Brailsford’s story, part two: Team Sky, a Jiffy bag and accusations of doping – The Athletic

Matt SlaterFeb 27, 2024

As moments in advertising folklore go, it was not quite Don Draper pitching to Kodak or Lucky Strikes in between old fashioneds and extramarital shenanigans, but when Team Sky unveiled their signature look in 2010, cycling’s mad men were impressed.

The main colour was black but there was a light blue line that ran up the back of the riders’ jerseys and over their helmets. It was also on the bonnets and roofs of the team’s vehicles, too. Sky’s corporate logo was in its familiar white font and there were splashes of light blue on the front of the jersey and collar.

Advertisement

“Ah, I get it,” the connoisseurs thought, “we-mean-business black meets blue-sky thinking… but what about the line?”

That, we were told, was a nod to the team’s track-cycling origins, as there is a blue line that runs around the boards of a velodrome. But it was also a visual representation of the team’s ethos, something they would put on the jersey in 2012.

The blue line on Team Sky riders’ helmets and kit in Austria in 2013 (Photo: Pierre Teyssot/AFP via Getty Images)

“This the line between winning and losing, between failure and success, between good and great, between dreaming and believing, between convention and innovation, between head and heart. It’s a fine line, it challenges everything we do, and we ride it every day.”

That last sentence was on the frames of the bikes, too. It was a bit pretentious when spelled out but the lines on the riders’ spines looked cool when they massed at the front of the peloton. They were the “Skybots”, their team bus was the “Death Star” and they took no prisoners.

But in 2016, it took on a new meaning. It became a symbol for a debate about the team that had been bubbling for years but then burst into the mainstream to such an extent that some fans can never see it in any other way than a line between right and wrong. A wobbly line.

We have already published a story about Sir Dave Brailsford, the man who ran Team Sky from its inception until earlier this year, when he finally stepped away so he could focus on his new mission to make Manchester United serial winners once more.

GO DEEPER

Brailsford’s story, part one: The rise of Mr Marginal Gains and the road to Manchester United

This story is about the line he set at Team Sky and whether he crossed it or not.

“I’ve been accused of doping through my whole career,” Brailsford told an audience assembled by leadership training firm T2 last year. “We didn’t. I know it’s easy for me to say that but we didn’t. You can push it right to the line but manners and playing fair and doing it the right way are important.”

Where you sit on this is up to you. I had a press pass for most of what I am about to lay out and still cannot decide if he crossed the line or not. What I do know is that this debate was not what Brailsford promised when he announced the idea of a British cycling team in 2009.

Brailsford had been British Cycling’s performance director for six years, a period of unprecedented success.

Now, he wanted the sport’s biggest prize, the Tour de France. He just had to persuade a mainstream backer that professional road-cycling teams could be trusted to provide positive headlines, not just positive drug samples. Even for a sport with a history as chequered as cycling’s, the noughties were very naughty.

“Team Sky will bring to a professional road team the performance principles that have worked so well with the current GB teams: commitment, meticulous planning, the aggregation of marginal gains and a rider-centred philosophy,” said Brailsford in the press release.

Wiggins celebrates winning the Tour in 2012 (Pascal Pavani/AFP via Getty Images)

“We want to make heroes, persuade a generation to pull on Team Sky colours and inspire people to ride. This will be an epic story — building a British team to take on the best in professional cycling and win.”

They would have a British Tour de France winner within five years and we will do it with a “zero tolerance” approach to doping, he added.

Advertisement

Underpinning this promise would be a ban on hiring anyone who had a previous “association” with doping. At the time, most of the conversation was about how it ruled out David Millar, a successful British rider and friend of Brailsford’s. Millar could not join because he had already served a two-year ban and admitted doping.

What we should have been talking more about, though, was how realistic this pledge was. Brailsford had to recruit riders, coaches and support staff from a talent pool that was stocked with a generation who had lived through the EPO era, EPO (erythropoietin) being a very effective and, at the time, hard-to-trace blood-booster that turned also-rans into thoroughbreds. This was before the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) took down Lance Armstrong but after other scandals that had seen favourites banned and titles stripped.

