Team Sky’s Biggest Problem

Victoria Pendleton had just become World Sprint Champion for the sixth time. She won the first race against the Lithuanian Simona Krupeckaité but lost the second. She was keeping herself warm on a stationary bike preparing for the decider when the news filtered through that the third contest would not be necessary. Her opponent had been disqualified for deviating from her line in the second leg, so the Rainbow Jersey was Pendleton’s once more.

On hearing the news, she flopped from her bike into the arms of various members of the British Cycling staff offering their congratulations. She turned to Performance Director Dave Brailsford who said ‘Brilliant. Well done’ and embraced Pendleton just before she collapsed to the ground and started sobbing. They were tears of relief and deliverance. Tears from a cyclist who, as the rest of the documentary showed, had not been enjoying herself.

As Pendleton sobbed on the floor, Brailsford immediately turned, gave a flick of his hand as if to say ‘not my problem’, then he walked away and left her. He said ‘Steve?’ as a prompt to the psychiatrist Steve Peters to pick up the pieces, and he didn’t look back.

Those World Championships were in Melbourne in April 2012. Brailsford has since ‘masterminded’ six Tour de France victories with three different riders – Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and now Geraint Thomas. As is usual now with Team Sky, any victory brings with it a hum of suspicion, and rightly so.

We have had Froome and his inexplicable levels of Salbutamol, Wiggins taking triamcinalone before three of the biggest objectives of his road racing career, somebody blowing the whistle on the team because they felt uncomfortable with the contents of a jiffy bag delivered to Wiggins at the 2011 Dauphiné, Brailsford hiring the doping doctor Geert Leinders, hiring Sean Yates despite him having tested positive and despite a zero tolerance policy, the suspicious and as yet unexplained biological passport results of Sergio Henao, testosterone patches being delivered to Team Sky headquarters. Is there more? I’m sure there’s more. It’s hard to keep track of all the controversies.

There are those who would dispute that Team Sky have any questions to answer and anyone banging this particular drum is a ‘hater’. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says in the context of climate change and those that deny its existence – facts are facts whether you believe them or not. All of those issues which cloud Team Sky are just that – they are facts. Arguing with people who deny their existence is a waste of everyone’s time.

Regardless of what you think of Team Sky and all of their various controversies, they’re not the reason why fans don’t like them. Salbutamol, jiffy bags and testosterone patches are not the reason why fans boo them or why some go a step further and display physical hostility toward them.

All of that behaviour isn’t about the ‘line’ and whether Team Sky have crossed it. It’s not about doping at all.

Cycling fans don’t care about doping. We’re supposed to say we do. And we do say we do. But ultimately, we don’t. We’re numb to it. We’ve seen it all before. A rider tests positive? Big deal, what else is new? Astana had so many riders test positive for EPO a few years ago they were forced to self-suspend the entire team according to the rules of the MPCC. Nobody really gave a shit. It was expected. The team is managed by Alexander Vinokourov.

There were plenty of non-Team Sky riders who have taken banned substances and have actually been banned as a result. At the front of this year’s Tour de France were the likes of Alejandro Valverde and Ilnur Zakarin, both of whom have served a ban. I could be wrong, but I didn’t hear any reports of any roadside fans booing them throughout the course of July.

We revere Marco Pantani and we abhor Lance Armstrong. We long for Alberto Contador and we airbrush Michael Rasmussen. We’re inconsistent in our attitudes toward dopers because doping doesn’t color those attitudes. We don’t consider it. We’re so used to taking it for granted that it isn’t how we measure our feelings for cyclists.

Team Sky are robotic, repetitive and unrelenting in their monotonous excellence. Their mission is to kill the race and remove the possibility of any excitement. That’s how they win and they have become very good at it. Eddy Merckx doped, but was that the reason he was punched in the kidneys on the Puy de Dome in 1975? Jacques Anquetil doped, but was that the reason the French public never took him to their hearts the way they did with Raymond Poulidor? Of course not, it was relentless excellence that bored the fans into such reactions.

However, there was a rider who managed to bore us with a foreboding excellence which was even more robotic than Team Sky’s but who never suffered a backlash as a result of his stranglehold on the Tour – Miguel Indurain. To help our comparison, he even got himself in hot water for having more Salbutamol in his body than he was allowed. People liked Indurain, nobody booed him or tried to shove him off the road. This was, as best I can make out, because he was a nice humble man. People just liked him – fans and riders.

Indurain proved it was possible to be boring, to dope, yet be loved.

Both Froome and Thomas also seem like nice, humble men (Wiggins not so much), and yet they are not loved. There is one major reason left that I can think of why this is.

Dave Brailsford.

