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Michael Barry: 'I used Tramadol at Sky'

Jeremy Whittle
20 Feb 2017

In light of recent news, we look back at our interview with ex-Team Sky rider Michael Barry

In an increasingly precarious market, book publishers can’t get enough of gritty doping confessionals. From Paul Kimmage’s seminal Rough Ride to Tyler Hamilton’s eye-opening The Secret Race, it seems as if everyone who’s been involved in pro cycling in the past 20 years has a sorry tale to sell.

Why do they do it? Partly for the money, partly for the opportunity to set the record straight and partly for the chance to say: ‘Look, I’m not all bad – if you’d been there, if you’d stood in my shoes, I mean, come on, you would have done the same, wouldn’t you…?’

After a while though, compassion fatigue sets in. How many mea culpas can one bookshelf take? How many hardback whines about the culture, the pressure, the bullying, the ‘white noise’ of doping can you wade through before you just start to feel nauseous? 

Michael Barry’s Shadows On The Road is different. Barry, another of the pivotal figures in the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation into Lance Armstrong, knew people didn’t want another exercise in self-justification, and that for him the problem wasn’t saying sorry, but more that you couldn’t ever excuse yourself. Like apologising for infidelity, you’d never be able to fully repair the damage. 

Instead, you just have to live with the consequences of what you’ve done, as do the people closest to you. Why would you be as glib and naive to think that simply writing a book would excuse it all and make it OK?

Barry, a Canadian, has always been well-liked by the Anglo-American cycling media. He seemed hard-working, unfussy, honest, a good egg. He was a stylish journeyman – professional, thoughtful and eloquent – who’d get knocked down but then get up again. 

His was a chequered career, punctuated by false starts, bad crashes, wrangles and finally the steadily growing threat of being exposed as a doper. He lived with the lie for quite a while, even contributing to the myth with an ill-considered book called Inside The Postal Bus. That work of fiction hardly helped his cause when, just as his career drew to a close with Team Sky, the roof caved in. 

So there’s no doubt that quietly spoken, mild-mannered Michael knew the ropes both as a clean rider and a dirty rider. Like others, he played himself into a corner with his denials, until the dam finally collapsed under the pressure of the investigation into Armstrong and his team. 

At Team Sky, he lied to his then employers, just as he’d lied to investigators, journalists and his family. It seemed Michael wasn’t such a good egg after all. Worse still, he’d bad-mouthed the US Postal whistleblowers, such as Floyd Landis, even though he knew they were telling the truth. 

When it all came out and the USADA report landed, the humiliation for Barry was overwhelming. The trouble with confessing is that you have to pitch it just right. The truth may well set you free (and also pick up a couple of sports book awards along the way) but only if you achieve the right mix of shock and humility. Don’t say enough and you get flamed on social media, accused of cowardice and of maintaining the omerta. Say too much and you may get sued, lose the empathy of the reader and end up isolated. 

Within weeks of the USADA report, Barry had quit racing, packed up his home in Girona, Spain and headed back to his family in Toronto. During that time he and his wife Dede, herself an Olympic silver-medal-winning time-trial rider, spent long hours on the road together processing his past. It was a little after that when he started learning the art of frame building with his dad. 

Together, he and his family forgot Europe and focused on the simple things. They made peace with the past and it seemed his family, at least, were ready to forgive and accept him. Others however, have not been so generous. 

From clubbie to Sky  

Michael Barry was born into a cycling family in Toronto in 1975. His dad, Mike, raced in Britain, built frames and was steeped in the culture of club runs, time-trials and cafe stops. Michael turned pro in 1998, subsequently spent four years at US Postal with Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel, then moved to Bob Stapleton’s post-Ullrich, post-Operación Puerto T-Mobile/HTC team and finally ended up at Team Sky. When he joined the British team’s brave new world, he was deemed to have passed their zero tolerance test of no past involvement with dopers or doping.

Along that career path there were many ups and downs. Some of them, as Sky eventually found out, Barry wanted to remain secret. 

Barry’s Shadows On The Road is, as he intended, more of a memoir than a confessional. Predictably, he’s been slated for it by those who believe he is still hiding his history, still refusing to name names. Unlike other books from this genre, there was no ghost writer. Barry wrote the book himself and strained for something of merit that would capture the gritty reality of a career that had few highlights, but many low points. 