We will never know if Brailsford was being naive or cynical but he was asked about this recruitment dilemma in an interview published in Cycle Sport in 2009.

Pressed by the journalist Lionel Birnie on some of the names Team Sky had been linked with, Brailsford snapped: “Listen, anybody over the age of 35 or 30 years old in professional cycling is a concern. End of.”

He then assured Birnie he had looked all these people in the eye and they had told him there was nothing to worry about. Birnie tried to clarify if an “association with doping” just meant getting caught.

A long and tense exchange followed, which resulted in Brailsford admitting that Team Sky’s “zero tolerance” came down to a “judgement call”. Anyone with a doping conviction was out; anyone with anything less than a conviction was… probably in.

“We’ve only appointed British doctors who have not worked in pro cycling before,” he added.

“We want to minimise risk. There are clear indications when doctors become very familiar with riders, and try to support and help (them), the lines get blurred. A lot of these doctors get institutionalised.

Advertisement

“We’ve got a doctor who’s spent seven years at Bolton, come out of the Premier League, he’s a brilliant guy.”

That doctor was Richard Freeman. Remember the name.

Dr Freeman worked for Team GB (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Brailsford also said that Team Sky’s head of medicine was going to be Steve Peters, who would be able to spot anyone lying about their past as he is an eminent psychiatrist.

But the team endured a difficult first season in 2010, having focused too much “on the peas and not enough on the steak”, as Brailsford put it.

They would improve in 2011, though, and then smashed 2012 out of the park, with team leader Sir Bradley Wiggins winning almost every race he entered, including the Tour de France and the Olympic time trial. Just to underline the team’s dominance, Chris Froome was runner-up in Paris, with Mark Cavendish claiming three sprint stages, too.

That autumn, however, team doctor Geert Leinders — a Belgian who worked on a freelance basis for the team after that poor first campaign — was quietly let go after it emerged he had been involved in doping at his previous team. He received a lifetime ban from sport in 2015.

Then, USADA’s 1,000-page written decision on Armstrong dropped. It revealed that Michael Barry, a Canadian Team Sky rider who had just announced his retirement, had doped while riding for Armstrong’s team. He was given a six-month ban, reduced from the standard two years for his cooperation with the investigation.

Bobby Julich, an American who had ridden with Armstrong in the 1990s but was not named in the USADA report, then admitted he had doped during his career and therefore had to quit as Team Sky’s head coach. Steven de Jongh, a former rider who worked as one of Team Sky’s race managers, also left after belatedly admitting he had doped.

Sean Yates, the former British rider who had guided Wiggins to those victories in 2012 from a Team Sky car, left, too. He denied it was related to doping, saying it was down to a health condition and wanting to spend more time with his family. Yates went on to join a different team in 2014.

Advertisement

And Michael Rogers, one of Wiggins’ best support riders, left Team Sky after it was reported he was unwilling to sign up to the new and improved “no association with doping” policy. He denied this.

So we had a doctor, two riders and three coaches/managers about whom Brailsford had once made judgement calls. All gone. It happens, though, right? What can you do?

Well, you could do what Wiggins’ old team, Garmin, were doing. Led by another of Armstrong’s former team-mates, Jonathan Vaughters, it had several riders who cooperated with USADA and served short bans. It was also the home of the aforementioned Millar, who had returned to the sport in 2006 as a campaigner for clean cycling.

In October 2012, I asked Vaughters if Brailsford’s “zero tolerance” approach was naive. “It’s not naive; it’s idealistic,” he said.

“The best way to go is to have a truth and reconciliation process that looks at everything that has gone on over the last 20 years, with all the main actors, and say, ‘Let’s move forward with zero tolerance’, absolute, concrete zero tolerance.”

I asked Brailsford about it the following day and he said he had “more in common with (Vaughters) than people think — we both run clean teams, we both want a clean sport”. But he added, “We decided to set out with a certain approach — it doesn’t have to be everybody’s approach — and we’re going to stick to it.”

