Sign up for our newsletter

Is Team Sky heading for a fall?

9 Nov 2018

Words Richard Moore

This feature originally appeared in Issue 75 of Cyclist magazine

At the start of the 2013 season, as Team Sky basked in the afterglow of Bradley Wiggins’ first British Tour de France victory, Dave Brailsford welcomed the media to the Vanity Golf Hotel in Alcudia, Mallorca. Then he announced a bold ambition: ‘We want to be the most admired team in the world.’

He wasn’t talking about cycling – he was talking about sport. Winning the Tour had been the team’s founding ambition, their Everest. On reaching the summit the question for Brailsford became, what next?

They settled not on more wins, but on something more audacious yet less tangible. ‘We wanted to be as ambitious as we could be,’ Brailsford explained at the time, ‘so we asked, “What would the most admired sports team look like?”’

There were four elements, he reckoned, to being ‘admired’, namely, ‘Having the best performances, the most engaged fans, the most satisfied partners and, most importantly, that we’re recognised as being clean.’

Although they have gone on to win five more Tours de France since then, thanks to Chris Froome and most recently Geraint Thomas, Team Sky are, most would agree, somewhere short of being the most admired sports team in the world.

Rather, they have endured more than two torrid years of rumours and accusations, leading many to question their integrity and to wonder whether the team can survive – and indeed, what it would take for the main sponsor to withdraw its millions and end its near decade long involvement with professional cycling.

Waking from a dream

It started in September 2016 with the Fancy Bears hack of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s records, which revealed that Wiggins had used, with a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) granted by the authorities, a corticosteroid for treating the symptoms of a pollen allergy in the build-up to his Tour win in 2012.

Questions about the ethics of treatment that some considered excessive – and which previous abusers claimed was performance-enhancing – represented the first blows to a team whose reputation was built on the principle of searching for marginal gains rather than working in the grey area between legal and banned medications.

More blows followed, from unexplained medical packages to shambolic medical records, from a critical report by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, to Chris Froome’s adverse analytical finding for salbutamol on his way to winning last year’s Vuelta a España.

Brailsford’s team has since gone on to win a sixth Tour from nine attempts, equalling the post-War record jointly held by Spain’s Reynolds/Banesto team of the 1980s and 90s (with Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain) and the French Renault team of the 1970s and 80s (Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon).

US Postal/Discovery Channel would hold the outright record, with eight Tours, if they hadn’t forfeited seven of those when Lance Armstrong was stripped of his titles after the US Anti-Doping Agency’s report into his doping was released in autumn 2012.

The USADA report was hugely significant. It didn’t just affect Armstrong and his old team, it sent shockwaves through the sport and prompted much soul-searching at Sky – culminating in Brailsford appearing, a few months after the report was published, to put a higher premium on being ‘admired’ than on merely winning.

At the time, Sky had just finished their third year. They had come a long way from a humiliating debut season.

Having launched with such lofty ambitions in 2010, Brailsford quickly realised that the success he’d enjoyed in the velodrome with Team GB wouldn’t be so easily transferred to the road.

Towards the end of that first year, he seemed to be taking stock and, to use a favourite Brailsford word, ‘recalibrating’.

They had set a high bar, not only in setting out to win the Tour with a clean British rider, but in stating that they wouldn’t employ anyone with an ‘association with doping’ or any doctor who had worked in pro cycling.

They would also forbid their riders from doing, or taking, anything that might be considered unethical.

Intravenous recovery, for example, was allowed by the rules (it would be banned under the ‘no needles’ policy in 2011) but not permitted at Team Sky, prompting protests from some senior riders.

Towards the end of that first year, however, Brailsford appeared to adopt a more pragmatic attitude, preparing to quietly drop some of these policies.

‘The commitment to being clean, to using science, alternative methods and the best possible brains as an alternative to doping, that is imperative,’ Brailsford told me in mid-September 2010.

‘It doesn’t stop us wanting to perform. It’s a clean team. But we can’t say we’ll be clean but we won’t bother about winning.’

He did not, as he said at the time, want Team Sky to be better known as an anti-doping team than as a winning team. Professional sport was about trying to win. 

Drawing the line

Brailsford said he had discussed the topic of doping with his riders, in particular about ‘the line’. He explained, ‘You know, where the line is – between what’s allowed and what isn’t – in cycling it can sometimes be a bit blurred. But we will not go over it.’

They had learned a lot about the practices of other teams over the course of that first year.

‘We need to have knowledge of what all the other riders and teams are doing in terms of performance enhancement – which doesn’t necessarily mean doping.’

Brailsford still believed winning clean was possible. ‘I believe the guys at that level are going right up to the line,’ he said, ‘like everyone else.’

The following year, 2011, Wiggins applied for, and was granted, the first of three TUEs for triamcinolone, a corticosteroid.

In 2012 he won almost every race he started, including the Tour and the Olympic time-trial.

Then came the USADA report, Armstrong’s downfall, and an intense media glare that naturally focussed on the sport’s best team, which by now was Sky.

