Opinion: Has Team Sky kept the promises it made on anti doping?

Posted on: September 20th, 2016

Dave Brailsford and his very British Team Sky made many, many grand promises on anti doping when starting out (Photo: Sirotti)

Launched with big anti doping promises and with its reason for being largely to show what can be done by racing clean, Team Sky has attracted admiration and doubt in equal measure.

As Chris Froome prepares to release the results of his physiological testing, Cillian Kelly of Irish Peloton recalls exactly what the team’s anti doping promises were at the start, and whether it has kept them.

This piece was originally published last year, but we’ve decided to re-run it given the developments around the leaking of Bradley Wiggins’ and Chris Froome’s TUE details.

The 2015 Tour de France was won convincingly by Chris Froome. Despite a spirited challenge from Nairo Quintana, Froome’s victory was quite straight forward.

He put in one really big attack on the first summit finish and it was an exercise in containment for the other 20 stages. Easier said than done, of course.

The British rider was more than ably supported by his eight Team Sky companions.

But as straight forward as Froome’s victory was on the road, it was anything but plain sailing in the press room as questions were fielded about the validity of his performance.

Froome said in a mid-race press conference after questions about his power output reached a tipping point:

“It just seems strange to me. I’ve got to admit it is frustrating to an extent that if you look at the last five Grand Tours that have been won by different teams, different riders, there hasn’t been the same kind of outcry for power data and numbers and all the rest of it.

“Unless I’m missing something, I didn’t see the same kind of level of questioning. I don’t really understand why now it seems to be such a hot topic in this year’s Tour de France”


Why does Team Sky face more doping questions than other teams?

The main reason is surely because they win a lot. But a further, perhaps more important reason, is that they made big bold promises on the anti doping front at the time of their establishment and just after.

Team Sky and David Brailsford have mentioned a number of promises, goals and ideals over the years since they first came into the sport in 2010.

So as Froome prepares to release the results of his physiology testing – and tries to silence the doubters in the process – it is worth reflecting on anti doping promises Team Sky have made.

And let’s also examine the squad’s record on keeping those promises.


The promises Team Sky made


1. To win the Tour with a clean British rider

This has been Team Sky’s most prominent racing aim since day one.

It’s unlikely that Brailsford had either Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome in mind when he declared this intention before the team had even been constructed.

But the two riders have now won three of the last five Tours de France between them.

The team has certainly managed to fill two thirds of the stated aim; winning the Tour de France with a British rider, repeatedly.

But the most important word here is ‘clean’.

As with any rider, it is only the person in question who knows 100 per cent whether they are clean or not.

The line we’ve heard so often from the squad is that it’s impossible to prove a negative. This puts the riders and the team in an impossible position.

They can pass all the tests that all of the anti-doping agencies subject them to, but that’s enough to prove anything.

They simply can’t prove that they are racing clean. It’s not possible. Which leads us to the goal number two…


2. To prove beyond doubt that winning the Tour can be done clean

In Richard Moore’s book Sky’s the Limit, Brailsford is quoted as saying: “Our job is to prove beyond doubt that it can be done clean. The legacy of that would be phenomenal”.

Brailsford also told BBC Radio Five Live: “We want a team in which riders are free of the risks of doping and in which fans – new and old – can believe without any doubt or hesitation”.

To The Guardian newspaper earlier this year, he said: “The whole point of our team is to try and demonstrate that it is possible to cycle clean and compete at the highest level.”

You can’t blame Brailsford for not dreaming big, but if they genuinely thought that this was a possibility they are deluded.

They have learned the hard way that even getting close to proving it can be done clean is impossible, never mind proving it beyond doubt.

Despite the unfeasibility of it all, one suggested way that Team Sky could begin to prove the impossible is by going above and beyond the doping controls imposed by the UCI – an internal testing program.

This was something which had been organised when the team was very much in its infancy.

British Cycling’s doctor Roger Palfreeman was due to implement a testing program far more rigorous than the norm. However, it never happened.


