases, its reliability is almost comically obvious. What makes more sense: the complicated notion that Tyler Hamilton had a chimera (i.e., a vanishing twin that got lost in the womb) that produced a false positive for foreign blood population—or that he doped? Which seems more probable: that Alberto Contador got clenbuterol from beef brought to him all the way from Spain by a friend—or that he cheated? Which better passes the sanity test: that Floyd Landis drank over 60 bottles of water during a single Tour stage because he was just really, really thirsty, and he returned a positive test because the lab was totally incompetent—or that he doped?
Theories that defy the Occam’s razor principle usually start with some version of, “Wait, there must be some other explanation.” Let’s look beyond cycling history. Consider the song “Guilty Conscience” by Eminem. A scenario is laid out: “Meet Grady, a twenty-nine year old construction worker. After coming home from a hard day’s work, he walks in the door of his trailer park home to find his wife in bed with another man.” Eminem has an interior debate with his conscience, which is voiced by Dr. Dre.
Dr. Dre: “Wait! What if there's an explanation for this shit?”
Eminem: “What? She tripped? Fell? Landed on his dick?!”
Here again, the most likely scenario is also the simplest. Grady’s wife has cuckolded him.
How applicable is Ockham’s razor to Froome’s defense? Well, considering that Froome’s urine level showed twice the limit, and that the limit is so very generous to begin with, and that he hasn’t yet advanced any specific counter-theories for the test being so far off, and that the obvious dehydration explanation doesn’t match the circumstances of the race, doesn’t the idea that he’s somehow innocent seem a lot more complicated than the very simple notion that yet another pro cyclist cheated?
Karl Popper, a widely esteemed philosopher of science, weighs in on Ockham’s razor in a way that provides more food for thought on the topic of drug testing in sport. Again according to Wikipedia, “Popper argues that a preference for simple theories ... may be justified by its falsifiability criterion: we prefer simpler theories to more complex ones ‘because their empirical content is greater; and because they are better testable’ (Popper 1992).”
“Falsifiability” is a key concept to have in mind when we consider doping in sport. Falsifiability is the idea that a proposition is more believable if its veracity can be determined simply and equivocally through a test. For example, the statement “all swans are white” can be proven false by producing a black swan. Popper cites falsifiability as the “demarcation criterion,” such that “what is unfalsifiable is classified as unscientific.”
Team Sky principal David Brailsford made a grand statement that doesn’t begin to meet the falsifiability standard: “I have the utmost confidence that Chris followed the medical guidance in managing his asthma symptoms, staying within the permissible dose for salbutamol.” Brailsford is countering the existing falsifiable evidence with sheer emphasis, without employing any falsifiable evidence of his own, because nobody has even begun the process of creating a convincing alternative explanation to the AAF. His defense, strident though it may be, is utterly theoretical at this point, so it’s not even as solid as “She tripped, fell, landed on his dick.” Drug testing is built on the principle of falsifiability, but guys like Brailsford get to counter them with vague what-ifs.
Returning to petitio principii
Look, I’ll be honest: I love the idea of Froome being given three puffs of salbutamol, starved of water, and then placed in a sauna—and then having this procedure repeated over and over again until he manages to produce a urine sample with twice the legal limit of salbutamol. I’d rather watch him do that than win another bike race, frankly. But it’s wrong to indulge him.
Why? Well, I started this essay by promising not to engage in a petitio principii argument that conflates the conclusion with a key premise. But that’s exactly Brailsford is doing by assuming that if Froome’s test returned an AAF, the fault must be with the test. The credibility of Brailsford’s whole team suffers when he automatically takes Froome’s side instead of suspending him from competition. Meanwhile, the credibility of cycling suffers when a rider who fails a drug test gets to keep racing because he is on a wealthy team and has a loud, powerful boss. (Whether or not that is exactly what is going on here is immaterial; this is how it looks to the world.)
No rider above the legal limit for salbutamol has ever escaped suspension by successfully establishing, after the fact, that he could produce an AAF after taking a legal dose. And no rider has surpassed this legal limit as egregiously as Froome. I look forward to the day Froome is finally brought down, but the circus we spectators will have to endure in the meantime will be even uglier than his doped-to-the-gills race “victories.”
Oh, and one other thing: doped or not, Froome is a jerk.
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