Former colleague defends Wiggins doctor Freeman: ‘I feel like he’s been strung up’
Former Team Sky and current British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman has been in the news for several months, having been the physician linked to the receipt of a mysterious package sent from Manchester to France in June 2011. The package, which was uncovered by the Daily Mail in October, was transported by BC employee Simon Cope and administered to Bradley Wiggins by Freeman.
Freeman was also involved in the application for Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) for Wiggins in 2011, with the Briton receiving a green light to use the otherwise banned corticosteroid Triamcinolone prior to the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France. He won the latter race, then also received a green light to use the substance prior to the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
Details of the TUEs emerged in September due to a leak by the Russian hackers Fancy Bear.
Because of Triamcinolone’s performance enhancing effects, plus its admitted use under TUEs as a doping agent by riders in the past, news of the corticosteroid made headlines. So too the disclosure about the mystery package, plus the long delay before Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford told a parliamentary hearing in December that it was the legal decongestant Fluimicil.
Brailsford and the team have been unable to comply with requests for proof that this was the case. Freeman was requested to appear before the select committee on March 1 but said he was too ill to attend: the Daily Telegraph has reported that this illness is stress-related.
Former British Cycling psychologist Dave Readle worked alongside Freeman in the past and defended him this week in interviews with the BBC and the Daily Mail. He has since spoken in depth to CyclingTips, talking about Freeman’s character plus his work within the federation, the claims that the doctor is responsible for the lack of a paper trail in relation to the delivered package, the changing mood within British Cycling and Sky over the years, claims of bullying within the organisation and his contention that Freeman is essentially being made a scapegoat.
He is critical of others who were involved in decision making, saying that team unity is crucial at this point in time but that people are concerned with protecting themselves and are thus turning against each other.
Cyclingtips: Firstly, can you give me an overview of your work with British Cycling?
Dave Readle: I started early on in 2008, officially, just getting experience. I started officially around the time of the Beijing Olympics or just after. Then I worked under the sports psychologist Steve Peters. I left in 2014 after I competed in the Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland.
CT: Have you continued on in the same vein since then?
Well, freelance. Not for a sport, freelance. And I also set up a couple of different projects, a fitness company and stuff…kept myself busy.
CT: What was your work with Dr. Freeman, and how long was your period working with him?
Well, from whenever he joined, I’d say it was about 2010. Then it was all the way up until I left in September 2014. I was part of the medical department, part of British Cycling, which included Steve Peters, Nigel Mitchell, Phil Burt and anyone else who fell under that guise of athlete support. So, in the athlete support services, the medical department.
So yeah, I worked closely with Richard, developed a personal and professional relationship. We are good friends.
CT: How would you describe him, in terms of character?
A man of integrity. A honest person. I’d even say somewhat introverted…he is not one for the limelight. He hasn’t been so far. He is not egotistical or arrogant. As I said to the BBC and the Daily Mail, he is not someone who would go out of his way to run any type of programme that was against the system off his own volition.
CT: When you see everything that is being said about Team Sky and about him over the past few months, what is your view of that?
I guess in terms of evidence, I don’t know…I can’t comment on any of that kind of stuff. But all I can say is that in my opinion, knowing him personally, he wouldn’t do anything that was untoward. Especially any kind of cheating. That’s not in his character. He definitely came from the angle of wanting to help people.
He is not a doctor trying to make a name for himself, of which there is quite a few. He is definitely athlete-centred. Patient-centred as well, as he helped out a lot of staff with their own medical needs. For example, I had two of those triamcinolone injections. Richard administered it. My knee was like a creaking door, it kept on rubbing. I just said my knee is fucked, what can you do to help?
Richard was always there to help and support people. So in terms of allegations about whatever has been said, I think it has more than likely been blown out of proportion. I would also say it sounds like a lot of admin errors as well.
The admin errors have been made in maybe different parts but all added together, I think that’s what people have been jumping on.
CT: Do you think his character is such that he would be more likely to make admin errors? I know some people can be very good professionally in some areas but then, in other areas, not so capable. Did you see that with him at all?
I would say he was an excellent doctor. Obviously I don’t know the finite details of stuff like that, but what I would say is when he on the road with Team Sky… it is not like someone commented today saying about GPs being overworked. Well, a GP isn’t on the road having to jump out of a van and go treat someone on the side of a road.
There are pictures of Richard helping Chris Froome or Bradley Wiggins in a Tour de France a few years go. You have to be reactive. Whereas when you have got people coming through the door every day, sitting next to your computer which is linked up to all your notes, then it is easier to keep track of things.
You would have followed cycling enough to know that it is like a travelling circus. They are on a minimum amount of sleep. It is reactive – ‘can you do this, can you do that?’ You are also not just being a doctor – you have to be a carer. Sometimes you have to wash bottles, become a hand…to work out in any way you can.
