Last stop, Sheffield

To Sheffield and the final stage of The Cycling Podcast’s tour (for now), which also doubled as part of the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival. As I joked at the start of the event, I managed to achieve a lifetime ambition by headlining the Saturday night at a festival.

We were in a cinema at the Showrooms and I think the comfortable burgundy chairs made for a fairly relaxed vibe. Perhaps it was too relaxed in my case, because I cocked-up when I was reading a piece from Richard’s Tour de France diary in our book, A Journey Through the Cycling Year. I’d mislaid my copy, in which I’d marked up the paragraphs to skip past, and so I missed out the wrong line and had to go back. I made a joke of it, moved on and I think I got away with it.

book 1 copy.jpg

The questions at the end were again very good. One was about the role of journalists in the whole Team Sky, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome story, which is a subject I’ve been covering in my recent blogs, Eight Years Covering Team Sky. I’ll try to resume that series this coming week.

Another thought-provoking question was about the choice of cover photograph on The Cycling Podcast’s book. It’s an absolutely fantastic picture of Alberto Contador on the Angliru at the Vuelta a España by Simon Gill. Simon has captured a moment that seems to say so much. Contador tackles a hairpin bend a couple of kilometres from the summit of the final mountain stage of a chequered career. Contador’s head is turned to look up the road, his teeth bared with the effort. Fans in the background cheer him on enthusiastically. Photographers on the other side of the road to Simon are capturing the moment from a different perspective. At first glance it looks like Contador is smiling, although on closer inspection it’s clear he’s grimacing.

A couple of people have emailed us about this choice too, and the point they are making is that by putting him on the cover of the book we are glorifying a rider who served a suspension for an a doping offence. Part of my answer was that no endorsement of Contador is implied by the choice of photograph.

Of course, people are free to disagree with that view and if we neglected to discuss in the podcast Contador’s past and what he and others represent I would take the point, but the thing is we strive to cover the good, the bad and the ugly in cycling as appropriate.

Last week, when Richard and I planned the podcast, knowing that the discussion of the DCMS report, Wiggins and Sky would be long, I suggested splitting it and putting out two separate episodes, one focusing on racing, one on Sky. Richard countered by saying that the grit, drama and glorious anti-glamour of Strade Bianche and the murky world of doping are not separate, they are two sides of the same coin. Professional cycling is not one or the other, it is both.

The same goes with Contador. He was taking part in the Vuelta, he was without doubt the most aggressive rider, determined to go out in a blaze of glory, and his quest for a final mountain stage win was one of the most intriguing sub-texts of the Vuelta. To acknowledge that is not to ignore his past. When assessing his legacy, we must weigh up all aspects of his career, as we have done. It’s not our job to airbrush him out of history.

So, our book tour takes a break. We will head to Scotland for the re-arranged dates in Edinburgh and Glasgow next month but for now I can get back to normal life without the strange sensation of butterflies building each afternoon.

Across five nights, we’ve appeared in front of about 1,200 people, we’ve signed a lot of books and met a lot of lovely people. If you’d told me five years ago, when Richard, Daniel and I sat down in a London park a week or so before the 2013 Tour de France to record the first episode of The Cycling Podcast on Richard’s iPhone, that we'd eventually do this I’d not have believed you.

From Hackney to Leeds

We were on a fairly early train from Nottingham to London and from there I went home for a couple of hours before travelling back into London and heading to the Round Chapel in Hackney.

Weeks ago, when I looked ahead to these two weeks on the road, I assumed I’d have all day to do things – write, keep on top of my admin, plan stuff, read – but the days have been full, mostly with travelling or fretting. The important part of the day is the hour and a half on stage in the evening but I had not taken into account just how much the prospect of going in front of an audience would come to dominate the rest of the day. For me the nerves kick in sometime in mid-afternoon, and then the adrenaline that gets me through the event followed by a late drink and meal inevitably lead to a patchy night’s sleep.

It’s an alien routine and it’s given me a glimpse of what it must be like for people who go on stage every night. Our colleague Ned Boulting did about 25 performances of his Bikeology show last autumn and I really don’t know how he did it. I’ve done four nights now and the rollercoaster of emotions is taking some getting used to.

On Thursday afternoon, as I sat at home watching the clock, I’d have given anything for a phone call to tell me a localized snow storm had made Hackney inaccessible.

Before the start, a couple of podcast listeners presented us with incredibly thoughtful gifts. A huge thanks to Stewart for the tins of fabada – the Asturian bean stew we ate at the Vuelta that is similar to cassoulet – and to Marc who had brought us some bottles of Belgian beer.

As it turned out, the event could not have gone better. When I first arrived I felt quite intimidated by the Round Chapel. It was big, atmospheric, with an imposing pipe organ looming over us behind the stage. It also had a very hipsterish, Hackneyish shabby chic vibe. Not necessarily my natural habitat. It proved to be the perfect venue for us. There was a big crowd – on a par with our sell-out event at the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square in November – and a couple of early icebreakers went over well. There were some great questions from the audience, some very funny moments and it was really nice to know my parents were in the house, even if I had a suspicion that it prompted Richard, Daniel and Orla to make even more jokes at my expense than usual.

Photography by Simon Gill.

It was coming up to 2am by the time I got home and the next morning I was back in London to catch the train to Leeds. The Carriageworks theatre in Leeds was a very different venue to the Round Chapel and it brought home to me that when doing this sort of thing no two nights are the same.

I can’t call myself an expert at this but from my experiences so far, the layout of the room has quite a bearing on how the evening goes. There was another big crowd in but because the seats were steep and there was an upper tier very high up it looked like a wall of faces in front of us. When I first walked out I felt my heart-rate rise, the butterflies took longer to fade away, and a couple of the early icebreakers that had gone down so well in Hackney didn’t get quite the reaction I was hoping for.

I also got my first heckle. After reading a passage from Richard’s Tour de France diary in The Cycling Podcast’s book about our unusual evening in Lure last summer, we also touched on my dislike of Lourdes. I made a (possibly ill-judged) joke about my least likeable towns beginning with L – Lure and Lourdes, and the inference that Leeds might follow in the sequence. I meant it affectionately, of course!

‘You’re losing the room!’ said Daniel.

Someone shouted, ‘You’ve got to get out of here yet.’

I replied, ‘Don’t worry… I managed to get the two Scottish events postponed.’

That got a laugh and on we went. The questions were great again, with a few more serious ones about the Sky stories than we’ve had at some of the other events. Fortunately, the comments from people afterwards – including from Sir Gary Verity, the man behind the Tour de Yorkshire – were very positive so it’s entirely possible I was just reading the room wrongly.

Next stop Sheffield.

Back on the road, to Nottingham

We were speeding through the countryside north of London, on our way to Nottingham. I was trying to upload the latest episode of The Cycling Podcast, and was getting frustrated.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Richard.

‘I can’t upload the episode. There’s no 4G, no 3G, nothing. Have you got a signal?’

‘No, nothing at all.’

I peered out of the window as we whizzed by the houses. ‘I mean, where the hell are we? How do these people watch Netflix?’

We passed through a station in a blur. It looked familiar.

‘Oh. It’s Harpenden.’ This is the train station closest to my house.

Richard laughed at this and then texted a couple of people to tell them about it. Now that absolutely everything I do and say is potential blogging material I felt this was spoilering my own blog.