It turned out that they had skeletons in their closet – riders and staff members, including Steven de Jongh, Bobby Julich and Michael Barry, who confessed to doping in the past and duly all left.

In the midst of this, Brailsford held court at a London hotel, where he set out how Sky would respond to the Armstrong revelations.

He had a responsibility to the sport, he said, but also to people like ‘Mrs Dombrowski, who wants to believe, when she sends her son to us, that he’s in good hands’.

Mrs Dombrowski was the mother of Joe, a young American and, as the winner of the ‘Baby Giro’ in 2011, one of the sport’s best prospects.

Dombrowski was 22 and he joined the British team with a fellow young American, Ian Boswell.

Brailsford, it seemed, was building for the future, and Sky appealed to Dombrowski because, as he says now, ‘their infrastructure in terms of the support they could offer riders was unrivalled, which was largely down to funding’.

Dombrowski spent two years at Sky, the second blighted by an injury that – ironically, given Sky’s resources and emphasis on rider support – wasn’t correctly diagnosed by the medical team.

His timing was unfortunate. Between him agreeing to sign and actually joining the team, Froome emerged as the dominant Grand Tour rider of his generation.

The priority, all-consuming at times, became to support Froome and the team around him rather than to develop young riders.

For 2015 Dombrowski moved to US team Garmin, now Education First-Drapac. It’s given him an interesting perspective on Team Sky, particularly given all the recent revelations – and the doubts people have about the team and their success.

‘You find when you move to another team that most don’t have the same resources,’ Dombrowski says.

‘At Sky, it would be someone’s job to manage kit and clothing, say, whereas at other teams someone might do that on top of other jobs.

‘There’s been a lot made of Brailsford’s marginal gains, and the work of [Sky physiologist Tim] Kerrison, but I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary in what they’ve done.

There’s no Moneyball going on there. If someone’s hot, they can sign them, and if they flounder, they can buy someone else, whereas other teams have to speculate more and stick with riders they’ve invested in.

‘Riders’ contract values are determined by the market, and every team is competing for the same riders,’ he adds.

‘Teams who compete with Sky for riders have very little money left for anything else. But Sky do have the money for both the top riders and the infrastructure, so they get the best riders and work them very hard.

‘The training camps are a really focussed environment for the top riders at Sky, and it’s a very competitive environment just to make selection for the top races.

‘That’s what’s set them apart, because you don’t have that in other teams.’

The grey area

With the MPs’ report into Team Sky, which accused them of ‘crossing an ethical line’, there’s been much discussion of a grey area between what is and isn’t permitted – which might have been what Brailsford meant back in 2010 when he talked about a blurred line.

‘I don’t know if they operated in that grey area,’ says Dombrowski. ‘I never saw any of that, and if you’d asked me on my last day with the team whether I had any doubts about Team Sky, I’d have said no.’

So far Sky, for all the headlines and the damage from the MPs’ report, have seemed able to dismiss the controversies, sticking to the line that they haven’t broken any rules.

The Froome case was harder to shrug off. In the end, his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol didn't lead to the expected doping suspension, but that itself only intensified many people's doubts over the team, and its lead sponsor.

Had Froome been suspended, it would have also tested Sky’s famous zero tolerance policy. In 2014, when one of their riders, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, was charged with doping and suspended for two years, he was fired.

At the time, the team was able to claim that the offence was committed while Tiernan-Locke was on another team.

The Froome case was of a different magnitude. Even with Thomas's Tour win, Froome remains Team Sky’s star rider, their talisman. In many ways, Team Sky’s success has been built on Froome’s success.

And although they do appear to be planning for the future, with talented young Colombian Egan Bernal having emerged as a major future talent in 2018, their past and present is still heavily bound up with Froome and his credibility.

Interestingly, Dombrowski says the gossip in the peloton is not of Team Sky’s possible disappearance – an event that would affect everyone, since it would flood the market with so many sought-after riders and staff.

As Dombrowski says, ‘We’re in such a volatile jobs market that you have your ear to the ground. We all do, especially in contract year, which I am in.

‘If Sky went it would have a profound impact on the jobs market, but my gut feeling is that they’re pretty stable.

‘You hear that Brailsford’s position is in jeopardy, but from what I understand he’s important to the Sky sponsorship relationship. So as long as Sky are around I think he’ll be around.’

Within Team Sky, some appear confident that the worst is behind them, with the Froome case now settled and Thomas having created a new narrative for fans and media to focus on with his popular Tour success.

The demands for Brailsford to go have since simmered down, and were unlikely to have achieved the desired result anyway, particularly when media politics come into play – Sky are a media company, after all.

As one Team Sky employee put it, ‘The more the Daily Mail goes for Dave, the safer his job is.’

Equally, however, it is difficult to imagine that Sky, or indeed the team’s other backers, are entirely satisfied.

This was one of the four criteria outlined by Brailsford if they were to succeed in the mission he outlined five years ago.

Famously, Brailsford relishes a challenge, but the ambition he had for Team Sky, of becoming the world’s most admired sports team, must now seem impossibly distant.

Illustration: Jacob Stead