Team Sky’s the latest limit

 

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The treatment of their own sport by key players is bad, but not nearly as appalling as how cycling views the rest of us, expecting them to buy whatever crap they are selling, writes Ewan MacKenna

‘Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know, I was blind but now I see.’
The book of John, 9:25

Chances are you won’t have heard of Dr Jeroen Swart, so let us fill you in. A former elite cyclist, the South African went and got a PHD in sports science, became an exercise physiologist as well as a senior lecturer, and given that past set his sights on getting involved at the high end of his sport. Their standing meant Team Sky were his obvious choice and last year he made it as far as overseeing Chris Froome’s independent physiological testing while always defending the outfit.

In light of the leaked Therapeutic Use Exemptions though, he said that it looked “very bad” for them.

His change of heart is relevant because his shift in opinion is a barometer of general opinion also. There are those of us who have long looked at the back-tracking by Sky and the long list of broken promises covered over by empty excuses as a tell-tale sign; but it seems now the tipping point has been passed. Indeed the idea of the TUE leaks has been almost a secondary story, the real impact has been the lies and hypocrisy of Bradley Wiggins and Sky so brutally exposed. None of that may be actually new, but it is new to a lot of people and it’s better late than never.

Take Wiggins history. After seeing winner Floyd Landis caught for doping at the 2006 Tour de France he penned in his autobiography: “You’re a bunch of cheating bastards and I hope one day they catch the lot of you and ban you all for life… You won’t ever change me.” A year on when Michael Rasmussen was thrown from the race, Wiggins team too were removed so he spoke out passionately again. “If there’s a one per cent suspicion or doubt that a team is involved in doping or work with certain doctors who are under suspicion then they shouldn’t be invited.”

Let’s introduce the Sky story at this point. When formed in 2009, manager David Brailsford promised they’d be “agents of change” and would try and win a tour by only employing British doctors who didn’t work in cycling before. Yet in 2012 when Wiggins did win it, it emerged Dr Geert Linders who had doped Rasmussen was on their books for two years. Brailsford defended this as did Wiggins who also said on needles that “in British cycling culture at the sight of one you go ‘Oh shit’. It’s a complete taboo. I’ve never had an injection…” All the while Sky psychiatrist Steven Peters added on TUEs: “We agreed as a team that if a rider suffering from asthma got into trouble with pollen we would pull him out of the race rather than apply for a TUE”.

Yet the leaked TUEs showed they were used by Sky and Wiggins, three times in the days before major tours for corticosteroid injections for asthma. What about not being for changing? What about the one per cent? What about the needles? What about the clean British doctors? Have these people no shame? They’ve certainly no respect for outsiders, so at least have some respect for yourself.

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When it comes to Sky, one former rider says that a 2010 team orientation was addressed by Brailsford who, he claims, said: “We go to the limit of what is allowed.” Another claim comes from the wife of a rider who was concerned with what she saw as doping but was reassured by former coach Shane Sutton that “what we do isn’t illegal, it’s immoral”. These are just their claims but look at this from another angle. In 2014, defending champion Chris Horner couldn’t ride the Vuelta as he was part of Lampre–Merida who’d signed up to Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible, meaning you’re tested before a race and his low cortisol meant he’d been taking it meaning he couldn’t start.

Where do Sky stand on MPCC? They stayed away.

All in all, regardless of no law being broken all credibility is long gone, even for those without the necessary skepticism for modern sport. We can now all smell the bullshit in unison.

That’s not to say there’s not more to delve into. In his soft interview with Andrew Marr, Wiggins referenced taking the hormone before the 2012 Tour and recalled planning for all eventualities with his team. “Well, I’m still struggling with this breathing last week. I know it didn’t look like it but is there anything else you can do just to make sure that I don’t, that this doesn’t become an issue into a three-week race?” In other words he took it as a preventative measure but under TUEs, substances cannot be taken as preventative so this breaks the rules.

“Triamcinolone injections,” says one sports doctor about the use of corticosteroids for Wiggins’ asthma. “From what I saw on the TUE, he was on pretty basic inhalers. It’s relatively mild treatment. So you’ve him going from a water pistol to a bazooka. Who in the UCI sanctioned that?” The doctor added there are oral steroids and inhaled versions used extensively in the treatment of asthma where performance enhancement is negligible. That is not the case with intra-muscular injections.

“You’d sometimes inject a steroid into a joint for say knee arthritis, wear and tear in a shoulder, but it’s been shown to cause an abscess and it causes the muscle to break down. So for asthma in terms of how it was used, it’s pretty incredible. I’ve never seen it. Potency goes from IV for life-threatening issues, to oral or nebulised next like your wheezy kid or a bad chest infection. Intramuscular is much slower, released over weeks. It’s never used acutely as if you’re that bad you are given it in IV form. The only reason is a longer term effect over a couple of weeks. Like, and this is just me speculating, over the course of a grand tour.”

“This is simply inappropriate use,” another sports doctor tells us. “Even sanctioned, the use, it’s incredible. As for the doctor’s signing these, it’s ethically questionable. From a medical point of view this looks ridiculous. Add in the UCI, there’s something not okay that they are approving this. If it came in front of me I’d say are you having a laugh? There’s about five steps before even discussing it and this would be a child unable to walk 10 metres after everything else was tried. There’s no way a fit adult would be considered.”

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It reminds us the best lies are half truths. That’s what Sky have done so well but for many there’s an enjoyment in their demise after the holier-than-thou false front. But let’s not pretend either that this isn’t beyond them as well. Post-Armstrong to Pre-Sky, soon we might have Post-Sky until whatever fills the void. When one door closes, another opens, and so it is with doping.

The corticosteroids Wiggins took are widely used. In fact you don’t even need a TUE to take them out of competition such is the interest and ability of Wada and the UCI. A source tells of certain cyclists going to remote locations and smashing themselves to the point athletes with eight per cent body fat lose three kilos in a week and maintain power. This is impossible without drugs. They also recall hotel staff checking books and telling a team when testers were coming and this is said to be relatively common, allowing days to clean systems which is ample time.

But are you surprised? When a house burns, the rats scurry for another and right now the flames are breaking through the smoke. Cycling hasn’t changed so for those who were blind and now see, it’s best you look elsewhere for your sport as there’s little here.

Sunday Business Post
2 October, 2016

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