The weekend brought news that Sean Yates was leaving Team Sky. First it was for doping as London’s Telegraph ran the front page headline “Exclusive: British Cycling Star Quits Over Doping” next to a big picture of the big man. Hours later the team put out a contrary press release saying Yates “wants to move on, for purely personal reasons” adding there were “no admissions or disclosures that would have required him to leave the team”. The Telegraph also reported that Steven De Jongh is leaving but there’s no word from the team yet.
It’s all confusing. Yates just happens to retire the moment the team are weeding out those with a suspicious past and if you’re joining the dots, don’t worry because The Telegraph said it was over doping. Either the press release or the journalist was wrong.
Still whilst Sky get the front page treatment for trying to respond to the scourge of doping, other teams are trying alternative approaches and some don’t appear to be doing anything. We should be watching them as closely as we follow Team Sky’s declarations, no?
There’s nothing to suggest Yates was involved in doping at Team Sky and his departure leaves a big vacancy in the team car. A popular figure in the team, he was authoritative too. Remember it was Yates who drove the team car behind Wiggins and Froome and worked the race radio to make them stick together.
Once again the absolutist “zero tolerance” policy comes back to bite Sky if only because of clumsy handling. Let’s take the example of Bobby Julich who admitted to using EPO in the 1990s and was working as Team Sky’s time trial coach until last week. Surely even the angriest cycling forums didn’t seem him as sinister figure? Certainly I didn’t see the threat his past posed to a team today especially if he was working under the supervision of others. But he’s gone to make the team look better. As for the riders, here is The Telegraph again:
It is thought that Sky have now interviewed all of their current riders, and that all will sign the declaration.
Let’s hope no rider decides to retire this winter.
Sarcasm aside, the Yates case was more questionable. The team said they didn’t want anyone with a doping past but Yates had a suspect positive test from 1989, was a good friend of Armstrong and spent years at CSC, Discovery and Astana teams where he said he “didn’t see anything dodgy going on“, remarkable given the widespread doping practices. In the summer of 2010 after the team’s first participation in the Tour de France, Dave Brailsford said:
“At the start, I didn’t want anyone who’d been caught up in a doping scandal, but as soon as you look for someone aged over 35 with lots of experience, you won’t find anyone without a few worries. Maybe I’m going to have to reappraise my judgements?“
It was a sensible phrase but a bit off-message. I wrote at the time that either the team has zero tolerance or it doesn’t. You can’t have 0.1% tolerance.
Which all brings it back to PR and image. The message is on clearing out the past and even good guys are cleared out. As the Chasing Wheels points out so effectively sometimes the message is both confused and confusing.
Yet Team Sky are doing something. Faced with all the problems in the sport they’re acting. It is clumsy and costing them, whether in the financial packages given to departing staff and, perhaps worse, it even puts them on the front page of the newspapers for the wrong reasons as the D-word is linked to their team. Meanwhile you wonder what other teams are thinking, yet alone doing.
Social media began to point out the worrying presence of Dr Geert Leinders on Team Sky and in time the mainstream media started asking questions and the doctor’s not had his contract renewed for 2013. So whilst Bobby Julich goes because of using EPO in 1998, Katusha have a team doctor who spent time in prison and has a criminal record for doping offences from the same year. Omega Pharma-Quickstep fire Levi Leipheimer but continue to employ Dr José Ibarguren Taus. Farnese Vini have Daniele Tarsi as their dottore, he’s got the Festina team on his CV. There are more medics and it’s before we consider other support staff, yet alone riders. Perhaps they are all reformed characters but they can work on one team but not another.
We’re seeing the emergence of different tiers of teams as they get their anti-doping religion. Sky are the hardliners who ex-communicate the sinners and a similar creed holds Down Under where the likes of Stephen Hodge and Matt White have been cast out by Cycling Australia. Some teams offer a more redemptive message, for example Vaughters and his flock at Garmin-Sharp.
There’s category where there are some good teams quietly doing good work. Argos-Shimano are open about doing things right. But France’s FDJ are more reserved, they run a good team but rarely ask for praise, perhaps because their high priest Marc Madiot has had a conversion on the road to Damascus, or at least a conversation with the police?
It’s hard to set a sliding scale but Katusha emerge as pantomime villains given their crooked team doctor, a string of positive tests and now they’ve just recruited long time US Postal rider Viatcheslav Ekimov as the new team manager. Feel free to pick your own saints and sinners.
But, and this can’t be stressed enough, it’s as much PR and image rather than philosophy and practice. If Katusha don’t tend to their image, that’s for them and maybe they just want to focus time and effort on recruitment or sports science rather than drafting press releases? There’s no requirement to join in, there’s no guidebook on what to do. As we can see, Team Sky get damned for trying whilst other teams carry on unchanged.
Ultimately if teams want to tackle doping it’s a cultural job to explain to their riders that they can’t use outside doctors and instead can count on the full support of their employer to do it right. A team that offers expertise on training, nutrition and ensures riders want for nothing is one where riders are less likely to make the wrong choices. These long term measures count far more than press releases.
One minute Sean Yates goes because of his past, the next it is health. It’s taken a long time for Yates’s past and Sky’s zero tolerance policy to collide and the retirement for health grounds is so coincidental that few can believe it. And if that that belief is weak then it chips away at other messages. But the Tour Down Under is just over 80 days away and the hope is that come 2013 the team that dresses in black will present itself as whiter than white. It’ll be interesting to see who they hire too.
But whilst one team chases its tail, other sleeping dogs lie still. Sky will feel they get lynched for trying whilst their rivals attract no attention. Perhaps the competing approaches offered by teams is a good idea? As there’s no obvious remedy nor past precedent for the mess the sport is in, over time we will see how these methods work out, whether they win over sponsors and fans alike.
Holding out for a perfect approach is pie in the sky stuff. There’s no right way to address all the problems of the past, combing cycling’s recent history is the equivalent of an archaeological dig on a landfill site. And whilst there’s no hygienic fix it does look like 2013 will be a defining year. Whether it is 1999 all over again or not remains to be seen.