How a young British rider lifted the lid on organised doping in under-23 Italian team

Toby Atkins gives his account of being asked to dope when he joined an under-23 Italian cycling team - and what he did about it

British rider Toby Atkins has spoken of how a cycling team manager shockingly tried to introduce him to performance-enhancing substances at a training camp when he was 20.

Atkins – who lives in New Zealand and is now 22 – joined the Italian under-23 squad Team T-Vb for the 2015 season. During a training camp in January 2015, Atkins was asked to take drugs by the team manager.

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He subsequently found himself in a difficult position at the camp, and reported the incident to British Cycling, who immediately contacted the UCI.

Atkins was recounting his experiences at the Union Cycliste Internationale’s #IRideClean anti-doping conference in Aigle, Switzerland, on Tuesday evening. One aspect of Atkins’s story that is not often considered is how isolated a rider can feel when faced with making a tough decision when there is no-one immediately around for them to turn to.

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“The first week of training was great. I was already reasonably fit as I had just come from a New Zealand summer,” said Atkins. “The training was brutal with massive climbs and massive amounts of kilometres. However, the fact I was brought on board to bolster the lead-out train and I was dancing with the climbers in the mountains meant the manager was happy enough with me.

“The alarm bells started ringing after the fifth consecutive very hard day of training, when I suggested that maybe I would adapt better with a recovery day rather than more mountains. Half of the team stayed with me for a two-hour easy ride, while the others did 180km of hills in the rain.

“After that day, the team manager asked to speak to me privately. It was in that meeting that he handed me a bunch of pills and requested me to ‘take my vitamins’. At this point my world started to fall down around me.”

Atkins says that his initial reaction to be offered drugs was “terror”, which then turned to anger that his dream of becoming a professional cyclist was on the brink of being shattered.

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“Regardless, my reaction was to get out of there ASAP! Initially it hadn’t been to report them for doping, that came later as I began to think more clearly.”

Some of the riders attempted to tell Atkins that the manager offering him drugs was a “test” to see whether he would fall for it. However, Atkins says that would not “explain the vials and needles hidden in the team house”.

Initially, Atkins reported the incident to British Cycling, who then passed the information on to the UCI. The UCI contacted Atkins within 24 hours.

“This was a big boost, as I expected the process to be much longer. Interestingly, their main worry was for my safety and nothing else. Things were put into place so that if the situation got nasty, then I had a contingency plan to get out of there and go somewhere safe.”

Atkins collected evidence of the team’s involvement with doping, and passed the information on. His information led to police investigating the team, riders and manager. Subsequently, the manager Mattia Vairoli resigned from the team and was later banned for six years.

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Atkins signed for another team later in 2015 and says that the whole experience has not put him off cycling.

“At the time I was terrified and it certainly felt like nothing else could go wrong,” he said. “But looking back, I got to ride for a stronger team later that year, as well as sharing my story with you.

“I think at the end of the day, I might not be racing as a full time rider this year, but I’ve learnt lessons that most people take much longer to learn. And I don’t want anyone to face the same dilemmas as me.”

Atkins is currently riding for Team Friuli in Italy as he takes a gap year before finishing a business degree in New Zealand.