Doping report may be damning for Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky
Inquiry questions cyclist’s use of powerful corticosteroid prior to Tour de France
British cyclist Bradley Wiggins celebrating his win in the Tour de France in 2012. Photograph: Pascal Pavani/AFP/Getty Images)
Almost six years after Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, question marks now hang over the legacy of the first British winner of the race – and over the future of Team Sky. On Monday the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published the outcome of an inquiry into Wiggins’s use of a powerful corticosteroid and the delivery of a mystery package to him in the build-up to the 2011 Tour.
Wiggins’s use of the substance Triamcinolone became known when Russian hackers Fancy Bears leaked details in September 2016. That leak revealed that he had received a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) to use the otherwise-banned substance prior to the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France and the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
According to the report, which drew on the testimony of Team Sky employees and others, plus the submissions of whistleblowers, Wiggins’s use of the corticosteroid prior to the Tour de France “was not to treat medical need, but to improve his power to weight ratio ahead of the race”.
The substance causes the body to burn up excess fat and also provides a performance boost.
Furthermore, the committee concluded that the 2012 Tour de France winner “may have been treated with triamcinolone on up to nine occasions, in and out of competition, during a four-year period”.
Following the September 2016 leak, Wiggins claimed he had done nothing wrong. He stated that he was given a green light to use Triamcinolone due to persistent and severe asthma. However, as known dopers had used the substance in the past by falsely securing a TUE, and because Lance Armstrong had also used Triamcinolone in 1999, the news aroused suspicion.
This was further heightened when the Daily Mail reported that, in June 2011, a mystery package had been transported from Britain via Switzerland to France by the British Cycling employee Simon Cope. The contents of this package had been administered to Wiggins by the then team doctor Richard Freeman.
In the conclusions released on Monday, the investigating committee said that a lack of medical records made it impossible to verify the claims of Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford that the package had contained the legal decongestant Fluimicil, and not Triamcinolone, which had been rumoured.
Freeman had failed to upload the files to the team medical staff’s shared dropbox, as required. He later claimed that his laptop was stolen while on holiday in Greece. He declined to appear before the committee, citing ill-health.
Like Wiggins, Team Sky was criticised by the report. The committee said that it spoke to what it termed “a well-placed and respected source” about the medicines policy at Team Sky during the period of time relating to Wiggins’s TUE certificates.
According to the report, it said the information received said that “Bradley Wiggins and a smaller group of riders trained separately from the rest of the team. The source said they were all using corticosteroids out of competition to lean down in preparation for the major races that season. This same source also states that Bradley Wiggins was using these drugs beyond the requirement for any TUE.”
Responding to the findings via Twitter, Wiggins said that the claims were untrue.
“I find it so sad that accusations can be made, where people can be accused of things they have never done which are then regarded as facts,” he wrote. “I strongly refute the claim that any drug was used without medical need. I hope to have my say in the next few days & put my side across.”
As for Team Sky, it admitted errors were made, specifically with regards to its keeping of medical records, but rejected the other criticisms. “The report . . . makes the serious claim that medication has been used by the team to enhance performance. We strongly refute this,” it said in a statement.
“The report also includes an allegation of widespread Triamcinolone use by Team Sky riders ahead of the 2012 Tour de France,” it continued. “Again, we strongly refute this allegation. We are surprised and disappointed that the committee has chosen to present an anonymous and potentially malicious claim in this way, without presenting any evidence or giving us an opportunity to respond. This is unfair both to the team and to the riders in question.”
However, the rejection of the finding by Wiggins and Team Sky is unlikely to be the last word on the subject. Last year the Sunday Times revealed that the banned substance testosterone had been delivered to the Team Sky and British Cycling headquarters in Manchester. The team claimed this was due to a supplier’s error, but last week the Daily Mail said that Britain’s General Medical Council (GMC) may have evidence to the contrary.
Speaking to The Irish Times, Daily Mail journalist Matt Lawton elaborated on this. “I have certainly heard from sources that have spoken to the GMC that they have evidence that the package of testosterone patches was actually ordered from the National Cycling Centre,” he said.
“If that is the case, they have got a big problem. Twelve months ago, Dr Steve Peters told [journalist] David Walsh that they were sent in error, based on what Richard Freeman had told him. But if there is another document which shows it was ordered, then I think they have got a big problem.”
Yet another possible threat to the team would be if the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), UK Anti-Doping or cycling’s governing body the UCI decided to dig into the select committee’s findings. While Triamcinolone is permitted with a TUE, if it is shown that a TUE was secured through false pretences – thus gaming the system to receive a performance benefit – it could violate the WADA code.
A third topic of stress for the beleaguered Brailsford is Chris Froome’s adverse analytical finding arising from last year’s Vuelta a España. Days before he won the overall classification, the Team Sky rider provided a sample which contained twice the permitted level of the asthma medication salbutamol.
The UCI’s anti-doping wing is yet to make a final ruling on the matter. However, Froome’s case, Wiggins’s corticosteroid use, plus the ongoing testosterone investigation all ramp up the pressure on Brailsford and on the team itself.