Fancy Bears send a shiver through Team Sky

I was coughing within minutes of crossing the finish line and my chest felt like it was collapsing. This I put down to the smoking.

“Pursuiter’s cough,” said my friend Patrick. Turns out it’s a common affliction among cyclists after an effort. It wasn’t because I was a smoker (although that obviously doesn’t help), it was because I had just tore up a big hill for a summit finish on the St Tropez Gran Fondo.

A disproportionate number of cyclists, and athletes in general, suffer from asthma, hence their use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) for this and other afflictions in professional competition. When Russian hackers the Fancy Bears hit Wada (World Anti Doping Agency) they revealed that of the British athletes who had been issued with a TUE, 14 were for asthma. They included cyclists Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Laura Trott and Steve Cummings.

The asthma treatments ranged from a fairly standard inhaler to corticosteroid jabs, which act as an anti-inflammatory. The purpose of any of these treatments is to make it easier for the athlete to breathe.

Athletes are more prone to asthma because of exertion. When they are pushing the envelope of their ability, they tend to be breathing in through their mouths instead of their noses. The air hitting their lungs is unfiltered of all the particles swimming around in it, and it is also cold, unwarmed by the nasal passages. They are mainlining air, basically, and when it is this cold and unfiltered it irritates the lungs. Ever heard of a runner complain of “lung freeze” in the winter? They aren't making it up.

More than 40 per cent of elite level cyclists suffer from asthma. This compares to 50 per cent of swimmers, 30 per cent of rowers and 25 per cent of footballers according to a study of British Olympic athletes. These are individuals at the top of their game, for whom high-intensity training is a daily routine, who breathe through their mouths a lot.

Froome has gone on the record to state that he required a TUE twice in his nine-year career-to-date, with the last time being 2014 - the only year in the past four when he didn’t win the Tour de France. Wiggins obtained two TUEs between 2008 and 2013.

“There’s nothing new here,” said the Wiggins camp on the latest hacking revelations. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when a team of Russian hackers bearing a grudge reveals the apparent use of performance enhancing drugs among Tour de France winners and Olympic gold medallists but the fact is that these drugs were never developed to enhance performance. They were actually developed for the very use that these athletes are putting them to. And when you look at it like that, where can you ever draw the line? Does coffee become a performance enhancing drug? How about an energy gel or a flapjack, or your drink mix?

Sir Bradley Wiggins was brought before Andrew Marr to explain himself in a pre-recorded BBC interview aired yesterday (Sunday September 25). Marr wanted to know about Wiggins’s corticosteroid Triamcinolone jabs for a pollen allergy ahead of the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France and the 2013 Giro d’Italia. “This was about putting myself back on a level playing field,” Wiggins countered.

This is more of a grey area. Self confessed doper and now anti-doping campaigner David Millar said he “couldn’t fathom” why anyone would be prescribed Triamcinolone before a race. He told the Telegraph that the weight would fall off him - anything up to 2kg - and he would feel stronger as a result of the drug. Two aspects which would be an advantage to a cyclist.

Not only this, Wiggins's asthma treatments at Garmin were inhaled, but the Triamcinolone was injected into the muscle, and in his book, My Time, Wiggins claimed he had never received any injections. There is also a clash here with Team Sky’s ‘no needles’ policy.

This was all totally above board and the UCI’s race doctor even administered the drugs according to Wada guidelines. That hasn’t stopped the guns being levelled at Team Sky, a team with an anti-doping policy so strict that it has even sacked individuals at management level for historical offences. “A bunch of hypocrytes,” said former doper Jorg Jaksche.

There are a number of alternative steroid treatments that ease hayfever, although if the idea was to enhance performance, Triamcinolone would be a poor choice. It is a catabolic steroid, which breaks down muscle. Hence the weight loss. This is the opposite effect of an anabolic steroid commonly used by body builders to gain muscle. Experts have suggested Millar’s sensations of strength would have been down to other drugs.

Wiggins was injected with a corticosteroid that according to some medical experts would, if anything, have had a negative impact on his performance.

Then again others such as former doping cyclist Michael Rasmussen told BBC’s Newsnight: “"There is no doubt in my mind that corticosteroids [are] very, very strong and performance enhancing. It would postpone this sensation of fatigue [and] increase your recovery speed.”

Sport scientist Jeroen Swart says Triamcinolone was “used as a last resort” in control of asthma and allergic conditions. An “unfortunate coincidence” that cyclists caught using prohibited substances have also used Triamcinolone.

