Strong and stable? Dave Brailsford's year of saying nothing

Unanswered questions will not disappear as Team Sky target the Tour de France

Last Friday morning, Dave Brailsford made his by-now annual trip to the Sky Sports News studio in Isleworth to announce Team Sky's Tour de France line-up on its midday news bulletin. Given how Brailsford has studiously limited his public pronouncements and media engagement of late, the short, set-piece interview that followed the announcement elicited more interest than it would have done in years past.

Brailsford's appearance came a week after the publication of the final UK Sport report into the culture of fear and bullying at British Cycling – a report seemingly edited to excise all mentions of Brailsford's name – and a week ahead of a Tour de France where questions regarding the ethics and credibility of his Sky team will inevitably abound.

After a year of dismissing inquiries about the tenability of his role as Team Sky manager – and, for the most part, ducking interviews altogether, one might have expected Brailsford to have something of substance to say as he took to the airwaves. The questions and answers would certainly have been rehearsed, as the Sky Sports News presenter's hesitant introduction unwittingly confirmed: "Now Sir Dave, this is a more difficult question to come on to, that I know you'll be ready for."

Instead, Brailsford dusted off the same empty inanities and non-answers that he has been trotting out for the bones of a year or more.

"As in all walks of life, you have always got to look at yourself first, if you are the leader of an organisation," Brailsford said vaguely of the UK Sport report, and then added the catch-all kicker: "There are some lessons to be learned."

If the phrasing sounded familiar, it's because Brailsford has leant on this very same verbal crutch before.

Before the House of Commons Select Committee hearing in December, for instance, Brailsford opined that there were "lessons to be learned" from the bizarre tale of Bradley Wiggins, Dr. Richard Freeman, Simon Cope and the infamous Jiffy Bag at the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné. There were "lessons to be learned", too, back on the first rest day of the 2013 Tour. The expression seems to be a close cousin of "we're addressing the issue", the phrase du jour when Brailsford was attempting to defuse questions over his team's hiring of Dr. Gert Leinders back in 2012.

After Brailsford hit his talking point on the British Cycling report on Sky Sports News, attention turned to his current role at Team Sky, an outfit that is, lest it be forgotten, the subject of an ongoing investigation by UK Anti-Doping. The inquiry began last autumn when the Daily Mail broke news of Cope's curious trip to the 2011 Dauphiné and has since expanded to incorporate, among other things, former Sky rider Josh Edmondson's revelation that he breached the UCI no needles policy during his time at team.

Once again, Brailsford opted to sidestep the issue rather than avail of an opportunity to address the very serious allegations about his team's practices.

"From an investigation point of view, we will wait for the outcome of that," Brailsford said awkwardly. "But I am very confident there is no wrongdoing."

And so it continued, Brailsford's year of saying nothing.

Team Sky's Dave Brailsford and Bradley Wiggins in the team bus at the 2013 Giro d'Italia

Silence, evasion and scripted non-answers

Team Sky's approach to media relations over the years has often borne the hallmarks of Dave Brailsford's friend and admirer Alastair Campbell. The New Labour spin doctor's aggressive style felt most in evidence during the 2015 Tour de France, where the team happily planted stories with selected reporters from the British press, made the emotive and unsubstantiated claim that its data had been hacked – it may well have been leaked, which is altogether different – and later blamed the press room's reporting for provoking the (alleged) incident in which Chris Froome was doused in urine by a spectator.

In 2017, however, it has often felt as though Brailsford has crossed the aisle in search of advice on how to deal with the public relations nightmare that has befallen him. Rather than attack his critics head-on, he has instead followed a policy of silence, evasion and scripted non-answers that bears distinct echoes of Conservative prime minister Theresa May's much-lampooned recent general election campaign. By saying nothing, Brailsford seems to think he is evincing strength and stability.

Brailsford's silent season began in the spring of 2016, when Jess Varnish stepped forward to outline an unsettling picture of the culture at British Cycling, both during and after his time as performance director. Upset at how the matter was reported in the British press, Brailsford enacted a self-imposed silenzio stampa during the Giro d'Italia. After returning to the front line on the Tour – as ever, Brailsford plonked himself beside Froome during rest day press conferences, lest anyone forget he was the architect of the impending triumph – he quickly retreated again in the autumn, after a group of Russian cyber-hackers, the so-called Fancy Bears, shone new and very unflattering light on Wiggins's 2012 Tour de France victory.

