Comment: Sky must send a positive message to the fans

Sky are winning the Tour, but losing the PR battle. They need to confront the doping issue head-on.

Words by Richard Moore at La Toussuire

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Thursday July 12, 2012

In the last 24 hours we in the Cycle Sport car have spent a lot of time discussing the “doping suspicion” around Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, and some of our thoughts have ended up on the latest Cycle Sport podcast (which you can listen to from this site).

“Doping suspicion” — and I will retain the inverted commas — around the leader of the Tour de France is as inevitable as the yellow jersey on his shoulders. It is the legacy of the last twenty years, and it hardly helps that, as this year’s race unfolds, so do events in the USA that could result in the record winner being stripped of his titles, leaving seven blanks against the years 1999-2005.

It isn’t just that. On Tuesday’s rest day, there was a police raid on the Cofidis hotel and the arrest of Rémy Di Gregorio. All of which means that doping – whether Sky and Wiggins like it or not – remains a ‘live’ issue, even if the culture of the sport has changed, as many insist it has.

Are there grounds for suspicion around Wiggins and Sky? That depends on whether you think Sky’s employment, for 80 days a year, of Dr Geert Leinders, is suspicious. Leinders was the doctor at Rabobank when Michael Rasmussen was expelled from the 2007 Tour while in yellow, and when Thomas Dekker tested positive for EPO. It was alleged in May, by the former Rabobank manager Theo de Rooy, that, if there was doping on the team, then “it was a deliberate decision [by] the medical staff.”

Dave Brailsford spoke to Lionel Birnie about Geert Leinders, who has worked with Sky since late 2010 but is not working at the Tour, on Tuesday, and the story is on this site. But Brailsford did say: “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.”

Is it suspicious that Sky and Wiggins held training camps on Tenerife? The island has been associated, in the past, with doping, and with dodgy doctors and trainers, but so have many other places. Nevertheless, if you wanted to build a case against Sky, you might cite the choice of Tenerife as a training base.

Other grounds for suspicion appear to be performance-based. At the Critérium du Dauphiné, Sky were dominant in the mountains and placed four riders in the top ten. The four riders in question have previously placed in the top ten in Grand Tours, so placing in the top ten at the Dauphiné might not have been a surprise. But nevertheless: if you were looking to build a case against Sky, you might cite their collective performance at the Dauphiné.

I can understand why people might be sceptical, even if I firmly believe, based on my understanding of how Brailsford and Team Sky work, that they are clean. What I cannot understand is why they do not seem to have anticipated that they would be asked about doping.

Some of the sharpest minds in sport – in any sport – have been applied to preparing Wiggins and his team for this Tour. They are the most serious, best-prepared team at this Tour by a considerable distance (for example, Vincenzo Nibali has not recce’d the key mountain stages, or the descents where he could gain time; Cadel Evans has teammates with whom he has never previously raced: both scenarios would be unthinkable for Sky).

A serious amount of thought has also gone in to building the brand around Team Sky – the mugs, the T-shirts, an official soundtrack – and the team’s interaction with fans, through their website and social media, is, in the professional peloton, second-to-none. In almost every respect, they have raised a bar that, frankly, wasn’t very high.

But they are failing, somehow, to get the message across that they are clean. When Wiggins was asked about insinuations on Twitter that he is not clean, he railed against the “f*cking w*nkers … [who] can’t ever imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives.”

A fair point in some cases, perhaps, although it was a lazy assumption, logically akin to assuming that most cyclists are dopers. Many interpreted his outburst as being provoked by a question about doping. It wasn’t, but you can see why people thought that.

Tuesday’s rest day press conference was preceded by a request from Sky not to ask about Wiggins’ rant against the tweeters or about Cofidis. It was not a request not to ask about doping, but you can see why people interpreted it as such, and even why some news outlets reported it as such.

Last year I wrote about my disappointment at how Cadel Evans, in his winner’s press conference, responded to a question about doping. He was asked whether his success could be interpreted as a sign that the sport was cleaner, to which he said: “I don’t think I’m in the best position to comment on that, sorry.”

The frustration was compounded by the fact that this was the only chance Evans had to address the subject. He had taken the yellow jersey on the penultimate day, and so he wasn’t subject to the daily ritual of facing the press. Had he been, he would doubtless have been asked about the arrest, prior to the Tour, of a soigneur who worked for his team in connection with a doping investigation, or about the involvement in his team of individuals with questionable pasts.

The ‘doping suspicion’ narrative would doubtless have developed, but to what extent would have depended on Evans’ responses to the questions. As it was, he had one chance to say: “I am clean, I have always been clean, and my success has nothing to do with doping,” and he blew it.

The stark facts are this: of the last eight winners of the Tour, stretching back 16 years to 1996, one has admitted to doping, two have been charged with doping offences, two have tested positive and been stripped of their titles, and one was a serial doper who died of acute cocaine poisoning.

The only untainted riders are Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre. But, as the above roll of dishonour confirms, we need a few more years of credible winners to rebuild trust. It would be weird if the leader of the Tour wasn’t asked about doping. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t ask that question.

There is a perception that it is impossible to win the Tour without doping. A team coming to win it must therefore be prepared to disprove that. The burden of proof rests with the winner. That’s not fair, perhaps, but it’s the way it is. “It is what it is”, as Wiggins has taken to saying.

It is public relations, which does not necessarily mean obfuscation or spin. PR can be about getting the truth across. Currently, Sky are winning the bike race and losing the PR battle.

The “doping suspicion” around Wiggins has little to do with Wiggins. It is based on the history of the Tour and on his performances, which, as he said after Wednesday’s stage, are explainable by the fact that he has been a phenomenal athlete since he was a junior world champion, and that he is now surrounded by the very best scientific and sporting back-up. Some feel, in fact, that his and Sky’s success is a sign that the sport really is cleaner. Finally the cream is rising to the top. It is the message they should be getting across.

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