PONT-SAINT-ESPRIT, France -- There was a collective groan among the press corps Sunday when Chris Froome (Sky) turned the screws with about 7 kilometers to go on France's hardest climb to drop Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff).
No, the freebie buffet hadn't run out. Team Sky just dropped a Froome bomb. And it ticked people off.
The Sky captain spun his legs as if they were well-lubed pistons, churning out huge power, grinding his way toward the Ventoux summit and victory, only to leave a swath of doubt in his wake.
The fallout came quickly. Twitter soon was ablaze with pseudo-scientists calibrating Froome's estimated power numbers, measuring his times against historical bests and otherwise spinning the stats faster than the Sky rider skinned Contador. On Sunday, Froome didn't drop Contador to win the hearts and minds of cynical journalists and ever-exasperated detractors. He attacked to win the Tour.
Zooming clear of Contador and his other GC rivals, Froome took a grip on the yellow jersey that should weather any unforeseen bonks, echelons, crashes, chain-gates, tacks, illnesses and urine-tossing that might impede his otherwise pleasant journey toward Paris.
But in terms of answering what is the question of this Tour -- whether we, the fans, the journalists, his competitors, can believe what we're seeing -- well, we're further away from Paris than when the Tour started in Corsica.
Froome has been impeccable throughout this race. Perhaps too much so. In the three key moments to this point -- two mountaintop finishes and one individual time trial -- he's been in a league of his own.
He has more than four minutes on the Belkin boys, Contador and everyone else. With that gap, Froome can stop midway through the Alps, answer a few Twitter critics, have a cup of tea, and still win the Tour for the first time.
Froome and his Sky chaperons swear they are clean. When asked after taking the yellow jersey last week if history would require some rewriting, Froome replied simply, "Believe me."
In light of what we now know about what happened over the past two decades, is it a sucker's bet to believe in Froome? In Sky? In professional cycling? That's the question, and it reflects the doubt that's the undercurrent of this centenary Tour.
Professional cycling has a massive disconnect at multiple levels. Fans don't believe the teams, and teams don't believe that journalists are still asking about doping. From their points of view, doping is yesterday's news.
But to take at face value what's happening here requires a tremendous leap of oft-tested faith, especially in light of the deceit revealed in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report on the Lance Armstrong/U.S. Postal Service doping conspiracy.
One must accept that a sport that was rife with doping, cheating, bribing, cutting corners, criminals, junkies, pushers, thugs and other nefarious characters suddenly and abruptly righted itself.
One must believe that this happened in a span of three, four, five years max.
One must believe this quantum leap has occurred thanks to the biological passport in 2008. That it arose via change from within. That there truly exists an unwritten "gentlemen's agreement" among the teams to race clean.
That riders, sport directors, soigneurs, mechanics, bus drivers and even journalists, who all lapped up tainted milk from the teat of doping, would and could change their colors in a very narrow span of time, without discussion or agreement, barely even acknowledging the errors of their collective past.
That it just -- ping! -- happened.
After everything this sport has endured the past two decades, the last thing cycling needs is a rider racing just like Lance Armstrong.
And that's just what Froome is doing. No gifts. Froome skinned everyone alive up Mont Ventoux. One clever tweeter even referred to Sunday's ride as "FroomeStrong." Ouch.
Without question, Froome is head and shoulders above his competition. He's dominating all disciplines, in the mountains and in the time trials. He's so strong, he doesn't flinch when he's isolated or panic when he's caught out in an echelon.
On Sunday, a journalist asked Froome, "The way you are racing today reminds some people of Lance Armstrong. How do you react to that?"
If Froome were not in this Tour, it would actually be a great race, with four riders within 40 seconds of each other in the top five. Of course, the racing would be entirely different if Froome were not present, but the point is that he is cutting through this peloton like a hot knife through butter.
It's said that miracles do not exist in cycling.
But do they? Can they?
Sir Dave Brailsford, the organizational mastermind behind the Sky phenomenon, said he understands why people question what they are seeing. A few days ago, we at VeloNews and a few other journalists asked Brailsford about doping, about how Froome is handling the doping question, and about what's at stake.
"Everyone has been lied to so many times before, and when people see something, you're just saying the same thing everyone said in the past, so why should we believe you?" Brailsford asked rhetorically. "That's a very good question."
Beyond the skepticism, the cynicism, the doubt, there is an even more intriguing question:
What if Froome is clean?
Perhaps everyone is missing one of the greatest sports stories of all time.
Maybe he is clean. Maybe cycling is clean. Maybe we cannot see what's right in front of our eyes.
Many agree that cycling today is as clean as it's been in two decades, perhaps ever. The bio passport, the ADAMS database, the randoms -- one source told VeloNews that Movistar was tested on the first rest day, both in the morning and the evening -- the ever-tightening net of anti-doping controls. Maybe these guys are racing on pane e acqua, whether they want to or not.
Maybe Froome is clean. Think about the enormity of that.
The way the peloton races today suggests a cleaner, healthier place. Riders collapse. Riders bonk. Riders need oxygen masks on top of mountains. Riders don't just lose time, they lose huge chunks of it. Ask Andy Schleck. Look at Cadel Evans. Riders go backward as fast as they go forward. No one's seen that for a long, long time.
But once burned, twice shy. And cycling has been burned more than once. What if Froome is taking some new wonder drug, as the conspiracy theorists suggest? Maybe they're still cutting corners. Maybe the emperor doesn't have a pretty new kit after all.
Are we all suckers?
That's the sad part -- for Froome, for cycling, for everyone, for this 100th Tour. We don't know.