It emerged that Wiggins had received therapeutic use exemptions for the powerful corticosteroid Triamcinolone Acetonide before the 2011 and 2012 Tours, and again before the 2013 Giro. The application had been made by Sky team doctor Richard Freeman, with the assent of Brailsford. Team Sky had set out in 2010 with the intention of having a clean British rider win the Tour de France within five years. The information revealed by Fancy Bears thus raised a fundamental question: could Wiggins really be viewed as a clean British Tour de France winner?

For ten long days, Brailsford – despite Sky's supposed commitment to transparency – opted for silence, ostensibly to allow Wiggins the opportunity to speak on his own behalf. A day after Wiggins' stilted appearance on the Andrew Marr Show, Brailsford eventually agreed to be interviewed by selected media outlets, namely British television stations and newspapers. Brailsford was quickly disabused of any idea that the mainstream press in his own country, supposedly more sympathetic to his cause than international and specialist cycling publications, would be easily convinced by his version of events.

Owen Gibson of the Guardian summarised the situation neatly: "As Brailsford's matter-of-fact recollection of events proved, the facts are pretty clear – it is the interpretation of them that differs."

When, a week later, the Daily Mail reported Simon Cope's courier trip to the final stage of the Dauphiné, few people were of any mind to interpret Sky's use of TUEs in a favourable light, particularly when the facts of this specific case were particularly murky. Brailsford's misleading assertion that Cope was travelling onwards to accompany Emma Pooley on a training camp in the Alps – Pooley was, in fact, competing in Spain at the time – only added to the sense that Sky were deliberately withholding information from the public domain.

Brailsford compounded matters when he agreed to be interviewed by the Cycling Podcast later in October. The platform was no doubt carefully chosen, but an interview supposedly intended to provide clarity was marked only by an embarrassing degree of obfuscation on Brailsford's part.

Perhaps Brailsford was arrogant enough to believe he could make the issue disappear altogether by whisking it behind a veil of management speak. Throughout the interview, Brailsford rarely answered the questions he had been asked – even when the same question was repeated – and ultimately refused to divulge the contents of the mysterious Jiffy Bag.

By then, even long-time Team Sky advocates like David Walsh were calling for Brailsford's resignation, and the Sky manager retreated from the public gaze for the next two months as he prepared to appear before a House of Commons Select Committee hearing convened to establish the contents of the Jiffy Bag. In the week before Christmas – more than two and a half months after the incident was first reported – Brailsford finally intimated that the Jiffy Bag had contained the decongestant Fluimucil.

The explanation barely stood up to initial scrutiny, and its legs wobbled still further when Simon Cope provided his own testimony to the select committee two months later. As Jeremy Whittle put it on Cyclingnews in December: "Was Brailsford really saying that Team Sky flew a drug, currently unlicensed in the UK, potentially unsuited to their star rider, costing a few euros, out to France to be delivered by hand by a British Cycling employee, when it was readily available nearby?"

Even more damning was Daily Mail journalist Matt Lawton's revelation that Brailsford had originally attempted to convince him to kill the story during a two-and-a-half-hour meeting in Cheshire in September.

"He offered me an alternative, 'more positive', story. He asked if a good story on a rival team might be enough to stop me investigating the allegation," Lawton wrote. "And before the meeting ended, he made a final attempt to regain control of a troubling situation. 'If you didn't write the story, is there anything else that could be done?' Brailsford asked me."

And, as Lawton pointed out, Brailsford hadn't once uttered the word "Fluimucil" during their entire meeting.

Dave Brailsford answeres questions at the Team Sky press conference on the Tour's second rest day

Toxic reputation

By the time of Team Sky's pre-season media day in January of this year, Brailsford's reputation had become so toxic that Chris Froome opted to hold his own, separate press call in Monaco the previous week, where he pointedly fell short of endorsing his team manager's position.

Froome had already jetted to Australia by the time Brailsford sat down with the written press in a hotel conference room in Majorca, and most questions on the Jiffy Bag were batted away with variations on a stock phrase: "Let's stick to the process and wait and see what the outcome is."

It was, in many respects, a waste of everybody's time, and Brailsford's attempt to depict the whole controversy as "a Fleet Street matter" was risible. "We can talk about cycling with the people who want to do cycling and then we can talk Fleet Street for the people who want to talk Fleet Street," he said weakly.

The television interviews were scarcely less farcical, as Brailsford again looked to fend off talk of TUEs and Jiffy Bags with a shield of flimsy buzzwords and hand gestures. "It was like watching and hearing a slightly malfunctioning robot," Richard Williams wrote witheringly in the Guardian. It was a fiasco.

