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by Shane Stokes
September 18, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
Commenting on the Team Sky TUE controversy, former professional Joerg Jaksche has said that injections of Triamcinolone acetonide were a standard grey area doping practice used by professional riders in the past.
The German rider was involved in the Operacion Puerto controversy and later admitted to blood doping during his career. He became a whistleblower about illegal practices in the sport. He told CyclingTips that he and others would acquire Therepeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) to get a green light to use otherwise banned injections of cortisone for races such as the Tour de France.
“To be honest, we had the same excuse,” he told CyclingTips. “I personally did it, as well as a lot of cyclists that I know from my era. We always said we had the same thing, the same allergy, but it was actually just for performance-enhancing.
“I think a lot of people suddenly had allergies at the Tour. The UCI cannot really do something about it and WADA can’t really do something about it. Well, they could if they want. But I think Sky had a bit of a credibility benefit because they were Sky.”
Triamcinolone acetonide is a corticosteroid which was involved in Lance Armstrong’s positive test during the 1999 Tour de France. The Texan had taken the substance prior to the race and, after traces were detected in his system, he acquired a backdated TUE. This controversially allowed him to continue in the Tour, and to win the first of seven consecutive titles.
The same substance was in the news last Wednesday when Russian hackers released information that they had stolen from the World Anti Doping Agency [WADA]’s database. 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky teammate Chris Froome were both named; Froome was shown to have used the corticosteroid prednisolone in May 2013 and again in April 2014.
Six TUE forms were leaked for Wiggins, with three originating in 2008 and running for 12 months. These allowed the use of the inhalers Salbutamol, Budesonide, Formoterol and Fluticasone, and covered his season with the Garmin-Slipstream team in 2009.
Three others permitted 40mg injections of the corticosteroid Triamcinolone acetonide and were while he was with Team Sky.
These were administered prior to the 2011 Tour de France, the 2012 Tour de France [which he won] and the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
Wiggins has said he did nothing wrong and that his usage of the substance was cleared by the appropriate authorities.
Jaksche spoke about his time racing and the use of Triamcinolone acetonide.
“It was always the same procedure [to get the drug]. You would apply for a TUE, telling WADA that you had hay fever. Your team doctor would tell them you were having certain problems like [watering] eyes, blah blah blah. You would get 50 mg injections before the Tour. It was an old and traditional way of doping.
“WADA would never really say, ‘why didn’t you apply last year for it?’ That’s important, because at the same time each year you should have the same problem. Plus or minus two weeks, nature should have the same pollen flying. Yet they would never ask that.
“So you would get your cortisone injection in order to be competitive at the Tour or to lose weight or whatever the motive was there.”
Asked what the benefits were, Jaksche said that there were clear boosts.
“The effect was extreme. Cortisone reduces inflammation in your body, number one. It is also a little bit pushy as it is a hormone. So it causes a certain hormone rush.
“On one hand you are at [race] weight and you are more willing to perform, and then on the other hand it is a strong pain killer and an inflammation killer. So your recovery is shorter and the pain you are going through is less.
“It makes you very skinny. It burns fat. If you do it at the beginning of the Tour, you are going to lose another one to two kilos in the first week. You are going to suffer less. You are going to be less tired as your recuperation is faster because of the anti-inflammatory effects. It is the old school of doping.”
When Sky began racing in 2010, Team Principal Dave Brailsford was clear about the team’s aims. He said that it would be an ethical squad which would prove it was possible to win the Tour de France clean. He said that the team would not hire anyone with a previous link to doping, and would use so-called marginal gains to close the gaps to others who were using banned substances.
He also said that Team Sky would not cross thresholds and use banned substances, but would go right up to that line.
The latter comment has been in mind this week. While Wiggins’ use of Triamcinolone acetonide was permitted because of his TUE, it has raised unease. That’s partly because of his 2012 autobiography My Time, in which he categorically stated that he had not used injections.
It’s also generated questions as Triamcinolone acetonide is so potent and because British Cycling – and Team Sky – have publicly stated that they have a no needles policy.
“I think quite really that it is very eye-opening,” said Jaksche. “To be honest, after I’ve built a bit of a view on the whole thing, I was like ‘this is Brailsford and Sky.’ They are not a solution; they are part of the problem.
“I googled some of Brailsford’s quotes about the MPCC and TUEs. [Note: the MPCC is an anti-doping group of teams which has clear rules against racing with cortisone. Team Sky is not a member, with Brailsford saying in the past they wouldn’t join as they wanted to impose their own stricter regulations].
“I do not know Brailsford, but his words and the facts are not consistent and I question if he could have some slight issues with the truth,” Jaksche continues. “I think he uses this British approach of marginal gains and how pseudo-intelligent they are just to play with the intelligence of the audience a little bit.
“In the past he said that TUEs have a bad reputation because of Armstrong and the abuse of them. For me, what happened with Wiggins shows how Sky is really working. As I said, for me, they are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem. Bunch of hypocrites.”
Jaksche is clear that the Wiggins case didn’t break the rules, in the literal sense. Injections of corticosteroids are banned but with a TUE, WADA and the UCI can waive this normal limitation.
His unease is because he believes that the system is being gamed, just like Jaksche and other riders did years ago.
“In the years before, Wiggins was fourth at the Tour with Vaughters,” he explains. “If he really had such a severe allergy problem at this time of the year, he would have never been able to be able to perform at that level in the years before. That is a logical consequence.
“If your allergies were so bad that you would need injections, then you’d be getting dropped on the first hill with the sprinters [without it]. Probably Cavendish would have dropped him uphill in the years before. There is an error in the logic behind it.
“What happened was that he was racing in teams where they had a no needle policy. Vaughters is part of the MPCC and they have signed an agreement that they don’t do cortisone injections on the team. If someone needs cortisone, he will not race.
“Then he went to Sky and then from one year to another he was suddenly really allergic. Also, by coincidence, the timing of the allergy moved, in the sense that it went from the Tour to the Giro. The timing of this allergy pattern is really awkward.”
Jaksche is reluctant to put the blame on Wiggins. Instead, he believes the team has to answer for what happened.
“As always, the main problem is the people who are around cyclists. You don’t get cortisone easily in the pharmacy. You can get cortisone cream, but normally they will not give you other forms of cortisone in a pharmacy.
“So who would deliver cortisone and all that stuff? How many doctors are going against their legal obligations of healing people? It is the entourage around the rider. Who provides the cortisone? Which team managers allow their doctors to give cortisone to their riders? The problem is all the way up. This is for me the main issue.
“For me, personally, I don’t trust Brailsford. In my personal opinion, when someone claims that Sky is better than the rest because they train harder and their training is more effective than doping, it already shows me how he thinks. He deliberately makes nonsense of anti-doping in order to justify the exceptional performances of his team. I don’t trust him. I think he is a very clever person and I think he tries to outsmart the audience.
“I have this idea from the past about doping and how cortisone is used, and it is very similar to what Wiggins did. Five or seven days before the Tour, taking a huge injection of cortisone. That is enough for the Tour. I am not saying that he doped but I see high similarities between how it was done ten years ago and actually how he did it in 2011, 2012.”
TUE or not, he is clear that there is a big boost from injections of Triamcinolone acetonide.
“I would say it is a very big performance improver. It reduces weight, it increases your recovery and it is a very strong painkiller. From my experience, I would say that it is probably a three to five percent performance improvement.
“It is not marginal,” Jaksche adds, with a laugh.