This week has been a chastening one for Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, but also for British sports fans. Following the publication of the Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee’s report, which revealed Team Sky’s legal use of drugs for supposedly performance-enhancing purposes, fans could have been forgiven for feeling a little cheated.
This is the team who, from their outset, promised to bring the sport, so clouded by controversy in the past, back into the mainstream. Dave Brailsford made it clear that not only did he want a British cyclist to win the Tour de France, but that he was going to make sure that they did it the ‘right’ way, free from any question marks about their methods.
His superstar was Bradley Wiggins, the people’s hero, who, with a rock star-like swagger, won over the hearts of the public in that glorious summer of 2012.
It was Wiggins who started the celebrations of those halcyon days for British sport when he rode down the Champs-Élysées triumphant, sideburns shining off his yellow jersey, to become the first Briton to take his place at the top of the Tour de France podium.
Such success had seemed impossible for British cycling fans until Brailsford’s brave new team was launched in 2010 with much fanfare and the stated aim of winning the Tour with a British rider within the next five years.
While this may have seemed fanciful, since no Brit had won the title in its 107-year existence, those who had seen Brailsford’s success in leading the British Cycling programme to Olympic glory, with his attention-to-detail style, were not so quick to doubt him.
Brailsford was also aided by the huge funding of Sky, who have helped to build one of the best-equipped teams in the world and put together a set of top quality riders, based around a British core, which was almost certain to succeed.
The crown jewel amongst these stars was Wiggins, who had achieved a third-place finish in the 2009 edition of the Tour and was the obvious choice as team leader. Success was not immediate, with the team’s first couple of seasons littered with disappointments and untimely injuries, such as Wiggins’ on stage seven of the Tour in 2011.
However, in 2012 Team Sky and Wiggins proved too good for everyone else, dominating the Tour almost from start to finish, holding the yellow jersey from stage seven onwards. Ably supported by an outstanding team, including future champion Chris Froome, Wiggins charged to victory in cycling’s most prestigious event.
Due to the sport’s clouded history in which superstars, most notably Lance Armstrong, have achieved extraordinary success only to later be revealed as drugs cheats, Team Sky and Wiggins faced the inevitable questions about whether they were clean. Yet, at every turn they vehemently defended themselves, pointing to their clean record as proof of their innocence.
Wiggins went on to win Olympic gold later that year, sending the British public into cycling mania. Froome won four of the next five Tours, and the plaudits kept on coming while the fans kept on growing. Yet, the allegations never fully went away.
So it was that in 2016 rumours began to emerge of a mysterious jiffy bag that was delivered to Wiggins at the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné with unknown contents, claimed to be the banned corticosteroid triamcinolone. These claims have still to be substantiated, but they did lead to the DCMS hearing which has drawn new light on Wiggins’ career.
While Wiggins and Team Sky have not been accused of any illegal actions in the report, it has been suggested that their use of certain drugs, within the regulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency, ‘crossed the ethical line’ as they were used not only for medical use but for performance-enhancing purposes.
These reports are damning of both Team Sky and Wiggins, who have previously condemned the use of any performance-enhancing drugs in the sport and promised to compete cleanly. With Sky’s other main rider, Froome, facing a challenge to prove that his own adverse drugs test from the Vuelta a España was not a result of doping, the team find themselves in a dire situation, with their reputation tarnished with question marks forever.
As a true believer in Wiggins as he rose to fame, it is sad to see a hero face such challenging times. I would love to believe that he competed cleanly and only used drugs for medical reasons, as he claims, but watching his interviews it is hard not to think of Armstrong’s similar denials of wrongdoing.
While Wiggins’ alleged crimes are nowhere near the level of Armstrong’s, cycling must brace itself for another champion to be questioned and charged and Sky’s brave new dawn seems just as tied up with the problems of the past that it was so keen to put to bed.
Image courtesy of Luis Barbosa