Brailsford's annus horribilis continued apace in March. After UK Anti-Doping's Nicole Sapstead told the House of Commons committee that Sky and British Cycling had provided no records whatsoever to demonstrate what was in the Jiffy Bag delivered to Wiggins at the 2011 Dauphiné, Sky released a convoluted statement which blamed the oversight on Freeman's apparent inability to use Dropbox. The team also promised to appoint an independent medical governance officer "in the coming weeks." To date, no such appointment has been announced.

That same week, a Sky rider – who insisted on anonymity – had told Cyclingnews that he and some of his colleagues had discussed asking Brailsford to resign from his post. Rather than respond in person, Brailsford left it to his riders to bat on his behalf. During the winter, after all, they had already been told that the manager's departure would lead to the disbandment of the team.

When 16 Sky riders, led by Geraint Thomas, took to Twitter to declare they were "100 per cent behind Dave B", it was hard to shake off the sense that they had been acting on instruction from above, right down to the wording of the tweet. It felt like a stunt lifted from the Veep school of crisis management.

Froome, on the other hand, seemed to be channelling his inner House of Cards mentality, and he waited almost a week before offering his belated support for Brailsford in a dryly-worded statement. In the intervening period, Thomas was corralled into action as Sky's de facto spokesman during Tirreno-Adriatico, before Brailsford finally agreed to speak to a small group of reporters, including Cyclingnews, on the race. "I'm not hiding," Brailsford insisted in Monterotondo Marittimo, adding that he had no intention of resigning. "My thoughts are about what's good for the team and what's right."

Days later, Josh Edmondson told the BBC that he had injected himself with vitamins and supplements in the summer of 2014, his second and final season with Team Sky. Edmondson's activities were reported to senior management by a teammate, and he never raced for the team again. Such injections would have been a breach of the UCI's no needles policy, and Edmondson said the team had covered up the violation rather than report it, a charge quickly denied by Dr. Steve Peters, Sky's former head of medicine.

Peters told the BBC that Team Sky had not reported the incident to the UCI partly out of concern for Edmondson's mental health. Speaking to Cycling Weekly in January 2015, however, Sky performance director Rod Ellingworth had no hesitation in publicly blaming Edmondson's lack of professionalism, disorganisation and poor communication for his departure from the team. "This isn't a conveyor belt," Ellingworth said.

At the start of the Giro d'Italia in Sardinia, Brailsford refused to discuss the Edmondson affair, and though he remained in Italy for the majority of the race, he appeared only sparingly at stage starts, and almost inevitably with a mobile phone pressed against his ear as though shielding himself from inquiring reporters.

He needn't have bothered. Brailsford had already made it abundantly clear that he was only prepared to discuss the Giro, seemingly failing to recognise that his opinions on race tactics are meaningless to most observers until he engages with the more serious questions regarding his team's stance on doping.

On another occasion during the Giro, Brailsford simply turned and walked off when a journalist asked him to discuss the team's delayed decision to suspend Gianni Moscon for racially insulting Kévin Reza during the Tour de Romandie. At the time, Sky justified keeping Moscon in the race by insisting FDJ had asked them not to remove him. (The team has shown no such willingness, incidentally, to follow the urging of FDJ and others to sign up to the Movement for Credible Cycling's voluntary restrictions on the use of cortisone in competition.)

Brailsford continued in the same vein at the Critérium du Dauphiné. In keeping with his current media strategy, he largely avoided speaking to the press at all. Much like Theresa May during the election campaign, his interactions have been limited and carefully managed. His sole public utterances of note in the weeks leading up to the Tour came in that short interview on Sky Sports News last Friday.

Team Sky principal David Brailsford is at the Giro

The questions are not going away

After a year of shirking his public responsibility as team manager, it will be fascinating to observe if there is any change in Brailsford's policy at the Tour de France. Team Sky holds its pre-race press conference in Düsseldorf on Wednesday evening, and Brailsford surely realises that the questions are not simply going to go away.

Amid the non-answers about the UK Sport and the UK Anti-Doping inquiries last Friday, meanwhile, he made sure to touch upon a familiar topic, namely the frosty reception his Sky team tends to receive in July.

"When we go to the Tour de France every year, ever since we started, it has been a hostile environment for us as a team to go there and win the race, so I expect no difference in that sense," Brailsford said.

Brailsford is not entirely wrong: if Sky go on to dominate this year's Tour as they have done in four of the past five editions, their performances will indeed be greeted with greater suspicion than ever before. And, no matter how much he protests, Brailsford will have nobody to blame but himself.

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