Commentary: Team Sky has a history of credibility issues, with Dave Brailsford at centre stage

by Shane Stokes


July 3 2015, Utrecht. It’s the Team Sky media presentation prior to the Tour de France. Chris Froome is the hot favourite, having won two stages plus the overall in the Critérium du Dauphiné, and has worked hard to be in the form necessary to win the race.

Despite his presence, though, it is Dave Brailsford who places himself central stage. Getting proceedings underway, the Team Sky Principal speaks for several minutes before handing over to Froome. His body language and assertiveness are much more pronounced than those of his star rider.

Such is the pattern at these press conferences. Brailsford speaks first, giving a lengthy summary of things from his perspective, clearly enjoying the spotlight. Once done, the designated team leader gets the microphone.

Froome may be the biggest name in the sport, but he gives way to the team boss at such media sessions.

In truth, Brailsford has always been centre stage at Team Sky. He has long been identified, and portrayed, as number one in the organisation. To many, Team Sky is viewed as his brainchild.

Brailsford was once again the centre of attention this week, appearing at the British House of Commons before a Culture, Media and Sport select committee hearing in London. Brailsford, his former right-hand man, Shane Sutton, and others were called before members of Parliament to answer questions relating to the use of medical substances by the 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.

The questions were prompted from leaked documents, in September, by the Fancy Bear hackers group — documents showing that Wiggins had received injections of a corticosteroid called triamcinolone prior to the 2011 and 2012 Tours and the 2013 Giro d’Italia.

Normally banned, but approved thanks to a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) the team obtained, the substance nevertheless caused controversy. Aside from clear contradictions with what Wiggins had said before, it had also been abused in the past by doped riders seeking to gain a competitive edge.

The Culture, Media and Sport select committee was keen to get answers on this topic and also to delve into a mysterious package delivered to the team at the end of the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné in France.

The existence of the package was first reported by the Daily Mail in October; Brailsford and others from Team Sky and British Cycling refused to identify the product in question for several weeks. They also declined to say if it had been administered by former Sky team doctor Richard Freeman to Wiggins.

On Monday, Sutton finally confirmed the latter. Somewhat improbably, he insisted that he had no idea what the product was that was administered to the rider he was coaching. Instead, it was Brailsford who explained what was in the package, saying it was a legal decongestant called Fluimucil.

Although the product was readily available in a number of pharmacies close to where Team Sky was situated at the race, he described it as normal that British Cycling’s Simon Cope would transport it from Manchester, saying he was coming to the Critérium du Dauphiné anyway.

That might have been the end of the matter, yet it wasn’t. By his own admission, Brailsford had created much of the buzz around the story, and it has been his conduct in recent weeks which caused much of the harm.

Brailsford declined to tell the Daily Mail in October that the package contained such a benign substance. He also said two things that were subsequently proven to be false: He told the newspaper that Cope didn’t travel to France to meet Freeman and Wiggins, but instead was visiting British competitor Emma Pooley. She was, however, competing almost 700 miles away in Spain.

Brailsford also told Daily Mail journalist Matt Lawton that it was impossible that Wiggins and Freeman had a consultation on the Team Sky bus as it had departed prior to the rider’s return from podium duties. This, too, proved to be inaccurate.

Weeks later, the team’s credibility badly damaged, Brailsford admitted that he had made big mistakes in how he had handled the matter.

“I have looked at myself long and hard in the mirror and thought about this very, very carefully in terms of how I have handled personally the situation,” he told the select committee on Monday. “I think I could have done a lot better, quite frankly. I’d like to think that in performance terms we did pretty well, but on this occasion, in the way I managed this, I think start with myself first and not look at anybody else.

“We run a fantastic operation, we have got fantastic people, they are of the highest standards, they have got great integrity. And they don’t quite frankly deserve to have this shadow cast over them… There are people who are performing fantastically well who don’t deserve any shadow whatsoever and it pains me, really, that they have had to had any doubt cast over them because of my actions. That is going to stay with me for a long time, I can assure you.”

Geert Leinders and Michael Boogerd, Rabobank training camp, January 2005. Photo: Cor Vos.
Geert Leinders and Michael Boogerd, Rabobank training camp, January 2005. Photo: Cor Vos.

Latest in a number of PR disasters

Taken in isolation, Brailsford’s mea culpa might appear honourable. However it is not the first time that he has badly damaged the team’s reputation.

Following a poor 2010 season, Team Sky signed Dutch doctor Geert Leinders to be part of the squad. Leinders had previously worked with the Rabobank team, a squad connected to a number of previous scandals including the Michael Rasmussen affair.

Brailsford said he did the required due diligence and uncovered nothing. It later emerged that Leinders had been involved in doping practices with Rabobank.

Brailsford later admitted he’d gotten it badly wrong. “Hindsight is a brilliant thing, and what we’ve all learnt is pretty horrific,” he said in January 2013, according to Cycling Weekly. “Had we known then what we know now [about Leinders], we wouldn’t have touched the guy for sure. We went through what we thought was the right procedure – we interviewed the guy, we sat down with Steve (Peters, Sky’s Psychiatrist) and it’s well documented what we did. Had we have had hindsight, we wouldn’t have done it.”

In July 2013 he went further. “The whole thing is my responsibility,” he said. “I will take that squarely on the chin. It’s something I regret, it’s a mistake. I should not have done it. I made an error of judgment.”

In January 2015, Leinders was banned for life by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Leinders’ signing was not the only instance that Team Sky’s due diligence fell short. The squad has had a strict “zero-tolerance policy” since its inception, requiring all riders and staff to promise they had never doped. In October 2012, Bobby Julich and Steven de Jongh left the team; both publicly admitted doping during their careers. Canadian rider Michael Barry also admitted the past use of banned substances, exited the squad, and retired.

