An interview with Paul Kimmage: Team Sky’s charade has been exposed
Seven years ago, Irish journalist Paul Kimmage was offered the opportunity to be embedded with Team Sky. It was the first year of the British team’s existence and transparency was, it said, high among its principles. That offer was ultimately nixed by Bradley Wiggins, who went on to win the Tour de France two years later and is now under scrutiny.
Wiggins and the team’s management have faced questions over the use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) for powerful corticosteroids, and also about the delivery of a mysterious package hand delivered from the UK to France in June 2011. In recent days it has also emerged that former Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman was blocked by another team medic, Alan Farrell, in trying to obtain a fourth TUE for Wiggins, and that a box of testosterone patches was sent to him at team headquarters in Manchester in what has been called a mistaken delivery.
Kimmage has been for years one of Team Sky’s strongest critics over what he said was a lack of true transparency. In a characteristically frank interview, he spoke with CyclingTips about the team’s controversy, corticosteroids, testosterone, Wiggins’ metamorphosis into a Grand Tour winner, team doctors Freeman and Farrell, and more.
CyclingTips: There is clearly a lot going on with Sky, and Bradley Wiggins, now. Back in 2010 you were supposed to be embedded with the team at the Tour de France, and then that was rescinded. I believe Bradley Wiggins was the one who had that stopped. Given all that has happened, what are your thoughts on that now?
Paul Kimmage: It’s clear that they weren’t happy with me around the team. I can only take that as a compliment.
If you are going to present yourself, as they presented themselves, as being transparent and honest and different in the way they were going to conduct their business and conduct the team, you have to deliver on that. You cannot invite a journalist onto your team and decide you are going to renege on that agreement on the eve of the race. You can’t do that. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t purport to be transparent and then not deliver on that.
So from very early on, it was very obvious. And even before that, in my very first dealings with [Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford], in the very first interview I had with him, I had reservations. I sent him a text message at the end of that interview asking him was there a difference in doing the right thing and being seen to do the right thing.
For me, it was obvious from that very first meeting with Brailsford that that’s what they were all about. It wasn’t about doing the right thing. It was all about being seen to do the right thing.
And that was to do with David Millar, and the team’s refusal to sign him?
Absolutely, absolutely. That’s right.
Prior to that you were embedded with the Garmin team at the Tour. Was that 2008?
I was with Garmin in 2008, yes.
The following year Bradley Wiggins finished fourth in the Tour with them, and was later upgraded to third when Lance Armstrong was disqualified. If Wiggins is shown to have crossed ethical lines, do you believe that it may have started then? Prior to 2009 he had never finished inside the top 100 in a Grand Tour and had shown no signs at all that he could win such a race.
Well, I am trying to think what year he was with High Road. Was that 2008? It was when he was with Marco Pinotti and High Road….
Yes, it was 2008.
Well, Marco actually… I remember interviewing Marco at his home in Italy a couple of years ago [for the online magazine 2r]. He said, ‘I’ll show you a picture.’ He took out this book on the Giro d’Italia and there is a photo of Wiggins walking with his bike up one of the climbs at the race. So, you have got to ask yourself about that.
I’d met Wiggins for the first time at the 2006 Tour. His first experience in the Pyrenees…I saw him come in 12, 13 minutes behind Landis on the first Pyrenean stage, absolutely blitzed. Nobody was going to tell me that this guy was ever going to win the Tour de France. That was obvious from his state of distress that day. Also. a year later. when he was walking up climbs in the Giro.
That wasn’t the kind of rider he was. And then to suddenly go from there to 2009 and this great performance in the Tour, you would have to ask questions about that. And there was that spike in his blood profile, too [Garmin released his Tour blood values after the race]. People did ask questions and the answers they got were not overly convincing, I would suggest.
So you would have to look at that and say that something definitely changed in that year. Was it as a result of something he shouldn’t have been doing? I don’t know, but you can definitely say that something changed.
I remember reading that 2r article you wrote, and specifically your mention of that photograph. Marco Pinotti was a rider who many believed was ethical. He is also not the type of person to stand up and make accusations about people. But in reading the article, I interpreted your mention of him showing you the photograph as him making a subtle point about Wiggins. Was that your impression at the time?
Yes, very much so. Very much so. I may be wrong, but that is how I interpreted it. That he didn’t believe in this guy.
If Wiggins did cross lines in 2009, it’s not certain who was involved. He was with Garmin, but being trained outside the team. However it’s interesting to note his big jump that year. It seems logical to ask questions about this big improvement. If it is later shown he broke rules during his career, should Garmin have spotted that?
