Paul Kimmage: So many questions not asked, so many questions remain unanswered
Published 25/09/2016 | 17:00
Farrell hadn't been anything more than a spectator during the doping era. Pro cycling represented a new beginning for him. And in his own quiet way he represented part of a new beginning for cycling. What team operating a doping programme would turn over the medical duties on the Tour de France to a bright young idealist who had been just over six weeks in the job?
David Walsh, 'Inside Team Sky'
On a late summer's evening in July 2012, I sat on a terrace with David Walsh talking about the remarkable Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, his remarkable cycling team. The Tour de France was winding towards Paris and the 32-year-old Englishman was about to become the first Briton in history to win the race.
It was a massive story for The Sunday Times that brought the usual questions: Was he clean? Could we believe him? But we weren't going to be asking them: me, because I had lost my job at the paper and been out of work for seven months. Him, because there was no appetite for those questions at the paper any more and he didn't want to join me.
So we sat there, moaning, and wondering what had befallen us. Yesterday's Danish. Two beaten dockets.
Two months later, the United States Anti-Doping Agency published its "reasoned decision" against Lance Armstrong and for David, everything would change. He was 'Journalist of the Year', wrote a best-selling book ('Seven Deadly Sins') that would soon become a movie, and was now a prize asset at The Sunday Times.
Hail the Kingslayer.
But celebrity has been the poison of many a man and it wasn't long before it was afflicting his judgment.
In February 2013, six months after he had opted out of covering Sky at the Tour, Walsh followed the team to their training base in Majorca and penned a feature with the headline: 'No Hiding Place: The battle for the credibility of cycling brings an extraordinary offer from the head of Team Sky, Dave Brailsford.'
The offer had come a couple of months before in Manchester:
Brailsford: "You join the team any time you like, for as long as you like. You live in the hotel, eat with us, attend our meetings. Everything. Access to all areas and that doesn't mean you see what we want to show you. You want to go to a doctor's bedroom and see what he is carrying with him, you knock on the door. He won't have a problem."
Walsh: "The riders?"
Brailsford: "You speak to who you want, when you want, but try not to piss them off. That's my only issue. Link up with the team any time you like; when we're on a training camp, when we're at a race, we'll find a room. If we're short of a room, our doctor says you can share with him, and we will carry on doing exactly what we'd normally do. Who you want to talk to, that's entirely up to you."
Walsh: "Why are you offering this?"
Brailsford: "Because we don't have anything to hide and we want people to see that."
Did Walsh know the 'extraordinary' offer had actually been made to a journalist (me) before?
Yes he did.
Was he aware that Brailsford had reneged on his word and turned the journalist over?
Yes he was.
Did he alert his readers to this in the piece?
No, he did not.
Instead, we got Joe Dombrowski, a talented 21-year-old from Marshall in Virginia, and a story that reflected the teams strong "ethical stance":
"Last October, two weeks after signing, he attended his first team meeting in London. He came with his dreams, his trepidation and a yellow wristband, for he had been part of the Livestrong development team set up by Lance Armstrong. At the introductory meeting, Bradley Wiggins spoke candidly. 'You can start by taking that f****** thing off.' Dombrowski removed the wristband. For ever."
Did Walsh know Wiggins had written an autobiography?
Yes he did.
Was he aware of how Wiggins had described Armstrong in the book? ("To spend virtually three weeks alongside him, competing directly with him for a podium place, was not something I had ever envisaged in my career, especially after he retired in 2005. It was the stuff of dreams.")
Yes he was.
The rabbit in the hat of Walsh's book was Alan Farrell, a 34-year-old sports-loving doctor who had left a practice in Dublin in March 2012 and was now the head of Sky's medical team. During their first meeting in Majorca, he invited Walsh to watch the riders do some blood tests, and the template for the year was set.
These guys were simon-pure.
In the weeks and months that followed, as Walsh confirmed their bona fides with Wiggins at the Giro d'Italia, and Chris Froome at the Tour de France, Farrell became his go-to man. "With great respect to the man, the team doctor Alan Farrell is almost tone deaf when it comes to the tragic opera of cheating," Walsh observed in a book ('Inside Team Sky') published that November. "It's not in his music, nor his world. If Team Sky are doping as alleged, there would have to be a medical team hiding behind the curtains."
Farrell wasn't hiding anything.
"In the course of a long conversation," Walsh writes, "he welcomes questions on the issue of doping and repeats his employer's offer of complete transparency so long as the rules of medical confidentiality aren't breached. As we talk he says things which would surprise the cynics and which surprise me.
"A frequent source of skepticism in chat rooms and tweets is the issue of TUEs, or Therapeutic Use Exemptions. These are exemptions granted to a team to administer a listed drug for a genuine medical reason and not for performance enhancement. There is a perception that TUEs are thrown about like confetti.
"In (Farrell's) fifteen months with Team Sky, they have applied for two TUEs. One earlier this year, in season but out of competition, to treat a respiratory problem, the other to treat a medical condition before the rider went for a surgical procedure. The rider specifically needed a medication which was on the prohibited list. The operation was at the end of the season and he didn't compete for another three or four months."
Farrell would spend almost three years at Sky before returning to Ireland but he continued to bat for the team. In July 2015, he penned a glowing tribute to Froome in the pages of The Sunday Times and had some stern words for critics who "lacked the courage" to believe in him. He also issued an invitation:
"I am ex-Sky and there are plenty of us out there. Find us, ask us what we saw, what we heard. If there's something there it will come out. There are still people who want to tell the truth, who believe clean sport is worth standing up for."
There was one question he did not address: 'What is clean?'
Two weeks ago, a group calling itself 'Fancy Bears' hacked into the World Anti-Doping Agency's computers and began publishing the TUEs of some of the worlds leading athletes. Wiggins and Froome were both targeted. There was no evidence they had abused the system in any way but the conclusions were worrying.
In 'Inside Team Sky', Steve Peters, a forensic psychiatrist and Brailsford's right-hand man, had told Walsh: "We agreed as a team that if a rider, suffering from asthma, got into trouble with pollen we would pull him out of the race rather than apply for a therapeutic use exemption on his behalf."
Wiggins had applied for three TUEs at Sky. His problem? An allergy to pollen. Froome had applied for two TUEs at Sky. His problem? A respiratory inflammation. We don't know yet whether Team Sky's account of TUEs can be reconciled with the Fancy Bears revelations.
A bigger problem for the team was the timing and nature of the Wiggins TUEs. In 2011, three days before the Tour de France, he needed an injection of triamcinolone acetonide, a powerful corticosteroid. A year later, and four days before the Tour, he needed another. Ten months later, he needed a third injection of the same substance, 12 days before the start of the Tour of Italy.
Is it just an unfortunate coincidence that Wiggins' allergies have flared a week before the last three Grand Tours he has raced? And what about this passage in 'My Time', his second autobiography: "In British cycling culture, at the word 'needle' - or the sight of one - you go, 'Oh s***'. It's a complete taboo . . . I've never had an injection, apart from my vaccinations and on occasion I've been put on a drip, when I've come down with diarrhoea or something."
And what happened to all that transparency?
Last week, when Walsh addressed the story in The Sunday Times ("It looks bad, Brad."), Richard Freeman, a team doctor, would not return his calls. Had he tried to call Brailsford? He didn't say. And there was no mention at all of Alan Farrell.
On Wednesday, I phoned Dr Farrell's place of work and spoke to a receptionist. Was Alan there? He certainly was. Would he take a call? I should send an email. So I did. Then I sent him another one. He has yet to reply.
Sunday Indo Sport