So to sit down and then do notes…if that is what has been missed, I could see that being accidental as opposed to information going missing on purpose.
CT: He has said that his laptop was stolen in 2014. Do you have any recollection about this? Can you recall any conversations about that at the time?
Vaguely.. I couldn’t pinpoint anything, but vaguely, I think. Something mentioned on that. There was something, but it’s not like… The way it sounded on TV was like, ‘oh that’s convenient, it has gone missing.’ Because I guess what people are looking for is a Lance Armstrong story, which isn’t going to happen.
David Walsh is out for… what he is trying to do is trying to reveal some systematic doping. Not a chance.
CT: From your point of view, do you feel that Dr. Freeman has been left to take the brunt of the blame? How do you interpret how things have gone?
Well, what I would say is up until the 2008 Olympics – because I was there before that – British Cycling was probably the best place to be in the world, anywhere. In terms of when you talk about a team, they were really supportive. There was a good sense…everybody wanted to help each other out. It had a real family feel to it.
So the stuff that was reported back then like it being like the Waltons…it was an amazing place. You had your characters there. Even the staff…you had Dan Hunt, Rod Ellingworth, Matt Parker, Spike the Mechanic [Peter Taylor]. You had everyone there. It was a really good place to be. Regardless of what other things that went on, it worked at that time.
I think then after…the team ethos… the successes that they have had, the rewards and the accolades.. Everyone was happy to go collect all the knighthoods and the press claps on the back, but as soon as the shit has hit the fan, it has now become Team I. Nobody is there supporting each others. It is just me, me, me, I am looking after myself. I am going to point the finger, stab him in the back.
It has become a bit like a Greek tragedy. Everything is nice on the outside, but everyone is now turning on each other.
From my point of view, when I was involved in it, the six, seven years I was there, there was a change. I don’t know…once agents start to get involved, once people’s egos start getting too big… It even led to all the people coming out who were having their say about British Cycling [in relation to recent bullying claims].
CT: Did you see any bullying? Does that square with anything that you would have seen as the pressure increased in the years after Beijing?
I guess the difficulty was…the people who have come out and reported that, it was different for everyone depending on who they were within that environment. Regardless of whatever was going on. So, for example, if someone is winning gold medals, then everything is fantastic for them. They don’t see it. If they are trying to get rid of someone because their face doesn’t fit, then they are going to have a totally different experience.
So, in terms of getting a balance, you could argue in any successful organisation, it is like a swan floating along a lake. On the top, everything seems fantastic and glorious, but underneath there is that chaos and struggle.
CT: Others have said that as well – if you were in the bubble, if you were in the inner circle, everything was great. If you were outside, then it was quite different…
Yes, and funnily enough I have seen it from both sides. I could see where people were coming from, but I also see the other side. It is always about getting perspective. The other side of the coin is that they were the best cycling team and this whole Team Sky thing…I guess all their failings at the moment has put a shadow or a cloud over everything British Cycling did, with regards the track boys. You know, your Chris Hoys, Jason Queally. All that side of it.
I guess things were tight up until 2012. Give or take, it was all right. But after that, I think that is when the wheels started to come off.
CT: Do you think that’s down to British Cycling and Team Sky being too close? In other words, do you think the overlap is where things went a bit wrong?
I guess it would be like…if you were trying to use the same staff to run a premier league football club, but then also try to manage the England football team. There are going to be conflicts of interests, but there are also going to be priorities.
I think Dave Brailsford did an amazing job in the build-up to Beijing. Everything in the build-up to Beijing, everyone was onside and pulling together. Then I think maybe after Beijing, 2012, they were going to be successful just after the blueprint they had for 2008. It seems to be that with Team Sky, in the hunt for success in road cycling, that was possibly the downfall, if you will. Because it’s when Dave Brailsford went off to pursue his dream with the Tour de France, then obviously all the other stuff with Shane Sutton came to a head [Sutton resigned after complaints of bullying were made against him].
In my opinion, I think what Dave Brailsford put in place, he did an amazing job. All the marginal gains was in the build-up to what we achieved in Beijing. Then I think it was maybe just people taking their eye off the ball, lots of staff left to pursue their own projects. The core team, which was in the build up to 2008…what you find in any successful organisation once all the important people leave, then things start to decline.
CT: Are you happy with the TUEs that were issued? Do you have any concerns about pressure, or do you feel those TUEs were justified in each instance?
[pause] Again, that would be down to the medical, what was deemed to be… if they said they needed them, then I would guess they needed them. In my opinion, I don’t think they would do anything against the rules. But it is… And regardless of however that comes about or whatever is going on, I think Richard is just a man who does what he is told because he is that kind of guy.
