Team Sky mistook public plaudits for a free pass
Paul Hayward: 'Brailsford pushed boundaries and left too many unanswered questions'
Despite the many stars that were created on their watch, it was never possible to be dazzled by Team Sky's cycling revolution. There was too much fog and murk.
Sky's confirmation that 2019 would be their last season sponsoring the dominant force in road racing brings to a halt a brand juggernaut that has produced six of the past seven Tour de France winners.
Money, big personalities and no little chutzpah transformed cycling from an esoteric pursuit to a widescreen movie non-aficionados could relate to. At the heart of it were leaders and knighthoods and insatiable hunger for the next breakthrough, the next victory. This was a team of Sirs.
Within Team Sky's messianic project there are innovators and workaholics and clever thinkers. There are also too many unanswered questions, too many compromises and frankly too much hubris, in thinking public faith in the team should be automatic rather than earned.
Dave Brailsford, especially, was consumed by the idea success bestowed a special power. If you were winning, all other questions were an intrusion, a failure to join the new religion.
Thankfully, sport does not work like that. Money and egos try to frame it as a corporate battleground where only glory counts, but ethics and values and record-keeping still matter. There will be countless cycling fans who have mastered the art of looking the other way on ethical transgressions but, in the end, they stick and shape the story.
Big sponsorship deals have a shelf life, but Sky walking away from Brailsford's machine suggests fatigue with the kind of doubts that may resurface when Dr Richard Freeman, Team Sky's former chief medic, appears before the General Medical Council in February to explain testosterone deliveries to the Manchester velodrome in 2011.
For all the happy days at finish lines, and heroic climbs, there are phrases that stalk the memory. Top of the list is a parliamentary committee's conclusion that Team Sky "crossed the ethical line" when seeking therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) that were not fully based on medical need.
Global politics caused Team Sky the first of their problems: the Fancy Bears hack that showed Bradley Wiggins's use of a TUE for the anti-inflammatory triamcinolone before grand tours from 2011-'13, during which time he won the Tour de France. There is no suggestion of cheating, but Team Sky's willingness to draw on TUEs was confirmed when Shane Sutton, their former technical director, admitted to the BBC they were employed to "find the gains".
Drawing on sources who "did not wish to be named", MPs concluded that Wiggins was given a powerful corticosteroid "not to treat medical need, but to improve his power-to-weight ratio ahead of the race [the 2012 Tour]".
There was no violation of the World Anti-Doping Agency code, but rival teams noted Team Sky's willingness to use the system this way. Later, when Wada instructed the UCI, cycling's governing body, that Chris Froome's high salbutamol reading (for a legal anti-asthma drug) "did not constitute an adverse analytical finding" a plank of Wada's testing policy collapsed.
Central to this tale is that Brailsford switched his attention from Olympic tracks to the wide-open roads with a stated mission to win "clean" - to prove it could be done. Those wins were not "dirty," according to the rules, but teams abroad noted the piety in an industry where so many people have links to or direct knowledge of the worst of the doping era. Sutton himself said Wiggins using triamcinolone was "unethical but not against the rules".
Here was a team who created emblems of sporting prowess, yet lacked proper medical records. They mistook public adulation for a free pass to find gains in the system which pushed the boundaries uncomfortably hard. The stars came out to shine, in Team Sky's dream of reinvention, but they also fell to earth. (© Daily Telegraph, London)