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by Shane Stokes
March 5, 2018
Photography by Cor Vos, Kristof Ramon
The reputations of Bradley Wiggins, Dave Brailsford and Team Sky have taken a serious knock after the parliamentary select committee looking into possible doping has concluded that the Tour de France champion, as well as some of his teammates, deliberately misused triamcinolone for performance enhancement.
The disparity between Team Sky’s public proclamations and its inner workings is a recurring theme in the report from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which stops just short of claiming cheating occurred but makes an emphatic case for skepticism.
The report largely focuses on the use of triamcinolone, a powerful corticosteroid that is normally banned, but which can be used in competition with a therapeutic use exemption (TUE), providing there is a genuine medical need. It can also be utilised out of competition without a TUE.
However, its use to build form would jar with Team Sky’s long insistence that it is an ethical team and is fully transparent.
The report makes clear that corticosteroids have long been abused by riders in order to boost performance, and the British team likely did exactly the same thing.
“From the evidence that has been received by the committee regarding the use of triamcinolone at Team Sky during the period under investigation, and particularly in 2012, we believe that this powerful corticosteroid was being used to prepare Bradley Wiggins, and possibly other riders supporting him, for the Tour de France,” the committee concluded.
“The purpose of this was not to treat medical need, but to improve his power to weight ratio ahead of the race. The application for the TUE for the triamcinolone for Bradley Wiggins, ahead of the 2012 Tour de France, also meant that he benefited from the performance enhancing properties of this drug during the race.”
While the committee said that such use did not constitute a violation of the WADA code, it said that it did “cross the ethical line that David Brailsford says he himself drew for Team Sky.
“In this case, and contrary to the testimony of David Brailsford in front of the Committee, we believe that drugs were being used by Team Sky, within the WADA rules, to enhance the performance of riders, and not just to treat medical need.”
When Brailsford set up the team he insisted that it would compete ethically and not bend the regulations. In 2010, during its first year it had modest success; after that, it signed the doctor Geert Leinders, who was subsequently given a lifetime ban for doping riders from his former team, Rabobank.
Team Sky’s fortunes soared in year two, with a number of big successes. These included Wiggins’ win in the Critérium du Dauphine, plus the second and third overall achieved by Chris Froome and Wiggins in the Vuelta a España.
Wiggins went on to win a spate of races the following year, including Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphine and the Tour de France. In October of that year Team Sky said that Leinders’ services would no longer be utilised by the squad; he had become linked to the Rabobank investigation at that point.
Froome was second overall in the 2012 Tour, and has since won the race four times.
He took victory in last year’s Vuelta a España, but is currently under investigation after providing a urine sample containing twice the permitted limit of salbutamol during the race.
The investigation didn’t look at the latter situation, instead focussing on the Fancy Bears leak by Russian hackers which showed that Wiggins had received a TUE for triamcinolone before the 2011 and 2012 Tours, as well as the 2013 Giro d’Italia. It also investigated the delivery of a mystery package to Wiggins on the final day of the 2011 Criterium du Dauphiné.
The results of this investigation cast a serious shadow over Team Principal Brailsford, who the committee said “must take responsibility for these failures, the regime under which Team Sky riders trained and competed and the damaging scepticism about the legitimacy of his team’s performance and accomplishments.”
It also faulted the former team doctor Richard Freeman, who it believes should be investigated by the General Medical Council and, if a breach of its rules is determined, should have “appropriate action” taken against him.
Analysis: Blow after blow made against Team Sky
In all the report is 43 pages long, excluding glossary and a list of witnesses who gave evidence. It also looks into doping in world and UK athletics, as well as the possible criminalisation of doping in sports. The section on British Cycling and Team is 13 pages long and makes for scathing reading.
Although there is no evidence of a clear violation of World Anti Doping Agency rules, the committee notes that the granting of a TUE by a national governing body is subject to strict rules.
These are “that the athlete would suffer significant health problems without taking the substance; that it would not be significantly performance-enhancing; that there is no reasonable therapeutic alternative; and the need to use it is not due to prior use without a TUE.”
Given that the report concludes that the corticosteroids used by Wiggins and the team were indeed performance enhancing and that their use was above and beyond a reasonable therapeutic alternative, being used instead to make competitive gains, it is possible that WADA could open an investigation of its own.
If so, WADA could also look into the possibility that the in-competition TUEs were obtained “because of prior usage [during training] without a TUE.”
The committee referred to former professional David Millar, Wiggins’ compatriot, who served a two-year ban for EPO use. He said that he used triamcinolone for performance enhancement, saying that it was a significant boost. However, he cautioned that the substance was so hard on the body that he felt it was a “once-a-year drug. The stress it put on your body required time to recover,” he said. “You’d be mad to take it more often or in bigger doses, although, sadly, there were enough madmen around at the time in professional cycling who surely did just that.”
