As Bradley Wiggins gave his now-famous victory speech atop a parked car in Paris on the 22nd July this summer, he did so in the midst of one of the greatest sporting achievements in British history. A flawless performance by each and every member of Dave Brailsford’s hand-picked Team Sky squad resulted in ‘Wiggo’ becoming the first Brit to win the coveted yellow jersey of the Tour de France in its’ illustrious ninety-nine year history, with fellow countryman Chris Froome finishing behind him in second place.
The dominance and success of Sky throughout the tour resulted in a state of blissful reverie throughout Britain, and a sport which had barely registered on the radar of a nation obsessed with the more ‘accessible’ pastimes of football and rugby had suddenly become a topic of national interest. Wiggins’ historic achievement worked as inspiration for the Team GB cycling team in the Olympic games, and for a short time, it appeared that the prospects of British cycling were endless; nothing could curtail their momentum.
That short time lasted barely two months…
The dark doping scandal surrounding seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, which emerged in October, rocked the world of cycling and caused mass scrutiny over the sporting honesty of teams and individuals across the globe. Doping, the perennial taboo of the cycling world, could no longer be ignored, and the shocking statistic that only 17 of the previous 54 Tour de France podium places (between 1996 and 2012) had been awarded to ‘clean riders’ was irrevocable proof that utilisation of drugs has become an awful, yet inevitable aspect of the sport. Suddenly, the admiration cycling fans held for these incredible athletes and their achievements dissipated, and a dark shadow hangs over the cycling body, UCI, and the sport.
The damning evidence given against Armstrong, alongside other appalling doping statistics, has had an inevitable effect on the integrity of the British cycling squad, especially that of Team Sky. The pride with which competitors such as Wiggins and Froome were held before the allegations has recently become tinged with a hollowness, as cycling fans begin to harbour doubts about the authenticity of their successes.
Dave Brailsford, the mastermind behind much of Britain’s cycling achievements over the past four years, admitted that he found the USADA report into Armstrong “shocking” and “not…palatable”, and moved quickly to disassociate Team Sky from any use of drugs. His decision to request all team members to sign a ‘no drugs’ statement was an immediate movement to prove that doping would not be tolerated in an organisation who pride themselves on success through ‘marginal gains’ (an intricate attention to detail which Brailsford cites as a main reason for the team’s success).
Within a fortnight of the Armstrong report being made public, Team Sky had seen several key departures in conjunction with the strict zero-tolerance policy that was being upheld. The resignation of coach Bobby Julich, after admitting to blood doping as a competitor, showed that Sky was not wholly impregnable to the dark world of cheating, and the recent retirement of sporting director Sean Yates has caused some doubt to be cast over the team’s supposed innocence. Yates was a key cog in the Team Sky machine, and despite saying that “I can walk away with my head high knowing I have done nothing wrong”, there will be some speculation about whether he jumped before he could be pushed. This is damning for the reputation of Brailsford’s organisation: if such an integral person, as Yates was, can see fit to leave the side, then how deep does this problem run in the team?
Chris Froome boldly stated that Sky would see team members resign due to the strong stance against drugs, a claim which once more provoked mistrust between the team and their fans. There does appear to be a genuine sense among cycling sceptics that, if Lance Armstrong, arguably the biggest name in cycling history, would submit to the temptations of doping, then who else may have done so in an attempt for glory?
The zero-tolerance policy at Sky has been well publicised, and we can only assume that this is proof of their innocence in the sport. However, there is an undeniable hollowness surrounding Team Sky currently, a terrible situation which threatens to undermine the momentous achievements that Wiggins and co accomplished across the Channel in July. Many critics would defend the team to the hilt, claiming that all competitors are innocent until proven guilty, and that the historic successes of the riders in the last twelve months is due to an incredible training process and the efforts of talented individuals, but the scepticism that has permeated the cycling world of late doesn’t appear to show signs of abating immediately.
After all, the dominance that the Sky team wielded in this year’s tour is virtually unprecedented; taking complete control of the peloton from an early stage and ensuring that it was a case of when, not if, Wiggins would claim the maillot jaune. The fact that the team secured a first and second podium finish just adds fuel to the fire of the sceptics: how can a team who win with such ease and class do so naturally, without the assistance of drugs? These are the type of questions which threaten to sabotage the history created by the British cyclists over the summer.
As with all major scandals of the Armstrong genre, time will eventually heal the wounds that have afflicted cycling over the past weeks. The UCI’s decision to strip the Texan of all seven of his Tour de France titles had to be done, but it was a symbol of their intention to take a much tougher stance on drugs cheats in the sport; the fact that the problem is now so publicised will make it much more difficult for teams to maintain these conspiracies on the scale that Armstrong and his US Postal Service team, with drugs testing due to become even more thorough.
For Team Sky, and the British cycling team overall, they can only endeavour to continue along the path that they have been following under Brailsford and wait for the scandal to slowly be forgotten. The rapidity they showed in denouncing any drugs-cheats within the team showed their willingness to eradicate doping from the sport, and they will surely continue to train hard and attempt to dominate international tours legally, disregarding doping as something which does not affect their clean, fair organisation. However, the dark shadow that Armstrong and his conspirators have cast over cycling will continue to hover for a while yet, and as British cycling fans, we can only hope that the legacy created over this memorable summer will outlast the sour taste that this scandal has provoked.