We may be numb to issues of doping, but we’re not numb to being taken for idiots and being fed bullshit. At least with guys like Vino, there is no pretension, we know he doesn’t give a fuck.

Froome and Thomas are their own men and are both well able to speak to the media. But now that Team Sky have won the Tour de France with three different riders, the lowest common denominator among all the successes is Brailsford. It is his attitude which is most closely associated with the branding of Team Sky and it is his arrogance which leads to the vitriol toward the team. He is the principal, the talking head, the mouth piece, the media presence. And he has inadvertently used his position to turn a large proportion of the sport of cycling against himself and his riders.

Brailsford arrived into professional cycling in 2010 telling the rest of the sport that they had been doing it wrong all this time. He made promises about transparency, stated a zero-tolerance policy and told us that the entire reason for being for Team Sky was “to prove beyond doubt that it can be done clean”.

Since the original bluster and flurry of promises, Brailsford has made a mockery of them on a regular basis. He has said “we would invite anybody to come and spend time with us and scrutinise the team”. Yet when Paul Kimmage wanted to do exactly that, Brailsford asked him to stay away because his presence was upsetting the riders.

The training and power data of all of his riders is the very data that will prove they have nothing to hide, which of course he tells us they don’t. Yet his modus operandi has been to release data in dribs and drabs as and when it suits. That’s not transparency. That’s obfuscation.

He also insinuates that we’d be too stupid to interpret the data anyway, saying in 2015:

[Y]ou’ve got to bear in mind that there are issues like different power-meters, oval rings against round rings. You’ve got to understand all of these things before you start interpreting the numbers that you’ve got. You’ve got to be careful with it, just throwing numbers out there, but equally I think there’s no harm in sharing a few numbers just to give some concrete evidence of where we’re at.

He has lost patience with being asked questions about all this before. During the 2013 Tour de France, Brailsford issued a challenge to the media:

Rather than asking us all the time to come up with some creative way to prove that we’re innocent, why couldn’t you… get yourselves together … and you tell me, what would prove it for you, what could we do?

Get your heads together and come to me and say, well this is what we think we would like in order to prove to you beyond reasonable doubt that we are not doping.

Considering this very issue is the entire reason the team exists (supposedly), it’s a wonder why Brailsford appears at such a loss as to how to address it. It should be his number one priority, every day of his working life.

He loves to tell us that the situation is dynamic, it’s changing, it’s evolving. And that’s why it’s difficult to say anything concrete about anything.

He is asked a specific question. He replies in generalities. He finishes up by saying “and we’ve been very clear on that”, when he clearly has not been clear about it at all.

When a situation calls for answers and clarity, he gives us double speak and word salads. The journalist Lionel Birnie asked him what was in the Jiffy bag, he spoke for nine minutes and didn’t answer the question.

He has developed defensive linguistic mechanisms designed to deflect. A syntactic example is “interesting question… here’s an anecdote… and there’s definitely a debate to be had”, without ever entering into the debate.

He promised a study on altitude natives in the wake of Sergio Henao’s peculiar biological passport data. That was four years ago and we’re still waiting.

He invites questions then when he got them from Barry Ryan at the Tour last year he told Ryan to stick his questions up his arse.

He explicitly insulted the entire population of France by suggesting spitting was a ‘French cultural thing’.

He has suggested a system by which teams could publish power data but is unwilling to adopt it unless all teams do.

He says that Team Sky do things the ‘right way’ despite a parliamentary report telling us they most certainly don’t.

He takes the plaudits for great performances then literally leaves his rider in a ball of tears on the floor – someone else’s problem.

He is the public personification of Team Sky and he has cultivated an image of arrogance for a team who says one thing and does another. Years of Davesplaining, hand gestures and management speak bollocksology has turned cycling fans against him. He is the reason that Team Sky are so unpopular.



  1. Chris Moor - August 3, 2018 @ 10:31 am

    Chris Froome’s Salbutomol levels were not inexplicable.

    Prof Ken Fitch, the expert upon whose work WADA based their thresholds, examined Froome’s results throughout the vuelta and considered that they were entirely credible for someone staying within the daily dosage limits.

    What is inexplicable is that the UCI took Fitch’s work, based upon testing swimmers after an hour in a pool, and decided that 6 hours on a bike, day after day, would produce the same results.

    What is even more inexplicable is that Fitch told the UCI this back in 2007, in the Petachi case. That he had made a ‘terrible blunder’ in failing to consider dehydration, as this barely effects swimmers.

    And therein lies the problem. Selective reporting of the facts that lead people to the conclusions they want to believe. Already the fact that Thomas has never previously made a grand tour top 10 is being cited as proof that he must have doped this time, But a closer examination of his results, his career choices and his crashes and you realise why he was considered a contender. Then when you consider how the other contenders either crashed, were coming off an exhausting giro etc etc and it all becomes credible. We shouldn’t be blind to other possibilities, but it’s all too easy to shout doper when we dont get the result we want.