Despite this, the committee concluded that based on the evidence presented to it, that Wiggins “may have been treated with triamcinolone on up to nine occasions, in and out of competition, during a four-year period. It would be hard to know what possible medical need could have required such a seemingly excessive use of this drug.”
It noted that while the substance can be used under WADA rules outside of competition, that “such frequent use of the drug, given its potential performance enhancing properties, seriously calls into question David Brailsford’s assertion that Team Sky only use medicines to treat medical need.”
Equally damning is the testimony that the committee said it received from what it termed “a well-placed and respected source regarding medicines policy at Team Sky during the period covered by Bradley Wiggins’ TUE certificates, for the use of triamcinolone within competition periods.”
Elaborating on this, the report said that during Team Sky’s preparations for the 2012 season, that “Bradley Wiggins and a smaller group of riders trained separately from the rest of the team. The source said they were all using corticosteroids out of competition to lean down in preparation for the major races that season. This same source also states that Bradley Wiggins was using these drugs beyond the requirement for any TUE.
“Shane Sutton has also stated in writing to the Committee, with regards to Bradley Wiggins’ use of triamcinolone that, ‘what Brad was doing was unethical but not against the rules’.”
Wiggins has always claimed to have raced clean and recently said that he would soon have ‘plenty to say’ about his career. It now remains to be seen how he will respond to the committee’s report, and if he can do anything to rectify the shadows over his achievements.
The use of triamcinolone and other corticosteroids has long been known in cycling. In 1999 Lance Armstrong tested positive for triamcinolone during the Tour de France. He could have been ejected from the race and sanctioned; instead, the UCI accepted a backdated prescription which effectively claimed that the substance was in a cream he had used to treat a saddle sore prior to the race.
Team staff later admitted that the explanation was an excuse, and that the corticosteroid was used for performance enhancement.
This concept of claiming the innocent use of triamcinolone while secretly seeking a competitive boost was explored by the committee in its report.
It quoted Millar, who was clear about the benefits and unethical use of corticosteroids. He states that the drug is a “very powerful synthetic corticosteroid. I know this because I’ve used it, three times: the first for a medical reason […] the other times, for performance enhancement.”
He said that on the occasions he used triamcinolone, he was “the lightest I’d been in my career, yet I didn’t lose power-often the penalty when a rider sheds weight. Physically, I looked like a machine, muscle fibres were visible and a road map of veins crisscrossed my entire body. It made me better all around.”
The report also quoted another previously-banned ex-pro Michael Rasmussen as saying that the substance conferred significant benefits when used for performance enhancement. “There is no doubt in my mind that corticosteroids [are] very, very strong and performance enhancing,” said the Dane, who was ejected from the 2007 Tour de France while almost guaranteed of winning it.
“It would postpone this sensation fatigue, increase your recovery speed and most importantly, and quite easily, I would drop one or two kg which is very important when you want to climb mountains. It will drain the body from all excess fat in a quite short period of time. It’s a very fast and very effective drug in that sense.”
In its assessment of the performance-enhancing aspects of the substance, the committee referred to the previous Cycling Independent Reform Commission report carried out in the wake of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.
It spoke of one unnamed doctor cited in the report, which said that riders using corticosteroids could shed four kilos in four weeks, and benefit from a power/weight improvement of seven percent.
It also referred to another unnamed doctor mentioned in the CIRC report, who said that some big wins at WorldTour level in the period prior to the publication of that report were in part due to some members of an unnamed team all using corticoids to get their weight down in order to support the team leader, who had also done the same thing.
While the committee did not state that the team concerned was the British squad, its reference [mentioned above] to a “well-placed and respected source regarding medicines policy at Team Sky” made the same allegation about the British team.
Bradley Wiggins and Dave Brailsford at the 2012 Olympic Games
The news that Wiggins had received three TUEs to use triamcinolone wasn’t the only blow to his reputation in the past year and a half. In September 2016 the Daily Mail reported that British Cycling staff member Simon Cope had delivered a mysterious package to Wiggins and then-team doctor Richard Freeman on the final day of the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné.
Cope had travelled from Manchester via Switzerland to the stage finish in France with the so-called ‘jiffy bag.’ Challenged about this by the Daily Mail, Brailsford first claimed that Cope was in France to visit Emma Pooley, then claimed the Team Sky bus had left before Wiggins returned from the podium presentation, thus making his the alleged administration of the contents of the package to him in the bus impossible.
Both claims were quickly proven to be false by the journalist in question, Matt Lawton.