We’re back on the road for the second half of The Cycling Podcast’s Grand Tour of (Parts of) Britain to support our new book, A Journey Through the Cycling Year. Daniel had flown in from Berlin for four stages of the tour, which involves some long train transfers.

It was quite a thrill to see the title of our show (or close enough) displayed outside the Nottingham Arts Theatre and although it was a slightly different event to the one we did in Salford with François and Orla last week, I thought it went well. There was another very impressive queue of people who wanted to have their books signed and it was nice to put a few faces to names and see someone I’d first met when standing out on the cobblestones near the Carrefour de l’Arbre at Paris-Roubaix a few years ago.

The only bad moment was when, during the obligatory football reference, I called Nottingham Forest Notts Forest, which is a definite no-no for the people of Nottingham. I may well have gone the whole hog and said that Brian Clough wasn’t much of a football manager. It’s one of those things I know but keep getting wrong – a bit like when in the podcast I repeatedly referred to the DCMS as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport when I know the D stands for Digital. It’s just one of those blind spots.

After the show, we went for the most expensive curry I’ve ever eaten. Richard booked the restaurant and when we arrived I thought there must have been some sort of mistake on the menu. The starters were the sort of price I’d expect to pay for a main course in London. My chicken jalfrezi was eye-watering, and not just because it was spicy. It was tasty but £18.95 for a curry seemed to me to be very steep.


If you’re reading this blog for the cycling stuff, I’ve written three parts of a series about Team Sky. I did chortle when someone on the internet described it as ‘Eight Years Covering For Team Sky.’ Parts four and more will have to wait a few days because I’m travelling from Nottingham to London and then up to Yorkshire for the final three stages of the book tour.

If you’re reading this for the hedgehog updates, you may be interested to know I’ve ordered one of these for our garden.

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

Eight years covering Team Sky, part two

There was a consequence to that interview, which was that Dave Brailsford and I did not speak for the best part of a year. I can already hear the exclamations. ‘Ah, so that’s why journalists don’t ask the tough questions, they’re worried about their access.’ In my experience that really isn’t the case. It’s never shaped my thinking and I doubt it has ever shaped the thinking of those colleagues in the press room I respect either. Being denied access is far less daunting than the prospect of sitting opposite someone and asking them a question you think is going to provoke a strong reaction. Besides, you can always write something if the key protagonists refuse to speak to you, although I think your understanding of things is likely to be hampered over time.

The Giro d’Italia started in Amsterdam and Bradley Wiggins won the prologue. I was writing for a Sunday newspaper at the time and so the fact Wiggins was obliged to come into the press conference made my life easier. Brailsford was elusive but he could just have been caught up in the celebrations – Team Sky had, after all, just taken the pink jersey on their very first day at a grand tour. The following morning I realised I was not imagining the cold shoulder. At the stage start, I asked Brailsford if he had a moment to talk and he sort of indicated he did then made an excuse which made me think he’d be back in a moment, then he hopped on the team bus and didn’t come out again. I stood there until the bitter end when the bus finally pulled away and the Giro rolled out of town.

Just before the start of the Tour de France, again in the Netherlands, there was a bizarre pre-Grand Départ press conference at Team Sky’s hotel on the Friday afternoon. The Netherlands were playing Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final that afternoon and the whole of Rotterdam seemed to be knocking off work early to watch the match, which meant the ring road was busy.

It was immediately obvious that we’d set off from the press room too late to make it to the hotel in time. Someone in our car made a call to Fran Millar of Team Sky to explain that most of the English-speaking media were running late and to ask if they would delay things 15 or 20 minutes.

The thing was, Team Sky had every incentive to wrap things up quickly because one of the riders in their debut Tour de France line-up was Michael Barry, a former US Postal Service rider. The net was beginning to close in on Lance Armstrong by now. Floyd Landis had revealed the extent of doping that had been going on at the US Postal Service team and Jeff Novitzky, an agent with the Food and Drug Administration was ramping up his investigation, which included compelling Armstrong’s former team-mates to talk to him under oath.

Team Sky and Michael Barry were sure to face questions about it. Paul Kimmage was also on his way to the press conference, and also stuck in traffic, and I knew he was very keen to speak to Barry.

When we arrived, everything had been wrapped up, the riders had gone back to their rooms and we all milled around like guests who’d turned up to a party just in time to help clear up the empties.

Kimmage, a former professional rider, the author of a book called Rough Ride that set the agenda when it came to talking about doping in cycling, and by now an award-winning sports journalist with The Sunday Times, had spent 2008 ‘inside’ the Garmin team at the Tour de France. He interviewed the riders and documented the race brilliantly. His long interview with Jonathan Vaughters, conducted before the race and published in The Sunday Times was, at the time, jaw-dropping. It was the first time I felt that the Armstrong story might finally get told, although that would take another four more years.

At some point during the 2008 Tour, the American rider Christian Vande Velde – previously of US Postal Service – told Kimmage about his own doping. I know this, because Kimmage told me about it over dinner in an Italian restaurant in Cuneo on the rest day during the 2008 Tour de France, while Vande Velde was lying fifth overall, just 39 seconds off the yellow jersey.

Of course, Vande Velde later confessed to his doping as part of the federal investigation into the US Postal Service team but at that time it was not known by the public.

If Paul disputes my account of this, that’s fine, I’ll concede my memory of everything is not perfect although I do remember this conversation very well. In any case, there are only three possible scenarios facing a journalist in his position on that occasion. Either the rider lied and the journalist didn’t spot the lie; or the rider told the truth and the journalist chose not to tell the story; or the journalist didn’t ask the question.

This is not a piece about Paul Kimmage but I think this anecdote demonstrates that even the most forensic of examiners wrestle with the complexities of discovering information in the first place and then working out how to put that information in the public domain, or not.

The point is, if the question of Michael Barry’s past was relevant in 2010, then the question of Vande Velde’s past was even more relevant in 2008, as he was in a five-way hunt for the Tour de France title. Garmin had skillfully negotiated the difficulty of hiring riders and staff who had previously doped by acknowledging the past (albeit selectively and at a time of their choosing when it came to the public). Sky had set out to have ‘no association with doping’ and unfortunately for them Michael Barry had had quite an intimate assocation.

Anyway, I could well understand Team Sky’s reluctance to let Kimmage travel with the team – he’s an intense character and his presence can unsettle even the most nerveless people. He has a piercing gaze, a directness that slices through any pretence at small talk, and a way of smelling bullshit from fifty paces, all of which have helped him be very good at what he does. But the thing is, he also sees the world in black or white. With him or against him. Friend or foe. Clean or dirty. There are no grey areas for Paul. Shades of grey are just points on a spectrum that inevitably leads to black.

So although I wasn’t feeling terribly disposed towards Team Sky that summer, I could understand why they didn’t want him travelling around with riders, especially if it was true that Kimmage’s presence on a pre-Tour training camp had caused tension. However, Team Sky retracting their invitation doesn’t necessarily mean that they wanted Kimmage out of the way so they could crack on with some industrial doping.

Just going back a bit, you might think, ‘Well, if you knew about Vande Velde’s past, why didn’t you write it?’ The simple answer to that is it wasn’t my story to tell. It was Vande Velde’s and, at a push, Kimmage’s and Kimmage had presumably taken the view, probably reluctantly, that having given his word he could not out Vande Velde. He made an understandable compromise.

