During a presentation to a group of sports scientists at the South Africa Sports Science Institute in Cape Town six years ago, a Team Sky doctor zapped an image on to a screen. Black cycling jersey with a blue line running down the back, the jersey that had already become synonymous with the team.
According to the doctor the blue line differentiated legal from illegal, the boundary between right and wrong. Team Sky, he said, would push right up to that line but would not cross it. They would find every which way to improve performance but they would not cheat. He spoke with a lot of passion and those who listened would recall the symbolism of the blue line.
Dave Brailsford, Sky’s team boss, has spoken about how they pursued an edge. The mattresses they trucked from town to town during the Tour de France, the previously unheard of warm-downs after each stage, the Michelin-star chef, the individual washing machines for each rider, the painstaking sanitisation of the team bus after each day at the Tour de France.
In the spotlight: though there is no evidence that Bradley Wiggins has abused the system, questions arise over the dates he obtained three therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) in his Team Sky years, and in the detail of the treatment.
They called it “the aggregation of marginal gains” and it has made Team Sky one of the most successful teams in the history of road cycling. History, though, has cycling in a suffocating head lock. Too many of yesterday’s heroes are tainted and the more successful Team Sky became the more they were suspected of cheating. Brailsford insisted he would end his involvement in the sport before allowing any form of doping. He pleaded with journalists to show him the things the team could do that would convince the public they were ethical.
Two weeks after the fall of Lance Armstrong in late October 2012, Brailsford thought of a plan. It involved this journalist. Standing at the top of a stairway at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester he said: “We have nothing to hide and if you’d like to come and live with the team, you’d be more than welcome.
“You would have complete access. Stay in the team hotel, eat with us. Travel with members of the team, see who’s coming in and out of the hotel. Whatever you want to do.”
For 13 weeks in 2013 I lived inside Team Sky. It was an impressive environment dedicated to the business of winning. Tim Kerrison, head of performance, is one of the brightest, most consummate professionals you will encounter in any sport. Brailsford is also bright and an excellent manager of a supremely well-run operation.
Brailsford said he would end his involvement in the sport before allowing doping.
At 10.25 yesterday morning I called Dr Richard Freeman, who has worked with Team Sky on and off through the last six years, who still works with British Cycling and whom I had known since that time with the team in 2013. He did not pick up. I then sent a text and he replied by saying he could not comment on confidential medical records.
I then replied: “Richard, I appreciate that but you may have seen today’s Daily Mail that links [Dr] Geert Leinders with Bradley Wiggins’ TUEs [therapeutic use exemptions]. My understanding from the time spent with the team is that you were the doctor who worked most closely with BW [Bradley Wiggins]. Not Leinders. Is my understanding correct? From that time in the team my information is that you would have been the doctor that applied for BW’s TUEs and administered the injections? I am aware and accept that nothing took place that violated anti-doping rules.”
Dr Freeman chose not to reply to the questions. Two hours later, Wiggins issued a statement clarifying that Leinders had nothing to do with the TUEs he received.
THE problem for Team Sky and Wiggins is in the detail of the three TUEs the rider received during his time at the team. These came to light last week when a hacking group calling itself Fancy Bears infiltrated the World Anti-Doping Agency’s athlete files, stole data and began publishing it on the internet.
Two Sky riders, Wiggins and Chris Froome, were among the higher profile athletes to have had their medical data hacked. Froome received two TUEs in his nine-year career but after information about the second of these was leaked to the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, the rider volunteered the information about a TUE he had received a year before.
Fancy Bears confirmed what Froome had already acknowledged: two TUEs to treat respiratory inflammation. Both prescriptions meant taking the corticosteroid prednisolone in oral form. The first was on May 21, 2013, 12 days before that year’s Criterium du Dauphine. The second at the Tour of Romandie was more contentious as it was “an emergency TUE” and many felt Team Sky should have withdrawn Froome from the race rather than apply for the exemption to use a corticosteroid. Froome was so severely criticised at the time that he refused to allow the team to apply for a TUE to combat sickness during the final week of the 2015 Tour de France.
Wiggins’s case is very different. Though there is no evidence that he has abused the system in any way, questions arise over the dates when he obtained the three TUEs in his Team Sky years, and in the detail of the treatment. Since 2008, Wiggins has had six TUEs; three of them while riding for the Garmin team, and a further three at Sky. His Garmin TUEs were for the asthma drugs salbutamol, formoterol and budesonide, which he could inhale, two puffs, twice daily.
These are not performance-enhancing drugs and can now be used without a therapeutic exemption. It is the TUEs Wiggins received while riding for Team Sky that are problematic. First, the timing. In 2011, three days before the start of the Tour de France for which Wiggins was one of the favourites, he was given a TUE to have a one-off 40mg injection of the powerful corticosteroid triamcinolone acetonide.
