August 3, 2018 by Irish Peloton
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.
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.