By Shane Stokes in Manchester
Two days after a lengthy article highlighting the anti-doping push within British Cycling appeared in The Times newspaper, performance director Dave Brailsford found himself in the unenviable position of defending one of his riders after Rob Hayles was excluded from the world championships.
Early in the day it was announced that Hayles and Dutchman Pim Ligthart had both returned blood values above the permitted levels, with Hayles reportedly clocking in with a hematocrit of 50.3%. Ligthart’s reticulocyte reading was outside the expected range. As per UCI rules, both were immediately suspended for two weeks and will undergo further testing to determine the reason for their readings.
British Cycling issued a press release soon afterwards giving its reaction. Quoted there, Brailsford said "this morning's screening has shown an anomaly that warrants further investigation and we are working with the UCI to resolve this matter. Meanwhile we continue to be focussed on delivering the best results during the World Track Championships."
He later spoke to a number of journalists and expanded upon this, stating that for now he trusted that Hayles had not done anything wrong.
"I am astonished, I am disappointed for Rob and frustrated for the team. But at the end of the day, I think the truth will prevail as always, so I welcome that," he stated. "I think the screening system is a great thing. I think that we should be subject to it. I think that other nations should be subject to it.
"It is not the first time that this has happened to several riders, and you tend to find that their subsequent tests which are then verified by the UCI come back and say 'okay, everything is fine.' As far as I am concerned, I have known Rob a long time and there has never been any doubt in my mind that he is anything but a fantastic athlete."
Asked straight out by a journalist if Hayles takes drugs, Brailsford answered, "No."
Once he heard the news, he said that he approached the rider to ascertain what happened. "I spoke to Rob," he told Cyclingnews. "I looked him in the eyes and asked him straight up. He is absolutely devastated, he is in bits, as you would expect. But there is a process to go through and I have confidence in that process. I am sure in a few days time we will all be sitting there saying, 'okay, this has been resolved.'
Brailsford told the AFP that Hayles has always had "relatively high" natural hematocrit levels and he sympathized with Hayles' situation. "It's harsh, when you have to phone home and tell the missus what's happened – that's a hard phone call to make."
"Whilst it is not anything that we would wish to have happen, the systems are there to make sure that everything is kept above board. I am 100% behind it," said Brailsford to Cyclingnews.
Team-mate Bradley Wiggins also backed Hayles, expressing surprise. "It is a huge shock to everyone," he told journalists after he won the individual pursuit late on Wednesday. "We found out earlier. It's a shock to him most of all, he is absolutely gutted. Unfortunately under these circumstances people just assume the worst-case scenario it is one of those things.
"Rob is one of the longest-serving riders on this programme and one of the cleanest guys around. It is just a huge shame that it happens to someone like him. But he has a great family around him and I am sure he will be back."
Brailsford stated that British Cycling has a long series of hematological tests on its riders and that there was nothing to ever suggest that something was amiss. Until the results of follow-up tests are known, however, there will be a question mark over Hayles and a degree of extra pressure on the team.
"We will get on with the racing," Brailsford stated, playing down any suggestions that this will distract the riders from the task at hand. "I think this is an issue for Rob, this is an issue for me to deal with and this is an issue for the back room to deal with. But in terms of racing, this won't have any effect whatsoever on the team."