Wednesday 21 March 2018

Team Sky face questions over employing Lance Armstrong's old assistant

Team Sky soigneur Peter Verbeken used to work with Lance Armstrong
Team Sky soigneur Peter Verbeken used to work with Lance Armstrong

Tom Cary

Team Sky are facing further awkward questions regarding their recruitment policy after admitting that a former US Postal soigneur, who worked on the 1999 Tour de France with Lance Armstrong, is on their staff.

Peter Verbeken, brought in as a ‘carer’ at Team Sky for 2012 and 2013 and who now works as the manager at their Belgian service headquarters, spent at least six months with the US Postal team in 1999. Other sources suggest it could have been as long as two seasons.

With Armstrong returning to the Tour de France on Thursday – the Texan is riding stages 13 and 14 one day ahead of the race for Cure Leukaemia – the admission is likely to cause a few raised eyebrows in the sport. Armstrong was stripped of all seven of his Tour titles, including his first in 1999, for doping.

While there is no suggestion that Verbeken was actively involved in US Postal’s doping programme, Sky’s ‘zero tolerance’ stance might lead one to think they would be ultra-cautious about employing anyone who could link them with such a disgraced set-up, all the more since as they have been left ­exposed a number of times by other recruits, leading to accusations of hypocrisy.

In 2012 Team Sky reinterviewed their entire staff, asking them to sign statements saying they had never been involved in doping. Coaches Bobby Julich and Steven de Jongh left after admitting to having used EPO during their careers. Sean Yates also left, although for “family reasons”.

The team also employed the former Rabobank doctor Geert Leinders, who was subsequently found to have been involved in doping, as well various riders with doping histories. They recently had to deny renewed claims that their sporting director Servais Knaven had doped during his career.

It is understood that Verbeken was first brought in on a freelance basis by US Postal for a number of races during the 1999 season, including Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana. He joined Sky from HTC-Highroad having also worked for Telekom and Lotto.

Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s principal, said there was no suggestion Verbeken had done anything wrong adding that he had “gone through our recruitment process like everybody else”.

A Team Sky spokesperson said: “Team Sky has taken a leadership position on anti-doping since our inception. Our zero tolerance policy is well-known and well-established – nowhere more so than within our own staff who have all been interviewed extensively about their careers before joining the team. We are proud of the part we are playing in creating a new culture for cycling and showing you can win clean.”

Sky have had a difficult few days off the road even as Chris Froome has tightened his stranglehold on this year’s race. On Monday, Brailsford claimed Froome's performance data files had been hacked. A video overlaid with his performance data was then posted on the internet, leading to questions regarding his heart rate and power.

Froome was then forced to defend himself following his stunning win in La Pierre-Saint-Martin on Tuesday, with Armstrong fanning the flames by tweeting that he did not know whether the Kenyan-born Briton was clean. Armstrong apologised to Froome on his arrival in France last night, saying it was not his intention to contribute to the pressure he was under.

"I had other comments and thoughts about the stage,” he told Sky Sports News, “but by simply throwing it out there that ‘I don’t know, don’t ask me’, that somehow translated into, ‘These guys are dirty’, which is the last thing I want to say because I don’t know that.”

A second video of Froome was posted on the internet yesterday, with Froome confirming his intention, revealed by Telegraph Sport on Wednesday, to submit himself to independent tests after this Tour. It remains to be seen what sort of a reaction Armstrong provokes from the French public on the road from Muret to Rodez.

Froome described Armstrong’s presence as a “non-event” from the peloton’s perspective. “We definitely don’t see it as him being back at the Tour,” he said. “As I’ve said before I support his cause, it’s a cause that’s very close to my heart [Froome’s mother died of a blood cancer related illness]. But about Lance, he’s not on the line with us, we’re not going to see him. It’s a non-event for us.”

Froome’s team-mate Geraint Thomas said: “He [Armstrong] has done enough harm and we are paying the price for what he has done anyway. But whatever, we are just in our own little world here having a laugh and doing what we’re doing and Lance and all them can do what they want.”

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