Eight years covering Team Sky, part three

In June 2011, I headed to the Critérium du Dauphiné in the French Alps. Full disclosure here, I was travelling with the team and for all but one of the eight nights I stayed in the same hotel as the riders and staff. Only in Mâcon did I have to stay somewhere else, because the hotel was full and a few of the Sky staff and I had to stay at another place just down the road. The hotel rooms (which would otherwise have been paid for by the magazine I freelanced for) were part of the team’s allocation of rooms for the race. Each evening I ate with the staff. Team Sky also provided lunch on the road in the form of sandwiches. Any beers or coffees or additional food I wanted I paid for myself. There were no conditions on my joining the team for a week, I was not told what I could and couldn’t do or say. I was allowed to ask anyone anything I liked but, of course, the riders and staff were just as free not to speak to me if they preferred, the same way any human being is able to pick and choose who they speak to. No one clammed up when I spoke to them and I found the atmosphere that week relaxed and the people open. Wiggins had his moments when the tension seemed to be getting to him but as he was on the verge of his best ever road racing result to date that wasn’t a surprise.

One of the purposes of the trip to the Dauphiné was to see the inner workings of a professional cycling team at a stage race and to learn a bit more about the logistical challenges. Over the course of the week I spoke to all of the senior management staff (Brailsford, Shane Sutton, Tim Kerrison, Sean Yates and Carsten Jeppesen) the support staff, such as Dr Richard Freeman, and the riders. I sat in on a couple of pre-race team meetings and post-race debriefs. I travelled on the team bus or in the team car behind the race and I was allowed to set my own agenda each day. There was no press officer on that race, partly because media demands at the Dauphiné are not that significant, so there was no one there to restrict what I could do. I tried to witness as many aspects of the behind-the-scenes work as I could. I spoke to the chef and the mechanics, the carers and the bus driver. I also spoke to Dr Richard Freeman and that provided one of the most interesting aspects of the week. It was Saturday night in Le Collet d’Allevard.

The doc is in the hotel’s bar, laptop open, phone pressed to his ear, looking concerned.
Rigoberto Uran has been suffering with breathing difficulties for the past couple of days and Dr Freeman is trying to get a Therapeutic Use Exemption for a drug to treat him.
‘It can be very tricky, especially at the weekends,’ he says. Yesterday, Dr Freeman contacted the race’s anti-doping doctor and put the case for a TUE. The drug is a steroid that can mimic a corticosteroid in the urine and can be misused.
‘Rigo has got a chest problem,’ he says. ‘With most asthma patients, you will never find out specifically what causes it. We’ve tested for pollen and in Rigo’s case it doesn’t appear to be that.
‘The ADAMS [World Anti-Doping Agency’s Administration and Management System] website can be tricky. Your worst fear is that you’re stuck in the mountains with no internet connection but we would not give anything that’s on the list to a rider until we had everything confirmed through the proper channels.’
Could he not use the ADAMS hotline and make a phone call? ‘That works well Monday to Friday but not so well at the weekends,’ he says wryly, acknowledging that the onus is always on the athlete and the team doctor to ensure everything is done properly.
It took a few tries but eventually he got through to Dr Mario Zorzoli of the UCI and gained the necessary permission.
But isn’t there an argument that if Uran is unwell and his breathing is seriously affected, he should pull out of the race? ‘He may well do that. But he’s an ambitious young man who wants to support Bradley and he wants to secure his place in the Tour team,’ added Dr Freeman.
‘We are not talking about performance-enhancement here. The TUE is designed to enable an athlete to take medication that a normal human being would be prescribed by a doctor. It cannot be right that you and I could go to a doctor and be prescribed something that an athlete with the same condition could not use.’
Dr Freeman used to work for Bolton Wanderers Football Club before joining Sky. He’s also worked on golf’s European Tour. Despite the challenges of being away from home for so much of the year, he enjoys the role.
I ask what he makes of the UCI’s new no-needles policy. ‘I think it’s fantastic,’ he says. ‘It takes away a large window of opportunity for a lot of products. It means that there are no short cuts to proper rest and recovery. And it also removes that ladder of progression. If riders get used to vitamin injections as a matter of routine, it makes it easier to not question what’s in the syringe.’

