Suspicion stalked Sky but British public bought into success story

Few of those in European cycling’s professional milieu, long schooled in batting away doping suspicions, will be shocked by the findings of the Richard Freeman medical tribunal. Cycling, after all, has a long history of “dodgy doctors”, the most renowned of all being Michele Ferrari, Lance Armstrong’s infamous performance guru.

In a sport long shadowed by scandal, the wondrous achievements of Team Sky under the management of Dave Brailsford were always viewed sceptically. But this is also a story of subterfuge, failed vetting procedures and manipulation of facts, even before a government select committee.

In Britain, a nation and media largely naive to the inner workings of the professional peloton and dazzled by the slew of successes in both track and road racing swallowed the story of marginal gains and magical pillows, whole. Now the scepticism that was always bubbling under the surface in Europe towards the explosion of British success appears even more well-founded.

The Freeman verdict, that the former Team Sky and British Cycling doctor was guilty of ordering testosterone “knowing or believing” it was to be given to a rider to improve their athletic performance, is damning and has led to UK Anti-Doping bringing further charges of doping infractions against him.

Brailsford has not yet responded to the Guardian’s requests for comment. Throughout their sponsorship, however, Team Sky always stuck to the line used at their team launch: “We follow the rules and we ride clean.”

After the Freeman verdict was announced, Ineos Grenadiers, the current incarnation of that team, issued a statement saying: “It is very clear from their report that Richard Freeman fell short of the ethical standards required of him as a doctor and acted dishonestly. However, the Team does not believe that any athlete ever used or sought to use Testogel or any other performance enhancing substance.”

However, hard as they try, this is a story that Brailsford and his staff, past and present, at British Cycling and Team Sky and now Ineos Grenadiers, can no longer evade.

Brian Cookson, the president of British Cycling between 1996 and 2013, was more forthcoming than Brailsford. “I was proud and privileged to have overseen a period of unprecedented success in the sport, leading to a massive increase in its popularity and profile,” Cookson said. “That this should now be open to question is a matter of extreme concern to me and all of those who work or have worked behind the scenes in our sport, in governance, management, administration and coaching.”

Prior to the arrival of Brailsford and Team Sky, doping had long dominated the European cycling headlines. A decade or more of debilitating revelations, from the Festina affair, Operation Puerto, the Floyd Landis scandal, and in late 2012, the downfall of Lance Armstrong, had crippled the peloton’s credibility.

In 2010 Team Sky came to the rescue, proclaiming their integrity, their vetting skills and their credibility, vowing to win the Tour de France “clean”. It was a message that was a breath of fresh air for fans, weary of years of doubt and disappointment. In Britain, the sales pitch of Sky as cycling’s saviours was embraced almost unquestioningly.

Yet within a sport that is still haunted by its past, there were always whispers of just how close to rule-breaking the team would go. In Europe, suspicion stalked the team after they reversed the poor performances of their early outings into the all-conquering Grand Tour successes of Wiggins, Froome and Thomas.

There were furores over their admitted use of the potent painkiller tramadol, now banned by cycling’s governing body, and obfuscation and confusion over the use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) by both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.

Froome, who benefitted from a TUE in April 2014, when he won the Tour of Romandie, told the BBC a year later that he had declined a TUE in the latter stages of the 2015 Tour de France because “it did not sit well morally with me”.

A further problem for Brailsford and his management structures is that Freeman is not the first “dodgy doctor”. Wiggins’s career-making golden summer of 2012, which included multiple stage race wins, Tour de France success and Olympic glory, was achieved when Geert Leinders, now banned for life for doping offences, was retained as a medical consultant.

Brailsford maintained that Leinders was always a distant presence, but subsequently admitted to an error of judgment in hiring a man whose name became a byword for doping in the Netherlands, where he worked for the disgraced Rabobank team. But then Sky’s zero tolerance policy, based on recruiting from a pool of professionals in which it was impossible to guarantee propriety, had been unworkable from the outset.

The team’s much-vaunted vetting procedures failed abjectly, when they were forced to shed staff – such as Bobby Julich and Steven de Jongh, supposedly scrupulously vetted by Brailsford and Steve Peters – who had subsequently admitted an involvement in doping earlier in their careers.

Yet Brailsford, whether scrutinised by the media, catcalled by roadside fans, or grilled by a digital, culture, media and sport committee in Westminster, has ploughed on regardless. The big wins kept on coming, even as the doctors came and went. Recently he has talked of having “more fun” with cycling, although that seems less likely given the latest turn of events.

Brailsford was talked about, but never seen, during the Freeman hearings. Now many will ask where is the man the French media once knowingly titled “Monsieur Zero Tolerance” in all this? As he has been so often during the difficult moments, the architect of the British cycling success story, from its beginnings through to the present day, remains the Invisible Man.

And what will Jim Ratcliffe’s view be of the Freeman verdict? Two years ago, when the Ineos takeover of Team Sky’s personnel and infrastructure was unveiled, the billionaire entrepreneur sat alongside Brailsford and made his ethical position clear.

“We did our due diligence,” he said. “I have absolutely no interest in cheating or drugs. The day that any of that enters our world, we’ll be exiting that world.”