The 2013 season saw a lot more wins, with Froome usurping Wiggins as the team’s top rider. The next season did not go quite so well, though. Too many crashes. But the good times rolled again in 2015 and for most of 2016.

That is not to say there were no blurred lines in this middle period of Team Sky’s domination of the sport. Far from it.

Some of the negativity around the team, however, just went with the territory. The team’s stranglehold on the Tour de France, in particular, made them look like Armstrong’s old team. There was also no shortage of fans, rivals and pundits who just found it hard to accept that a British team that had emerged from the velodrome could be so good at riding up mountains.

This was a time punctuated by conspiracy theories of undetectable new drugs and hidden motors in the bikes. It was nonsense but there were two rider-related episodes that did not help Team Sky’s attempts to change the narrative.

Brailsford receiving his knighthood in 2013 (Jonathan Brady – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The first involved a British rider called Jonathan Tiernan-Locke who enjoyed a purple patch in 2012, culminating in victory at the Tour of Britain that earned him a two-year contract with Team Sky.

In September 2013, he had to withdraw from Great Britain’s team for the world road race championships. His biological passport — an electronic record of an athlete’s anti-doping tests and baseline readings — flagged anomalies with the samples he had provided a year before. Sky promptly suspended him and he was later banned for two years.

Advertisement

The second was a curious case involving Sergio Henao, a talented rider from Colombia. In 2014, questions were raised about his biological passport, which prompted Brailsford to commission research into the blood values of elite athletes from high altitudes. The team benched Henao while this research was conducted and told reporters they would publish it one day. We’re still waiting.

Henao’s biological passport pinged again in early 2016 and this time, the UCI, cycling’s governing body, investigated. No further action was taken but if Team Sky thought that signalled a return to normal, they were wrong. A chain reaction of negative headlines was about to start that meant things would never be the same again.

The first arrived in August 2016, a month after Froome had won his third Tour de France title, the team’s fourth in five years, and it came via the unlikeliest of sources: a group of Russian computer hackers called the Fancy Bears.

With links to the Russian military, these cyber terrorists had already targeted Western journalists and politicians, as well as NATO. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was next because it had recommended that Russia be banned from the 2016 Olympics in Rio for industrial levels of state-sponsored doping before, during and after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Fancy Bears went on a phishing trip to see what embarrassing material they might find on WADA’s servers about athletes from the U.S., Britain and other vocal critics of Russia’s cheating. What they found were the records of hundreds of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs), the doctors’ notes athletes need so they can legally take prescribed amounts of banned drugs for medical reasons.

American gymnast Simone Biles and the tennis sisters Serena and Venus Williams were three of the stars whose medical records were revealed in the first batch of hacked material. As upsetting as this must have been for them, there was no lasting damage to their reputations.

The same, however, could not be said about the biggest name in the next leak: Wiggins. The world now knew that Team Sky’s leader had received large doses of triamcinolone, a powerful corticosteroid, before the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France and 2013 Giro d’Italia, his main targets in each of those seasons.

He was prescribed the drug, he and Team Sky have repeatedly claimed, to deal with a pollen allergy that affects his breathing, particularly at high altitudes and temperatures. Freeman’s signature was on the documents.

Brailsford and Shane Sutton, who became central to allegations of doping, in 2013 (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

The issue is not about a pollen allergy or whether triamcinolone is an effective treatment for the condition. What people have questioned is if it was an appropriate drug for a Tour de France rider to use, particularly given its long history of abuse by athletes trying to shed weight without losing strength.

Advertisement

Some also questioned how these treatments squared with Wiggins’ claims in his autobiographies that he had never been injected during his career. The previously supportive Millar, for example, said he could not “fathom” why Wiggins had the injections and called for them to be banned under all circumstances.

“This was to cure a medical condition,” Wiggins told the BBC. “This wasn’t about trying to find a way to gain an unfair advantage, this was about putting myself back on a level playing field to compete at the highest level.”

Two weeks after this interview, the Daily Mail broke a story that made the Fancy Bears’ revelations seem run of the mill. The newspaper revealed UK Anti-Doping had opened an investigation into a package that was couriered from the National Cycling Centre in Manchester to Freeman, who was waiting on the Team Sky coach at the finish of the Criterium du Dauphine race in France. Freeman then administered the contents of the package to Wiggins.

