The Secret Pro: Cortisone TUEs, world championships and rider-transfer season

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I never thought I’d start a column talking about Fancy Bears, but here we are.

So, it seems like every day is TUEsday at Team Sky, eh?

The Fancy Bears hack of the WADA database revealed that Bradley Wiggins had a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) which allowed him to take injections of triamcinolone, also known as Kenacort, which by all accounts is a very powerful cortisone treatment. So, does that make him a doper?

It’s complicated.

Really, it’s a gray area. Sometimes it seems like this all comes down to which teams have the craftiest doctors — or which teams decided not to join the MPCC.

[The Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible was created in 2007 by a voluntary group of pro teams. The MPCC implemented a test for cortisol levels in 2009 and requested that the UCI and WADA ban the use of corticosteroids, agreeing that riders from member teams with a low cortisol level would voluntarily abstain from competition.]

If you’re really all for clean sport, then why would you not join the MPCC? Then you see this, and you think, “Ah, that’s why they don’t want to join.”

Wiggins won the Tour in 2012 and that was a result I wanted to have faith in. Now, I think he was kind of a puppet, just told what to do and when to do it. I think he did the same thing with his training, just so he didn’t have to think about it.

I see these TUEs as a loophole, and it’s something a lot of teams, including Sky, have exploited. They have not broken any rule, so you can’t call Wiggins a drug cheat. Unfortunately, you also have to ask the question: who is the guy at the UCI signing off on this? Back then, it was Mario Zorzoli, and now he’s gone; just disappeared off the face of the earth apparently.

For me, it’s all very disappointing.

In case you’re wondering: yes, I’ve had a TUE in the past, for exercise-induced asthma. I had two attacks. I remember the first time, at a race, in spring, in Spain. My heart rate was 180bpm and I was barely putting out 270 watts. I couldn’t breathe, and it was so fucking scary. Another rider was with me, and said, “I know what’s happening, you’re having an asthma attack.” He had a Ventolin inhaler, but said, “I can’t give this to you, you need to get a TUE.”

So I went to a clinic, had histamines introduced at various levels while on an Exercycle, and next thing I knew, I had a TUE for salbutamol. That was about seven or eight years ago. You used to have to get one for a simple inhaler, for exercise-induced asthma. Then inhalers got taken off the TUE list. So since then, I’ve never had a TUE. Honestly, if I’m injured or unwell enough to need steroids to carry on, I’m definitely not riding, let alone racing my bike.

Of course, no one is going to strip Wiggins of his Tour title, or any other results. So the real question is, what good can come out of all this controversy?

Sky mentioned that, moving forward, it would be fully transparent and reveal all its riders’ TUEs. But WADA shot that down, citing doctor-patient confidentiality. So where do you draw the line? I don’t have the answers.

I don’t doubt that Wiggins has allergies. I know guys who have seen him miserable, just all snotted up, to the point they fixed it, first with an inhaler, and then with the most powerful drug possible.

I’ve never taken Kenacort, but from what I have heard, it’s just rocket fuel. All of my injuries have involved me ending up in the hospital. I can only take it from guys I’ve spoken with, how good it is. Supposedly it makes you bionic. It strips down any muscle you’re not using, and any fat you have is used as energy. Your arms waste away, your legs become lean; the muscles you do use become all muscle, no fat.

I can remember when Team Sky first launched, and Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton said, “We won’t cheat. We’ll push it to the blue line, we’ll take it to the edge, but we won’t cheat.” But who even knows how strong cortisone is? Unless you’ve taken it, and been in the peloton, how could you know? And how fucked up is the UCI, or WADA, that a three-doctor panel just says no worries, take this right before a Grand Tour?

My feeling is that if you’re taking something as strong as what Wiggins was taking, you shouldn’t be able to race your bike. Maybe it’s okay out of competition, but the strength of that drug, to start the Tour de France on it … And then who knows, maybe he takes a tiny amount, halfway through the Tour. He would still only turn up positive with this Kenacort, and can always say, “Hey, we’ve got a TUE, that’s just the remnants from an injection a few weeks ago.” I mean, how closely are they checking the levels, when you have a TUE?

