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Comment: What next for Sir Bradley Wiggins?

With British Cycling and Team Sky's reputation in tatters, what of the rider at the centre of the storm?

For as long as the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture Media and Sport has held hearings titled “combatting doping in sport”, there has been a curious disconnect between the item that became its focal point – a so-called ‘mystery medical package’ – and the man to whom its contents were administered, Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Since Russian hackers Fancy Bears leaked his use of the powerful corticosteroid Triamcinolone under TUE before the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France and the 2013 Giro d’Italia, Wiggins has remained aloof from the rapid descent into chaos by his former employers at British Cycling and Team Sky.

He has also remained above the opprobrium heaped upon them, and with good reason. A reputation so hard won as Wiggins’ should not be treated lightly, especially by politicians, who, given the revelations of the expenses scandal, and the routine examples of self-interest and incompetence that fill the pages of Private Eye every fortnight, are ill-placed to sit in judgment upon anyone.

Despite being at the centre of the storm, Sir Bradley Wiggins has remained aloof of his former employers’ descent into scandal (pic – Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)

Once again, however, cycling is the “doping sport” in the eyes of the mainstream media, and unpalatable as it might be to the cycling fan, British Cycling, Team Sky, and, yes, even Wiggins, have made a hash of the entire process, from the Select Committee hearings to the report that was their foundation: a UK Anti-Doping investigation into “an allegation of wrongdoing within cycling”. The questions they have faced are genuine, even if their answers have been hapless.

Knight errant?

Wiggins’ rushed arrival on to The Andrew Marr Show, soon after the Fancy Bears’ revelations last September, was an opening salvo aimed directly at his own feet. Marr’s ignorance of professional cycling quickly became apparent and Wiggins’ reputation suffered further damage, this time self-inflicted; a man acting with indecent haste.

Unpalatable as it might be to the cycling fan, British Cycling, Team Sky, and, yes, even Wiggins, have made a hash of the entire process

The sense he was given an easy ride was keenly felt by the cycling press, but Wiggins should receive proper credit for sitting down with Guardian journalist William Fotheringham, the ghost writer of My Time, Wiggins’ 2013 book, in which the rider claimed he had only ever had injections for vaccination, illness or dehydration.

Fotheringham must have been among those most shocked by the Fancy Bears’ revelations of Wiggins’ TUEs for three 40g intramuscular injections of Triamcinolone, one each before the three races detailed above.

Fotheringham published a full transcript of his post-Fancy Bears leak interview with Wiggins on The Guardian’s website, from which the rider emerged with credit. The conversation revealed the vast logistical and administrative complexities of his existence as an athlete, and the extent to which he was, to a significant extent, a passenger in his own life.

But when allegations broke of a ‘mystery package’ – delivered by former British Cycling employee Simon Cope to Team Sky at the final stage of the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné – Wiggins’ retreated into a toxic silence broken only by the occasional caustic aside.

Wiggins has stayed silent on the issue of the mystery medical package delivered to the Criterium du Dauphine (pic: Sirotti)

Brailsford, British Cycling and the Select Committee debacle

If Wiggins’ stance has at least been partially successful – he has, as noted, remained largely above the fray – then that is more than can be said for British Cycling.

The performances of the federation’s former chairman Bob Howden (inexplicably, still its president) and its former technical director Shane Sutton were disastrous. Howden was accused by MPs of incompetence, while Sutton, pugnacious as ever, found the House of Commons a very different environment to the Manchester Velodrome.

Simon Cope delivered the medical package, having taken it from Manchester, flown to Geneva and then driven to the race, but has reiterated he did not know what it contained (pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

MPs did, however, learn from Sutton the package delivered by Cope to the Team Sky bus after the final stage of the 2011 Dauphiné was for then team doctor Richard Freeman, and that Freeman had administered its contents to Wiggins.

Sutton’s unswerving preference for blunt truths, a highly effective tool in velodrome, but a weapon in the hands of those with more subtle agendas, served him poorly.

Sky fall

It is the testimony of Team Sky principle Sir Dave Brailsford, however, that has more serious ramifications.

His assertion that Dr Freeman had told him that the ‘mystery package’ contained the decongestant Fluimucil has raised more questions than answers, not least with British Cycling lacking the documentary evidence to back up the claim.

Dr Richard Freeman’s lack of medical records have been derided by UKAD and MPs (pic – Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

Why would Team Sky send to Manchester for an over-the-counter medication available in almost any French pharmacy, and probably within a short drive of the Dauphiné’s finish in La Toussuire?

Additionally, the care Brailsford had taken to place himself at arm’s length from the revelation – framing his testimony to the Select Committee merely as what he had been told by Freeman – smacked of a smooth operator operating too smoothly; a team principal refusing to let the buck stop with him.

His Fluimucil claim followed earlier statements that were later contradicted. Cope was visiting France to see Emma Pooley when he delivered the ‘mystery package’ to Sky at La Toussuire? Wrong. She was in Spain, racing in the Emakumeen-Bira stage race. UKAD have invoices for Team Sky’s medical supplies? Wrong. UKAD CEO Nicole Sapstead criticised record keeping at Team Sky and British Cycling.

Only Freeman can be said to have done more damage to British Cycling and Team Sky – and he did not appear before the committee, citing illness.

More damaging, his sole record of the medication he gave to Wiggins at the 2011 Dauphiné was lost when his laptop was stolen in 2014, after he failed to follow Team Sky protocols about uploading treatment data to a shared database. Whatever was administered, there is no longer any proof.

Sir Dave Brailsford’s contradictory statements on the matter caused more harm than good (pic – Sirotti)

What next for Wiggins?

So what next for Sir Bradley Wiggins? The truth is that his reputation, in Britain at least, is unlikely to suffer any long-term damage, despite the serious failings uncovered at British Cycling and Team Sky.

Today, Fleet Street has taken a day off from the Premier League to froth about cycling, but tomorrow it will be the usual fare of Rooney to China, Ranieri Betrayed, Wenger Out etc.

Institutions are easier to attack than individuals, and the likes of Brailsford, Sutton, Howden and Freeman are softer targets than a national hero, even if they are deserving of the criticism that has come their way.

“Wiggins is likely always to remain a mercurial figure, unpredictable and occasionally frustrating, but very much his own man” (pic: Charlie Forgham-Bailey/SWPix.com)

Only Cope can accurately be described as a ‘patsy’. Stitched up? Yes, and by MPs too, Mr Matheson.

Does any of this mean Wiggins has got off lightly? No. If his reputation survives intact it’s because he has earned respect, not only for his athletic achievements, but in the way he conducts himself. True, his relationship with the media can be fractious, but bump into him in a lift, or queuing up for breakfast in the team hotel, and you’ll meet a refreshingly down-to-earth character.

Will we see him as mentor to Team WIGGINS and founder of a companion women’s team? Let us hope so. Will we see him again on The Jump? Let’s hope not.

Will we see him before a Select Committee? Who knows? Wiggins is likely always to remain a mercurial figure, unpredictable and occasionally frustrating, but very much his own man.

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