Froome may have won more Tours, but Wiggins was the first Briton to take the big one as is the much bigger star of the two.


Steve Peters, the team psychiatrist, explained why the internal testing never happened; again in Moore’s Sky’s the Limit:

“The UCI said ‘you don’t need to be that rigorous; and if you’re that rigorous it’s extremely costly and it won’t pick up any more data than the biological passport’.

“It wasn’t that we rejected Roger’s plan or that we wriggled out of it. That’s so far from the truth.

“Roger was perfectly happy with the system we put in place instead, where we do take extra tests but we do it in collaboration with the UCI and WADA”.

It’s unlikely that the team would have planned to publish the results of Palfreeman’s testing. But it would have given Brailsford much more ammunition to fire out the word ‘clean’ at any naysayers.

Although he still wouldn’t be able to prove 100 per cent that his riders were clean, he might be a lot closer to 100 per cent than he is right now.

Then again, the cynical view would be that an internal testing program is entirely self-serving for this very PR-related reason.


3. The team would adopt a zero-tolerance policy to doping

“There is no place in Team Sky for those with an involvement in doping, whether past or present. This applies to management, support staff and riders.” – Team Sky statement.

Zero tolerance. That old chestnut. It’s perhaps been the biggest thorn in the side of Team Sky in their six year existence.

Brailsford and his backroom team can’t help it if potential hires are lying to his face about their involvement in doping in the past.

This was presumably the case with Bobby Julich and Steven De Jongh.

The two former riders were hired but subsequently left the team after Sky revisited all their recruitment decisions in the aftermath of the USADA Reasoned Decision in late 2012.

Both admitted to having doped during their careers.

But what could have been prevented, was hiring a person who had once returned an adverse finding in a dope test and the problems that would cause even though he was ultimately cleared.

Sean Yates provided a urine sample during the 1989 Tour of Belgium which the testers said returned traces of nortestosterone, an anabolic steroid.

The testing system did not stand up to scrutiny and Yates was cleared and reinstated as winner of the race.

But surely if Brailsford was applying zero tolerance, hiring Yates was a bad idea; even from a public relations and reputation point of view.

Yates also subsequently left the team in the aftermath of the USADA report.

The official line was that he had retired from the sport, but less than a year later he was back working for the NFTO team and subsequently Tinkoff-Saxo.

Again, Team Sky’s own unachievable ambitions place them in a bind. They can’t know for sure who has doped previously and who hasn’t.

Therefore when one of their staff is exposed, it makes the team look foolish and a zero tolerance policy seems naive.

But even in the case of Yates who was cleared of wrong doing back in the 1980s, they should have known the public relations problem his recruitment would cause for a team on an anti doping crusade.



4. Don’t hire any doctors who have worked in cycling before

“I’ve specified that I want British doctors who haven’t worked in professional cycling before,” said Brailsford to The Guardian in June 2009.

This commitment should have been easy. Just don’t hire them.

But after a frustrating debut year in which they struggled to achieve their racing ambitions, the team caved and began to look inside the box again.

Most notably, they hired Geert Leinders, a Belgian doctor who had previously been employed by the Rabobank team.

A few months after Leinders was hired, a former Rabobank directeur sportif Theo de Rooy claimed there had been organised doping at the team and Leinders was involved.

Team Sky parted ways with Leinders and Brailsford now says hiring him was a mistake.

“The whole thing is my responsibility” Brailsford admitted. “I will take that squarely on the chin. It’s something I regret, it’s a mistake. I should not have done it. I made an error of judgment”.

Leinders has subsequently been banned for life from the sport.


Sean Yates, left, was very much to the fore when Wiggins won the Tour. Team Sky really should have known the doping controversy Yates once found himself in was going to come back and haunt a team that claimed to be whiter than white, even though Yates was cleared and it was all a long time ago.


5. Don’t allow riders to race with TUEs

Therapeutic Use Exemptions can be applied for and granted by the UCI in cases where a rider is suffering from illness or injury and needs to take a substance which they would otherwise be prohibited from taking.

