Team Sky's zero tolerance policy was a total joke, says former rider

during stage 10 of the 2017 Le Tour de France, a 178km stage from Périgueux to Bergerac on July 11, 2017 in Perigueux, France.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Former Team Sky rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke has told Cyclingnews that Dave Brailsford's and Team Sky's premise and implementation of a zero tolerance policy towards working with previous dopers were "bullshit" and a "total joke".

The allegations come just days after Dr Richard Freeman, one of the team’s former doctors, was found guilty by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) of purchasing the banned substance testosterone 'knowing or believing' it was to be given to a rider in 2011.

Tiernan-Locke rode for the British WorldTour team in 2013 but was later suspended for two years for a biological passport violation. He maintains his innocence but never returned to the elite level of the sport again.  

He has followed developments over the last week as Freeman was found to have lied several times in an attempt to cover up the truth surrounding the purchase of the performance-enhancing drug.

In 2016, Tiernan-Locke told the media that Freeman had offered him the controversial and now-banned painkiller Tramadol at the 2013 World Championships. The drug was legal then and Team Sky have publicly admitted to using it before anti-doping bodies added the substance to their banned list. After Tiernan-Locke made the allegation in 2016, British Cycling told Cyclingnews that the doctor in question denied the allegation but they wouldn’t confirm if it was Freeman.

Last Friday, more allegations surfaced surrounding Shane Sutton, a former coach at both British Cycling and Team Sky, who, according to the Mail on Sunday, brought forward concerns surrounding Chris Froome’s power heart rate data in late 2012, during a period when Team Sky began to implement their zero tolerance policies. The scheme was brought into place as a reaction to the USADA report that banned Lance Armstrong and several others for life. Michael Barry, a rider on Team Sky at the time, retired, while Sean Yates, Steven De Jongh, and Bobby Julich all left, with the latter two admitting to doping during their careers.

Tiernan-Locke came to the team just as the policy was being brought into place and was interviewed about his knowledge of doping as part of the team’s procedures.

"I just remember that there was this massive rhetoric around this new anti-doping stance that the team had coming into 2013,” he told Cyclingnews.

"There was a no-needle policy but any connections to any past doping stories, they were just shitting themselves. A lot of that came from Sky and the owners. They had to distance themselves from several people but they kept Sutton on and he’s hardly got a clean past."

Sutton has always strenuously denied doping allegations relating to his time as a rider in the 1980s and early 1990s and was never found to have committed any doping offences. He has refused to answer any questions when contacted by Cyclingnews since the Freeman verdict was reached.

According to Tiernan-Locke, the riders on Team Sky were well aware that the zero tolerance policy was hypocritical and flawed, not least because of the questions that hung over some of the riders and staff that remained after the public relations-geared clear-out.

The former rider pointed to current directeur sportif Servais Knaven as a prime example.

Knaven has always denied doping but he – alongside De Jongh – were members of the Dutch TVM team in 1998, the year in which a team car was found to have contained 104 vials of erythropoietin (EPO) on its way back from the Tour of Murcia in Spain. In the same year, the Festina scandal broke at the Tour de France and Knaven, along with his TVM teammates, left the race under a cloud of suspicion.

In 2015 the Mail on Sunday claimed to have had access to the court documents from 2001, in which the French court accepted that a number of riders had doped. Three members of the team’s management, who were on trial, were found guilty of organizing a systematic doping programme.

Team Sky stood by Knaven (opens in new tab)at the time but Tiernan-Locke has told Cyclingnews that riders within the camp saw double standards and flaws with the selectiveness of the team’s approach.

"You don’t talk about it at the dinner table but it’s stuff that you talk about with your teammates when you’re rooming with. You just say that it’s a total fucking joke.

"Someone like Knaven who was winning Roubaix, he’s a decent guy and a good DS but he was part of that generation. You almost feel sorry for the guys who lost their jobs rather than the others. Everyone is gas-lighting everyone else in these meetings and they’re all saying ‘nope, definitely never doped’, and then the management are saying that’s fine and sending them on their way.