I’ve heard about this, with some of the Classics riders. They’ll pull out, a week or so before a big race, say they have a knee injury, or a sore ankle, or bronchitis, get a TUE for cortisone, get an injection, and then take a little more just before the race. If they get tested, they just say, “Eight days ago, I took something, and I have a TUE.” It’s the same sort of thing. Three days before the Tour de France? I mean, come on.

The Vuelta

The Vuelta has been over for a while now, but there were a few things that happened that are worth mentioning.

First off, the unmarked pole that took out Steven Kruijswijk. Once again: unacceptable. The last time we saw something like this was at Pais Vasco, last year. That’s Spain: “Mañana, mañana. Nah, they won’t hit that.” That just seems to be the Spanish mentality. At least that’s the feeling I get. If you can’t protect the riders from injury, you shouldn’t have a race, especially not a Grand Tour.

That brings up the topic of when finish-line barriers should be used. The amount of pushing from spectators is getting ridiculous. In the grupetto, guys know how to ask for a push in four languages — and that’s just the grupetto. When it comes to the GC guys, it can make a real difference. If you’ve got guys like Froome and Contador battling, and the Spanish fans are giving Contador pushes up a massively steep climb, and they are at a similar level, at a certain point it really becomes unfair. It happens, but the cameras don’t focus on it. I think the barriers should start 3km out — that’s when the race starts on a mountain.

As for the dangerous finishes — what can the riders do? It’s gotten so much more competitive these days. There used to be massive variances in form, nowadays everyone knows how to train, how to eat right, everyone is on a good level, everyone has the legs to fight for every corner. Gone are the days when Cipollini used to sit up, stretch his arms wide, and say, “Piano” on an uphill start. Those days are long gone.

Then you have the stage at the Vuelta where the grupetto knowingly missed the time cut. That pissed me off. I have raced every Grand Tour to make the time cut. Those guys just said, “Hey, we’re over two-thirds of the peloton, let’s just roll home.” I’ve battled time cuts so many times in my career, to watch that, it’s like, come on guys, you’re just taking the piss.

I know it’s a 150km stage, but you still race full gas. That’s what annoyed me the most; it wasn’t missing it by a minute, or five minutes, or whatever. This was 110 riders, and these guys were 30 minutes outside the time cut. Maybe the 15 days prior were so hard, they just needed a rest day.

I’ve been in the grupetto, and guys start asking, “We’re going to get time cut, what should we do?” You ride the mountains, you take the descents fast, and you roll the flats, because they will time cut you. Sometimes the grupetto actually does the final climb faster than the group in front of them because they think they might be cut. That’s how it works.

The next day at the Vuelta, Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff) — who had finished within the time cut — attacked inside the final kilometre, but was caught and passed by a bunch of guys who had finished 40 minutes back. And if I were him, I’d be understandably pissed off.

Doha Worlds

The season’s almost over, and the last, big race is the world championships in Doha, Qatar. It’s a strange place to have the Worlds, yes. I think there may be a few camels watching, and maybe a few sheiks, but that’s about it. But hey, money talks. Let’s not kid ourselves; pro cycling is a business.

I think the course will be fine, and will produce a worthy winner. I personally think it’s great that it’s a sprinter’s course for Worlds. It’s good to have a specific sprinter’s course every so often, and a climber’s course every so often. I think it’s great to change it up. Otherwise, if it’s always an “all-rounders” course, you always have the same riders — Valverde, Sagan, Gerrans — on the podium at Worlds every year.

The big question was what the Germans would do, with Greipel, Kittel, and Degenkolb — three solid sprinters on the same team. They’ve gone with Greipel over Kittel as the leader, and I think that’s the right call. Greipel is the proven athlete. Yes, Kittel is one of the fastest sprinters in the world, but Worlds is not a Tour de France stage. There’s not one team that sets up for a bunch sprint; it’s not an average of 200 watts for six hours.

