Dave Brailsford’s pursuit of Utopia for Team Sky

It’s January 2010 and at London's Millbank Tower the inaugural ensemble from Team Sky limbers onto the stage for their team’s presentation. The show is slick, it’s professional, and as the script is followed effortlessly it’s even exciting. During the event the team talks about their zero tolerance policy towards doping and if team presentations were motion pictures this could win an award or two.

However if this were a movie there would be a problem. Certain members of the cast have been miss-cast.

Fast forward to Wednesday evening and Team Sky have coincidently picked the Covent Garden Hotel to talk to the media again about their zero tolerance to doping. The venue is regularly used for movie screenings and as Dave Brailsford passes through the lobby, Ben Afleck, John Goodman and Ralph Fiennes swan through too.

It’s a perfect venue to re-visit Team Sky’s script and announce a potential new cast.

Brailsford has invited the press to hear his proposed script. In essence it’s the same one as before – zero tolerance to doping - but this time he’s potentially planning on changing the characters, ushering out those that have let him down and bringing in new people he can trust.

The selected journalists gather around a boardroom table and listen to Brailsford’s introduction as he sets the scene.

Scene one

The team has already begun a process of screening, asking all riders and staff to sit down for individual interviews with Brailsford and psychologist Steve Peters. These aren’t interrogations; instead each rider will be invited to discuss their careers and any suspect roles they may have played in the past.

"The shadows of the past are impacting upon us, maybe more than we were expecting," Brailsford says. “We tried to have a [zero-tolerance] policy and we are not going to change that. It has proved very challenging to implement. It's back to basics; we are looking at it all again."

Brailsford isn’t as naïve as he sometimes presents himself. He played a key part in David Millar’s rehabilitation and during the process he asked the then Cofidis rider to confess everything to him. He may not have the experience of running a team for a decade – perhaps a blessing in itself – but he is no fool.

Both he and Peters are bound to question certain people more than others as they try to find the skeletons in Team Sky’s closet. Michael Rogers has admitted to working with Dr. Michele Ferrari, while Dario Cioni their current press office, Bobby Julich, Sean Yates, Steven De Jongh, Servais Knaven and Shane Sutton could all face difficult questions and even more difficult choices. Brailsford is keen to stress that there is no set timescale, interviews will be ongoing.

The catalyst for all of this has been the public demise of Lance Armstrong’s legacy. If the American’s greed hadn’t persuaded him to return to the sport, Team Sky’s original script that included Michael Barry, might have remained intact.

“We’ve got a big issue in the sport at the moment and that goes without saying and certainly for me it’s Lance Armstrong problem’s as such. There’s the past, the present and the future and this certainly is more of a problem that has its roots in the present,” Brailsford says.

“This is a difficult time and a challenging time but I still very much believe in what we can do and what we have done but one of the things that’s come up is our stance and where we are.”

No question marks

Brailsford is attempting to build a team with no doubts, no recriminating history and no question marks.

It’s been put to Brailsford that his search for an untainted cast has put his staff in a lose-lose situation: tell the truth and you could be fired; lie and if you’re found out at a later date you’ll be fired too. Does Team Sky’s search for unadulterated past go full circle to the point where it some hoe perpetuates omerta?

And is a team with no connections to cycling’s past even possible?

Brailsford rightly points to the fact that he was laughed at when he declared Team Sky would win a Tour within five years. He is sticking to his zero-tolerance principal.

Yet Garmin-Sharp has taken a different approach to ex-dopers. Jonathan Vaughters’ riders were incriminated to a far greater degree in USADA’s pile of evidence but they appear to be doing the right thing because they’ve co-operated with authorities and are working to build a cleaner future. With Vaughters’ own doping past it was perhaps in the team’s DNA to be so pragmatic. Brailsford has taken a different and far greater challenge on board.

“When I created this team, one of the first things I had to decide was if David Millar come to the team,” Brailsford says.

“He’s a good friend of mine, and I really agonised over that at the time. With this clean sheet of paper I had to make a really tough decision and say ‘Actually Dave, we’re going to try and have a clean policy’. Now, I’m not going to change that policy. My belief going forward is to have clean team with the same policy, albeit it has proved to be very challenging to implement.”

"I'm not saying people can't be rehabilitated, but this was our stance when we started and I want to see it through. I'd like to have a team of people like that. It is a challenge. If our performances go backwards, if they go back to square one, I can accept that."

“Where does that leave us in a whistle blowing environment? I get that and I’m trying to promote that in the team and in cycling. But when you do it you just don’t walk away with no consequences.”

How did Sky arrive at this point?

Some of the decision he made to hire riders and staff with dubious links to the past must be causing Brailsford sleepless nights. Add into that the Geert Leinders fiasco and Team Sky’s ideals for zero-tolerance become all the more questionable.

Did Leinders pass every test to get the job or did Team Sky relax their approach to give him the job? Did anyone ever stop and reflect on Sean Yates’ close relationship with Lance Armstrong? Did nobody remind Brailsford of the teams Michael Barry rode for?

“I’m not going to lie. I think there certain elements that we could have done better,” Brailsford says regarding the team’s hiring process.

“Am I worried about the fact people have lied to me? I’m a trusting person but equally in light of what we know now, that’s why I want to sit down and have those discussions again.”

No more lies

Yet what we know now is no different to what we knew at the 2010 team presentation. For example Steven De Jongh was part of the TVM team arrested and detained during the 1998 Tour.

In Brailsford’s favour is the realism that professional cycling is changing. USADA has opened a floodgate and hopefully the sport can now cope with a flood of truth.

“If people want to lie they’ll lie. I want to encourage people that now is probably the time to come forward. Someone who is sitting there and keeps on lying they have to realise that the likelihood of that coming out is way greater than it’s ever been. I think the truth will come out, across the board,” Brailsford says.

“They’d have to leave the team but I’d make sure we looked after them. Be that financially… I’m not going to kick them out the door. They’ll have to realise that for team Sky this relationship is over.”

“I’ll see the process through for as long as it takes. Everyone knows when they come to work with us what our stance is it’s abundantly clear.”

Team Sky has already made strives forward towards the future. The signings of Joe Dombrowski and Ian Boswell bode for a team with long term ambitions.

“I feel such a responsibility for Mrs Dombrowski who just sent Joe from America to come over here and I wouldn’t blame her at all if my phone rings and she says I want some reassurances for my son, tell me who you can guarantee me about my son’s future and that’s a big responsibility to have,” Brailsford says.

When talking about racing and young riders it’s evident that the British team manager is passionate about cycling He seems like a old school American football coach: The sport, the people the numbers, he immerses himself in passion for winning. It’s a constant juggling act that he loves.

In the coming days and weeks the cycling world will watch as Brailsford and Peter re-asses the Team Sky cast and ask each member to sign an anti-doping declaration. The signing also represents somewhat of a public relations strategy but if Brailsford can show everyone how he’s arrived at his new cast then perhaps his utopia can become reality.


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Daniel Benson

Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at Cyclingnews.com between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.