Chris Froome’s first race since he was plunged into a doping crisis will be the five-day Ruta Del Sol, which starts in the Spanish town of Mijas on February 14, his team have announced.
While that date is usually associated with affection, Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday this year and the Christian festival of sombre penitence is perhaps more in keeping with the mood surrounding Team Sky.
Although Froome strongly denies any wrongdoing, the 32-year-old returned a urine sample during September’s Vuelta a Espana containing twice the permitted amount of the asthma drug salbutamol.
The four-time Tour de France winner went on to win that race, completing an historic Tour-Vuelta double, and then won bronze medals in the team and individual time trials at the Road World Championships in Norway a week later.
That individual time trial, on September 20, was his last competitive outing. It was also the day he was informed by the International Cycling Union (UCI) of his adverse analytical finding. News of that test was confirmed by the team after it was leaked to the media at the beginning of December.
Having announced his intention to clear his name, Froome has chosen not to suspend himself until the case is resolved, one way or another, and has just put in a huge block of training in South Africa.
Froome has started his last two campaigns slightly earlier in the season in Australia but was always going to change his schedule this year as he is targeting the Giro d’Italia, cycling’s other Grand Tour, for the first time since 2010.
With the Giro starting in May and the Tour just six weeks after its finish, this always meant he would be starting his season slightly later than in 2016 and 2017, with three concurrent races the most likely options: Andalucia’s Ruta Del Sol, the Tour of Oman and Volta Ao Algarve.
Froome has raced each of them in previous seasons, winning in Oman in 2013 and 2014 and the Ruta Del Sol in 2015, but the latter’s more mountainous start with a short, flat time-trial to finish on February 18 is the best fit for the challenges ahead on the road.
In a team statement, Froome said: “It’s been a couple of years now since I was last at Ruta del Sol. It’s a race I’ve enjoyed in the past and so I’m looking forward to going back there.”
In regards to challenges ahead off the road, he reiterated his confidence that he and his team “will be able to get to the bottom of what has happened” but acknowledged the “situation has created a lot of uncertainty”.
Many in the sport, including UCI president David Lappartient, have suggested it would be better for cycling if Froome avoided racing until his case was settled.
Froome, however, said: “I hope people will appreciate there are limits to what I can say whilst the process is still ongoing but no-one is keener than me to move things forward as quickly as possible.”
The rider and his British team have assembled a team of legal and medical experts in an effort to explain how he returned that limit-busting sample while staying within the allowed amount of puffs on his inhaler.
If they cannot offer a robust explanation, and replicate it in laboratory conditions, Froome faces an anti-doping rule violation, losing his Vuelta win and a ban this season.
Team Sky boss Sir Dave Brailsford said: “We all recognise that these are difficult circumstances but it’s important for all sides that this process is conducted fairly before a final conclusion is reached.
“It is a complex situation but we’re working as hard as we can with Chris to resolve things as soon as possible.”