I have no idea where he got the expertise for that, or if he got expertise from anywhere for that. That would be pure speculation on my part, and I have no grounds for speculation.
You ask me about the year I spent with Garmin. It was an interesting Tour. It was a positive experience. Is it journalism? No, definitely not – it is not what journalists should be doing. That is not to say that I wouldn’t do it again, but I don’t think…ultimately, in terms of transparency, sure, it is definitely a positive thing and a good thing and I’m glad I did it. But in terms of verification or a certification of their propriety, you could not in any way say it is a measure of anything, really.
That is just a small point I want to make about that year.
So I don’t know if he got something at Garmin. I know that I thought I did a good job at that Tour. I thought I asked the right questions. But I also had an experience with Allen Lim. I was totally hoodwinked by him [Lim was Garmin’s physiologist at the time, and was later accused by Floyd Landis of helping him to dope in 2005 and 2006]. So look, that’s the point I want to make.
I don’t know, that’s the short answer.
If he did do something outside the team, it seems that Garmin missed it. In fact, Jonathan Vaughters was defending Wiggins for years afterwards, saying he was clean and talented, particularly after he won the Tour. In some ways I guess he had to, because if Wiggins had crossed ethical lines, it could have started in 2009. In retrospect, was Vaughters too quick to defend him?
I can’t answer that. That’s a question for Jonathan Vaughters. A point I want to make is that there is a recording of that interview Wiggins did after he went back from the 2007 Tour in Manchester [Wiggins’ then-Cofidis team was asked to leave the race after one of the riders tested positive].
When you listen to that, when you listen to how vocal he was about anti-doping then and then compare it to what he was saying after that in the years that followed, even one year later, when Armstrong announced his comeback, there is a marked change. A marked change. I think that is as good a point as anything.
That was certainly startling to me. When I read his comments about how happy he was that Armstrong was coming back to the sport, I had a serious fallout with him over that. I just thought to myself, ‘hold on a second, how can I square that with someone who was [so] anti-doping?’ I couldn’t do it. I think that’s another interesting point.
In recent months quite a lot has come out. First off there was the Fancy Bears leak which showed that Wiggins had TUEs and had received three injections of a potent corticosteroid. This was the same substance that David Millar, Jorg Jaksche, and Michael Rasmussen said they had used – under arranged TUEs – as a deliberate performance booster. Then there was the news about the mystery package being delivered at the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine.
Well, I got an email from an anonymous source before any of this came out. About [Simon] Cope, about the injection, about what had happened. I was pursuing that. The information was slightly wrong in that it said it was 2012 and I know that Cope wasn’t with the team that year. That completely skewered me in trying to pin it down and the circumstances of it.
I was also told it was during the race. But if he had done that at this particular point in the race, he would have needed a TUE. Otherwise he wouldn’t have got away with it. I thought, look, that’s not plausible, he would have needed a TUE.
So I had this information, and then of course Fancy Bears came out and it showed he had a TUE. Then it started making sense. Then I knew the information I had was authentic. It was just the year that was out.
Not long afterwards, Matt Lawton published his piece. I wasn’t the slightest bit put out. I was absolutely thrilled it was out in the public domain. That someone had done it. I wasn’t in the slighted bit put out that I wasn’t the one who was able to bring it home. That was an important piece of journalism that Matt did.
It has just been a car crash ever since. They have been offered every kind of platform to try to explain what they did, to defend what they did. And they can’t do it.
In the words of the MP Damian Collins, their reputation is in tatters now. That is the bottom line. Their reputation is in tatters.
It also seems extraordinary that the team was mistakenly – or so it claims — delivered testosterone, a known doping agent.
I don’t think it is a bit extraordinary at all. I think the explanation is extraordinary. I find it completely normal that this was what they were doing. But I find the explanation totally extraordinary, that they didn’t actually order this at all. That somehow a delivery of this thing was made by mistake to the track in Manchester [laughs]. That’s is the bit that is extraordinary.
There is a point worth making in relation to transparency and the shit we have had to put up with for the past few years. This guy, the doctor Alan Farrell, he knew what was going on there. He was in there when it was going on, he knew what was going on, yet he still presented the team – and, to a degree, Wiggins – as being whiter than fucking white.
Or certainly David Walsh presented it, and Farrell then backed him up then with that piece he did in the Sunday Times [in July 2015 ]. He wrote, ‘I’m ex-Sky, there are loads of us out there, come and find us.’ But I’m sorry, I’ve been trying for five fucking months to get this guy to pick up a phone and he won’t do it. So draw your own conclusions there.