But I know you will be getting all sorts of stories about them sailing close to the wind, if not breaking through the sails and stuff. Obviously everyone out there has opinions about what has been going on.
CT: Yes, and that’s why it is good to get your point of view. Everyone has got a perspective they can offer on what it was like within the organisation. So what do you think should happen next? Given the way things are now, what would you like to see?
I’d like to see them – regardless of whether it is good or bad – supporting each other. They have all been in it together. You win together, and then you take your shit together. I think regardless of whatever has gone on, I think they should support each other and stand together.
From my point of view, I have no personal opinion about cycling as such. Even though I did cycling, that came about because I couldn’t do athletics any more. I am not a fan for or against, to be honest. For me, it is all about people. I think Richard is getting the rough end of the deal.
Regardless of whatever does come out or happen, or any investigations, I think they should all put their hand up together and say, yes, we are all going to sort this out as a team. Not turn around and stab each other in the back. Not leave a guy out to be attacked, for his name to be dragged through the mud.
At the end of the day, we are part of the team. ‘Ride together, die together,’ – you know the BMX song? It seems to be that they built a whole thing about loyalty, going against the world, but as soon as things aren’t going their way, a few bumps in the road, then people are quick to start criticising each other. But ultimately when that begins to happen, that is the end, I think.
Even from a public point of view, they should have been putting on a show of unity. To publicly be allowed each other to get the shit kicked out of them, it is not a good place to be. And obviously Chris Froome didn’t appear to be in support, but again I don’t know him personally, other than seeing him about.
CT: Have you spoken to Dr Freeman? There have been media reports that he is unwell due to stress. Is it accurate to presume that he feels like he is on his own? That he is not being supported?
Oh yes. Totally. I would imagine it’s just a case of shock. He has done what’s been asked of him, but then all of a sudden he is now left hung out to dry…by the media, particularly, but from the team as well. Geraint Thomas was saying he’s been given no flak. But unless he has been living in a cave for the last few months, then surely he would have seen that Richard has been getting all sorts of shit in the media.
Then he is having a go at Bradley Wiggins as well. It is not a good place for the team. But I think as well, a lot of people in British Cycling…I don’t know if it is endemic, but everyone was quick to put the boot in, but no one comes out and backs each other.
The way it was reported as well, all the stuff around Shane….there was a lot of uneasiness.
CT: So the fact that those stories concerning Shane Sutton came out first, do you think that has made people watch their own backs rather than supporting others? Is that your point?
Probably, yes. It has probably made them a bit cautious. But even in my time there, I think it was like that. You never felt secure. There was no sense of security. There was always an uneasiness about your position.
I’ve heard from people who work for Man United and some of them have said the same. I don’t know, maybe it is like that in sport. My experience with teams is just with British Cycling, at the high end anyway.
I feel that Richard has been strung up. They have kind of just left him and walked away. No one is bothered about how he is doing or how it has affected him. That is why I came out to support him. The rest of them, as far as I am concerned, have been spineless. Everyone is just worried about themselves.
But karma has a way of coming back and biting you in the arse when you are going around being self-centred.
CT: Who do you think should support Dr. Freeman now? What would you like to see being done by those who were within the team?
I would say everyone that he has helped, personally and professionally. They need to come out as a character reference and just back him up. He has done a lot of good for a lot of people. They were quick to go and ask him for help, but as soon as he is in need of help himself, they are hiding away somewhere. They can’t be found.
They were real quick to be on the phone to Richard – ‘can I come in and see you? Can you help me with this? I have got a competition, I have got personal problems.’ But they are nowhere in sight now to back him up. I think that is out of order.
When you are working for British Cycling and Team Sky, that is your life. It is not a job, it is a way of life. You give a lot and it takes a lot out of people. A lot of people, their relationship at home suffer for it because of the amount of time you have to give.
I think at the end of the day, you could turn around and say, ‘what the fuck was that for? What did I do that for to be treated like this and to have no one back me up?’
CT: What do you think Dr. Freeman will he do next? Will he speak to the select committee? Will he look for some more solidarity from the team? Do you have any idea what his next course of action is?
I think in time he will probably have his own say on things. To be fair, he has probably done the wise thing in taking a step back and letting the dust settle, to be honest. At the minute it is all sensationalised. I think he would just be adding to the mire now to come out and say anything. Just take a step back, let all the investigations die down, the speculation, and be able to say, ‘these are the facts. The facts of the matter is X, Y, Z.’
You could argue that he is also very brave to have all this shit thrown at him but not to come out. To just let the time be right. Some people are saying it is an admission of guilt, he hasn’t spoken out. You know what? The fact that he is just letting time go by until he is ready. Because then people will be prepared to listen. At the minute there is all sorts of stuff flying everywhere, especially on social media.
