Here is the piece.
ALAN FARRELL is 34; a runner, a cyclist, a lover of sports. Nine months ago he left a GP practice in Dublin to become a full-time doctor with Team Sky. The day after Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, Farrell proposed to his girlfriend, Rhona, in Paris. Just felt the right time. Now head of Sky’s medical team, he has asked if I want to see the riders do their blood tests.
It is eight o’clock in the morning and four riders stand around the team’s medical room at the Vanity Hotel Golf in Majorca while a medic draws the blood. Outstretched right arm, needle pierces skin, finds vein, and when the plunger is drawn back the syringe fills with blood. The process takes two, perhaps three, minutes.
These are tests run by Team Sky to meet the UCI’s need for quarterly health screening. Joe Dombrowski is one of the riders and his discomfort is expressed in unspoken fear. A neo-pro (first-year professional), he has a fear of needles. He stands, unable to look, eager to let them go before him.
Dombrowski is 21 and from Marshall in Virginia. He played the violin before he raced his bike and didn’t compete in a road race until he was 18. Handling skills came from time on dirt trails but soon after switching to the road his gift for climbing became clear. Last year, his third in road racing, he was the first American to win the under-23 Giro d’Italia.
Most of the big teams were on to him. What would it take for you to join us? “I wanted a team that ethically had a strong stance. That helped me narrow it down,” he said when explaining his decision to join Sky. Last October, two weeks after signing, he attended his first team meeting in London.
He came with his dreams, his trepidation and a yellow wristband, for he had been part of the Livestrong development team set up by Lance Armstrong. At the introductory meeting, Bradley Wiggins spoke candidly. “You can start by taking that f****** thing off.” Dombrowski removed the wristband. For ever.
“It [the wristband] was not well received by Bradley. It was a little bit uncomfortable for me but looking back, I can see it was sort of entertaining.”
Now he has to offer an outstretched right arm. “Do you mind if I lie down?” he asks, knowing the feel of the needle might cause him to faint. He lies on a surgical bed, his face turned away, his body curling.
After the doctor has taken the blood, Dombrowski lies for a couple of minutes. His feet shake, as if by moving them he can banish the dread from his body. You think of him as a child entering the world of professional cycling; innocent but with a God-given ability to ride uphill. And because of the history of this sport, you think too of what the French philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote. “To dope the racer is as criminal, as sacrilegious, as trying to imitate God. It is stealing from God the privilege of the spark.”
THIS story began in Dave Brailsford’s office at the Manchester velodrome in November. Brailsford is head of Team GB’s cycling team and Team Sky, the world’s top professional team. The riders he manages have achieved extraordinary success in Olympic competition and professional road racing. The recent dominance in pro road racing has led to questions.
“How do you think Team Sky are perceived?” he asked that morning in Manchester.
“Many believe you’re clean, many want to believe but aren’t sure, some don’t believe because you’ve been so successful in a sport they don’t trust. I fall into the category of wanting to believe but not being sure.”
“But we are a clean team, totally clean,” he says. “It’s frustrating . . .”
“If you’re the team you say you are it is one of the greatest stories of all, and why then aren’t you celebrating it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Last season, when you were winning so much, the team reacted defensively when asked doping-related questions. You didn’t seem to want to discuss it. That fuelled suspicion.”
“We were too defensive,” he says. “ I see that now and we’re going to try to change that. How would you like to come and live with the team?”
“What do you mean?”
“You join the team any time you like, for as long as you like. You live in the hotel, eat with us, attend our meetings. Everything. Access to all areas and that doesn’t mean you see what we want to show you. You want to go to a doctor’s bedroom and see what he is carrying with him, you knock on the door. He won’t have a problem.”
“You speak to who you want, when you want, but try not to p*** them off. That’s my only issue. Link up with the team any time you like; when we’re on a training camp, when we’re at a race, we’ll find a room. If we’re short of a room, our doctor says you can share with him, and we will carry on doing exactly what we’d normally do. Who you want to talk to, that’s entirely up to you.”
“Why are you offering this?”
“Because we don’t have anything to hide and we want people to see that.”
TEAM SKY operate an uncompromising anti-doping policy. They will not employ any rider or staff member who they know to have been involved in doping. Some got jobs in the team by denying or concealing a doping past but when new information became available they were moved on. In a sport where so many have been involved in a culture where cheating was commonplace, this zero tolerance of those with a doping past has drawn criticism and resentment.