Dr Freeman’s comments about the no-needles policy were interesting. The UCI had introduced the rule a few weeks before, in time for the Giro d’Italia. It was something that Brailsford also spoke about when we were waiting for the start of the final stage in Pontcharra the following morning. Brailsford, Sutton, Jeppesen and I had been for a bike ride round the lake earlier that morning, where I'd seen a different, more relaxed side to their personalities and observed how their relative cycling abilities played with the usual hierarchy.

At the start, despite a two-and-a-half hour ride, there’s a spring in Sutton’s step as he bounds back to the bus with a pile of pizza boxes under his arm. ‘The boss must be knackered. He wants pizza.’ Some of the staff tuck in under the shade of a tree.
Brailsford has an easy manner about him this morning. He asks how the week has been and I reply that it’s been illuminating.
‘There’s nothing going on here,’ he says, answering a question that hasn’t really been asked.
‘Absolutely nothing at all. I know that’s not good enough for some people. It’s like the no-needles policy. I think that is absolutely great but how’s it being enforced? I’ve spoken to Pat [McQuaid, UCI president] and I told him the UCI needs to get out here and enforce it. Where are they? They need to be on the buses. There are 20 teams, how hard can it be to have an observer on each bus? That’s your window of opportunity for recovery there, between the finish and the hotel, so get someone on the buses.
‘The doctors are scared, you know. Okay, so if you give someone something to go uphill faster, that’s one thing. But very few people are prepared to risk going to prison to make someone go uphill faster.’

The full diary of my week at the Dauphiné is here.

* * *

The stage finished in La Toussuire and we now know, following the Fancy Bears hack, that the events of that afternoon were significant.

Simon Cope arrived at La Toussuire with a Jiffy Bag. We still don’t know for certain what was in it – Fluimucil, an over-the-counter decongestant, or triamcinolone, a corticosteroid that is permitted out of competition but can only be used in-competition with a TUE. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report has been unable to confirm one way or other.

What we do know is that Team Sky applied for a TUE at the end of May to permit Wiggins to use triamcinolone in competition. It was finally granted on June 26, on the day Wiggins won the British national championships and six days before the Tour de France started. Wiggins, who had won the Dauphiné, crashed out of the 2011 Tour after about a week.

Triamcinolone, and other cortisone-style substances, are permitted out of competition. Whether we like it or not (and I think it's a grey area that a team that started out with Sky's founding principle should not inhabit) riders can take it with impunity out of competition. The teams in the voluntary MPCC (Mouvement Pour Un Cyclisme Crédible) – which does not include Team Sky – do not allow their riders to take substances like this even out of competition. However, cycling's governing body, the UCI is not currently able to adopt a rule that is stricter than the ones laid out in the World Anti-Doping code. Anyway, a TUE is needed to ensure that if large enough traces of the drug show up in a dope test to trigger a positive test it will not count as a positive test. We can debate whether it is the performance-enhancing and transformative substance that David Millar and others claim, or whether medical experts are right when they say that other, less powerful medication should be used to treat asthma before reaching for a drug like triamcinolone but, as far as the rules are concerned, Wiggins was entitled to apply for a TUE. The UCI granted that TUE (although it is worth noting that since 2011 the system of granting TUEs has been tightened and now three independent doctors have to agree rather than just the UCI's scientific advisor, who was Mario Zorzoli back then).

TUEs for triamcinolone were applied for again prior to the 2012 Tour de France, which Wiggins won, and the 2013 Giro d’Italia, which he hoped to also win, establishing what could be seen as a pattern of behaviour considering TUEs were not applied for at other less crucial points in the season.

After the Fancy Bears hackers leaked details of Wiggins’s TUEs, Matt Lawton of the Daily Mail discovered that a Jiffy Bag had been couriered to Team Sky by Cope on the final day of the Dauphiné and asked Brailsford for his version of events. No one seemed to know what was in the package, not even Cope, who had taken it in his luggage through airport security, on an international flight and across a border. For all he knew, it could have been a set of pedals, he said.

Initially Brailsford said that Cope, who managed Great Britain’s women’s team, had travelled to France to meet Emma Pooley and as he was passing nearby he could bring the package. However, it then turned out that Pooley had not been in France that day but was racing hundreds of kilometres away in the Basque Country.

