Interview: Michael Rasmussen talks TUEs, marginal gains, and the outer edge of potential
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Michael Rasmussen’s voice dips in and out as the connection stutters, but the message is clear. Fifty-five vials of triamcinolone — the substance Bradley Wiggins used to treat pollen allergies before the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France, and before the 2013 Giro d’Italia — is a year’s supply for a pro cycling team.
Rasmussen would know. Over the course of his career, the Danish rider who was famously sent home from the 2007 Tour de France while wearing the yellow jersey, used seemingly every performance-enhancing drug available. In 2013, Rasmussen came clean on a career that had been spent gaining advantages by any means necessary, detailing the use of EPO, human growth hormones, insulin, and blood transfusions, among other banned substances and practices.
One of those substances that Rasmussen is familiar with is triamcinolone, a powerful anti-inflammatory, which works wonders for a pro cyclist, enabling faster recovery while simultaneously stripping excess fat from a rider’s body.
That amount, 55 vials, is the amount Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman ordered in 2011; Team Sky said the 55 vials were used over a four-year period between 2010 and 2013, and that only a small proportion was administered to Team Sky riders, claiming that the majority was used to treat Team Sky and British Cycling staff.
“I would use maybe two vials [of triamcinolone] for the Tour de France,” Rasmussen says. “We would just make up a reason to get it. A tendonitis in the knee or elbow, there could be many reasons to justify the use of corticosteroids.”
And would the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) come from Dr. Geert Leinders, the former Rabobank doctor who worked with Team Sky in 2011 and 2012? “From any one of the three or four Rabobank doctors,” Rasmussen says. “Whoever was around at the time.”
There are never any positives for triamcinolone in today’s pro cycling because every rider using it has a TUE, Rasmussen says. There are no borderline values, he adds, and there is no maximum threshold as there is with a salbutamol inhaler, used to treat asthma.
He explains the process: “You can have 50mg of triamcinolone injected into your knee joint, and that will release very slowly for the next four to five weeks. That gives you a free pass to use it intramuscularly for the next four to five weeks afterwards in much lower doses, which is what you’d usually use. In terms of its performance-enhancing effects, it’s a wonder drug.”
So when Wiggins used triamcinolone with a TUE before the Tour de France, to treat allergies, his performance would have been enhanced? Hypothetically, Rasmussen says, Wiggins could have received boosts throughout the race, all under the umbrella protection of a TUE.
“He’d be able to take it every night during the Tour de France and nobody would know because of the certificate,” he says. “Even on the last day in Paris, you could still test positive for the triamcinolone you took three days before the Tour, but with a TUE in your hand, nobody would care and you’d have a free pass to use it every day.”
Rasmussen concedes that triamcinolone can be used as a standalone drug, but that it has not made EPO and blood bags, the doping methods of the 1990s and 2000s, redundant.
“Blood doping can still be used, and so can insulin that has a half life of five minutes. Same goes for IGF [Insulin-Like Growth Factor] and many other very potent performance-enhancing products. And I don’t believe that, if people can use it, nobody will. Because that’s what people do in elite sport, you’re looking for the outer edge of your potential in order to win”
And what about motor doping? Rasmussen says he was never offered a motorized bike, and doesn’t believe it’s a problem in today’s peloton. “Because the effects are so significant,” he says, “if you used it to its full potential you’d be in Paris one day before everybody else.”
He believes that the risks of using a motorized bike are simply too great. “I can control blood doping by myself, I could do it in the middle of the Tour and nobody would notice it. If I had a motor in my bike there would be way too many people involved in that process, and you know some stories are just too good not to tell.”
Rasmussen believes the margins between the top pros are so fine that the difference between winning and losing is a fraction of a percentage. Are those margins down to better training? Rasmussen touches on Team Sky’s infamous marginal gains, pointing out that he was traveling with his pillow and using ceramic bearings in his bottom bracket well before Team Sky existed.
“[Marginal gains] is just a buzzword [Team Sky manager Dave] Brailsford invented, and obviously Sky’s marginal gains include triamcinolone,” he says, “unless Freeman used all 55 vials for the staff.”
There’s a perception that teams are one big happy family, where riders all know each other’s business. Rasmussen tells an anecdote about riding with Tyler Hamilton at Team CSC, how during the Giro d’Italia he met up with Eufemiano Fuentes in Monaco to have a blood transfusion. “I had no idea that was taking place. And I had no idea Levi Leipheimer was given blood transfusions, and that Michael Boogerd and Denis Menchov were given blood transfusions during the 2005 Tour de France.”
During the 2007 Tour de France, all three riders were using EPO that was hidden on the team bus, but again Rasmussen says he had no idea his teammates were using it. He describes the rider-doctor relationship as “a very confidential relationship, and a way of managing the risks.”
“If you only have two people knowing about an event, it’s always one word against the other, it’s a way of protecting yourself,” he says.
Rasmussen confirms that many of the young riders at Rabobank, his team from 2003 to 2007, weren’t involved in doping and had no idea what was going on.
Instead, the team was gambling on the top four or five top riders to deliver results and minimize the risk of discovery. “It’s obvious if you have 28 riders taking drugs then you’re running a much higher risk than if you only have five of your highest paid riders doing it,” he explains. “You know that those five riders will deliver the results to satisfy the sponsors, and having 28 riders on drugs will not benefit the team in the same way.”
