During the Tour’s first rest day Cycle Sport asked Dave Brailsford about the role of Dr Geert Leinders at Team Sky
Words by Lionel Birnie in Mâcon
Wednesday July, 2012
In the world of professional cycling, where guilt by association is assumed and a team’s clean image can be compromised by individuals with a murky past, it was a surprising decision by Team Sky to hire a doctor who was at Rabobank during the time Michael Rasmussen was kicked off the 2007 Tour de France and when Thomas Dekker tested positive for EPO.
However, Team Sky’s Dave Brailsford told Cycle Sport that recruiting Dr Geert Leinders, who is not at the Tour de France, did not mean the team was engaged in doping. He also explained the circumstances that led to Team Sky rewriting its policy of recruiting medical staff from outside professional cycling.
Leinders’s role at Rabobank came under scrutiny earlier this year when the team’s former manager Theo De Rooy told a Dutch newspaper, Vokskrant: “Management never encouraged doping. If there was, then it was a deliberate decision of the medical staff. But when it comes to medical care, you must find the line between doping and medical aid. Riders’ health, in the short or long term, is paramount.”
“Does that imply [Leinders] was doping? That’s nothing against him specifically. Call me naive, call me what you want… we are not doping and we know we’re not going to dope,” said Brailsford at Sky’s rest day hotel at Quincié-en-Beaujolais.
“I categorically, 100 per cent say that there’s no risk of anything untoward happening in this team since he [Leinders] has been with us. I’ve seen nothing and neither have the full-time medics. I’d put my life on it. He’s done nothing wrong here, but we have a reputational risk.”
When Team Sky was set up, Brailsford said he would not hire anyone who had an association with doping. It was a strong message but given generations of doping abuse in the sport it also appeared to be an idealistic and unrealistic goal.
But Brailsford did decide the team should hire British medical staff who had not worked inside professional cycling before.
However, the harrowing experience at the 2010 Vuelta a Espana led to a rethink of that medical policy.
Txema Gonzalez, one of the team’s carers, contracted a bacterial infection which entered the bloodstream. The toxins damaged his organs and he went into septic shock. The Spaniard, who was 43, died in hospital.
At the same time, the riders were struck with a stomach bug. In heat approaching 40 degrees, some of them were vomiting on the road. For a worrying 12-hour period they thought they had the same virus as Gonzalez. Team Sky’s Dr Steve Peters, the head of the medical operation at the time, confirmed that the bacterial infection that killed Gonzalez was nothing to do with the virus that affected the riders.
When Gonzalez was taken to hospital, Brailsford and another of Team Sky’s doctors, Dr Richard Freeman, flew from Liverpool to Spain. When they landed, Brailsford switched on his phone to the news Gonzalez had died.
“When someone dies on your team and you feel you’re putting riders at risk… for all we knew the riders could have had the same thing.
“We sat down and realised that as a group of people we did not know enough about looking after people in extreme heat, with extreme fatigue. We were making calls like ‘no, on you go mate’.”
Two days before the start of the Tour, Brailsford talked to Cycle Sport about the decision to hiring Dr Leinders. He admitted that he should have addressed the issue publicly in May, when De Rooy made his claims. However, he said he would not judge until he had determined all the facts.
Dr Leinders worked for Rabobank from 1996 to 2009. Before that he had worked for other professional teams, including Histor and Panasonic.
In 2007, the Danish rider Michael Rasmussen was withdrawn from the Tour de France while he was wearing the yellow jersey because it was discovered he had lied to anti-doping officials about his whereabouts, allegedly to avoid being tested out-of-competition.
Dr Leinders left Rabobank in 2009. Also in 2009, the Rabobank rider Thomas Dekker was suspended after a sample taken in 2007 was tested retrospectively and found to contain EPO.
Brailsford’s search for doctors with experience in professional cycling was a frustrating one. Finding experienced, respected doctors with detailed knowledge of the demands placed on athletes by events like the Tour de France who had not worked for professional cycling teams was, Brailsford said, not easy. Dr Leinders came highly recommended.
Dr Leinders, first worked with the team in late 2010 and was contracted, on a freelance basis, to do 80 days in 2011 and another 80 days this year.
“You have to base it on facts,” said Brailsford. “Has the guy cheated while he’s been with us? No. Has the guy been a good doctor? Yes, brilliant. The guy really understands.
“This is not about doping. We’re pushing the guys to their limits, so we need to look after them. It’s about genuine medical practice.
“I’ll give you an example – saddle sores. Some of the sores the guys get are horrendous. Edvald [Boasson Hagen] had a really bad one and we thought ‘will we be able to send him to the Tour? Do we operate?’ Only a guy who has seen an awful lot of saddle sores can assess that and answer that question.
“There’s nothing he [Leinders] has done since he’s been here to give me any concern. We have had discussions with him and once we’ve established the facts, we will take the appropriate action.”
On the day that Remy Di Gregorio was suspended by Cofidis after he was questioned by police about alleged doping, Brailsford said: “I don’t know the story, or what the guy has done but another one getting arrested under suspicion is the last thing you want to read. It makes me more determined that we keep doing it the right way, that we do it clean and that we prove you can win the biggest bike races clean.”