Lawton’s source had alleged that whatever was contained in the package had been administered to Wiggins in the back of the team bus after the final stage of the Dauphiné at La Toussuire.

It is relevant what was in that package, why it was brought out to France and when whatever was in it was administered to Wiggins. (Wiggins says it was Fluimucil, Dr Freeman also says it was Fluimucil, delivered by nebuliser later that Sunday night. Shane Sutton cast doubt on that in his interview with Orla Chennoui and sticks to his account that whatever was in the package was given to Wiggins in the back of the Team Sky bus that Sunday after the stage). 

If indeed triamcinolone was given to Wiggins then, it would be a big problem because the TUE was not yet in place, the substance was controlled and even though the day’s stage had been completed UCI rules state that the hours after a race, up until midnight, still count as ‘in-competition’. If it could be proved Wiggins was given triamcinolone that Sunday late afternoon, an anti-doping rule would have been broken. They could have waited to the Monday, though, and the substance would have been allowed (although he would still have needed a TUE if he intended to race in the near future). It shows what fine lines Team Sky were playing with here by applying for a TUE for this medication.

Brailsford told Lawton none of this could have possibly taken place in the back of the Team Sky bus, as the source claimed, because the bus had left straight after the finish to head to Sestriere, where the team was due to start a training camp the following day.

I was at La Toussuire that day and Brailsford’s version of events didn’t ring true to me. I had a vague memory of seeing Simon Cope there that afternoon but if I'd been asked in a court of law I'd not have been able to swear to it. Cope was a peripheral figure and people show up at bike races all the time. It's not like his presence there would have made anyone think, 'Hang on, what on earth is he doing here?'

However, I did know the bus had stayed a good while after the stage finish because it was still there when I left and I’d had to wait for a couple of the team’s mechanics to repack equipment and load one of the vans before they could give me a lift down to Chambéry. Sometimes it’s not possible to remember the starts and finishes at stage races clearly because the days tend to merge together but that day stuck in my mind, not just because I got a lift down the mountain in one of the Team Sky vans. When I reached Chambéry I was struck by how beautiful the mountains looked as the sun began to set on them. I was so captivated by the view that I wheeled my wheely suitcase through some dog mess. Only in France can you wheel your suitcase through shit on the pavement while admiring the view.

Anyway, a video then surfaced from Dutch television. In it, Wiggins is being interviewed standing in front of what looks very much like the Team Sky bus and I am lurking about in the background. It didn’t inspire a great deal of confidence that Brailsford’s first two alibis could be so easily dismantled, or that he’d volunteered them seemingly so hurriedly without checking first they’d stand up.

I’ve thought about that week a lot since the Fancy Bears hack. I found it extremely interesting and learned things about how a team works that I had not fully appreciated before. I saw first-hand the odd rhythm to each day. For a lot of people there seems to be lots of boring waiting around with bursts of intense activity. The mundanity of much of the work is striking. It’s like babysitting. Washing, cooking and cleaning for a bunch of overgrown children who not so much can’t do things for themselves but are being spared even the lightest of duties so that they can do their bit on the bike. The riders were at the centre of everything.

I didn’t feel like an unwelcome guest. People did not avert their eyes when I approached, some of them were very happy to talk about ‘difficult’ subjects. Sutton was extremely candid. I found Brailsford and Jeppesen open too. No doors were suddenly closed when I approached, people didn’t seem to switch conversations or lower their voices when I was in earshot. In fact, some of the stuff I heard surprised me. The way the staff talked about underperforming riders was enlightening, for example, but I imagine the same is the case in all sports teams.

And yet one of the biggest stories of the decade was beginning to unfold around me and I didn’t have a clue. I’ve thought about Dr Freeman talking about Rigoberto Uran’s asthma and TUE application. I’ve thought about Brailsford volunteering, à propos of nothing, an opinion on the no-needles policy on the very morning Simon Cope was due to arrive at the finish of the stage with The Package. Whether Brailsford knew about that or not is not especially relevant, and we don’t even need to know whether it contained Fluimucil or triamcinolone either, because we know for sure that while Brailsford was lauding the UCI’s needle ban his team had already set the wheels in motion to legitimately administer what some consider to be a powerful corticosteroid to their star rider by injection. That seems an uncomfortably odd juxtaposition to me.

Part one
Part two
Part four – to come