A year later he was the favourite for the 2012 Tour and four days before the race was given permission for another one-off injection of triamcinolone. Ten months later and 12 days before the start of his major target for that year, the 2013 Giro d’Italia, Wiggins got another TUE for a 40mg injection of triamcinolone.
Between the second and third TUEs Wiggins wrote an autobiography, My Time, that covered his 2012 Tour victory. It may be understandable that Wiggins did not want to mention the TUEs, fearing that fans might think he was seeking an unfair advantage, but he went further than not mentioning them. “In British cycling culture, at the word ‘needle’ — or the sight of one — you go, ‘Oh s***’. It’s a complete taboo … I’ve never had an injection, apart from I’ve had my vaccinations and on occasion I’ve been put on a drip, when I’ve come down with diarrhoea or something.”
Yesterday Wiggins insisted that what he had meant in his reference to “needles” was that he had not had IVs, that is products fed into his system intravenously. In their seven-year history, Team Sky have applied for 13 TUEs. Given the number of races, especially the number of grand tours, that is not a high number. What is surprising is that Wiggins should have accounted for three, and the timing of them: shortly before his biggest race of that season.
Out of the question: Dave Brailsford has repeatedly voiced his opposition to doping practices
Opinions differ on the performance-enhancing qualities of triamcinolone acetonide but there is agreement that it is a potent steroid. In his first Tour de France “victory” it was the corticoid found in Lance Armstrong’s urine and the American only avoided a doping ban because his team backdated a medical prescription, which the cycling authorities then accepted.
One former Postal rider, who asked not to be named, said that in his career he had used the two drugs given to Wiggins and Froome under the TUE system. “Oral prednisolone works on clearing your airways but it doesn’t affect performance. Injected Kenalog [triamcinolone], that’s different. That is a powerful drug and it sure as hell helps performance.”
David Millar described having the same intramuscular injection given to Wiggins in 2011, 2012 and 2013. “It is probably the most potent drug out there,” he said, before adding: “With the right prescription it could be used legally.”
Team Sky have been reluctant to get into any debate about the medical information leaked by Fancy Bears, citing medical confidentiality. Trawling through Wiggins’s own accounts of the 2011 and 2012 Tours, it is clear he did get ill in the week before the 2011 race and it might be argued that he needed his corticosteroid injection to treat that.
The 2012 injection is far more difficult to explain. Wiggins had won all of the prep races for the Tour that year and had been impressive in his last pre-Tour race, the Criterium du Dauphine. In his book he writes of his great form going into the Tour. There is no mention of any illness.
Though they say they cannot publicly discuss Wiggins’s case and the rider provides no detailed explanation as to why he needed the injection, it is believed the TUE was sought for preventative reasons, to combat asthmatic symptoms that could have arisen during that Tour de France. Few if any of Wiggins’s teammates knew he had been granted that TUE; the same for the support staff.
The team that wanted to be seen as whiter than white had been dealing in shades of grey. What they did was legal but it was not right.
Last week, the Russia-based Fancy Bears hackers group broke through the cyber security systems of the World Anti-Doping Agency and leaked confidential medical information about the sportsmen and women on the agency’s files. The Russian government has denied any involvement with Fancy Bears.
Attention has focused on the files of athletes who applied for ‘Therapeutic Use Exemptions’ (TUEs) which allow the use of products banned because they could be performance-enhancing if the athlete can prove these products are needed to treat legitimate physical complaints.
The early leaks revealed that Serena Williams was allowed to take prohibited substances to treat muscle injuries, while American gymnast Simone Biles is said to have used Ritalin — a treatment for her ADHD
Bradley Wiggins has denied that the Belgian doctor Gert Leinders had played a role in his decision to apply for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) before three big races. The TUE allowed him to use an otherwise banned steroid, triamcinolone. Lance Armstrong had tested positive for the steroid during the 1999 Tour de France. Leinders was later banned from cycling for his involvement with doping at the Rabobank team from 2002-09.
‘Brad has no direct link to Geert Leinders,’ a statement read. ‘Leinders was “on race” doctor for Team Sky for a short period and so was occasionally present at races dealing with injuries sustained whilst racing. [He] had no part in Brad’s TUE application; Brad’s medical assessments from 2011-2015 were processed by the official Team Sky doctor, and verified by independent specialists to follow Wada and UCI guidelines. Brad’s passing comment regarding needles in the 2012 book referred to the historic and illegal practice of intravenous injections of performance-enhancing substances, which was the subject of a law change by [governing body] the UCI in 2011.
‘The triamcinolone injection that is referred to in the Wada leaks is an intramuscular treatment for asthma and is fully approved. Brad stands by his comment concerning the use of illegal intravenous needle injections.’