Now David [Walsh] is now trying to say, ‘there were loads of really nice people in Sky, and this is terrible. This is a small little nub of bad eggs.’ Well, I tell you, I haven’t met these really nice people in Sky. I have had bad experiences with practically everybody on that team.
I include Rod Ellingworth in that – I have had bad experiences with all of these guys. I’d love to know who these nice guys are, as they certainly don’t act in a way that would lend you to have any faith in them.
David may talk about these nice guys, but I haven’t had any experience that they have been in any way believable or transparent.
Alan Farrell’s article [in July 2015] did paint the team in a flattering light. And David Walsh’s piece at the weekend portrayed Alan as a person coming forward with information.
And he had that information at that stage [when Farrell wrote the article defending Sky]. He had that information about Wiggins’ TUEs at that stage, and about Freeman. He obviously has reservations about Freeman and what Freeman was doing. He knew it back then. He could have had a quiet word with David, saying ‘listen David, there are problems on this f**ing team. Don’t think for a moment that there aren’t some issues here.’ Did he say that? I don’t know.
As I said on the radio to Matt Cooper [an Irish radio broadcaster], it is bit fucking rich for David to try to produce this guy Farrell as a fucking hero. He is not a fucking hero to me.
In his article, Alan Farrell invited those with questions to talk to him. Can you talk about your efforts to get hold of him?
Well, I wrote a column about him. He had left the team at that stage. He was working up on the Navan Road in a clinic up there. I phoned the clinic, I was told he was there, I told the receptionist I wanted to speak to him. She said she would give him my number and the message. I never heard from him.
He was working at One Pro Cycling team last year. I contacted the media person at that time. I said, ‘listen, I am trying to get hold of your doctor Alan Farrell.’ She said, ‘I will forward this email on to him.’ Then, nothing.
I know for a fact he heard me on Newstalk a couple of months ago giving out about him. This was after I tried to contact him. I know for a fact that he wasn’t happy about it, and I know for a fact he still hasn’t tried to contact me.
He picked up the phone to a friend of mine moaning about me, but he still hasn’t paid me the courtesy of calling me. And you know what? When he does pick up the phone, I will listen to what he has to say.
There was a situation like this in the past where yourself and David Millar fell out after you wrote about his doping. He did finally reach out to you. You were pretty fair to David then in your follow-up pieces. Can I presume you would give Farrell the same chance?
Yes, absolutely. I try to be fair at all stages with my dealings with everybody. I think you have to be fair.
What seems astonishing now is that Brian Cookson has been completely absent, despite everything that is happening. He was British Cycling president at the time, yet isn’t taking any interviews.
I will tell you a little story. When Sky had its very first launch in London, I was at that. Pat McQuaid was there. McQuaid was the UCI president at that stage. You could see that Brailsford and he obviously got on pretty well. You could also see that McQuaid was thrilled that the team was launching. It was good for business.
I met Cookson at that launch. I am pretty sure he was British Cycling president at that stage. It was pretty amicable – ‘hi Paul, you have had a few problems with Pat, etcetera, etcetera.’
I am no fan of McQuaid. I think I said at the time he went up against Cookson that anybody would do a better job than McQuaid has done. I think the only thing I can say about Cookson is that he hasn’t. He is almost as bad, if not as bad, as McQuaid was.
What do you make of the fact that Bradley Wiggins hasn’t been called to the parliamentary committee?
It doesn’t make any sense to me that he hasn’t been called. It doesn’t make any sense to me that Alan Farrell hasn’t been called — that they haven’t actually got all of the medical people in there. Because it is in the public domain now.
‘Okay, so you had reservations? Why don’t you tell us about what your reservations were, what you saw?’ If they are going to do it, do it properly. Then we will find out who these good people are that David seems to think there are loads of. Bring them all in and let’s hear from them all. But let me tell you – this story is not over. This story is not over. There is loads more coming down the pipeline with this.
Is that based on something you have heard, on something sources have told you, or your instincts?
It is my instinct. It is just reading what is happening. It is just looking at the unravelling of it. Logically. These big stores of Kenacort, they were all not for one rider. Someone else was getting them.
What I would suggest might happen is will Freeman be prepared to take the fall for this? Will he be made a scapegoat? I don’t think so. I don’t think so.
And very conveniently, David [Walsh] ignores the role of Geert Leinders [former Team Sky doctor later implicated of doping riders with the Rabobank team and banned for life]. It is as if Leinders was never at the team.