At Worlds, the race starts at 200km, and for the last 70km it will be full gas. If it’s a straight-line sprint, after 180km, sure, Kittel wins. But this is not that type of race, it’s 270km, there will be heat, and crosswinds, and I’m not even confident it’s going to be much of a sprint if there’s wind.

Beyond the Germans, I think Alexander Kristoff and the Norwegians will be very dangerous, due to the distance. It’s a good course for those big strong guys, guys like Tom Boonen, but they could also suffer with the heat. The heat doesn’t affect smaller riders the same way, so you could look at a guy like Nacer Bouhanni. He’s always dangerous.

“Nacer Bouhanni is always dangerous” could be interpreted a few different ways — and rightfully so. Sometimes, you see him in a field sprint, and you say to yourself, “Mate, you can’t sprint like that”. Now, is he actually going to cause bodily harm to other sprinters? Not normally, no. It may cost them the win, but then he gets disqualified for irregular sprinting. I think the sprinters know what they are doing; they are ready for that flick.

If you want to see some dangerous sprinting, watch some of the old track cycling clips from the 1980s and 90s. I mean, Bouahnni weighs, what, 45 kilos? Can you imagine him trying to move Kittel in a sprint? He may chop the line, but then he gets relegated. He’s a bit reckless. He doesn’t sprint straight, and when he is relegated and complains, he’s just wasting his breath. If that happened at 3km to go, for sure it would cause massive carnage, but you don’t often see massive crashes within the guys fighting for first, second, and third.

Rider transfers

With the season ending, all the talk turns toward next year — rider transfers, new teams, et cetera.

One of the new teams is led by the prince of Bahrain, who is accused of torturing people who have been locked up for dissenting against his family’s government. I really don’t even know what to say about that — you wouldn’t want to turn up to team camp in poor condition, would you? Once again, money talks. Once again, pro cycling is a business.

Same old, same old, people out there are just looking out for themselves. I mean, why would Nibali go to this team? Are he and the prince best mates? Why not sign with an Italian team? Probably because this guy is paying him three times the money. Shocker.

And it’s time to say goodbye to the Tinkoff team. I think we all saw that happening four years ago. Oleg lost interest. He spent a lot of money, and had his fun, so there’s no surprise at all. People get sick of dumping in 15-20 million euros a year; it gets boring after a while.

To me, the biggest transfers are around the Bora team. That says that German cycling is taking step forward again. Okay, it’s Peter Sagan and his mates — there’s what, at least seven guys from Tinkoff headed to Bora? Still, it’s a good sign for German cycling.

It seems like there was a bit of a mix up with Tony Martin. He said no to Etixx, because he thought he was going to Bora, and they said, ‘Hang on, no, we can’t afford you.” But then he couldn’t come back to Etixx. So all of a sudden you see Tony pull out on the Champs Elysees at the end of the Tour. He said it was knee pain, but I think it was just his way to say, “Fuck you” to Patrick Lefevre.

What a year Sagan has had as world champion — what a credit to the world championship jersey. He’s carried on to be a fantastic world champ. He seems like a freak of nature, like cycling’s too easy for him, like he could have picked up any sport, and he would have been word champ. He just fell upon cycling, starting with mountain biking, and he’s still good at that. He’s just a freak of nature.

Of course, there’s suspicion everywhere — how can someone be that much better than everyone else? Training these days has gone to another level, but everyone knows it. It’s not a secret. For someone to be so much better, of course you start asking, what’s he up to? What’s he do that’s so different?

It was the same with Sky, how did they become gurus of cycling? It’s the same with track cycling at the Olympics, with Team GB. Every four years they come out and dominate. A year earlier they were not even close to as good. What just happened? But there’s just no proof.

Maybe when we have more transparency around TUEs, you may find out, you may see a few less results, certain riders not wining as often.

Until then, I guess we’ll be left wondering if every day is TUEsday.

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