Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo: SWpix.com
For years, many embraced the notion that their success was down to ‘marginal gains,’ but the news that Dr Richard Freeman has been struck off will only fuel long-held scepticism over the Team Sky success story.
Looking back, some of those early stories on what made Team Sky so special make for comical reading. “Team Sky’s secret weapon is their team bus,” read one article.
“It gives us an edge,” Bradley Wiggins said.
“Team psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters has even overseen a mood-lighting system that he believes will enhance the riders’ focus,” gushed another story about the magical Team Sky bus.
It may have enhanced their focus, yet it didn’t help their eyes when it came to reading the labels on late-night Jiffy bags, but then maybe they had the mood lighting turned down very low when that mysterious delivery turned up at the 2011 Criterum du Dauphine.
Richard Freeman, the former Team Sky and British Cycling doctor, has now lost his licence to practice medicine – subject to a possible appeal according to his lawyer – but the revelations may be far from over. Freeman now joins former Team Sky consultant, Geert Leinders, who was banned for life, in cycling’s roll call of ‘dodgy doctors.’
UK Anti-Doping, slow to react when first alerted to allegations and scepticism, now have their own credibility — and that of British sport — on the line, as they press further doping charges against Freeman, for “possession of prohibited substances and/or prohibited methods and tampering or attempted tampering with any part of doping control.”
Meanwhile, British Cycling has stated that it found the verdict, “extremely disturbing,” while Team Ineos has said that “the team does not believe that any athlete ever used or sought to use … any performance enhancing substance. No evidence has been provided that this ever happened.”
Part of the ennui some feel with the Freeman case, is not down to their world-weariness with doping in sport, nor with cycling’s seemingly continuous travails to ensure that its champions retain their integrity intact, but with the awful, nagging predictability of it all.
In the late 2000’s, as cycling battled to recover from the crippling aftermath of the Festina, Pantani, Puerto and Armstrong scandals, it was all going to be so different — Dave Brailsford, the performance guru behind that windfall of Olympic gold medals, had assured us all that Team Sky would be.
When Team Sky launched, there was a stampede to get on board the gravy train. Cycling in Britain had never had it so good.
We’d had the Danish gold rush at the Tour de France with Bjarne Riis, the German gold rush with Jan Ullrich and of course the Stateside gold rush with Lance Armstrong. Now it was the turn of the Brits to take road racing by storm. Yes, you could win the Tour, and if you had deep pockets and mood lighting, you could win it clean. All we had to do was believe.
Suddenly, cycling was cool in Britain, and it was mainstream. The years of being laughed at, mocked and derided, were over. Now, as the London Olympics and a Yorkshire Grand Depart loomed large, there was money to be made. Suddenly every banker, restauranteur and hedge fund manager had clambered out of their BMW, pulled on some Rapha kit and bought a Pinarello.
Ex-riders from the skinflint Premier Calendar days, who’d spent their careers living in bungalows in Barnsley, driving to races in beaten-up Citroens, crossing swords in city centre crits with Shane Sutton, might look for a well-paid back-room job working for Team Sky. And at last, young British talent could see a clear route to the top. Now they could dream of living in Monaco and training on the Cote d’Azur, riding with F1 superstars and driving Maseratis and Jags.
But in the effort to make cycling cool, while winning races, keeping the gravy train on the tracks and the sponsorships lucrative, idealism and innocence slipped away. The lessons of Riis, Ullrich, and Armstrong were quickly forgotten. Hubris took over, the gravy train became a runaway express, and as the successes grew in number, so did the scepticism.
At the root of it all was the pursuit of serial success, wealth and fame, a characteristic shared with previous cases, where riders were welcomed onto chat shows, courted by ghost writers and treated like rock stars.
“Brad wants to be famous in England,” former team mate David Millar said once of Wiggins’s move to Team Sky. “He wants more. He wants to be able to mingle with pop stars, be treated as a pop star.”
If you were one of those that questioned Team Sky, you got shouted down, and called out as ‘unpatriotic,’ particularly in the build-up to, and aftermath of, the 2012 London Olympics. The naivete of an enthused home audience, new to cycling and unschooled in the inner workings of the peloton, ensured that few were interested in really stepping back and taking stock.
As a journalist, if you asked questions, you were dismissed, or at times, subjected to heated phone calls. You got fobbed off, sent around the houses, pursuing wild goose chases. It was a time-buying tactic, reliant on the journalist running out of energy, budget or inclination, and based on the expectation that the narrative would quickly move on to more positive angles.
It usually did.
There was initially little real appetite in the mainstream media to question Team Sky, British Cycling or Dave Brailsford, not until the Jiffy bag story broke. Of course, there had been a steady drip drip of other stories — the failure of zero tolerance, the relationship with Geert Leinders, the use of Tramadol, the confusion over Froome’s and Wiggins’ TUEs, the controversy over Froome’s salbutamol case — but now all of those have been superseded by the dramatic outcome of the Freeman hearings.
At the end of a week of Sky-bashing, in which ex-rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke mocked Team Sky’s claims of zero tolerance in a coruscating interview on Cyclingnews.com, the truth of what really went on remains unclear. Is this all a storm in a teacup, or merely the tip of the iceberg?
And then what does competing ‘clean’ really mean? It would appear to mean different things to different people. Is tinkering with TUE’s clean? Tactical use of Tramadol? Certainly to the minds of most who bought into the Team Sky mantra of marginal gains, it won’t have included medical advisers as dishonest as Leinders and Freeman, nor unexplained and untraceable batches of testosterone-related products.
Brailsford has not yet publicly responded to the outcome of the Freeman hearings and nor has Ineos Grenadiers patron, Jim Ratcliffe, who stated when taking over the team that any proof of wrongdoing would end the relationship. Flurries of tweets and pledges of support from riders and staff have buoyed Brailsford through previous crises. Not this time, it seems.
In the end in these affairs, it always seems to come down to who you choose to believe and who most deserves your trust, your faith. Right now, with Freeman struck off and portrayed as a lone wolf, that’s a hard question to answer.
But just remember, as you try to make sense of the history of Team Sky, what we were all asked to buy into when this saga started a decade or so ago: it was transparency and professionalism, accountability and propriety — and the mood lighting on the team bus — not dodgy doctors, Jiffy bags, TUEs, or Tramadol.
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