Compromise is, for some, a dirty word where journalists are concerned. But being compromised is a very different thing to making a compromise. Compromise happens every day in every walk of life. In journalism it starts with the decision about what stories to cover – some are too expensive, will take too long, or are deemed by editors not interesting enough. Then there’s the copy itself. In the old days the physical space in a newspaper or magazine meant that compromises were made in more or less every column of copy. Stuff had to be cut, important information was prioritised but sometimes interesting detail got left out. Sub-editors sometimes make cuts that the writers would not have made, for a whole host of reasons.

The internet has in some ways made it far easier to tell a full story, to make fewer space-related compromises, and yet it’s even more difficult in other ways because we’re always being told that attention spans are shortening. No editor would indulge me to the extent that I am indulging myself by writing all this, for example. Perhaps you’ve got this far in the hope that there’s another mention of hedgehogs, I don’t know, but I can save you the bother if you like. There isn’t.

And most importantly the copy has to abide by the law of the land. I have seen people dismiss libel laws as if they are just a trifling inconvenience to be ignored. The old maxim ‘publish and be damned’ has been misunderstood to mean ‘publish at all costs’. No responsible outlet does that. The internet and social media has made it easier for people who don’t have their own newspaper to shine a light in some murky corners but it has also made it easier to make uncorroborated, unsubstantiated claims without any expensive comeback. There’s a sort of journalism à deux vitesses going on – those who are held to account, or potentially held to account, operate by one set of rules; those who aren’t work to another.

* * *

Back to Team Sky. Compared to their expecations they had a bad debut year and before the season had even ended they had begun to evaluate everything. They came to the conclusion that perhaps the parameters they had set for themselves were not helping performance. The final chapter of Richard Moore’s book, Sky’s The Limit, contains a fascinating account of that re-evaluation. You can almost hear the penny drop for Brailsford. They had realised they were operating too far inside the lines.

I remember learning at some point in the summer of 2010 that Dr Roger Palfreeman, who had been part of British Cycling’s medical team, had been tasked by Brailsford with writing a comprehensive medical code of practice for Team Sky but that on consulting the riders Brailsford had shelved it. I tried to ask Brailsford about this during the 2010 Tour but got nowhere. (I’d had to come home from the Tour early because a member of my family was unwell but I recall spending a fair bit of time on the phone trying to ask Team Sky about this).

Anyway, Richard’s book was enlightening. It is assumed, I suspect by people who have not actually read it, to be some sort of party political pamphlet for Team Sky. Possibly that’s because of the title, which Richard didn’t choose but did go along with. In fact, it’s a revealing account of their debut season and the final section is particularly interesting, especially when re-read now.

Brailsford talks about ‘the line’, using the blue line that used to feature on the back of the team’s jerseys as a visual metaphor. ‘You know, where the line is – between what’s allowed and what isn’t – in cycling it can sometimes be a bit blurred. But we will not go over it.’

Later on he says: ‘We need to have knowledge of what all the other riders and teams are doing in terms of performance enhancement – which doesn’t necessarily mean doping. But that whole side of the sport is something... It’s a topic that is ever-present.’

Dr Richard Freeman is also quoted. ‘In terms of illegal products it is clear where the blue line is. There is a grey area in terms of injections, for example, but we adhere completely to the WADA policy on needles.’

Towards the end of 2010, British Cycling’s head of media set up a meeting and I headed to a hotel at Heathrow airport to meet Brailsford for what would be described in tabloid-speak as ‘clear-the-air’ talks. He was less bullish than he had been before, as if the gruelling season and Bradley Wiggins’ failure at the Tour de France, where he had finished 24th, had dented him.

He said that the level of scrutiny and criticism the team had faced during their debut season had taken him by surprise. At the Giro d’Italia, the team had put up black screens to shield the riders as they warmed up for a time trial. It was more than a metaphorical wall between them and the public and press and they had not anticipated the negative reaction to it. As they saw it, allowing the riders to prepare for their race without being gawped at would aid their performance.

The conversation in the Heathrow hotel was informal, not on the record, but Brailsford agreed to an interview at a later date. Perhaps sensing my healthy scepticism about cycling in general, he also invited me to follow the team at a race of my choice in 2011 – although not the Tour de France because everyone would be too on edge there. I suggested the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, where Wiggins and the bulk of the Tour team would be completing their Tour preparations, and he agreed to that.

We had another coffee and Brailsford began to open up about the complexities of running a team that was often competing in two places at once. It sounded like a constant round of problem-solving. We talked a bit about what he’d learned and we talked about the definition of ‘clean’. Clean, he said, was not breaking the rules of the sport.

Context is everything with all this. EPO, blood transfusions and growth hormones had been the set menu of choice for professional cycling. Cortisone abuse was considered by some to be light doping, or not even doping at all. The topic of medication taken with official permission from the sport’s governing body was not even part of the conversation because it was dwarfed by the harder stuff. The investigation into Lance Armstrong and the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s reasoned decision would lay bare the grisly details. Glow times and frozen bags of blood, team buses pulling over so riders could have a post-race top-up. It would be years before we got past all that and the discussion would move on to asthma medicine and TUE forms.

Brailsford began to talk about his excitement and being able to build ‘his’ Team Sky. A lot of professional riders have two-year contracts and so when the team was being assembled, Brailsford could really only pick from riders who were coming to the end of their contract. Now the team was established they could strengthen. He explained his recruitment policy, a sort of Moneyball-inspired theory that broke his roster down into those who were able to deliver World Tour victories, those who were able to offer support at World Tour level and so on. He drew a chart on a napkin, with the rider age along the bottom of the chart and level of performance up the side. He drew a bell curve and explained that his model meant that expensive riders had to deliver results, potential and supporting riders could be cheap, and that once a rider’s performance began to tail off they had to be moved on. He plotted some of his riders on the chart based on their results in 2010. There was nothing too revelatory about that. All sports teams try to get the most out of their athletes and then move them on before they decline but I found it interesting and I asked him if we could reproduce it in the magazine.

Intially he said yes, then he said no, then he said yes again, then he asked if he could think about it. I took a snap of the napkin on my phone. I could understand his reluctance – would a rider in an unflattering position take kindly to seeing his place on the chart, even if it was based on pretty basic information that could not be disputed.

Early in 2011, I went up to Manchester again and spoke to Brailsford in his office. The feature was published in Cycle Sport and can be read here.

With Brailsford’s permission the magazine’s art department created an interpretation of his graph using my sketch and my assessments of where each of Team Sky’s riders would sit on the chart based on their performance in 2010. We made it clear in the caption printed below that the chart was our approximation of his criteria, not necessarily Brailsford’s actual assessment of his riders.

Chris Froome appeared in a pretty unflattering position on that graph – low in terms of results delivered but not young enough in age to be counted as raw potential. He was roughly in the same position as John-Lee Augustyn, who did not go on to win the Tour de France four times. However, based on his results in 2010, which were sparse, it was a fair position.

After Froome’s breakthrough performance at the 2011 Vuelta a Espana, and his subsequent dominance at the Tour de France, I’ve seen this graph cited by some online as a key exhibit in the case for the prosecution, proof of a near donkey-to-racehorse transformation.

