Thursday 19 September 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'Sky abandoning cycling is not the beginning of the end, it's the end of the beginning'

Chris Froome. Photo: Luk Benies/AFP/Getty Images
Chris Froome. Photo: Luk Benies/AFP/Getty Images
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

If you think this is the beginning of the end, then you don't know very much about cycling.

Team Sky might wish it was - a best-case scenario now their funding has been pulled by media behemoth Comcast - but now for the leaks, leaks, leaks. Now for the drip, drip, drip. So history can be the most honest and most withering judge of all that has taken place.

With the announcement this week, there was a presumption it would split many, making it either a good or a sad news story, depending if you keep right or wrong in your quiver. The reality is that it's worth little more of a shrug of the shoulders as Sky's various elements will simply be diluted in a murky pond with the same marginal gains brought elsewhere. Changing the name of cancer wouldn't change what it is and crucially what it does.

Look at it this way. For years, the likes of David Brailsford and Chris Froome have talked about how the introduction of the biological passport meant the sport had to be getting cleaner with large-scale blood-doping confined to the dark of the past. However only at the weekend Danish researchers came out with a new study that shows a massive 5pc increase in a time-trial effort after an infusion of a mere 135ml of the subject's own packed red blood cells, which is essentially red cells without the plasma fraction present.

This raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the biological passport.

Post-Armstrong to Pre-Sky, soon we will have Post-Sky until whatever fills that void.

Granted in a war you can't win, little victories are worth a smile. Especially after what we've been force-fed by what at times was as much a public relations operation as a cycling outfit.

To look back on the Sky story, there's a forgotten year that is also the most important. Their first steps into the seedy-yet-self-righteous market in 2010 were a disaster to the point James Murdoch called in team chief Brailsford to ask what was happening with his massive investment. He in turn called in star rider Bradley Wiggins to ask much the same question.

If they ever meant to be up front and honest about it, that was about to change. Indeed this parish's Paul Kimmage nailed it in an interview with Brailsford, asking if he wanted to do things right or give the impression of doing things right. One former rider notes that later that 2010 season, a team orientation was addressed by Brailsford who, he claims, said: "We go to the limit of what is allowed." Given what we now know, make of that what you will.

Another allegation came from the wife of a rider who was concerned with what she saw as doping but was reassured by former coach Shane Sutton that “what we do isn’t illegal, it’s immoral”. These are just their allegations but other stories aren't.

Sutton has also described Team Sky's use of corticosteroids as "unethical".

As an example in 2014, defending champion Chris Horner didn’t ride the Vuelta as he was part of Lampre–Merida who’d signed up to Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC), meaning you’re tested before a race and his low cortisol meant that, although it was not illegal, it was below the MPCC standard and he withdrew. Where did Sky stand on MPCC? They stayed away.

There was always a strong whiff of nationality off this, mind, and that isn't always a bad thing. However in terms of Sky it was a crucial element to their divisiveness and their ability to spout so much nonsense and have it swallowed.

After an era of excuses that ranged from a rider saying drugs were in sweets given to him by his aunt, to a cyclist saying the boot-full of drugs in his wife's car were for his mother-in-law, from a cyclist putting a positive down to his body ingesting the genes of a twin that had died in the womb, to the whole Lance sociopathy, some were still willing to buy the dream.

There's no appetite for truth once you've been fed on feelgood. Thus this was a sell to the new cycling fan, one that was willing to bypass the past. Yet to say Team Sky was built on a pack of lies isn't even libel, not even close. That is damning.

At the very beginning Brailsford made a promise they'd be "agents of change" and would try and win a tour by only employing British doctors who hadn't worked in cycling before. Yet in 2012 when Wiggins did win the Tour, it emerged Dr Geert Leinders who wasn't British and had been involved not only in cycling but doping had been on their books for two years.

They of course defended this and continued to tear up any vision they had professed from the outset in the name of cheap glory. Wiggins spouted on needles that "in British cycling culture at the sight of one you go 'Oh shit'. It's a complete taboo. I've never had an injection". This was false.

Sky psychiatrist Steve Peters added on TUEs: "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 TUE." This was false too. So much was false.

Up until a couple of years back, they reminded us the best lies are half truths. They also reminded that some things are too valuable to call out. Despite all of the above being the most public of knowledge, so few would accept it. From bike shops selling gear, to big sponsors associating with winning, to media getting access and writing books for royalties, how many were willing to pull back the veil?

Yet again cycling's leaders allowed for a glimpse into the dark side of society's greedy soul.

Had the plug been pulled two years ago and you asked the question in 2016 about what they'd be remembered for, the answer would be different to today. However they hung around and the sponge got too full and their legacy is ruined.

Racism? Fancy Bears? Asthma? TUEs? Parliamentary inquiries that said they crossed an ethical line over medical exemptions? Take your pick.

On the parliamentary report that found Team Sky had abused the TUEs system, Wiggins completely denied the accusations saying:  "I'd have had more rights if I'd murdered someone.  I strongly refute the claim that any drug was used without medical need."

The report focused on inconsistencies in accounts of what was contained in a jiffy bag package delivered to Wiggins and Team Sky during the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2011, which was the subject of a UK Anti-Doping (Ukad) investigation. Ukad closed the investigation in November 2017 after deeming it impossible to determine whether the contents were the legal decongestant fluimucil or the powerful corticosteroid triamcinolone, or something else.

Froome was cleared to ride in this year's Tour de France after WADA confirmed that while one of Froome’s urine samples at the Vuelta a España last September did exceed the permitted levels of salbutamol, it was satisfied that it did not constitute an adverse analytical finding (AAF).

“I understand the history of this great sport – good and bad. I have always taken my leadership position very seriously and I always do things the right way," he said.

By the end no amount of Grand Tour wins for Sky could cover over being called out on the likes of Good Morning Britain. Thus, Team Sky leave a laughing stock. But what next?

Back in 2005, despite everything, Lance walked away with many fanatics happy to keep on believing. They no longer do though, and Sky may be no different. Time will tell. For instance they've always been brutally strong on non-disclosure agreements but who will now enforce them and how many put out of work will stick to them? Let the games begin. 

If you think this is the beginning of the end, then you don't know very much about cycling.

The nature of the sport means it's only the end of the beginning.

Online Editors

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