With less than a week to go until this year's Grand Depart, Chris Froome's Tour de France participation has been thrown into doubt with reports in France suggesting that ASO, the Tour's owners, have blocked the British rider's participation over his ongoing salbutamol case.
Team Sky are appealing the decision to the National Olympic Committee of French Sport, the report in Le Monde added, with a hearing due on Tuesday morning. A decision is set to be made the following day, just three days before the start in Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile, in the Vendee region, on Saturday.
Team Sky declined to comment specifically on the Le Monde story when asked by The Telegraph, although they did express confidence that the four-time champion would be on the start line. "We are confident that Chris will be riding the Tour as we know he has done nothing wrong," said a spokesperson.
Froome is fighting to clear his name after returning an adverse analytical finding [AAF] for asthma drug salbutamol at last year's Vuelta a Espana, which he won. Salbutamol is a specified substance rather than a banned substance, meaning a rider is allowed to take it up to a threshold of 1000 ng/ml.
The-33 year-old vehemently denies any wrongdoing and said last week that, while he understood it was a sensitive issue, he felt he had done nothing wrong and therefore had "every right" to ride the Tour.
Under UCI regulations, Froome is allowed to continue racing pending resolution of his case. However, his situation has been made more problematic by the fact that what was meant to be a confidential process leaked into in the public domain last December.
That has meant that Froome has had to contend with the court of public opinion, an arena which has been heavily influenced by current and ex-professionals weighing in with their opinions.
Froome's major rival for May's Giro d'Italia, Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin, made clear before the start of that race that he was unhappy with the length of time it was taking to reach a verdict in the Froome case and pointed out that he would not have been on the start line in Jerusalem as his team was a member of the MPCC [Movement for Credible Cycling].
More recently, five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault called for Froome's fellow riders to strike if the Briton raced at the Tour. "I do not think he has a place [at the Tour] today, he's positive," Hinault told AFP. "Why was Alberto Contador convicted for the same reasons, and why is [Froome] not condemned? They [Team Sky] have a lot of money to defend it, but is it a good image for cycling?"
The image of the sport is what ASO are apparently using as justification to block Froome. They have cited article 28 of their rules, which "expressly reserves the right to refuse participation in - or to exclude from - the event, a team or any of its members whose presence would be such as to damage the image or reputation of ASO or the event."
"The Tour de France wants at all costs to avoid being in the same situation as the recent Giro d'Italia, where the final victory of Froome is now marked with an asterisk," said the report in Le Monde.
There have long been rumours that ASO might attempt to block Froome's participation, although that possibility seemed to have receded in recent weeks with Tour director Christian Prudhomme suggesting that any ban was "a decision for the UCI".
Team Sky are understood to be confident of winning their appeal since there is a precedent in the case, with Tom Boonen initially barred by ASO from riding in the Tour in 2009 due to a positive test for cocaine which they said was "incompatible with the image of the Tour de France". Boonen was eventually cleared.
If Team Sky win the appeal, they can expect what was already likely to be a hostile reception in France to be that much more febrile. In recent years Sky's riders have been punched and spat at, while Froome had urine thrown at him in 2015.
If they lose the appeal, it would open up the question as to who would lead Team Sky's eight-man team. Geraint Thomas is in good form, having won the recent Criterium du Dauphine and the national time trial title, and said last week that Sky had been given "the role of a backup guy" and the licence "to race at least until the first rest day [after stage nine].
"We'll go from there then and hopefully have two cards to play," Thomas added, referring to Froome. Whether that will be the case is now in the hands of a French tribunal.