"The riders definitely thought it was a joke. I won’t name names as some of them are still working in the sport but quite a few, some of whom were coming to the end of their careers, and younger ones as well. That’s the thing, I don’t think any of us saw the value in turfing people out of the sport if they were honest."

An offer of Tramadol

Tiernan-Locke never had reason to suspect doping took place within Team Sky but in 2016 he claimed that Freeman offered him the controversial painkiller Tramadol during the World Championships in 2013 while both individuals were part of the Great Britain set-up.

British Cycling would not name the doctor in question in 2016 but did state that the doctor denied the allegation. Tramadol was only recently banned but Tiernan-Locke felt that the team’s and British Cycling’s stance on using the drug was at odds with the perception they wished to create in the public and certainly different to the one that they fostered with the majority of the British press who towed the line.

"A lot of this rings true and it pisses me off," he said when asked about reputational damage that has been inflicted on Team Sky and British Cycling in recent times.

"This isn’t really about my own case or me having an axe to grind. I got no help whatsoever but at the same time there was all this shady shit going on and these guys get knighthoods."

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on behalf of Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome in relation to Tiernan-Locke’s comment but, according to the former rider, Team Sky were concerned on the one hand with the perception of running a clean team and hiring doctors with no past ties to cycling, but then recruited the controversial Geert Leinders on the other.

The former Rabobank doctor worked for the team between 2010 and 2012 but was also banned as part of the USADA report. The team would never publicly say why Dr Leinders (opens in new tab) wasn’t kept on before his ban was made official.

Tiernan-Locke felt that there were two levels of medical care within the team.

"You’d see this stuff come out in the press about how they were whiter than white and they had that famous meeting in the hotel when they’d call you into a hotel room and they’d ask you if you’d had any involvement in doping. I can’t remember how it was phrased but it was bullshit. A few guys left, like Bobby Julich, but just a few months earlier at the Worlds they were just handing out Tramadol like sweets.

"My take was that they went to great lengths so they had a doctor called Alan Farrell there. Nice guy. He was a bit wet behind the ears and naïve. He didn’t know cycling and wasn’t one of the Geert Leinders of this world but he was naïve to it all.

And Tiernan-Locke claims: "In my mind he was put there as a bit of a front so they could say that they had a guy with no history of cycling and that they were clean. Freeman, especially the neo-pros, they didn’t have much to do with him. He was occasionally at races but he was mainly with Bradley Wiggins. We had Allan and another guy called Richard Usher. They were the two doctors that came on the racing programme that I was on and Freeman was very much someone I didn’t really deal with.

"It does make me think that there were two speeds within that team. You would have had the guys doing the Tour and then what you see with the Testogel and what was ordered but I didn’t see anything."

The ex-rider says he has no malice towards Team Sky over how he was treated and especially how his UCI biological case was leaked but he hopes that the truth will come out as pressure mounts on Dave Brailsford to answer questions over his role and knowledge when it came to one of his leading medical staff members purchasing banned drugs.

"All the TUE stuff, Brad and Chris have had their names dragged through the mud with their scandals, if that’s what you call them, but it’s interesting because they wanted to be so whiter than white," he said. 

"My case popped up and it’s fucking obvious that he [Dave Brailsford] leaked it to [journalist] David Walsh. They were sat at the dinner table together few weeks later as thick as thieves. I still don’t know what the agenda was there. Only a few people knew. Me, my agent Andrew Mcquaid and the UCI. The only other person I told was Dave. I phoned him the day I found out."

Cyclingnews contacted Brailsford but he did not respond by the time of publication.

"They’ll say I’m just disgruntled because of my own case but there’s been so much water under the bridge. My honest opinion is that I couldn’t give a fuck but it’s interesting seeing all of this come out," Tiernan Locke added. 

"These guys were holier than thou for so long and held up as shining examples and getting knighted and now these things are coming out. I’d like to think that there’s more to come - not to grind an axe, but just because the truth should come out."

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Daniel Benson

Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at 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.