    Of course there are skeletons in Sky’s cupboard, DB has made plenty of mistakes over the years and like most people he tries to evade questions on them. But Leinders and Yates left 6 years ago, unlike Emilio Magni for example, who remains Nibali’s personal doctor. And as for not letting Kimmage embed himself with the team, well if hes output on twitter is anything to go by, he isn’t exactly open minded

    And its twitter and other social media that are actually Sky’s biggest problem. And there is nothing that they or anyone else can do about it. It the modern world. Why explain an argument is 5000 words when you can slag someone off in 50 ?

    I love cycling for it’s nuance, the tactics, the history, the details. But to many it’s just the result that counts, and if it’s not the result they want, they’ll call foul.

  2. Marty - August 3, 2018 @ 11:49 am

    “Selective reporting of the facts that lead people to the conclusions they want to believe.” (Chris Moor)

    Exactly what the author of this article does when he suggests that some
    people deny the existence of climate change and you can’t argue with them. When in fact nobody denies the existence of climate change, instead, critics of alleged man-made climate change recognise that climate is intrinsically a dynamic system, thus always changes, has changed and will change for as long as it exists.

    So, in my opinion, this article is basically all that: A selective report of the facts that leads the author to the conclusions he wants to believe.

  3. Chris Moor - August 3, 2018 @ 2:40 pm

    Marty – to be fair to Cillian, Ken Fitch’s comments have not been widely reported. The Guardian for example, who leaked the story in the first place, only makes a passing reference to him in one of their many articles on the Froome case, and doesn’t give any details.

    Here is a link to Fitch’s comments (in one of the few sites that did report it)

  4. Irfon Glyn - August 3, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

    “He explicitly insulted the entire population of France by suggesting spitting was a ‘French cultural thing’.”

    To be fair he apologised (the next day I think), criticise yes, but the criticism must be valid.

    Also i’d Give it a tad longer to check whether Thomas is loved or not. He seems pretty popular to me.

  5. Ben - August 3, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

    A very interesting article which I feel explains the various attitudes towards Team Sky, the riders and the management.

    What is more interesting is the straw man defence in the comments. The issue is not whether Sky riders dope, but the hypocrisy displayed by Brailsford.

    Another point but off topic, the word alleged should never be used in the same sentence as the phrase climate change. Otherwise, you have to start refering to the alleged force of gravity which caused apples to fall on Newton’s head.

  6. Ham - August 3, 2018 @ 6:18 pm

    “Their mission is to kill the race and remove the possibility of any excitement”
    What rubbish. Can’t take this article seriously when dumb comments like that are made.

  7. Ted Refusenix - August 3, 2018 @ 10:49 pm

    Nice work. In general I agree. However the reason the TDF, in particular, is boring is not Sky. It is almost always boring. ONCE, Telekom, US Postal iterations… all strangled the race. It’s the most prestigious, therefore the most rubbish Grand Tour. Too important to lose (even a top 10 spot). Contenders become risk averse or beaten into submission by relentless pace of the leading team’s domestiques. Climbers get floored by rouleurs. If you have the dough/dope, put together an all-conquering team. Leave the best domestiques at home for the other GTs… Which is why they’re usually more satisfying to watch, although mountain goat time triallists are raining on that parade, too.
    Happily there is the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix.

  8. Brian Reynolds - August 3, 2018 @ 11:25 pm

    agree there…the TDF is overrated….the most popular race in the world ,draws a lot of drunken tourists to the Alpe etc who have no respect for the riders….Yes it has always been dominated by boring teams…from Indurain, Armstrong, Sky now. for excitement and stage layout, the Giro , and Vuelta are away head. But the Spring classics , have no equal in pro cyclingy are the real deal.

  9. N. Carr - August 4, 2018 @ 12:25 am

    The rabbit hole goes deep than just Brailsford IMO. There has to be people in charge of races, anti-doping and even the UCI looking the other way. I believe sky is doing something illegal and that is why there is no interest in providing real time data, why would they? No mention of motors even though they could explain why so many sky riders still ride strong in the front of the peloton at the end of epic stages in which Froome ususally accelerates leaving natural climbers behind. There are reports of sky’s bikes being heavier than minimum allow by the weight of motors. Unexplainable bike changes mid race are common. What if sky riders are allowed this (pass controls) because they bring revenue from the UK that otherwise would not be significant. Have you consider how much money Armstrong made for race organizers when the millions of more people tuned in to the tour from the US? And now we have three british riders (seemingly coming out of nowhere) winning tours one after the other from the same team! What if cycling is not a sport but a business that prioritizes rides that bring huge audiences? No wonder why Giro organizers tried so hard to have Froome racing in italy. There is more to it that just Brailsford. Brailsford represents only what we see, we need to start considering what we do not see.