I think back to 2007 and early 2008, when Doug Dailey of British Cycling raved about Froome’s potential and talked of his desire to ensure he was eligible to ride the 2008 Olympics for Great Britain. They felt he was raw, but talented. Not capable of winning a medal at that time, perhaps, but good enough to last well into the race. The Kenyan cycling federation blocked Froome’s application to change his nationality in time, so we did not find out that summer whether Dailey’s confidence was justified.

I mention this because it is an example of how anything can be used as evidence in an attempt to prove or disprove something. To someone who believes that Sky are on a par with US Postal Service, my interpretation of Brailsford’s graph that shed a bit of light on his team-assembling policy, is proof that Froome was a hopeless cyclist and his transformation into Tour champion is not credible the same way a moon-landing conspiracy theorist would refer to shadows on a flag as proof the whole thing was shot in the desert.

A couple of years later, as Froome was on his way to his first Tour de France win, the graph circulated on Twitter accompanied by incredulous comments. Brailsford, clearly a lurker on Twitter, had seen the Tweets. One morning at the start, he saw me and said, light-heartedly, ‘That bloody chart,’ and hopped on the team bus.

Part one
Part three

The pressure to express an opinion

I spent the morning reading the reaction to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s report into doping in sport, and there was plenty of it. Some of it was excellent, informed, measured and human. Some of it was absolute nonsense. And some of it was somewhere in between. I think that sums up the reaction to pretty much everything that happens, though, doesn’t it.

When stories like this hit the mainstream, I do have sympathy for people in the media who have to suddenly get to grips with professional cycling and all its peculiarities. The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show cut from pictures of Wiggins to some archive footage of Robert Millar riding a time trial in a Panasonic team jersey at either the 1986 or 1987 Tour de France, before going back to Wiggins. Whoever had to put that package together presumably just searched the database for ‘cycling’, perhaps saw a reference to the Tour de France, and thought that would be okay.

Even the DCMS report wasn’t immune, describing the Tour de France as one of the Classics. That might not matter in the grand scheme of things – after all, no one who’s ever written anything for a living can say they’ve never made a mistake, least of all me – but in a report that was asking to be judged on its attention to detail and trust in its veracity it showed a poor grasp of the basics.

I don’t know how other journalists feel but there’s often a pressure to say ‘something’ on Twitter when these stories break and a while ago I would have done, but I’ve learned that Twitter is just about the least suitable place to express a view on a complex, multi-layered issue. Any comment is open to misinterpretation, people read between the lines and see things that are not there and were not intended. Then there’s the round of, ‘Yes, but what about…’ type messages and before you know it the day’s nearly gone and you realise you’ve been frowning since lunchtime.

A couple of BBC radio stations contacted me asking if I wanted to take part in discussions on the story and I decided I didn’t. I used to do quite a few of these sort of radio appearances around Tour de France time and when big cycling stories broke but since starting the podcast I’ve felt less and less inclined. There’s less room to examine both sides or say ‘I don’t know,’ on the radio. Generally you’re there to put one point of view or the other and sum everything up in a few lines. But what if you see elements of truth in all sides of a story – as is usually the case with something that is complicated?

Instead, I decided I’d write a piece for my website. I’ve called it Eight Years of Covering Team Sky and part one is online now. I’m not entirely sure where it goes next but it’s certainly not going to be an attempt at a definitive, comprehensive account of the team’s history, because I don’t feel I can do that. What I can do is reflect on a few of the major stories I’ve witnessed over the years and write about them from my own perspective.

One thing that does baffle me, though, monitoring the traffic to this site over the past 24 hours, is this: How is it that more than 10 times the number of people are interested in a piece about Team Sky than about what sort of food it is appropriate to leave out for hedgehogs? I just don’t get you people.

Eight years covering Team Sky, part one

In the autumn of 2009, planning for Team Sky was at an advanced stage, recruitment was almost done and the big launch at Millbank Tower in London was only a couple of months away.

Excited by his new team, Dave Brailsford had done a lot of media and one line stuck out to me. He spoke of Team Sky having a zero tolerance policy on doping and that they would not hire anyone with ‘an association with doping’.

For context, this was late 2009. Lance Armstrong had come back and finished third in the Tour de France. The background noise about his doping had yet to hit the mainstream. Floyd Landis had not yet blown the whistle, Jeff Novitsky and the federal investigators had not started to take an interest.

However, cycling had lurched from one doping crisis to the next. In 2006, Operación Puerto, the biggest doping scandal since the Festina Affair eight years earlier, had snared the two contenders vying to inherit Armstrong’s crown, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, and many others. Landis then won the 2006 Tour de France before failing a dope test. Michael Rasmussen got to within days of winning the 2007 Tour when he was caught in a web of his own lies.

So Brailsford’s public statements, and then the one about Team Sky winning the Tour de France with a clean British rider within five years, interested me. Given the landscape of professional cycling at that time I admired the ambition but wondered about the practicalities.

I had asked Brailsford for an interview about British Cycling and Team Sky, both of which he managed, and we arranged to talk at Manchester velodrome during the track World Cup at the end of October 2009. When we met at the appointed time, we walked up into the seats in the velodrome and sat near to the Reg Harris statue, away from the people who were watching the afternoon session’s racing but in public where we could possibly be heard. I explained that I had wanted the opportunity for a more formal conversation. He said he wanted to watch the racing, which was fair enough considering he was British Cycling’s performance director, so we rearranged. We would talk in his office for around 45 minutes before the start of the evening session and later on that day I arrived with my dictaphone and a list of questions.

I was interested in several things – how the relationship between British Cycling and Team Sky and their respective staff would work, the structure of the team’s holding company Tour Racing Limited, who owned it, who was on the board and how it linked to both Sky and British Cycling, as well as how Brailsford envisaged handling running the national team in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics in London while trying to win the Tour de France with Team Sky.

The conversation was business-like. I had the impression that Brailsford was happier in the huddle with journalists, or talking off-the-record, where he perhaps felt he could speak his mind more freely. That’s not unusual. Interviews, particularly ones like this, are a strange and unnatural construct. In hindsight, an informal conversation, switching between on and off the record would probably have been more instructive and I’d probably have learned more but that was the approach I took at the time.

As the questions went on the atmosphere became a little more tense. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way, some interviews go that way for any number of reasons. By the end, though, things were pretty frosty and Brailsford brought our conversation to a close bang on 7pm when the evening session was due to start on the track.

I have chosen to reproduce here the final part of the interview, where I specifically address Brailsford’s recruitment policy and the unequivocal statements on anti-doping. This interview was edited for length and published by Cycle Sport magazine a month or so later.

Lionel Birnie: When you started out you had a clean sheet of paper and 12 or 18 months of planning to put it all together. With that clean sheet of paper, the first thing you set out was you were going to be a clean team, anti-doping is going to be at the core of Team Sky, no grey areas of compromise, so what was the recruitment policy for management and riders?

[Brailsford reaches for a huge folder with Team Sky's application for a UCI ProTour licence in it and starts referring to it.]

Dave Brailsford: Recruitment criteria. Certain characteristics should be seen as non-negotiable. English-speaking, no association with doping, enthusiastic and positive, fit and healthy, open to innovation, willing to try new things – massively important to us – not averse to change, excellent inter-personal skills, must be able to work in a rider-centred programme, supporting and mentoring not directing and controlling, trustworthy, and preferably single but I had to remove that last one under strict guidance from our HR department. You're not allowed to do that. The other thing is appointments from existing teams, the recruitment would be from a small pool in the UCI ProTour, otherwise where do you go? They are not walking round the streets of Britain are they. But because of that we wanted to limit the recruitment of people from any one given team, so we set limits of one DS, two mechanics, two carers, one operational staff and one senior management from any one given team, so that limited us to taking no more than four from any given team.