The courier was Simon Cope, the manager of the British women’s team, and he was asked to deliver the package by Shane Sutton, British Cycling’s technical director and Wiggins’ coach/mentor. Cope did not ask what was in it, he simply collected it from his desk, went to a race in London, stayed overnight, got on a plane to Geneva, hired a car, drove two hours to the finish line, where Wiggins had just celebrated a big win, and then went back to the airport, giving Sutton a lift.

When asked by the newspaper, and UKAD, what was in the package, nobody at British Cycling or Team Sky could initially say, beyond confirming it was medicine. They were, however, able to clarify that it was a Jiffy bag — a brand of padded envelopes — not a package, giving the scandal a much better name: Jiffy-gate.

More concerning, though, were Brailsford’s early attempts to defuse the story. He initially told the Daily Mail that Freeman could not have treated Wiggins with anything at the back of the bus after the race because the bus did not wait for him to fulfil his post-race commitments. Video footage revealed this to be incorrect.

He then said Cope was visiting Emma Pooley, one of Britain’s top riders. This explanation unravelled when it emerged Pooley was racing in Spain at the time. Brailsford then asked the newspaper not to report the story, suggesting he might be able to give them a better one about a rival.

Advertisement

The specific allegation UKAD was investigating was that the Jiffy bag contained a dose of triamcinolone that would not have been covered by Wiggins’ TUE. If true, this would have been an anti-doping violation.

Two months later, Brailsford told a panel of MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee that he had been able to find out that the drug was Fluimucil, a legal decongestant available over the counter in France for the bargain price of about £7 ($8.80). And Freeman administered the drug via a nebuliser, not a needle.

But Brailsford told the MPs he could not categorically prove this because Freeman had not uploaded his records for that period to the medical team’s shared folder. He had, instead, kept them on his laptop, which was then stolen on a holiday in Greece in 2014. Freeman then declined requests to appear before the panel himself, citing ill health.

UKAD boss Nicole Sapstead did make an appearance, though, telling a second hearing that instead of the promised meticulous planning, marginal gains and minimised risks, the medical storage room at British Cycling’s HQ, where Team Sky was also based, was a mess, with haphazard record-keeping and also large amounts of triamcinolone. As she dryly noted, it seemed to be “an excessive amount for one person” or maybe “quite a few people had a similar problem”.

The Sunday Times then reported that Freeman had also received a delivery of a large amount of testosterone gel at the National Cycling Centre in May 2011.

When asked by Peters, his boss, why a banned substance had been delivered to a professional cycling team’s address, Freeman told him it was a mistake by the suppliers, he would return the package and get an admission from them that it was their error. This was not true, though, as he did order it. He also did not return it.

Freeman later told UKAD that he did so because he was treating Sutton for erectile dysfunction, a story he repeated at a medical tribunal in 2019 when he was charged with the intention to dope an athlete and trying to cover that up. That case lasted for two years, as Freeman’s failing health caused several delays, but ended with him being permanently struck off the medical register.

Brailsford and Froome celebrate winning the Tour de France in 2016 (Christophe Ena/AFP via Getty Images)

Two years after that, UKAD gave him a four-year ban from sport. It is still the only anti-doping sanction a member of Team Sky has received for an offence that happened while working for the team.

In the press release that announced the ban, UKAD said: “The (National Anti-Doping Panel) was comfortably satisfied that Dr Freeman had ‘intended to make available to one or more of his athletes the prohibited substance delivered to the Manchester Velodrome’.”

Freeman has never changed his story about the testosterone being for Sutton, not a rider. Sutton angrily rejected this claim during Freeman’s medical tribunal.

In March 2018, 19 months after the Fancy Bears’ leaks, the DCMS committee’s report on Combatting Doping in Sport was published and it was brutal.

Citing a “well-respected” whistleblower, the report said Team Sky had “crossed an ethical line” by using triamcinolone to “prepare Wiggins, and possibly other riders” for the Tour.