  10. Chris - August 4, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

    Hit the nail on the head. Nobody respects a man line vinokurov but we all love his antics, Brailsford is respected similarly but in nowhere near as entertaining.

  11. Neville JAMES - August 4, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    I don’t think this article explains anything about racing, the TdF or Team Sky. It seems to me to be a character assassination of Brailsford.
    There are parallels here with football (and probably other sports too which I don’t follow) but once a team or a club gets “super funding” to the point of repeated success everyone else gets jealous and looks for darker explanations.
    Jiffy bags need to be explained, but the sort of actions seen against Froome, pushing, spitting, booing, are nothing to do with “sporting” behaviour, and if anyone is to blame it’s almost certainly not the rider himself.
    Thomas seems like a decent guy, and I no reason the think that Froome is any different.
    Brailsford (Mourinho ??) well, someone has to be in charge.

  12. Nick - August 4, 2018 @ 5:34 pm

    Nice rule of thumb is to remember that ‘clear’ also means ‘blank’, whenever a politician (which Brailsford definitely is) claims they’ve been clear about something.

    “We’ve been perfectly blank about X”.

  13. James Gallagher - August 5, 2018 @ 1:00 am

    OMG, how stupidly biased is this article, for example the line “Brailsford arrived into professional cycling in 2010 telling the rest of the sport that they had been doing it wrong all this time.” is completely ignoring that he managed the GB Cycling Team to dominate Olympic Track Cycling at Bejing in 2008, hey, maybe mention that little fact before launching your shitting on him “arguments”

    Wow, you hate Team Sky – but how about you argue why you hate them in an adult manner and not akin to the spectators spitting and punching you dickhead?

  14. Matt - August 5, 2018 @ 11:45 am

    This is a grubby little collection of inuendos fuelled by a personal dislike isn’t it?

    The premise may be correct (Brailsford HAS become the weak link) but this is the sort of modern day conspiracy theory writing that undermines really investigating rather than hoping that mud sticks.

  15. Dennis - August 6, 2018 @ 3:46 am

    This is precisely the reason I don’t like team sky even though most of the riders seem likable and Chris Froome races much more dynamically these days.

  16. Alan Dowey - August 7, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

    Team Sky’s biggest problem? Lies like those printed in this article.

  17. Mikael Aagaard - September 12, 2018 @ 9:51 am

    Spot on!
    For another exellant evaluation om Sky/Brailsford, you could listen to The cycling Podcast from dec. 8. 2017 “Lunch with Brian Holm”. It is near the end where Brian gets the question, and the answer comes in his usual no bs-way.

  18. Bryin Sills - October 10, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

    The reason that Contador, Indurain and Valverde are loved and Armstrong, Froome and Thomas are not, is a very simple one. It has nothing to do with Brailsford, although he is the very definition of scum bag.

    The UCI was (and is) complicit in covering up the doping (both legal and non-legal) of Armstrong, Froome and Thomas.

    It was clear from Armstrong’s very first TdF win that the UCI was quite willing to bend and break rules for him. He tested positive for steroids in that first win and was let off. This was long before any TUE program and there was no precedent for such and action. But Armstrong winning was worth BILLIONS. Tyler Hamilton has made the claim that Armstrong was let off on a doping positive by the UCI. Then there is Armstrong’s donation to the UCI…. And like they say “money talks and BS takes the bus”.

    (also many UCI figures including Venbrugen had brokerage accounts with Thom Weisel’s firm… Wesiel was primary financial backer of the Postal Team. It is easy to see the connections and how the money flowed. This was discussed in the book “Wheelman”. )

    Thus it is with Froome and Thomas, both English speaking, white men. English speaking white men winning is worth so much more than non-English speaking brown people winning because the countries that produce white, English speaking winners have more money to spend. It is that simple.

    I have no doubt that Froome COULD have won the 2018 TdF but after the negative reaction of the fans at the TdF, Sky was told they needed to find another winner. I am equally sure the UCI allowed Thomas a slew of TUEs to ensure the victory.

    Pinalrello is owned by LMVH and L Catteron which is a private equity group associated with LMVH. Marc Magliacano is managing partner at L Catteron , he formerly worked at Nations Banc which bought Mr. Weisel’s firm. Mr. Magliancano and Mr. Weisel have worked together before.

    There is little doubt that the TdF is bought and paid for… and since Sky has the most money, they can pay the highest price.

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