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June 24, 2017

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Controversy looms for 101st Tour de France

PARIS -- Tour de France defending champion Chris Froome is feeling the pressure ahead of Saturday's start to the 2014 race.

This 101st Tour might seem to favor Team Sky and Froome, but he will have a lot on his mind during the three-week race, which starts in Leeds, in the northern English county of Yorkshire.

The Kenyan-born Brit is dealing with a perception among some fans that he had a hand in Sky's decision to bench his popular compatriot and teammate Sir Bradley Wiggins, who won the 2012 Tour.

He also was caught up in a recent doping firestorm. Froome, who insists he has never used banned drugs, said in an interview that he cried privately over scrutiny of his use of a medication for a chest infection during a recent race, even though it was permitted because he had a doctor's note.

That incident showed the sport is still hounded by doping suspicions after a succession of scandals over the past generation — highlighted by the drug use and cheating by Lance Armstrong and others in his era.

Froome also faces the little matter of two-time Tour champ Alberto Contador, who last won in 2009. The 31-year-old Spaniard has been in strong form and has made winning this Tour a top priority.

Cycling's doping shadows will also be cast upon Contador, who lost his 2010 title in a doping case. His Tinkoff-Saxo teammate Roman Kreuziger, who finished fifth last year — right behind Contador — was dropped by the team because of anomalies in his biological passport in 2011 and 2012, when the Czech rider was with the Kazakh team Astana. Kreuziger has denied any wrongdoing.

On the way to winning the Tour de Romandie in Switzerland in early May, Froome benefited from a "therapeutic use exemption" — a doctor's note — allowing him to use corticosteroid prednisolone against a chest infection. The UCI, cycling's governing body, and the World Anti-Doping Agency agreed that Froome had followed the rules. But critics alleged he hadn't, and the UCI said last week that it's reviewing its TUE procedures.

To many cycling fans, last year's Tour was a bit underwhelming — despite the revelation of Froome. He stamped his leadership on the race in stage 8, in a show of uncompromising dominance.

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