A fourth person, former Lance Armstrong teammate and U.S. Postal Service directeur sportif Sean Yates, also departed, though he made no such admission. He said he was departing the team as he intended to leave cycling. However he subsequently returned, and worked for the Saxo-Tinkoff squad.

Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Team Sky) at the start of the 2013 Amstel Gold Race. Photo: Kristof Ramon.
Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Team Sky) at the start of the 2013 Amstel Gold Race. Photo: Kristof Ramon.

Bio-passport failure

The question of due diligence cropped up yet again in September 2013 when it emerged that Team Sky rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke had a suspicious biological passport. The previous season he’d had a number of standout performances and attracted the attention of Team Sky. He won the Tour of Britain towards the end of the season and rode the world road race championship for Great Britain; a two-year deal with Team Sky was announced soon after.

Although Tiernan-Locke was not part of Team Sky during the period when his blood data was deemed highly suspicious, it later emerged that the team had done far less than it should have before giving him a contract. In September 2014, Garmin-Sharp CEO Jonathan Vaughters explained what his own squad had done, two years earlier, when considering hiring Tiernan-Locke.

The British rider had been competing with the Continental team Endura, which was not part of the UCI’s biological passport programme; no bio-passport profile existed for Tiernan-Locke.

Following team policy, Vaughters required that any riders without existing biological passports do a series of blood and performance tests at short notice in order to build up a profile and prove they were not a risk.

“If we are in contact with a rider and they want to come to the team, we will send them a plane ticket and basically say, ‘come down to Girona tomorrow,’ or even that afternoon, or whatever it is,” he told CyclingTips then.

However Vaughters said that during his period of strong performances, Tiernan-Locke gave excuses on more than one occasion as to why he couldn’t come for testing. When he finally showed, his blood values were normal but his power output was far less than it had been.

“It certainly wasn’t the guy who was ripping Philippe Gilbert and Dan Martin off his wheel at the Tour of Med,” said Vaughters. “It was a power test of a very average professional rider.”

Vaughters resolved to offer him more testing opportunities before a contract, but said that Tiernan-Locke’s interest cooled off due to interest from Team Sky.

Given Team Sky’s oft-stated whiter-than-white stance and zero-tolerance policy, surely the team did similar tests? Not quite.

Brailsford was evasive at the 2014 Tour de France when asked if Tiernan-Locke had attended training camps with the team in 2012, abruptly walking away mid-question when asked about this subject by CyclingTips.

A team spokesman later said that the rider did camps with the team in March and May of 2012. He also said that no specific blood tests were done then or in the months afterwards to build up a biological passport profile.

Simply put, the measures that Vaughters said that Garmin-Sharp took were not carried out by Team Sky, despite Tiernan-Locke’s jump in performances that year, and despite suspicions being raised by French media outlets such as L’Equipe.

The team could have done more. Consequently, when Tiernan-Locke was handed a two-year ban, it encountered further negative headlines and questions about Sky’s recruitment policy.

Dave Brailsford has led Team Sky since its inception in 2009, with four Tour de France victories by two riders over the past five years. However he's also been responsible for actions, and PR disasters, that have severely undermined the team's credibility. Is it time for him to step aside? Photo: Cor Vos.
Dave Brailsford has led Team Sky since its inception in 2009, with four Tour de France victories by two riders over the past five years. However he’s also been responsible for actions, and PR disasters, that have severely undermined the team’s credibility. Is it time for him to step aside? Photo: Cor Vos.

When leadership becomes a liability

It is in this context that Brailsford’s latest mea culpa must be viewed. He’s made serious errors in his handling of the Wiggins situation, but this is not the first time. His recruitment of Leinders, Barry, De Jongh, Julich and, arguably, Yates, has also damaged the team’s reputation.

The haphazard scrutiny shown prior to signing Tiernan-Locke is another example of actions not squaring up with words.

Much as Brailsford has played a big part in the team’s success, he has also been a major component in a number of damaging episodes. These have jarred with the team’s long-declared transparency and stringent ethics, and called his character into question.

In the aftermath of the select committee session, further concerns have emerged. Lawton, who broke the original story about the mysterious package, elaborated on his October dealings with Brailsford on Tuesday. He wrote that the Team Sky chief was clearly spooked by the information Lawton had received about the package, and indicated that it might mean the end of the team.

Lawton wrote that Brailsford tried to get him to abandon the story, offered him an alternative, more positive story instead. When that didn’t work, he floated the possibility of furnishing Lawton with details about a rival team winning races with TUEs.

Lawton also wrote that, after more than two hours together, Brailsford asked if there was “anything else that could be done?”

If true, these actions do not appear to square up with a package containing a legal medication. On Tuesday suggestions emerged that Brailsford may have given incorrect information to the select committee.

CyclingTips has spoken to several people previously connected with British Cycling and Team Sky. The picture they paint of Brailsford is someone who can be both calculating and controlling in his dealings with people.

Whatever about his personality, though, his handling of the Wiggins situation has been disastrous. It has caused far more damage than if he had simply told Lawton in the first place that the package had contained Fluimucil.

However it’s not the first time that Brailsford has put the team and its employees in an undesirable spotlight. As someone who has long placed himself centre stage with the team, the Wiggins, Leinders, and Tiernan-Locke situations fall squarely on his shoulders.

Brailsford may have played a major role in building the team, but his actions are now chipping it down. For Team Sky, his resignation may be the best way towards regaining trust.

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