As your senior sports director, was Scott Sunderland your number one choice when you sat down?

I think we looked at who was available, where we were at. We wanted someone who could come in and work for us for 12 months.

Fill me in on the timetable. At the Tour launch last year he'd just left Cervélo. Had you had contact with him before that date?

We've known Scott a long time. The whole Jonny Bellis going to Saxo Bank for a couple of years, he's been watching our young riders. He knows Shane [Sutton]. There's been an ongoing dialogue, it's not as if two people met out of the blue. He was aware of what was going on. You know how these things go. When he became available we approached him.

And what qualities of his made him suitable for that job?

I think if you look at where he was at. He could speak English...

That's the most important quality? Or is that the first on the list?

No, no, no, if you want someone to come and integrate into this environment and help out there's no point taking a bloke who can't speak any English. What good would an Italian be here who can't speak any English? It sounds simplistic but what good would someone who couldn't speak English be coming here? We wouldn't be able to communicate with the guy. He [Scott Sunderland] worked with CSC, the team has done well, particularly in the cobbled classics. He'd worked with the team that had won the Tour the previous year [with Carlos Sastre in 2008]. You know, he had experience in those areas and certainly not just on the road, he's one of those guys who's quite good in terms of detail in terms of planning and service de course and all that kind of stuff, vehicles and buses, lorries and all those infrustructure things you need to get on board. He's very highly thought of by the ASO, and the UCI like him a lot too.

You mention there the Tour and the cobbled classics. Was the association with Ivan Basso's Giro a concern? Or not a consideration? [Basso had won the 2006 Giro convincingly before being caught in the Operación Puerto investigation and withdrawn on the eve of the Tour de France a few weeks later. Basso later served a suspension.]

Listen, anybody over the age of 35 or 30 years old in professional cycling is a concern. End of. End of.

So what does 'no association with doping' mean?

Well it means has he come out and, you know, has Scott Sunderland, you know, did he test positive at any point in time? I don't think he did as far as I'm aware anyway. And does he, er, has he said quite openly, like, has whoever, been convicted of x, y or z.

So it's a positive test...

What are you trying to suggest?

I'm not trying to suggest anything, I'm just trying to ask some questions that's all. I'm just saying the DS who was with the team [CSC] when one of the key achievements of the rider and his managerial team was Ivan Basso's entirely discredited Giro d'Italia win.

Well, if you have something to tell me that we don't know, please tell me and we'll be happy to take action straight away.

No, no, I'm saying does that count as an 'association with doping'. I'm not saying anything other than that.

No, at the end of the day you have to sit down with somebody and interrogate them about it, for sure.

Have you interrogated them all then?

Yeah, of course, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Who's the cleanest team in your opinion?

I have absolutely no idea. I don't know. But what I do know is that when you started out on this plan what you said was very exciting and very encouraging. There's also an awful lot of capital to be had in having an anti-doping team and what I'm interested in is an anti-doping team that talks the talk and walks the walk.

Hmm, and why do you think we're not walking the walk?

Well, did you ask Steve De Jongh about what it was like being in the TVM  team in 1998?

Of course we had conversations with Steve De Jongh, yeah.

What I'm trying to get at, what is an association of doping.

Are you making allegations against these guys? I don't understand.

I'm not making any allegations. Steve De Jongh was part of the TVM team arrested on the Tour de France in 1998 and spent a night in custody. They went over the line at the front of the peloton on that day to Aix-les-Bains where they all protested against the police intervention and the police investigation into syringes and EPO found in team cars. That did happen. I'm not making any allegations. Steve De Jongh was in that team. I am saying, what is an association with doping? What I mean is you could have chosen from a broad range of people within your criteria, so presumably the people you have chosen you are completely satisfied with?

Well if I wasn't I wouldn't have chosen them would I?


What's your view on Brian Holm?

Er, similar to Scott Sunderland, well, no actually sorry. Brian has admitted to...

And Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag.

They have actually come out and said ‘I took EPO’, and some have written books about it, and I'm not so keen about that...

Hey, listen, we're a clean team, and we're going to run it the same as we run here [the track squad]. If there's any suggestion we've appointed someone who is doing something or isn't working the way we want them to, yeah, that's when you'll see me walk the walk.

Sean Yates tested positive in 1989 [at the Tour of Belgium] and a week later it was negative.

So did he test positive then?

Well, yes he did and then it was declared negative a week later. I guess you'd have to look back at the contemperaneous reporting and make your own judgement.

I have made my own judgement and as far as I am concerned the guy is the only British guy with experience at grand tour level and if we want to have an international team with the support necessary to be able to compete then we've taken him on board.

So the management team, is it being impressed on the management team that anti-doping is one of the key strands to Team Sky and that they will be advocates for it?

I can't believe you're asking me that question. Lionel, come on, of course it fucking is. Come on.

Sean Yates hasn't spoken to me for three years because of the view we took on Astana.

That's not my issue. If you're asking me whether I'm just sticking my head in the sand so we can get people on board so we can dope, that's what you're trying to suggest.

That's not what I'm trying to suggest.

As I said to you, go out into the sport and try to find me people in the sport without anything that anybody could say about them. There aren't that many out there, I can guarantee you, because I've looked. There are not that many to choose from. So then you have to say what are you going to do. Risk assessment, who can fit into the system that we want to run, who will abide by the rules that we will place from the day that they join this team. That's what I am interested in and that's what we will do. And if they can't they won't be here.

You could have chosen someone who wasn't in the TVM team in 1998.


Well, anybody.

No I couldn't. Have you tried? When was the last time you went out to recruit them then?

Well I haven't. But no compromise, there has to be compromise because the people who come absolutely association and blemish free don't exist in cycling? Is that what you're saying?

I think if you look back at the sport over the last 20 years. Let's open our eyes, most of the people involved in it were involved in some way or form. The majority rather than the minority have been involved in a sport that was systematically doping.

Have you asked these guys individually?

Have I had a discussion with them about doping and whether they'll abide by the rules here? Yes, of course I have.

So whether or not they doped in their previous careers is not a concern?

Whether I know that they doped.

Whether you know they doped, yes.

Well of course it is, but I don't know, do I, how the hell do I know? I have to make a judgement call. If they turned round and said to me 'yeah, I doped, I used to dope, 100 per cent used to dope' then they wouldn't be here. It's a judgement call like anything else in life.

We know of people in Team Columbia, or Garmin, in the management, but from the outset they...

This will be a clean team.

Does that extend to members of the management being outspoken? Will the remit be...

The remit will be to fulfil their job descriptions as written in here [referring to the folder] and to adhere to our policies and procedures etc etc and we will run a clean team and that's it.

It's difficult to have a loftier ambition than that? That's the bottom line...

What do you mean? Why is that lofty? Look, I've got integrity, right. I'm running a clean operation here. Everyone thinks we're doping here, we're not. Everyone thinks I'm fucking nuts saying Bradley Wiggins can win the Tour de France, or somebody can win the Tour de France clean. I know for a fact Bradley Wiggins is clean. I know for a fact he ran fourth in the Tour de France [riding for Garmin]. Christian Vande Velde for my money is clean. The difference between fourth and winning is a margin but it's not that big a margin in all fairness. I think it can be done clean and I think I have the wherewithall to run a clean team.

