Sky’s Cycling Dilemma

NEWS ANALYSIS — Chris Froome, racing for the $40 million Team Sky professional cycling team sponsored by the British satellite pay-TV operator, May 27 won his third straight Grand Tour stage race, finishing first overall in the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) that began in Jerusalem and ended three weeks later in Rome.

For Froome, who has won four Tour de France races, in addition to last year’s Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain), victory came May 25 after a jaw-dropping win into Bardonecchia that saw the South African-born rider erase a seemingly insurmountable three-minute, 21-second deficit in the overall standings to take the lead for good.

The win brought back bad memories of American Floyd Landis’ similar performance in 2006 when he overcame a significant time gap to vanquish his Tour de France rivals on the next-to-last stage.

Landis was eventually stripped of the win after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs — leading to a chain of events that would ultimately bring down his former teammate Lance Armstrong on similar charges.

Froome and Team Sky are supposed to be different than Armstrong’s heavy-handed squads of the early 2000s that pushed systematic doping to the extreme.

Founded in 2010, Team Sky has dominated professional and Olympic track cycling with a mandate of clean racing. It is a bragging right of sorts for corporate parent Sky, which eyes the team’s “inspiration and participation” as grounds for its massive marketing spend.

But it remains to be seen how much longer Sky — which has first-run distribution deals with major Hollywood studios, direct-access to Netflix and includes DVDs with electronic sellthrough purchases on the Sky Store platform — will support the team financially at it sits in the merger crosshairs of The Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox (which owns 39% of Sky), and Comcast.

And money is hardly the issue.

Team Sky’s dominance has produced increasing naysayers, who contend its results are due to exploiting loopholes within doping rules.

Indeed, Froome, a well-documented asthmatic, often uses inhalers during competition. But apparent misuse of inhalers contributed to Froome testing positive for illegally high levels of an asthma drug during last year’s Vuelta.

The case is under review by cycling’s governing body. Should Froome be found guilty, he would be suspended and stripped of the Vuelta win, and likely the Giro as well.

Without its marque rider, Sky would probably drop its sponsorship.

But in the meantime, Froome keeps racing. As does Team Sky, whose Columbian rider Bernal Gomez recently won the Tour of California.

“My conscience is clear,” said Froome in Rome.

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