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Last week’s publication of the parliamentary committee inquiry into Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky created a media firestorm. The furore has quietened down, but with Chris Froome’s anti-doping rule violation for salbutamol still in the works, as well as an ongoing General Medical Council investigation into Team Sky, the brushfire around the team could spark into life once again.
The Daily Mail’s Matt Lawton generated headlines of his own in September 2016 when he broke the story about the ‘jiffy bag’ delivery to Team Sky in June 2011. This mystery package was a major part of the committee’s inquiry. Last week, Lawton saw a very public reminder of the power of journalism, and of the story he wrote.
“I thought it was an amazing report,” Lawton tells CyclingTips, speaking of the committee’s findings. “It went further than I thought they would. I know they have the protection of parliamentary privilege, but I thought it was a courageous report and there was some staggering elements to it.
“The one that really stands out to me is that guy who was central to it all, alongside Wiggins and Brailsford, Shane Sutton, has actually admitted to the committee that the use of triamcinolone was unethical. I don’t think there is any getting away from that now. I think that is going to haunt them forever.”
Lawton underlines the fact that Sutton was not just another team member. He points out that he coached Wiggins towards his Tour victory in 2012. He also underlines that he was Brailsford’s number two, “his lieutenant.”
The Australian had been part of the setup for a very long time, and so his words matter.
“When Sutton, under questioning from the committee, said ‘yes, it didn’t break the rules, but it was unethical,’ that was a hammer blow,” Lawton says. “I think that is a big deal when the ethical element of the sport has been the focus of what Brailsford has basically sold the whole ethos of the team on. That was the mantra of the team.
“Yet you have got his main guy admitting that the way they went about stuff, the way they used corticosteroids, was unethical.”
For a team which marketed itself as sticking to the rules, as setting a new example, it’s a serious reputational blow.
Damaging deliveries: Jiffy bag and testosterone patches
Lawton’s 2016 article about the jiffy bag delivery is a reminder of the power of journalism. A tip off he received about the package led to him digging deeper, to the publication of a very big story and, in turn, to the parliamentary committee inquiry which reached its conclusions last week.
Had Lawton or his newspaper not run with the story, the landscape would be very different now.
The same applies to the story about the delivery of testosterone to the Manchester velodrome. In March 2017 the Sunday Times created its own tremors with a report that a box of patches was delivered in 2011. Speaking in the wake of that story, Dr Steve Peters – previously head of medicine for British Cycling at the time, now working as a psychiatrist for Team Sky – claimed that the package was simply due to an “administrative error” by the supplier, and was returned.
The General Medical Council is digging deeper into the matter, and into this explanation. But, according to an article by Lawton earlier this month, there are indications that the product might have been deliberately ordered.
So where are things at now in relation to that?
“I have certainly heard from sources that have spoken to the GMC that…well, it is our understanding that they have evidence that the package of testosterone patches was actually ordered from the National Cycling Centre,” Lawton says.
“If that is the case, they have got a big problem. Because 12 months ago, Dr Steve Peters told [Sunday Times journalist] David Walsh that they were sent in error.
“In fairness, I should say that was based on what Richard Freeman had told him. He showed him a document which said, ‘Oops, sorry, this was sent in error by the medical supplier.’ But if there is another document that says it was ordered, then I think they have got a big problem.
“You then have a situation where banned substances are being ordered from within the building.”
Following on from Lawton’s story this month, some claimed on social media that the product was ordered by a staff member in order to address virility problems. Essentially, that the performance enhancement needed was in the bedroom rather than in the bunch.
Lawton is sceptical about this explanation.
“I am not a doctor, but an expert did reply to that theory that was aired on Twitter,” he says. “He said you would not use testosterone patches to boost your virility. It is an anti-ageing drug. I think if you need to boost your virility, you’d use Viagra, wouldn’t you? I have never tried it, but apparently it works.