‘I always thought that what made cycling so intriguing were the emotional highs and lows,’ he says. ‘I also thought I really needed to tell my story so people understood the difference between having a childhood dream and realising that dream, because the reality was very different.

‘I had no intention of writing a detailed exposé of the times I had doped,’ he adds. ‘But there were decisions I made – wrong and right, good and bad – and I wanted to bring the reader into those decisions.

‘Usually you only see images of athletes at the peak of their powers. You never really see how they deal with the bad times, the injuries, the pressure to perform and all of that. I wanted to bring all that to life, the neuroses within the mind of the athlete.’

Barry knows some of his bad decisions were heavily influenced by the number of injuries he suffered: ‘I think for a lot of the riders who went through the same kind of thing, there are moments when you’re on the edge and that’s when you make mistakes.’

So riders struggling for form, struggling to justify contracts or coming back from injury are more vulnerable than others? ‘Definitely,’ he says. ‘I was definitely more vulnerable to doping because my crashes pushed me to my limit. I was more concerned after I crashed in the Tour of Spain and then started considering doping because of how much I had trashed my body. When I crashed I was completely at my limit. The crashes changed the way I looked at things. When you’re in a hospital bed, beaten up, fretting over your career, you see things differently. The crashes definitely affected me. But cycling was always everything to me. I was so invested in it and had this profound love affair with it. I based my identity on it. I really wanted to bring the reader into that world.’

Barry’s exit from Team Sky and his retirement from European racing were hasty and messy. ‘It’s been difficult,’ he says. ‘I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was. The circumstances were massively complicated for me but, on the whole, the reason we came back to Toronto quickly was because my mother was having chemotherapy and I wanted to be closer to my family.’

The unveiling of Barry’s past came at a bad time for Team Sky, in the aftermath of their efforts to reboot their zero tolerance policy. It’s evident now that Barry had concealed the truth about his history both from Dave Brailsford and team psychiatrist Steve Peters. 

‘It was a difficult departure,’ Barry says. ‘I liked the team and it had a good group of guys, but I knew when
I was suspended that was it. I don’t agree with zero tolerance but it was their policy so that was it.’ 

When in 2010 Floyd Landis, his ex-US Postal team-mate, first accused Barry of doping, Dave Brailsford, talking at the Giro d’Italia, stood by his man: ‘If Michael holds his hands up and says, “Actually you know what guys, I doped,” that goes automatically up to the next level, which is WADA [World Anti-Doping Authority]. I’m sure he will talk at the hotel tonight and we’ll establish the facts.’

But whatever was discussed that night, Barry again hid the truth and managed to quell Brailsford’s fears. He stayed on at Sky for another two years after that. Meanwhile, as the pressure over the team’s zero tolerance policy increased, Brailsford himself was on the brink of quitting Team Sky. But he opted to stick with zero tolerance and once again, he and Steve Peters vetted the team for past misdemeanours. 

In the aftermath Sky shed staff – Bobby Julich, Steven de Jongh and Sean Yates, among others – and then reaffirmed their stance. Only when the USADA report landed and Barry finally confessed to doping in October 2012 did Brailsford finally learn the truth.

‘Ultimately he lied,’ Brailsford said of Barry. ‘If someone lies to you and you find out later it’s disappointing.’

‘I had a final conversation with Dave before I left,’ Barry says. ‘I think he was disappointed in me. Dave is pragmatic but it was certainly difficult. There wasn’t much to say. I told him my view and why zero tolerance wouldn’t work.’ 

‘I had hopes of staying on to work for the team but everything changed quite quickly and within a month they knew I was going to testify [to USADA]. That was it. I was in a no-win situation. But that’s the problem with zero tolerance. I couldn’t conceal the truth of my past any longer – if I had been able to, then maybe I’d have been able to stay there.’

But the extent of Barry’s ruptured relationship with Sky comes across most vividly in his claims that the British team ‘frequently’ uses Tramadol, the painkiller currently on WADA’s monitoring list. 

‘I used Tramadol at Sky,’ Barry says. ‘I never saw it used in training, only in races, where I saw some Sky riders using it frequently.’ 

