Team Sky exceeds area of tolerance

Bradley Wiggins

Team Sky exceeds area of tolerance

Von Hajo Seppelt und Tom Mustroph

What a change. "When we first came into the sport, we wanted to completely change the status quo", Sky founder David Brailsford reminisced in 2015 on his team’s beginnings. It wanted to be a model for a clean and successful cycling sport. Brailsford was even knighted.

Then last year came the downfall. Sky’s management team had to face the Parliamentary Select Committee. It had been initially set up to investigate revelations by the ARD and Sunday Times regarding doping in athletics. But then the story also involved Team Sky.

What triggered the investigation was a mysterious delivery of drugs to Bradley Wiggins, then a cycling star, at the Criterium du Dauphiné 2011. On the day of the time trial, at which Wiggins took the yellow jersey of the tour stage, a courier was ordered to Team Sky’s and British Cycling’s shared headquarters in Manchester, to pick up some medicine for Wiggins. The courier, who was a full-time women’s trainer at the British club, took three days to deliver the medicine. Wiggins, for whom the medicine was intended, had meanwhile won the race.

Team manager Brailsford only told the Select Committee after repeated inquiries that the medication was a simple cough expectorant that could be purchased for ten euros at any pharmacy. Was it not odd that it should take several days to deliver a medication like this on a 1500 km-journey that cost nearly 700 euros to a patient who didn’t even receive it on time?

This course of action puzzled the parliamentary committee. And it came across other oddities during the hearing. Damian Collins, Committee Chairman, told the ARD Anti-Doping Editorial Team: "They do not know what was in the package. There is no documentation on this. We only have the doctor’s statement. And he says there are no records, because his laptop was stolen."

For Collins, and not only for him, this story stands in sharp contrast with the image of a perfectly organised Sky cycling team. "The question arises as to how David Brailsford, who claims to manage the cleanest team in cycling sports, with higher standards than anyone else, meets these standards if he doesn’t even keep proper records?" Collins continues to wonder.

The story about the package actually only surfaced because British journalists started researching on Sky following a leak by the Russian hacker group Fancy Bears on therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) for Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome that were issued by the UCI World Cycling Centre. According to this, Team Sky’s top stars were officially permitted to take cortisone for alleged health reasons.

The TUEs applied for Wiggins shortly before the 2011 tour, which he wanted to win, the 2012 tour, which he won, and the Giro d'Italia 2013, in which he was considered a top favourite. Froome received a TUE in May 2013.

It later surfaced that Sky used cortisone, traditionally abused as a doping agent in sport, on an even larger scale.

Committee Chairman, Damian Collins: "We have written records from the team doctor, Dr. Freeman, on the amount of triamcinolone in stock. I believe it was prescribed nine times to Sky professionals by Team Sky doctors. However, they didn’t want to tell us how many professionals had been given it for reasons of medical confidentiality."

Used as an anti-inflammatory drug in the field of medicine, cortisone has a performance-boosting effect in sport. This is why it is on the doping list. Helge Riepenhof, long-standing team doctor in cycling sport and head physician at the renowned BG Hospital in Hamburg, explains its banned effects as follows: "To boost performance, it can theoretically be used in such a way that it enables you to train harder and more intensively, as the pain felt during training is postponed and the pain threshold is increased.

"A second possible effect is that it can theoretically also enhance weight loss. Fluid is initially deposited in the tissue when you take cortisone, but when you then lose fluid through training, you also lose some fatty tissue, which can result in your being slightly thinner as a result of the cortisone treatment."

Being able to train harder, feeling less pain during the competition and having less weight to carry over the mountains at the same performance level – this makes cortisone into an interesting doping agent, particularly during three-week tours.

In the course of cleaning up and reorienting cycling sports, some cycling teams therefore committed themselves to avoid any use of cortisone and, if it was medically indispensable, to withdraw the rider from the race. They jointly formed the Movement for Credible Cycling, MPCC. Team Sky is not a member – in other words, it did not commit itself to eliminating the use of cortisone. Was this a move on the part of Team Sky to keep a loophole open for cortisone treatments?

Ralph Denk, team manager of the BORA-hansgrohe team, and a member of MPCC himself, states: "This means they can also participate in races if they have administered cortisone to their riders. Ultimately, it is then impossible to tell whether it was taken to alleviate knee pain or to boost performance. I am not saying Team Sky doped. I wouldn’t dare to. I don’t have enough evidence for this. But they definitely exploited the regulations to the maximum."

As was also only revealed this year, Team Sky has committed further offences. Against the no-needle ban in cycling sport: In his own words, Sky professional Josh Edmondson injected amino acids in 2014, for instance. He even ended up suffering from depression as a result of abuse of the painkiller Tramadol. Edmondson openly admitted to the BBC: “I injected this two, three times a week.”

At the time, Team Sky claimed never to have used injections - and concealed the case. Edmondson, no longer with Sky, accuses his former team of covering up. "They should have publicly stated that a young rider from their team was injecting himself."

There is obviously a major discrepancy between Team Sky’s reputation and the reality within the cycling team. Asked by ARD whether, in view of all these incidents, the cycling team management could still guarantee that Team Sky was clean, team manager Brailsford simply replied: "You cannot watch everything. It is impossible for the head of any organisation to know every single detail about everything that is going on."

However, a lack of awareness about incidents in his own cycling team undermines the credibility of the claim of "zero tolerance". Sky has exceeded what is considered tolerable – and lost credibility.

In addition to the parliamentary inquiry, the cycling team is currently undergoing an investigation by the British Anti-Doping Agency, UKAD. Final reports from both investigations are expected in autumn.

Stand: 08.07.2017, 19:04