Rasmussen says some riders don’t want to dope, because “they don’t have the same desire or ability to compete for the overall victory. That’s already obvious at the first training camps where no one is taking drugs and everyone is training together.”
As riders reveal their specializations, he says, the doping hierarchy begins to form. “The riders that don’t have any kind of specialization, it’s just not worth it for the team to risk helping them because they won’t bring in the results to justify it.”
Rasmussen’s own motivation to dope was rooted in a combination of stubborn pride in his own talents mixed with sheer pragmatism. “I couldn’t bear seeing less-talented riders riding away from me. I knew if I wanted to keep my spot, and ride in the position my talent justified, then I would have to use the same means as my competitors.”
He talks about the way the Festina scandal of the 1998 Tour de France didn’t scare him, it simply confirmed his worst suspicions of the sport. “If there had just been one completely clean team that year, they would have carried on. They’d have said, ‘You can sit here, we’re going to Paris, and we’re going to win this race,’” he argues. “But nobody did, and this just told me that it was not about Festina, this was an entire culture, and you can’t change a culture singlehandedly. You just join it.”
But times have changed, surely, with a new generation of riders — haven’t they? “We’re always talking about the new generation,” he laughs. “But when and which one of the lines in the sand is the one that counts?”
He says he doesn’t believe the sport has changed significantly — not when triamcinolone and corticosteroids can be so easily used and abused.
I ask about Leinders, banned for life from the sport in 2015 as a result of a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation, and Rasmussen is quick to defend him.
“He’s a scapegoat in this whole political power play,” he says. “In my opinion he was hired to take care of 28 clients and he did that very well.”
It was the riders who approached the doctors about doping products, he insists, not the other way round. “[Leinders] was always very cautious. It was always the rider who asked ‘what do you think about this? Can we do this?’ He was always very cautious, taking no risks and not harming anybody.”
Rasmussen says he does not believe Leinders was hired by Team Sky to pass on his doping knowledge.
“That would be total bollocks,” he says. “Dr. Leinders would not be able to bring any new knowledge. Triamcinolone has been used for the last 30 years as a PED, way back to the 80s, so to believe Brailsford and company didn’t know about triamcinolone and the performance-enhancing effect, that would be so far-fetched, and to blame Dr. Leinders for this would be even further out on the horizon.”
Rasmussen remembers being called into a meeting with former UCI medical director Mario Zorzoli to discuss some “hormonal values that were jumping quite significantly, but not something I could test positive for” after stage 16 of the 2005 Tour de France.
Leinders had met with Zorzoli at the beginning of the Tour and was reassured that the Rabobank team would face no problems during the race. This was the source of the “butter on the head” evidence that appeared in the UCI’s much-derided Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report as a result of Rasmussen’s testimony.
“Eventually Dr. Zorzoli was cleared by the UCI, which is no surprise,” he says. However, the unintended consequence was the pursuit of Leinders. “USADA was really trying to put bad words in my mouth.” He says he was forced to correct his written testimony “because they had taken out parts where I spoke well about Dr. Leinders, which I will do at any given time. Basically, he was a doctor who was hired to do a job, just as I was hired to ride my bike as fast as I could.”
And Rabobank was far from the only team that would see any problems simply slide away.
“The more money you bring into the sport, the larger the leeway you have,” he says, citing the example of Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team, and the 20 million euros per year that Rabobank brought to the sport between 1996 and 2012.
“Cycling just can’t afford to lose these kinds of sponsorships. So the more money you bring in, the safer you are.”
Like Team Sky, and its £24M [US$30M] annual budget?
“Well, it would be worth a thought that they could get favorable treatment, and I think it’s quite remarkable that the UCI have given no statement whatsoever on the biggest and richest team in the world and the team that holds the winner of five Tours de France [ed. Sky has won four Tours de France, one with Wiggins, three with Chris Froome]. Given all the stories that are circulating, it seems obvious the answer is that it’s now Brian Cookson at the UCI and he was leading British Cycling before that. And I think it’s shameful they refuse to comment.”
[While there has been no official UCI comment on the UK Anti-Doping inquiry, Cookson has addressed the issue. At the Tour Down Under in January, he told a small group of journalists that he would be “very surprised” and “disappointed” if Wiggins and Team Sky had crossed ethical lines. “Wiggins’ TUE was in line with the regulations applicable and was granted appropriately,” Cookson said. “He and his doctors applied for a TUE in the system that was in place at the time. It was granted, and the treatment was given, as I understand it.”]
The connection breaks up again, but I have time for one last question. In his opinion, does Rasmussen think Sky are a clean team?
“They’re no better and no worse than any of their competitors,” he replies simply. “But what strikes me is that they’re presenting themselves as whiter than white, and you know it backfires really badly when it’s shown you’re not holier than the Pope.”
About the author
Suze Clemitson is a cycling writer for the Guardian Sports Network, and Conquista and Casquette magazines. She’s the author of P is for Peloton (with Mark Fairhurst), Ride the Revolution, and The History of Cycling in 100 Objects.