I'm not questioning your integrity.

It feels like it.

Well I'm not questioning your integrity.

Well it does feel like it.

Well, I'm sorry about that. I am not. The issue is when you assemble a team of management it would cross my mind to ask Scott Sunderland whether he knew Ivan Basso was doping in 2006.

If I wasn't comfortable with the potential integrity of er, if I thought there was any cause for concern in terms of their practice they wouldn't be there, and they know it. They know it. Same as anyone else. The reason we won't appoint foreign doctors. We've only appointed British doctors who have not worked in pro cycling before. We want to minimise risk. There are clear indications when doctors become very familiar with riders and try to support and help their riders the lines get blurred. A lot of these doctors get institutionalised. We've got a doctor who's spent seven years at Bolton [Dr Richard Freeman], come out of the Premier League, he's a brilliant guy. He's a top professional and he's going to come and work for us. And that whole team is overseen by Steve Peters, who I have absolute faith in. As a psychiatrist of his quality he knows when you're lying quite honestly. I am quite happy with the checks and balances we have in place.

Have the management spoken to Steve Peters?

Not yet, but they will do.

So is it the case that Team Sky is a Year Zero and what you do now going forward is all that counts. If so then people can accept that...

The point is to run a clean team. I can only run a clean team from the day that it starts.

You asked if I could name a clean team, there's not any I could bet my house on.

That's quite a strong statement.

Well, look at the last 13 years...

I hear what you're saying...

Even now the sport is riven by squabbles and scandal. When you say you're going to be a clean team...

I think certainly Garmin, they genuinely believe in it. I think those guys have integrity. I believe Dave Millar is doing it with integrity now, regardless of what he did in the past. We know Bradley is too. So as long as we can control things from day one, I have every confidence we can run a clean team from day one.

They [Garmin] have taken people who have been banned in the past, but you won't take them. But you will take people who say they haven't done anything. Dave Millar can ride for GB but he can't ride for Team Sky. That seems to be a strange inconsistency.

Why? There's a rule that says Dave Millar can't ride the Olympics, there's no rule to say he can't ride for GB.

So Team Sky's criteria is stricter than BC's?

Would we take Basso?

Well, would you take Basso?

No. We wouldn't take any of these guys with a doping conviction. Vinokourov and these guys coming back, would we take them? No. As much as we like Dave, as much as he's a reformed character, he's done what he's done.

We gather Brian Nygaard is going to be the PR man.


Is that correct?

If he is there'll be an announcement in due course?

Does he have the sort of experience you would want?

Well, if he is, we'll announce it then. Right, seven o'clock...

* * *

And with that, Brailsford got up, I switched off my recorder and we walked rather awkwardly down the corridor until we parted company. The last question concerning Brian Nygaard was possibly slightly inflammatory. I’ve since got to know Brian better but the fact was that when the Operación Puerto dam broke at the 2006 Tour de France he’d had the job of managing the PR fall-out resulting from Ivan Basso’s implication. He had to stand by Bjarne Riis and try to minimise the damage. The point I was making to Brailsford was whether he felt he needed someone with that sort of experience to run Team Sky’s public relations.

My conclusion from that interview was that while trying to put together his multi-million pound team Brailsford had gone on a journey that had perhaps dimmed the early wide-eyed enthusiasm. Trying to put together a team of people who had never had an association with doping was not easy and he perhaps realised even then that his eye-catching statements might come back to haunt him. It was pretty much impossible for him to recruit people who had experience of how the sport actually worked but had not come into contact with doping in some way either directly or indirectly. The problem was, effective PR requires a strong line, not a wishy-washy statement with caveats and disclaimers. Immediately there was a conflict between the publicly-stated ethos and the backgrounds of some of the people Team Sky had hired but he could not admit that.

Part two
Part three

Watching the snow melt

At least one person is reading this blog and I have proof that they got to the last line of the post before last because they emailed me over the weekend to point out to me that you should not give hedgehogs milk as it’s bad for them. This reference will not make sense to you unless you’ve read to the end of the post before last so go back and read it now.

In the email there was also a link to the RSPCA’s advice about hedgehogs which says that the ideal foods to leave out are minced meat, tinned dog or cat food, crushed cat biscuits or chopped boiled eggs. The last one surprised me but it’s all good news because we have a cat and we also keep three chickens which are currently producing an egg each per day. My other half does not eat eggs and so there’s always a surplus, even if I make my way through quite a lot of them and we give plenty away. Maybe this week I will chop up some boiled eggs and leave them in the garden overnight and see if they are still there in the morning. If the eggs are gone it won’t necessarily be proof that a hedgehog has visited but I will be fairly certain my other half hasn’t been out into the garden for a midnight snack.

I had a quiet weekend watching the snow gradually melt. I spent a very cold Saturday afternoon at Vicarage Road with my Dad as Watford handed West Bromwich Albion a footballing lesson. Admittedly, the state of WBA at the moment meant that anything beyond ‘Lesson 1: This is a football,’ would have added to their knowledge of the game.

On Sunday, I received an embargoed copy of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee report into combatting doping in sport, or more specifically combatting doping in athletics and cycling. Presumably as far as Damian Collins MP and the rest of the committee are concerned there’s no doping in any other professional sports, which came as a heck of a relief. We’ll discuss its contents at length in The Cycling Podcast this week and I may return to the subject in a future blog.

Anyway, the report arrived in the morning and, as I explained to Daniel by text, I planned to read it over brunch.

‘Brunch?!’ replied Daniel. ‘FFS, Napalm.’

Given Daniel’s insistence about the hours during which cappuccino may or may not be enjoyed, I was surprised he objected to my reference to such a specific mealtime.

‘It’s a traditional Home Counties meal,’ I explained. ‘It must be taken between 10.30 and 12. Very popular at weekends. If you ever visit England and try to order brunch outside those hours people will laugh and sneer at you.’

He then said something about brunch being breakfast for Instagrammers but I was already 10 pages into the DCMS report by then. There was plenty to digest and a few lines leapt out at me, although a lot of the information was already in the public domain following the Fancy Bears hack in September 2016 and the subsequent DCMS parliamentary hearings. Anyway, there's plenty to talk about when we record The Cycling Podcast on Tuesday.

Snow 2, Podcast 1

A couple of weeks ago in an episode of The Cycling Podcast, I had made a joke (meant affectionately) about the brevity of the typical Scottish summer accounting for the nation not being a cricket-playing hotbed. What I actually said was that the Scottish summer extended to as many as two days most years, not even enough for a Test match. Well, who was having the last laugh about Scottish weather now? Scotland was.

The snow failed to clear enough for the train lines to Glasgow to reopen and so we had to postpone our second Scottish show and make plans to get home. The Signet Library in Edinburgh and the people at Penguin Live, who organised the bulk of the tour, moved quickly to work on alternative dates. We’ll now be going to Edinburgh on April 12. Unfortunately, Òran Mór in Glasgow is not available for the rescheduled date so Penguin are sorting out another venue and we’ll announce that very soon. Happily François and Orla will be able to join us for the rearranged dates.

