The Sound of Silence: Brailsford, Sky and the questions still to be answered

A look at the questions facing Team Sky

On Sunday morning, Bradley Wiggins finally broke his silence on his use of the powerful corticosteroid triamcinolone acetonide in an interview with BBC political journalist Andrew Marr. The short, pre-recorded piece shed little new light on the matter. Marr asked a series of superficial questions, received a series of superficial answers and swiftly retreated to more comfortable ground by asking Wiggins for his take on Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour party.

Given that he wrongly insisted that there was "nothing new here" when the Fancy Bears hackers leaked the information in the first place, the spokesman from the WIGGINS team may well now claim that, simply by making this brief appearance on Britain's public service broadcaster, Wiggins has satisfactorily clarified why he needed such a potent drug to treat as banal a condition as a pollen allergy.

That is patently not the case. Wiggins has many other, more rigorous questions to answer from interviewers who are more familiar with the issues than Marr, but he is also not the only man with a lot of explaining to do. Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford has yet to speak at all on the matter and, one brief statement on the day of the Fancy Bears leak aside, Team Sky has now been in radio silence for over ten days. This, let us remind ourselves, is (and it is increasingly easy to forget) the team that placed such stock on its commitment to transparency on its foundation in 2010.

Brailsford's lone appearance in the British press at the weekend came indirectly, by way of an anecdote reported by David Walsh in the Sunday Times. Walsh, who spent part of 2013 aboard the Sky bus, seemed to throw Wiggins underneath it in his piece, and though he acknowledged that Brailsford, too, "has questions to answer," the Sky manager was depicted in a flattering light in the opening paragraphs of the article.

According to Walsh, when Sky and Astana's Tour teams were training on Mount Teide in May, one of Sky's soigneurs learned from a counterpart at Astana that anti-doping testers were due to arrive two days later. The Astana soigneur had apparently been tipped off by a staff member at the Parador Hotel.

In Walsh's telling, Brailsford response was to inform UK Anti-Doping "but on a confidential basis. He did not want the UK authorities to inform the UCI until he found out if Astana was right." When the testers showed up on the given day, Brailsford asked UKAD to alert the UCI. Walsh himself had been informed as "an independent third party."

The subtext of the story is clear. While their rivals accept any loopholes that happens to fall into their laps, Brailsford and Sky's sense of fair play is such that they go above and beyond the call of duty in obeying the rules of the game.

Only Brailsford and Sky can say if that truly is the case, but for the past ten days or so, they haven’t been saying anything at all, and on that score, their acceptance of scrutiny lags far behind many of their rivals – even the pantomime villains at Astana.

Two years ago, after all, when a spate of positive tests among its Kazakhstani riders put Astana on the brink of losing its WorldTour licence, the squad made at least some efforts to engage with questions from the media. Alexandre Vinokourov's responses to Cyclingnews (and others) that October may not always have been particularly satisfactory, and the Astana press office was certainly far from happy with a line of questioning that focused on Vinokourov's own doping past, but there was an acceptance that the team had a duty to state its case in public.

Other teams in similar situations have also outstripped Sky's commitment to transparency. The Fancy Bears’ hack revealed that Fabian Cancellara required two TUEs for methylprednisolone, in 2011 and 2013. Within hours, Trek-Segafredo issued a statement confirming that the leaked information was true, and provided photographs to illustrate its argument that Cancellara had received the injections to treat bee stings.

In January 2012, when an ARD documentary reported that Marcel Kittel had received black lighted blood treatment as a teenager, before the practice was banned, his then 1T4i team (now Giant-Alpecin) swiftly verified the story. Within 24 hours, Kittel had carried out a round of telephone interviews in English and German to explain his actions.

Sky and Brailsford, by contrast, have chosen silence over transparency, and not for the first time. Questions have been asked in the past, for instance, regarding the internal investigation into the hiring of Geert Leinders, or the curious departures of Sean Yates and Michael Rogers in 2012. Answers were slow in coming. Sometimes they didn’t materialise at all.

Last week, Cyclingnews offered Team Sky the chance to make its case in full in a podcast interview. The team declined.

After the 2015 Tour de France, where Chris Froome claimed victory against a backdrop of tension and doubt, Cyclingnews expressed dismay at Sky's tendency to control the message rather than encourage questions from the press.

"In trumpeting Sky's transparency in 2013, Brailsford claimed that he and his team 'welcomed the questions'. As this year's Tour demonstrated, they sometimes have a funny way of showing it," we wrote then.

Nothing, it seems, has changed in the intervening period.  

Some of the questions Brailsford and Team Sky have yet to answer

  • For a decade or more, triamcinolone acetonide injections have been viewed by medical professionals as a last resort for treating hay fever, with the NHS recommending against its use for that purpose in Britain. How did Team Sky arrive at the decision to use this particular product?
  • Who first suggested using triamcinolone acetonide to treat Wiggins' problems? Was the now banned doctor Geert Leinders involved in any way in the discussions?
  • Beyond Richard Freeman, how many members of Team Sky's medical staff and management were aware of the decision to use triamcinolone acetonide?
  • What was Dave Brailsford's precise role in the decision to apply for the TUEs for Wiggins? Is his role as Team Sky manager still tenable given his previous commitment to stringent anti-doping policies?
  • David Millar described Kenacort as the most potent drug he had ever used. Corticosteroids have been abused as a doping product for decades in the professional peloton. Did nobody at Team Sky think that applying for a triamcinolone acetonide TUE was morally wrong given its performance-enhancing properties?
  • Triamcinolone acetonide has dangerous side effects in the medium to long term, including bone thinning. Did any member of Team Sky's medical staff voice objection to the use of this product on these grounds? Did the team consider the longer term impact on Wiggins' health when administering such a powerful injection on three occasions?
  • Was there a culture within Team Sky to use TUE certificates to find a legal performance benefit while using a drug for medical reasons?
  • As far back as 2014, we have heard conflicting versions of Sky's policy on TUEs, with Dr. Steve Peters telling David Walsh that the team did not avail itself of TUEs in competition, while Dr. Alan Farrell said he was aware of no such policy. Does Sky have a policy on TUEs and has that changed at any point since the team was founded in 2010?
  • Wiggins used triamcinolone acetonide ahead of Grand Tours in 2011, 2012 and 2013, citing allergies, but did not avail of a TUE for pollen season in 2014, by which time he was no longer racing in Grand Tours. Why was this?
  • Wiggins also did not use triamcinolone acetonide in 2010, Team Sky's first season. Did Team Sky make a conscious decision to relax its policy regarding the use of corticosteroids after its disappointing showing in that year's Tour de France?
  • Why has Team Sky never signed up to the Movement for Credible Cycling?
  • Team Sky has placed great store on its zero tolerance policy. Was it not hypocritical to fire staff members Bobby Julich and Steven de Jongh in 2012 for doping during their racing careers, while tolerating the use of corticosteroids on the team?
  • Team Sky set out in 2010 with the intention of having a clean British rider win the Tour de France within five years. In light of the information revealed by the Fancy Bears hack, can Wiggins be viewed as that clean British Tour de France winner?

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