Advertisement

“The purpose of this was not to treat medical need, but to improve his power-to-weight ratio ahead of the race,” it said. “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.

“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.”

Team Sky’s response was to say it was “surprised and disappointed” that the committee presented “an anonymous and potentially malicious claim in this way, without presenting any evidence or giving us an opportunity to respond”.

Wiggins posted a message on Twitter (now X) that he thought it was “sad that accusations can be made, where people can be accused of things they have never done which are then regarded as facts”. He added that he strongly denied “any drug was used without medical need”.

But the following day, Sutton, once almost a father figure to Wiggins, told Sky Sports News that he believed it was triamcinolone in the Jiffy bag, Wiggins had used it regularly “out of competition” (it is only banned by WADA when used “in competition”) and it was time for him “to come clean” about it all.

If you are struggling to keep up with all these claims and counter-claims, how would you feel if I told you I have not mentioned the biggest cycling story of late 2017 and the first half of 2018?

That was when Froome returned what is known as an adverse analytical finding — a blood or urine sample that tests positive for a controlled substance — for salbutamol, an asthma drug, while winning the 2017 Vuelta a Espana. Athletes can use salbutamol, which is more widely known under its brand name Ventolin, to treat their asthma without a TUE, provided they do not use too much. Froome’s sample suggested he had used twice the permitted dose.

Advertisement

What followed was a six-month furore that saw Froome continue to race while the UCI decided what to do. Froome and Team Sky tried to prove that his dehydration had skewed the concentration of salbutamol in his sample.

Concerned that he might be prevented from defending his Tour de France title that July, Froome switched his focus to the Giro d’Italia in May and, in keeping with his and Team Sky’s dominance of the sport at that time, claimed a remarkable victory to hold all three of cycling’s grand tours at once.

He was then cleared of any wrongdoing a week before the Tour started and took his place on the starting line as the pre-race favourite for a record-equalling fifth victory. To say that he was not the crowd favourite that summer is something of an understatement.

Not that anyone could stop Team Sky. Geraint Thomas claimed their sixth win in seven years, by a third British rider. Froome rallied to finish third.

An angry fan makes his feelings clear about Froome in 2018 (Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images)

Sky had seen enough, though. With the British pay-TV firm becoming part of the Comcast empire, it was inevitable that there would be a review of Sky’s various investments, and Team Sky was an unusual one in that it was not just a sponsorship arrangement; Sky owned the team. That arrangement was probably the only thing that stopped Sky from severing ties sooner.

For a few months, it looked like the 2019 season could be the end of Brailsford’s “dream” but he managed to persuade Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire co-founder and executive chairman of petrochemicals giant INEOS, that his team was another great British brand worth saving and Team Sky became Team INEOS.

GO DEEPER

Ratcliffe is the local boy made good at Man United – but does that matter?

A seventh Tour victory in eight years arrived in 2019, followed by back-to-back wins at the Giro in 2020 and 2021. The team, now known as Ineos Grenadiers, have not enjoyed the same level of success these last two seasons but they have also managed to avoid any further doping-adjacent headlines.

Sir Michael Barber is a former teacher who became a globally recognised expert on how governments deliver their policies. He has also written several books about “how to achieve ambitious and challenging things” and has lauded Brailsford as an example of someone who has done that.

Advertisement

“I’m a friend, so perhaps I’m biased, but I don’t believe Team Sky cheated at all,” says Barber. “They pushed things to the edge of what was allowed but Dave got a harder time for it than he deserved.”

Right to the line. The edge of what was allowed.

I am sure many Manchester United fans will read that and think “about bloody time”. And that is fine. Winning is more fun than losing.

But as someone who watched Team Sky very closely, it didn’t seem like much fun towards the end.

(Photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

Get all-access to exclusive stories.

Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us.

Start Free Trial

Based in North West England, Matt Slater is a senior football news reporter for The Athletic UK. Before that, he spent 16 years with the BBC and then three years as chief sports reporter for the UK/Ireland’s main news agency, PA. Follow Matt on Twitter @mjshrimper

Source

×