So, after the high of Wednesday night in Salford, when I think we were all buzzing from the experience, we had a strange day and a bit living Alan Partridge-style in a hotel waiting to see if the shows would go on before heading home.

Postponing two nights was a shame but it wasn’t even a choice. We simply couldn’t have got there. Even if we’d somehow managed to make it to Scotland, it would still have been the right decision to postpone. Having sold out Edinburgh, and got close to doing so in Glasgow, we didn’t want to end up in front of a couple of dozen hardy souls who’d made it through the snow. A quick look on social media suggested that 99 per cent of people who commented thought it was the right call.

The journey home went smoothly until I got to my local railway station. Snow had been falling for a while in Hertfordshire so when I arrived there were no taxis at the station, meaning I had to ring home for a lift. The roads were gridlocked so the final five miles home took almost two hours to complete.

The Cycling Podcast’s book tour will resume at the Arts Theatre in Nottingham on Wednesday, when Richard and I will be joined by Daniel. If you’d like to buy tickets for any of our remaining dates, go here.

Whiling away a day in Salford Quays

I found it hard to wind down after our event at The Lowry in Salford and it took me ages to get to sleep. I woke at least twice in the middle of the night and then felt exhausted when my alarm went off just before eight.

I switched on the television and the first thing I saw was that Scotland was closed for business because of the snow. All trains to Edinburgh were cancelled until at least midday and, as François said, that would be pushed back and back as the day wore on.

‘I know this from covering Alpine skiing,’ he said. ‘They say the race will be at 10 o’clock, then they say 11.30, then they say 12.45, then they call it off.’

True enough, all trains to Scotland from Manchester were cancelled and any thoughts we’d previously had of hiring a car and driving were dismissed when we saw footage on the television news of cars that had been parked on the M80 all night.

François again. ‘I love The Cycling Podcast but I don’t want to spend 13 hours stuck in a freezing cold car with you guys.’

As Richard said, ‘The travel advice is unambiguous.’ And so, after speaking to our hosts at The Signet Library in Edinburgh, we reluctantly took the decision to postpone Thursday night’s show.

We agreed with our book publishers, and the organisers of our tour, Penguin Live, to stay in Salford for an extra night in the hope that things would improve enough for us to make it to Glasgow for Friday night’s show.

That meant we had a day to idle away in the Salford Quays Marriott. With its little library-style work space on the first floor and a gym in the basement there are many worse places to spend a day, although I’d decided not to bring any sports kit because I thought the itinerary was too full to allow even half an hour in the gym. Richard went off, rather smugly I felt, to run on the treadmill and afterwards declared himself revitalised and refreshed for it.

I felt the same way I feel on some Tour de France rest days. Sluggish. The adrenaline of the previous night needed to be replaced one way or other, preferably with more adrenaline and the prospect of another nerve-wracking night in front of an audience, but instead I felt increasingly drained as the day wore on.

We reconvened for lunch in the hotel’s restaurant and Richard, Orla, François, The Cycling Podcast’s agent-slash-directeur sportif David, and I spent a very pleasant hour or so talking and laughing. Richard and I had both ordered the spaghetti with meatballs and when our meals arrived Richard spotted that my dish had more parmesan cheese on it than his and made a playful grab for my plate, which I fended off with a jab of the fork worthy of an Olympic fencer.

It reminded me of a late night near Lyon a few Tours de France ago when we’d struggled to get off one of the Alpine mountains and thought we were staring a McDrive meal in the face when we spotted a pizzeria next to a roundabout. We did a cartoonish double lap of the roundabout to check the place was still open.

We went in, were shown to a table and ordered a couple of beers, which the waiter put down in the middle of the table, rather than one definitively in front of Richard and one in front of me. One glass – the one marginally closer to me – was full to the brim. The other, marginally closer to Richard, was a distinctly short measure, topped with at least an inch of foam. Richard was on the phone but as I reached out my hand for the full beer – my beer, as I saw it – he reached across and beat me to it, taking a satisfying gulp as I shook my head in disbelief.

Well, revenge is a dish best served piping hot.

Midway through our lunch, Richard peered across at my plate.

‘How many meatballs did you get?’

I counted them. ‘Six.’

‘I only got four.’


Orla had noticed that I had saved the meatballs until last and I explained that having started two meatballs up on GC I was keen to make the most of my advantage. When you’re stuck in a hotel in the middle of the worst start to spring for several generations you have to take the small pleasures where you can find them.

In the evening we headed into Manchester for dinner at El Gato Nero, the black cat, a tapas restaurant which did a very fine selection of dishes. It was François’ choice, having consulted the Michelin guide online. As he always does, François picked a very good wine – a Rioja – that nestled smack bang in the middle of the sweetspot between quality and value, and we put the disappointment of not making it to Edinburgh behind us.

We were a bit giddy in the taxi on the way home, by which I mean our hotel. Having learned only recently that Orla had been all-Ireland triple jump champion I was keen to know if anyone still felt they had any possibility of sporting glory still ahead of them. I revealed that Simon had bought me a set of crown green bowls for my 40th birthday but that I was yet to try them out.

I can see myself getting really into it. Give it a couple of years and I’ll be saying, ‘Sorry, Richard, I can’t do the opening week of the Giro because it clashes with the mixed doubles quarter-final and we’ve got to get our match played before Beryl has her hip replacement.’

‘What would be your sporting nickname?’ asked François. He didn’t leave me time to answer before he came up with a suggestion. ‘The hedgehog. Lionel ‘The Hedgehog’ Birnie.’

Everyone laughed a bit too much for my liking but I had to concede it was a good one.

‘Perfect,’ I said. ‘Prickly on the outside and rolls up into a ball when attacked.’

By the time everyone had stopped laughing (with me rather than at me, I’m almost certain) we were in the hotel foyer. ‘It is a good one, François, because I do like a slice of bread soaked in milk.’

Opening night in Salford

As forecast the snow fell, meaning travel disruption across Britain on the day we needed to make it to Manchester for the opening night of The Cycling Podcast’s book tour at The Lowry Theatre in Salford. François was flying from Marseille, Richard from Paris, and Orla and I were travelling from London on the train.

As I was waiting for my train into London, a text from Richard arrived to say François was stuck at Marseille airport. For several hours I didn’t realise that this was a joke because the snowpocalyptic weather had made me wonder if any of us would make it north.

‘The contrast in tone in yours and Orla’s travel updates is 😂,’ said Richard in another text a few minutes later. [That's a crying-with-laughter emoji, by the way, in case it doesn't come out on your computer or phone].

‘Yes, but has she been looking at the actual travel information? In the past hour, Virgin Trains have cancelled two Manchester trains,’ I replied.

‘Of course she hasn’t. She runs on pure optimism and positivity.’

It made me think of what happens when you fill a diesel car with unleaded. If I tried to run on optimism and positivity I’d just break down irretrievably. It’s just not my natural way.


Orla’s optimism clearly cancelled out my Eeyoreish tendency and then some because we left Euston on time and we whistled through the whitescape with a Marks and Spencer’s bag of train tapas to help speed the journey along. Train tapas, and its equivalent car tapas, is a phrase coined by Simon Gill. It’s a simple definition for a lunch bag purchased from M&S (or Waitrose). A good train tapas consists of some or all of the following – a sandwich, perhaps some sushi, sausage rolls or a samosa, crisps or sometimes pistachios, fruit, chocolate, a smoothie, and no change from twenty quid. It's designed to be grazed through over the course of a good journey.