Not allowing their riders to race if they require one of these TUEs is a contentious entry here in that there are conflicting reports as to whether this was adopted as policy by the team at all.

In June 2014, David Walsh wrote a piece in the Sunday Times in which he says the team doctor Alan Farrell knew of no such stance.

But Walsh also writes that Steve Peters insisted that it had been team policy.

If it’s the latter then the team breached their own policy most notably at the 2014 Tour de Romandie when Froome had a TUE so he could take prednisone as he was recovering from a chest infection.

He took the medication, raced the Tour de Romandie and won it overall, while also beating Tony Martin in the final stage time trial.


6. Release Chris Froome’s power data

This has been one of the major PR battles for Team Sky ever since Froome won the stage to Mont Ventoux on his way to overall victory at the 2013 Tour de France.

On that occasion, the team released power data to the French physiologist Fred Grappe who declared that Froome’s performances were ‘consistent’.

The reluctance to release data, we’re told, is for fear of it being misinterpreted by armchair experts and pseudo-scientists. Brailsford said during this year’s Tour:

“But you’ve got to bear in mind that there are issues like different power-meters, oval rings against round rings.

“You’ve got to understand all of these things before you start interpreting the numbers that you’ve got.

“You’ve got to be careful with it, just throwing numbers out there, but equally I think there’s no harm in sharing a few numbers just to give some concrete evidence of where we’re at.”

In the wake of his stage-winning performance on Stage 10 to La Pierre Saint Martin, Team Sky did indeed release more of Froome’s power data shortly after Brailsford made this statement. But this time they released it publicly.

Brailsford’s fear of misinterpretation is baffling.

If Froome is clean, this is the very data that will edge public perception towards believing it.

Brailsford himself (presumably with the help of his staff) has used biological passport data to determine whether riders are clean or not. In Sky’s the Limit, Brailsford says about examining this data for recruitment purposes:

“All the best bike riders, the clean ones, you see steady progression; you can graph it.

The ones whose performances go up in a spike usually test positive. There are no secrets. It’s basic stuff; intelligence gathering.

But yeah, some of the data that comes through – you think Jeez! I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. It just makes me laugh, the audacity of some of them. But like I say, we’re taking a no-risk approach.”


Dave Brailsford will be a case study for management tutors for years to come. But he made some massive promises that he was simply never going to be able to keep.


How has Team Sky done?


Shortly after the Tour, Froome pledged to undergo a series of physiological tests the results of which he would make public.

He recently announced the results were imminent.

If results are published as promised, Brailsford can rest assured that there are plenty of experts in the world, actual doctors with actual PhDs, who will be capable of interpreting this data for the layman.

Team Sky’s reaction to the power data debate was summed up nicely by Eoin McDevitt, host of the Irish Times Second Captains podcast.

He said during this year’s Tour de France shortly after Team Sky released a smattering of Froome’s data from his effort on Stage 10:

“Sky argue that their critics use whatever data they want to suit their own agenda and yet Sky’s own idea of full transparency is to do exactly the same thing”

If Brailsford is genuine when he states that the whole point of the team is to try and demonstrate that it is possible to cycle clean and compete at the highest level, Team Sky have set their own agenda and have consistently failed to deliver on it.

In the media, they are held to a higher standard than other teams, but this is of their own making. They have literally asked for this.

During the 2013 Tour de France, Brailsford appeared to lose patience with the constant questioning and issued a challenge to the media:

“Rather than asking us all the time to come up with some creative way to prove that we’re innocent, why couldn’t you… get yourselves together … and you tell me, what would prove it for you, what could we do?

“Get your heads together and come to me and say, well this is what we think we would like in order to prove to you beyond reasonable doubt that we are not doping.”

Considering this very issue is the entire reason the team exists, it’s a wonder why Brailsford appears at such a loss as to how to address it.

It should be his number one priority, every day of his working life.

Given all the commitments that have fallen by the wayside over the years, releasing power data, all of it, seems like a good way to get back on track.