Sky have refuted this saying: ‘Team Sky do not give it [Tramadol] to riders while racing or training, either as a pre-emptive measure or to manage existing pain.’

In the book, Barry describes Tramadol as being ‘as performance-enhancing as any banned drug’ and claims ‘some riders took it every time they raced. The effects are noticeable very quickly. Tramadol made me feel euphoric, but it’s also very hard to focus. It kills the pain in your legs and you can push really hard. After I crashed in the Tour de France I was taking it but I stopped after four days because it allows you to push beyond your natural pain limit.’

‘Within the peloton painkillers are heavily used, as are sleeping pills,’ he says now. ‘When you start in those areas, you’re not far from doping and the lines soon become blurred. I didn’t use crazy amounts of EPO so it didn’t boost my performance as much, because not everybody has the same response. But Tramadol you notice within minutes – whereas EPO is a steady build-up.’ 

Tramadol use, currently legal, may be an ethical hot potato, but Barry maintains that ‘Team Sky is clean. I know it’s become a cliché but they focus on the little things, as well as having the best riders. You have to take into account the little factors and the big factors like budget and riders. I’ve never seen anything to doubt their performances.’

Generation X 

Since his boy quit racing and Europe, Mike Barry senior and his son have been spending more time together. 

‘I’ve been over at my dad’s shop,’ Michael says. ‘He’s been teaching me to do a bit of brazing and wheel-building and I’ve built a couple of frames. During my career I always wanted to come home and learn how to build frames. Whether that’s something I will do in the future, I don’t know. I wanted to learn the craft as it’s been something that has been in our family for years. 

‘It’s been good for our children, too. Moving to Canada with the weather and being in a big city like Toronto has been a big change compared to Girona. We lived in the heart of the old town in an apartment, but the last few years we were sick all the time. Dede had pneumonia maybe seven times. When we had the apartment
checked, there was all sorts of mould in the walls.’ 

Barry says he and the family miss Girona a lot. ‘It was a really nice place to live. We moved there in 2002 and, after our second son was born, we lived there full-time. I moved there with nothing more than a US Postal hard shell suitcase and when we left we had a shipping container.’

Life back in Canada has been a shock to Barry’s system. ‘When cyclists transition from professional cycling into the real world, there’s nothing for them,’ Barry says. ‘We really put our athletes on pedestals but then when they retire we forget about them. There are a lot of athletes suffering from depression. It’s the athletes damaged by doping that take the brunt of it, but there are many people involved in that process. A suspension is one thing but the public vilification is what pushes an athlete to his limit.’

Barry says the decline of Marco Pantani, who died in 2004 after his life collapsed under the weight of scandal, is the perfect example of this (see Cyclist issue 24).  ‘Everybody around them just goes with it, wants to keep the money coming. There’s very little scope for an athlete to seek help and that’s something that needs to be put in place – unbiased help for when they’re really in need.’

‘It goes far beyond sport – it’s a matter of life and death. We saw that recently with a rider who tested positive for clenbuterol and then tried to take his life [Belgian rider Jonathan Breyne]. There should be a duty of care, for Lance, for Pantani, and for all riders. That has to come.’

As for Armstrong, Barry says that it is ‘difficult to judge Lance. It seems harsh that he has been suspended for life, given that others haven’t been. US Postal wasn’t the only team, we weren’t the only riders – it was an epidemic.  

‘But we have to give a little benefit of the doubt to the idea that people can change. I did change as my career went on but there are people who will never believe in anyone who wins a Grand Tour. It’s understandable. But young riders can now start their careers without feeling the pressure to dope. It’s not encouraged or supplied by the team anymore. That’s a big shift in culture.’ 

This brings us back to the source of all these shamed careers, holed up in his cabin in the Californian desert: whistleblower Floyd Landis. 

When Landis went public with his allegations against Armstrong and others, including Barry, the Canadian dismissed the allegations and then questioned his former team-mate’s mental health. ‘The stories aren’t true,’ Barry said at that 2010 Giro. ‘Floyd has lied and denied things. I don’t know where he is mentally at right now.’ 

In the light of his concerns for retired bike riders, has he reached out to Floyd? ‘I’ve had no contact with him. I’m empathetic for what he went through. But I would apologise to him for lying. I shouldn’t have done that.’ 

This interview first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Cyclist

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