Before heading to The Lowry we made a quick stop at the Rapha cycling cafe in Manchester where we signed and sold the first physical copies of The Cycling Podcast’s book and then it was off to Salford Quays and the striking theatre building. It was particularly nice to be at a theatre named after LS Lowry because I've absorbed a liking for his paintings. My parents have a print of Lowry’s A Country Road on their wall and he is one of my mum’s favourite artists. I remember drawing my own versions of Going To The Match when I was a child, copying Lowry’s little figures and adapting the football ground so it looked like Watford’s Vicarage Road.

I won’t write too much about The Cycling Podcast event just in case anyone reading this has tickets for one of our other shows but my feeling was it went well and people enjoyed themselves. I certainly did, and that’s the main thing, isn’t it. After all, I take the view with anything – whether it be a podcast I’m making or something I’m writing – that if I’m not enjoying the process on some level then I can hardly expect anyone else to.

Of the four of us, I seem to be affected by nerves and an impending sense of doom more than the others. Daniel, who is not with us on this leg of the tour but will join us next week, once said something after a live event that summed up the experience for me. ‘Another catastrophe averted.’

François is incredibly relaxed about absolutely everything and in the dressing room beforehand he said, ‘I don’t get nervous about speaking to an audience anymore. I used to get a little bit nervous about going on television, but everyone’s on television now.’ Orla laughed at that, possibly because she actually is on television. Richard has the added pressure of being the host, the one who has to hold it all together and jump start things if we lose our thread but in his buffalo-like way he stands firm and absorbs this without giving off much sense that the nerves are getting to him.

As eight o’clock neared everyone got just a little bit quieter, perhaps running through a few last-minute ideas or half-lines in their head (I know I was) so perhaps I’m not the only one who feels a bit jangly around the midriff on these occasions.

My highlights of the evening were that Mandy Jones, now Mandy Bishop, the 1982 world road race champion, was in the audience and François’ rendition of La Marseillaise, which he had done so brilliantly on our Bastille Day podcast during the Tour de France.


It was a great crowd, particularly considering the terrible weather, and there was a long line of people waiting for us to sign copies of the book. To have people come up and say they not only enjoyed the evening but had also enjoyed particular episodes of the podcast still catches me a bit by surprise but it's always very nice.

However, a quick check on my phone told me of the weather warnings for Scotland overnight and made me think that not even Orla’s optimism would carry us on to Edinburgh the next morning.

The difficult second blog post

Someone said to me yesterday, ‘Only you could start two separate blogs on the same day. Talk about setting yourself up to fail.’ *

I lied in the first line. No one said this to me. My own brain said it to me but I think it sounds better if I pretend I had an actual conversation with someone rather than reveal a snippet from the incessant coffee shop babble that goes on inside my skull throughout my waking hours.

Here we are, then, the difficult second blog post.

Earlier I ran through a quick shortlist of potential subjects and my brain gave me the following feedback: Too personal; too boring; too depressing; too soon.

I haven’t worked out what this is even going to be yet, or even if it’s going to be anything at all, so for now it may just be a run-down of what I’ve been doing, which is currently not all that much other than getting ready for the first three nights of The Cycling Podcast’s Grand Tour of (Parts Of) Britain.

We added the (Parts Of) in brackets when we started getting comments on social media asking why we were neglecting the south west, Wales, East Anglia, the north east and so on. The short answer to that is that the publishers of our book (A Journey Through the Cycling Year), who organised the tour, were juggling many different factors including, but not limited to, our availability, venues that were the right size, affordable and willing to be our hosts, and the travel logistics. If the next week or so goes well and we ever do anything like this again we will ask the tour organisers to prioritise areas we’ve been unable to reach this time, but in the meantime I’ll never make a smart comment about the Tour of Britain route or the length of transfers on that race ever again. The planning and logistics of our little tour have made me go cross-eyed at times and I’ve barely had to do anything apart from say yes or no to things.

If I lose the document with all my train ticket reference numbers on it between now and a week on Saturday you’ll find me rocking backwards and forwards weeping on the platform of a railway station somewhere in (a part of) Britain.

That’s if the trains are running, of course. Tomorrow night we are at The Lowry theatre in Salford. Richard and François will fly in from France and Orla and I will take the train from Euston. With the weather people forecasting heavy snow across parts of the country we could be in for a bit of an adventure but with a bit of luck we’ll get there in time to go on stage and if it goes spectacularly wrong at least I’ll have something amusing to write about in the slightly less difficult third blog.

Our Edinburgh show on Thursday has sold out but if you want to come to Salford, Glasgow, Nottingham, Hackney, Leeds or Sheffield check out the details here.

* For anyone who is interested in football, and more specifically Watford’s attempts at football, I’ve revived my blog about the Hornets. It’s here if you want to read it.


Starting as I mean to go on, but probably won't

I went to see the comedian Richard Herring at the Alban Arena in St Albans with my sister last week and aside from being a very amusing evening it reminded me that he has kept up a daily blog for almost a decade. It's called Warming Up and I think he started it because he wanted to get into the habit of writing something every day so he had his brain nicely heated before sitting down to write a book.

There were a number of things in his stand-up routine that struck a chord with me, particularly as we're about to embark on a tour of our own to promote The Cycling Podcast's new book. He wrote in his own blog of being disappointed by the size of the audience in St Albans. It looked a decent crowd to me, although the Alban Arena is a big venue and if he’s anything like me I’m sure he noticed the empty seats before the expectant faces.

He dealt with the issue of receiving and dealing with complaints from the public about his work, something I have to do from time to time (incredible, but true). He also did a very funny bit about posting books to his customers and annoying the local postal workers by filling every pillar box within about a mile radius of his house with envelopes. Having spent a large chunk of December in my village post office picking up extremely frosty vibes from the staff, despite the fact I’d paid them hundreds and hundreds of pounds for postage, I identified with that and so it reassured me in a way. I think of Richard Herring with his quarter of a million Twitter followers and imagine he has a little army of workers behind him so to find out he does so much of the leg work himself made me feel a bit better about spending all that time before Christmas at the kitchen table with piles of books, envelopes and sticky labels.

Of course, while the idea of writing this blog is inspired by Richard Herring, keeping a diary, whether privately or publicly, is nothing new. I've always enjoyed reading diaries, whether they be by Tony Benn or Alan Bennett or someone else, and I’ve often written accounts of life covering the Tour de France, starting out with something called Tales From the Broomwagon for Cycling Weekly’s website during the 2006 and 2007 Tours, which then evolved into the Gourmet de France, which focused on the food I ate along the way but also offered a bit of insight into what happened on the road. That, in turn, has sort of led to The Cycling Podcast’s book because the central core of it are diaries from the three grand tours – the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España – with each of us (that's Richard Moore, Daniel Friebe, François Thomazeau and Fran Reyes) covering a week before handing the baton on.

So this blog is perhaps an extension of that. I have no idea at this stage what I’ll write about on a regular basis or whether it’ll be mostly professional or partly personal. I have no idea how long it’ll last but like everything I’m setting out with the best intentions knowing I will probably get distracted and switch to something else soon enough. But while I don’t have a book project on the go I thought it would be useful to keep my writing brain at least lukewarm.