Where did they get the expertise for all this? Yet it’s as if Leinders was never on the team. Or he was there to treat saddle sores. What a joke that was.
Do you have any thoughts on what was in the package delivered to Wiggins in 2011?
My own thought it was Kenacort. Triamcinolone. That is what is what it is for me, that would be my hunch.
If so, that would have been prior to him getting a TUE for it.
Chris Froome has been one who has spoken out to some extent, saying that he is uneasy about all this. He’s also been hesitant to back Brailsford. Does that give you any more faith in him?
Well, you have got to take what he says at face value. So tell us some more now. Because we will all be listening. I will certainly listen to what he has to say. Tell us some more.
I have just seen a piece on Cyclingnews about some of the riders rebelling. I presume they are anonymous. But they have to stand up now. They have to stand up now, or forget about it.
They are either going to stand up for themselves or the team, or not. Anonymous isn’t worth a shit to anybody. You are either going to stand over this, or you are not.
You’ve been asking questions about this team for a long time. Do you feel vindicated at this point, or how would you describe your emotions?
You know, I feel happy. I don’t feel vindicated. I feel very pleased that this charade that they have presented to us for the past ten years has been exposed. I am really pleased that has happened. The hypocrisy of what they have presented has been exposed. I feel really pleased that it has been exposed, as I did with Armstrong.
As regards personal vindication, it doesn’t matter to me at this stage. But I am really, really happy and really pleased that they have been exposed for what they were, and what they are.
Do you feel any sadness? Personally, I’m feeling that in relation to this story – that even after the Armstrong investigation and the chance for a fresh start then, cycling is once again back at this point.
Do I feel sad? I wish I could say I do feel sad. I think ultimately you become… after Armstrong, I would have shared that sentiment a number of times over the years, that sense of sadness. But it has happened so often now that you just become immune to it, almost. You feel nothing now. You shrug your shoulders and say, why is anybody surprised? And that is sad, isn’t it? That is probably the ultimate sadness.
You know what I would love? And this is the idealist in me…I would love if you were talking to Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan, who have been in there. I’d love if they were talking to you as truthfully as I am trying to talk to you about it. I’d love if they got off their bikes in Paris-Nice today and I opened up my Irish Independent tomorrow and I read a big piece by Nicolas Roche about what he found there, what he might have been asked to do, etcetera, etcetera. It kind of saddens me that won’t happen.
This is further proof that the omerta still reigns. I understand it. I totally understand it. But I think that is the bit that really saddens me.
What do you hope happens next?
Well, I give credit to the Commons inquiry. They have done fantastic work. I hope that continues. I hope they keep dragging the people involved in this and we get to see the full extent of it.
But there is no comment from any of the other teams. It is like business as usual elsewhere in the sport. What is it going to resolve, ultimately? Nothing. Because it is going on everywhere, in other teams, in the exact same way. You can be sure of that. Well, certainly the teams who aren’t in the MPCC. You know who they are. We know who they are. It is business as usual for those guys.
The bee in my bonnet with Sky has always been… I wouldn’t have cared if they never won the Tour, but if they had actually fulfilled the promises. This is the sadness for me. I wouldn’t have cared if they had never won the Tour. But if they had fulfilled that early promise to be transparent and to be clean, that would have been enough for me.
And that is enough for cycling and cycling people. If they had actually presented us with a team to embrace and believe in, that would have been a triumph for them. But you don’t get to drive in an Aston Martin by doing something like that.
They had a pretty modest first year in 2010. Do you think it’s possible that they did initially try to do things ethically?
Well, if you look at the timeline, you’d say, yes, they probably did. In 2010 they probably did. I’d say that’s fair.
Given what’s emerged, do you think that Wiggins should be stripped of his Tour de France title?
Well, he is so damaged now, does it ultimately matter? Yeah, maybe. Look, it makes no odds [doesn’t matter] to me. To me he has been holed below the water line. Whether they will strip him or not, I don’t know. For me, it makes no odds at this stage. He is damaged beyond repair at this stage. His reputation is gone.
The sad thing is that he said in the past that he didn’t dope, that he wouldn’t do anything to bring adverse attention on him as a rider. He said that nobody would have reason to question him and that his kids will never have to go through what Armstrong’s kids went through. Yet there are plenty of questions now.
Well, that quote is in David’s book. But here’s another sad thing. I don’t know how much money he has made. He has maybe 12 million stashed away or whatever the amount is. And he gets to keep that. Whatever happens, Bradley will be drinking pina coladas for the rest of his life. So you tell me if it is worth it.