‘Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know, I was blind but now I see.’
The Gospel of John, 9:25
Chances are that 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 set his sights on getting involved at the high end of his sport.
Its standing meant Team Sky was Swart’s obvious choice. 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 information on Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), though, he said that it looked “very bad” for them.
Swart’s change of heart is relevant because his shift of opinion is also a barometer of general opinion. There are those of us who have long looked at the back-tracking by Sky and the long list of broken promises covered by empty excuses as a tell-tale sign, but it seems now that 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 apparent double standards 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’s history. After seeing winner Floyd Landis caught for doping at the 2006 Tour de France, he wrote 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 out of the race, Wiggins’s team was also removed so he spoke out passionately again. “If there’s a 1 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 it was formed in 2009, manager Dave Brailsford promised they’d be “agents of change” and would try and win a tour by employing only British doctors who hadn’t worked in cycling before. Yet in 2012, when Wiggins did win it, it emerged that Dr Geert Linders, who had worked with Rasmussen, was on their books for two years. Brailsford defended this, as did Wiggins, who also said that “in British cycling culture at the sight of one [a hypodermic needle] you go: ‘Oh shit’. It’s a complete taboo. I’ve never had an injection . . .”
All the while, Sky psychiatrist Steven Peters said of 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 1 per cent? What about the needles?
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.”
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 which had signed up to Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC), meaning you’re tested before a race and his low cortisol meant he’d been taking it, thus he couldn’t start. Where did Sky stand on MPCC? It stayed away.
All in all, regardless of no law being broken, all credibility is long gone, even for those without the necessary scepticism for modern sport.
That’s not to say there’s not more to delve into. In his 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.
One sports doctor on the use of corticosteroids for Wiggins’s asthma said: “Triamcinolone injections. From what I saw on the TUE, he was on pretty basic inhalers. It’s relatively mild treatment. So you’ve got him going from a water pistol to a bazooka. Who in the UCI sanctioned that?”
He added that oral steroids and inhaled versions were 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 [intravenous] 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 because, if you’re that bad, you’re given it in IV form. The only reason is a longer-term effect over a couple of weeks.”
But let’s not pretend that this is restricted to Sky. Post-Armstrong to pre-Sky; soon we might have Post-Sky until whatever fills the void.
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 that athletes with 8 per cent body fat lost three kilos in a week and maintained power. They also recall hotel staff checking books and telling a team when testers were coming. This is said to be relatively common, allowing days to clean out systems.
But are you surprised? When a house burns, the rats scurry to find a new home, 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 of it here.