A lot of the journalists have built up this momentum, like, ‘oh we might find another Lance Armstrong situation.’ All I can comment on is I know Richard and I know he wouldn’t have been involved in anything like that. Having been around British Cycling, as much as I know I would say there is no drugs problem that I am aware of.
CT: I guess this is something time will answer, what UK Anti Doping decide…
I guess from my point of view, I am not affiliated to anyone. I don’t have any relationships. The only person that I speak to since I left British Cycling was Richard. I have no friendships, nothing. Just a few staff… But in terms of Dave Brailsford, Shane Sutton, I have no reason to speak for them. So therefore I would have no reason to defend them.
It got reported about me saying that he has been thrown under a bus. From a management point of view you have to look after the staff and he [Brailsford] hasn’t done that. But I have no personal opinion either way, good or bad. I have no axe to grind with them. When I was employed by them I didn’t have anything to do with them. Even though you worked with them, you sat out of the way, to be honest. It was more the strategy.
I worked with Steve Peters and obviously within the medical team, but it is not a case of me singing from the hymn sheet of Team Sky. At the end of the day, if there has been any wrongdoing, they have to face it together. But if they haven’t, they need to get together and march forward, show some kind of solidarity. Because the team can’t be successful under the current spotlight.
CT: Some people have been saying that for the team to move forward, to put this behind it, that Dave Brailsford has to go. Would you agree with that, or do you think he can stay?
I would say without Dave Brailsford there is no Team Sky. It would be something else. So it would be a pointless exercise. At the end of the day, it has been his dream. So, regardless of whoever has been upset along the way or kicked out, whatever fallout has happened along the way, he is a man with a clear vision. He achieves what he sets out to do.
So to then say, go on without Dave Brailsford… it is more Team Brailsford, to be honest. And that was shown in the support from the riders. So I don’t think Team Sky would exist without him. If you are going to get rid of him, Team Sky is done, in a sense.
He has become a bit like a José Mourinho of cycling. I am not particularly a cycling fan, but as far as I am aware there is no other manager or director sportif who has the same profile that he does. They are kind of all in the background and the riders are more centre stage.
CT: He is certainly one of the big figureheads. Where the question comes from [about whether he should resign], he has said that he has made mistakes over the years. At least some of what Dr. Freeman is being asked about is due to Dave Brailsford as well. That’s why people are saying that for the team to put this behind it, it needs a change in figurehead. But it sounds like you are saying the team wouldn’t be as successful without him…
Yes, yes. Like I said, it should be called Team Brailsford. Sky is just the sponsor. There is no Team Sky, as such. It is the people he has brought in. The people that he has put together. The people that he has built around him. His vision, his understanding of processes. He is a man of detail.
In one sense, I think where he has messed up is in not supporting his staff. They have been there to help him fulfill his dream. So if people have put you on that pedestal, don’t all of a sudden then stand back and let them take the shit. You have got to back them up and support them. They have put you where you are, so stand by them. Don’t think, ‘oh, it is nothing to do with me. Off you go, go and get shot in the press.’
From my point of view…I am a Scouser Irish, so loyalty is a massive thing. I have said nothing up until now, I was just letting people to it. I have no axe to grind, I quite enjoyed being there. But as soon as you start letting someone get picked on, fuck that. Something needs to be said.
I think that was massively wrong on his part to allow that to happen. In terms of Team Sky, if the dust settles and there is no wrongdoing, you leave him in place because it is his team. Otherwise Team Sky without Dave Brailsford is no longer Team Sky. It is essentially Team Brailsford. Then what would probably happen is all the riders would probably go and ride for all these other teams because he is the general, the leader of it. I don’t know who would step in. Isn’t he a director of it? So it would be like he is stepping down from his own company.
If they asked him to step down, it is like saying, ‘you can’t play in our football game.’ But it is like, ‘I brought the ball, I am going to take it home with me then. See you later.’
CT: Do you consider that Bradley Wiggins has a role to play, that he too should step forward and be speaking as well?
I think Bradley has been given a bit of a kicking as well. He has even been getting it from his [former] teammates. And I guess unfairly as well. He has obviously got a kicking from Chris Froome about all that.
Again, if everything is above board – regardless of however people deem TUEs to be – if they have followed the rules, regardless of whether it is a grey area, then I think he has been given the raw end of the deal. I think again he should be supported because he was part of that team.
You should never turn on each other unless it is black and white. Like Usain Bolt’s relay, Nesta Carter’s positive. ‘Yeah, it’s been proven to be done wrong. Okay, now we say we are distancing ourselves from him.’
But until there is a strong case where someone has actually done something against the rules or broken the law, you have got to stand together.