Speaking to the committee last year, Brailsford claimed that the package contained the legal decongestant Fluimucil.
In its report, the committee expresses some degree of doubt regarding this explanation.
“To many people, the whole story of the package seems implausible, to say the least,” the report states. “If the package was needed urgently, why, according to travel records given to the Committee by British Cycling, did Simon Cope collect it from Manchester on 8th June, but not fly out with it until 12th June? If the package did indeed contain Fluimucil, why was someone asked to bring it out from Manchester, when one of the pharmacies where Team Sky had previously sourced this same drug was just a few hours’ drive away in Switzerland, at the Pharmacie De La Plaine, in Yverdon.”
Efforts to determine what was in the package were foiled by a claim by the doctor who requested the package, Richard Freeman, that all the medical records relating to the delivery were on his laptop, and that it was stolen while on holiday in Greece.
Freeman had failed to follow Team Sky employment guidelines to upload medical records to a shared dropbox system, meaning that there is – apparently – no details that could corroborate or contradict the Fluimucil claims.
The committee noted that because of this, neither it nor UK Anti Doping are able to say what the package contained. , Predictably, the committee was not happy about that.
“The lack of these records is a serious failure both for Team Sky and British Cycling,” it said. “It is also a failure of management at Team Sky, led by David Brailsford, as how can the managers and coaches assert with confidence that they are following the highest ethical standards in cycling, if they don’t have access to records to show what treatments the doctors are prescribing to the riders?
“We have no verifiable evidence that the package contained Fluimicil. We cannot say that the package contained triamcinolone. We do know that Bradley Wiggins applied for a TUE to take triamcinolone and that he was, some time later, granted TUEs to take that medication.”
While giving his testimony to the committee, Brailsford claimed that Team Sky, “have a very good compliance and governance structure within the team; I would say world leading. We don’t have a single doctor operating in isolation.”
The report makes clear that the parliamentary committee is not impressed by this claim. “If that was the case, then the situation would not have arisen that Bradley Wiggins’ medical records could have been lost,” it states. “The system at Team Sky was either not as robust at David Brailsford states, or certain information was deliberately not recorded in line with the stated policy of the team.
“Both David Brailsford and Dr [Steve] Peters must share some of the responsibility for the failure of Dr Freeman to ensure that Bradley Wiggins’ medical records were properly stored.”
It is clear that the failure to keep records is not acceptable. “Such failure was unprofessional and inexcusable, and that failure is responsible for the damaging cloud of doubt which continues to hang over this matter.”
Freeman declined to appear before the committee, citing ill health. He similarly declined to speak to UKAD. Because of his failure to keep records, the committee wants further action to be taken. “The General Medical Council (GMC) should investigate Dr Freeman for his failings, and, if he is found to have breached their rules, take appropriate action against him,” it says.
Dave Brailsford recently became an official employee of Team Sky, having previously acted in a consultancy position despite being Team Principal. That may have been a show of faith in him by the team’s sponsors, who have thus far resisted calls that he should resign.
However he and former Team Sky and British Cycling employee Shane Sutton have been badly damaged by the report.
Those who compiled it made clear that they had given evidence that appeared to contradict the facts of the case.
“When giving oral evidence to the committee, David Brailsford, stated: ‘I don’t think there is any justification for taking medication without a medical need,'” it noted.
“In a lengthy interview with the Telegraph’s ‘Cycling Podcast’, broadcast on 16th October 2016, he [Brailsford] also described the importance of not crossing the ethical line where treatments are “medically prescribed without medically being required.
“In his evidence, Shane Sutton described Team Sky as “immaculately clean […] it is absolutely 100% a clean team.”
The committee reflects on the contradictions these statements make with the apparent misuse of TUEs for performance enhancement. It also cites a whistleblower who it said wishes to remain anonymous, but who is “well respected within the cycling community and held a senior position at Team Sky at the time of the events under investigation.”
It said that the whistleblower “believe that TUE’s [for triamcinolone] were used tactically by the team to support the health of a rider with an ultimate aim of supporting performance.”
That whistleblower also pushed back on the assertions by Brailsford and Sutton in their evidence to the committee that the coaching team was led by the medical team with regards to treatments.
“In 2012 the team was under extreme pressure to perform,” he or she said. “Dave B and Shane Sutton put a great deal of pressure on the medical team, in particular Richard Freeman, to provide more proactive medical support.
“Using TUEs was openly discussed in hushed voices as a means of supporting health and wellbeing […] At the [DCMS Select] committee interview Shane hid behind trusting the medical team. This is utter nonsense – he directed the medical team, he constantly bullied Richard Freeman.”