“So yeah…I don’t buy that explanation. And the problem with that [angle] is that now, because Steve Peters has already said what he said, if someone was to suddenly come out now and say, ‘ah, we have got to the bottom of it. It was a staff member who needed it because he was a bit below the weather….’ Well, I don’t think that is going to work. I don’t think that is going to be acceptable.
“If it’s shown the patches were deliberately ordered, I think they have got a problem with what they said a year ago…”
What next for Team Sky?
Speaking after the publication of the report, Lawton weighed up where things stand and what he expects to happen next. One of the standouts for him was the apparently unquestioning support Dave Brailsford has from the Sky company, despite all the scandals.
“The guidance coming from Sky is ‘what is new in the report? What is the ADRV [Anti-Doping Rule Violation]?’ It is a pretty interesting path to take,” he tells CyclingTips, talking about the company’s reaction. “You would think if the Sky brand was your primary concern, you would start to think ‘enough is enough with this.’ But they don’t.”
Brailsford’s future with the team has been questioned more than once in recent years. The news that Wiggins used the potent corticosteroid triamcinolone in 2011, 2012 and 2013 – despite his claims not to have received injections – put the team boss’ neck on the line. So too the Jiffy Bag affair, and Brailsford’s laughable attempts to explain it away.
Ditto for the Chris Froome case. Last September the four-time Tour winner give a urine sample during the Vuelta a Espana which contained double the maximum permitted amount of salbutamol.
Brailsford, who promised a whiter than white team, who vowed maximum transparency, talked the talk but ultimately didn’t walk the walk. And yet, despite all that, he’s still clinging on.
“In the immediate future, I don’t see much changing,” Lawton says, weighing things up now. “Other than the fact that reputations have been, I think, smashed irreparably. Certainly those of Wiggins and Brailsford. I don’t see how they come back.
“And Team Sky’s reputation is smashed beyond repair. I think there will be just a different attitude towards them in the races this season.”
If the committee’s report was the only thing troubling the team, it is possible that everything could settle down over time. Yet there are more clouds ahead.
“What we have still got is the GMC investigation into Richard Freeman,” says Lawton, referring to the doctor who received the mystery package, apparently administered it to Wiggins, and doesn’t have any medical records to prove Brailsford’s claims that it was a legal decongestant. “And into the testosterone patches. I think that investigation has the potential to be very significant. And we still have the Froome situation.
“If Froome is banned, you just think, ‘that is another massive blow to the head.’ Then you’d have your two superstar riders [under shadows]. One hit with a doping ban, if that is indeed what happens, and the other one…
“With Wiggins, the revelation that they had used triamcinolone on those three occasions when every expert you speak to say it is just completely over the top…that’s very damaging. David Walsh is absolutely spot on when he says there should be an asterisk next to Wiggins’ Tour victory. It is completely tarnished already.”
One thing that staggers Lawton is that the team’s founder and boss has weathered the storm. Despite repeated calls for him to step down, Brailsford has managed to cling on.
Indeed he recently was made an official employee of the team, moving on from his previous consultancy role. If anything, Team Sky’s owners are drawing him closer rather than pushing him away.
“In any other walk of life, you would think that someone in that position would have gone by now,” Lawton says. “People would have resigned… On a number of occasions in the past 18 months, I have thought Brailsford can’t survive this. But he does. You have to admire the resilience if nothing else…”
Yet he also sees trouble ahead. “Just because Sky PLC decide not to act, this isn’t the end of it. Because there are still these things hanging over the team. There are still dark clouds above them.”
Wiggins insists on his innocence but is undeniably tarnished. Froome will be in the same position if his salbutamol anti-doping violation leads to a ban.
Whether or not the team sticks to its previous position of not employing any riders with a suspension, Lawton believes the damage to Wiggins and Froome would represent a huge blow to the squad.
“It will be their superstar riders,” he points out. “This era of dominance, five Tours out of six, plus a Vuelta.
“Do they creep on, Team Sky? Do they keep winning? I don’t know. It is an amazing situation.”