Were popularity and acceptance within the professional peloton high on Brailsford’s priority list, he would have found some way of softening Team Sky’s stance. If anything, the controversy caused by having to let staff members go has hardened his attitude. He knows the kind of team he wants and believes in the way he is going about it. The team are different from most in continental Europe in that some of the most influential Sky management people were never professional road racers. Brailsford has come from track racing, a sport he once said was as distinct from professional road racing as football from rugby.
Tim Kerrison, the head of performance, is an Australian sports scientist with a background in swimming. Quietly spoken and thoughtful, he has an uncommon talent for making training rides more productive — which doesn’t simply mean harder but more related to dealing with the challenges thrown up in races. The team are awestruck by his understanding of “the numbers”, each rider’s power output and how it can be increased.
Kerrison joined at the start of 2011, Sky’s second year, and though the improvement in fortunes that began around that time couldn’t be ascribed to one man, this Australian was an important contributor.
On Tuesday, after the riders finish a seven-and-a-half-hour training ride, Kerrison joins me for an hour’s run and speaks easily as he runs. “I am known as a numbers guy, but I’m not sure that’s what I want to be. Whenever I get the chance I would like to go back to university and study, but more sociology than physiology. You are dealing with people, each with different needs.
“For example, one of the difficulties I experience is with the guys whose English is not yet fluent. I can set up daily training rides, they can do them, but I can learn so much more if they can tell me how they were feeling at different points along the way: when they found it hard, when they were comfortable. This kind of stuff is important in formulating training plans best suited to each rider.”
As is standard practice for most professionals, Sky’s riders train with a power meter mounted on the handlebars that will save the data in an internal memory, to be downloaded by the performance coach, Shaun Stephens. Considered one of the world’s best triathlon coaches before joining Sky for the start of this season, Stephens is another Australian with no background in pro cycling.
Kerrison pores over the numbers, works out what they mean and knows what is needed to win the biggest races. He listens to the other coaches, takes in what the riders tell him after a ride and, through his understanding of physiology and how to make the best use of endless hours of training, has been seen as something of a guru within the team.
There are things that bother him. Last year he noticed on a Google search the word that appeared alongside his name was “doping”. For a time, the unfairness demoralised him. This was something that never arose during his years working with Australian and British swimming but became an issue once he moved into cycling. There isn’t a solution to this, except to embrace Brailsford’s philosophy of being more open and more willing to explain how the team operate.
It also bothers Kerrison that he can spend two years improving a rider and only succeed in getting him to a point where an offer from another team will lead to his departure. But in terms of personnel, and especially for the Grand Tours, Sky are stronger now than they have ever been and Kerrison is encouraged by the constantly improving organisation.
“In the first year we had our first meeting to plan our strategy for the Giro d’Italia four days before the team departed for the race. Last year it was four or five weeks before. Yesterday evening you attended our first planning meeting for the Giro, more than three months before the start of the race. We are improving lots of things.” That Giro planning meeting, almost three hours, was led by the performance manager, Rod Ellingworth, and it went through every stage, trying to anticipate the challenges.
Ellingworth is an affable former rider who has risen through the ranks of Team Sky’s management structure and though he smiles a lot, his good humour comes with constant reminders that the team are in a results business.
“Edvald [Boasson Hagen] is on a good contract and he needs to win more than he has . . . Pete Kennaugh is a very good rider with a lot of potential but it has to be turned into performances . . . our two young Americans Joe [Dombrowski] and Ian [Boswell] are talented but they haven’t had the physical development they should have had over the last two years. They will need a little time. Young Josh [Edmondson] has performed extremely well this week but we had to talk to him about things, like not answering his phone.”
BUT in this sport, there is something more important than results and it is why Brailsford has invited me to join his team. Wishing to see what becomes of Dombrowski, Boswell, Edmondson and the others, I’m happy to accept the offer. Brailsford knows how his team will be measured.
“It is my responsibility,” he says, “to make absolutely sure that we do everything in our power to say to Mrs Dombrowski and every other parent that your son will never be put in a position where he has to decide, ‘Should I dope or should I not?’ If he or any of the others are not good enough to get to the level required by their contract, no one from this team will ever say, ‘Well, actually, there is another way’. That won’t happen.”