This does seem to back up the point that the use of Triamcinolone on its own isn’t going to improve performance. Without evidence or even suggestion of the use of any other drugs, observations about the timing of Wiggins's injections and the fact no hayfever allergy was mentioned in his book seems to become something of a moot point.

Russia is smarting from its Olympic bans. “Wada has no doubt that these ongoing attacks are being carried out in retaliation against the global anti-doping system,” said Olivier Niggli, Wada director general.

The Fancy Bears have got their revenge. Whether cyclists will be able to breathe easy about their TUEs after the revelations remains to be seen.

Team Sky aren't out to get you

Whoever said there was no such thing as bad publicity clearly hadn’t accounted for Team Sky’s bus almost knocking a cyclist off his bike.

In another time this wouldn’t necessarily have led to the media frenzy that followed the incident, on a country road somewhere in Wales. In another time cyclists didn’t ride around with cameras on their heads.

What the Team Sky bus did was exactly why cyclists are filming their rides. Regardless of the fact that you can ride around for weeks, even months without something like this happening, when it does, you’ve got it on record. For legal purposes, and Twitter.

So Andy Rolfe, the victim in all this, posted it on Twitter. “This needs to go viral, for the safety of cyclists,” He wrote.

For the safety of cyclists. As if this bus is careering around like that truck from Duel, intent on eradicating cyclists, one by one. Never mind the fact that Team Sky have done more to promote cycling globally than every other pro team put together. That Sky itself nurtures cycling of all types, from family riding right up to pro level.

This is the problem with that tweet.  To post it as some kind of community spirited health warning, to claim that to view this close-pass porn and, presumably, for the safety of cyclists, share it, is somehow going to make the world safer is nonsense.

“Look at who just nearly knocked me clean off my bike! Team Sky!” That would be a more accurate tweet.

Why didn’t Mr Rolfe just contact Team Sky? They were clearly mortified, they had the apology out in minutes. Now they’re sending all their drivers on road safety courses. It would have been better if the team car following the bus had stopped at the scene, when they saw Mr Rolfe gesticulating wildly. They could have said sorry, given him a cap or something.

Damage limitation at least, although unlikely to have prevented the video being made public. It looks as if Mr Rolfe joined Twitter just to post it, that’s how much he wanted it to be seen. What was his real motive, what did he actually hope to achieve? He clearly wanted to name and shame, but then what? Or is it simply that social media has given us all a shot at 15 minutes of fame? He saw his chance, he took it. 

The clip was picked up by every news outlet across the world. This video was on the Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, the BBC, Huffington Post, the entire cycling press. Mr Rolfe wanted it to “go viral for the safety of cyclists,” and he certainly got that.

This is, as far as we know, an unprecedented incident. We haven’t heard of anything like it happening with any team bus, let alone Team Sky. This was a combination of circumstances and bad timing. There was a lorry coming in the other direction, the Team Sky bus misjudged the pass. Dangerous as hell but not intentional. It’s safe to assume they’re not out to get cyclists.

This video is nothing more than titillation. It’s worth watching if only to say “Jesus that was close,” and then worry yourself silly the next few times you go out and hear a diesel engine behind you. How has it improved the safety of cyclists, apart from making a few drivers go on a course?

Andy Rolfe should be feeling very happy with himself. All those views, all that TV coverage for his little clip. Never mind 15 minutes, he got an afternoon of fame. He’s probably got agents calling him already.

Next stop, Celebrity Big Brother. For the safety of cyclists.

 

Who's watching all this cycling?

While I’m catching up on the Vuelta and the battle Froome appears to be losing with Nairo Quintana, closer to home Sir Bradley Wiggins has got off his bike and started running up a hill and Mark Cavendish has pulled over to ‘have a few words with’ a selfie-taking spectator, all on the Tour of Britain.

It’s a nightmare having two races going on at once. Which one do I watch? Where do my allegiances lie and should it be with a race at all? Shouldn’t it be with a team? Or a rider?

And if it’s with a team, and the same team is riding two separate races, which race do I pick? I suppose from a patriotic point of view it should be the Tour of Britain. But Spain is sunny. You don’t get fog-drenched summits on the Vuelta. The mind is boggling.

I was having enough trouble keeping up with the Vuelta, let alone adding a new tour to the mix. Thanks to some serious other stuff that I had to do - like go to work and generally having a life - I was already a few stages behind. This led to some head scratching as I watched wrong stage after wrong stage expecting to see the one where it all kicked off. “Destruction” as David Millar described stage 16, the one where the race is blown apart in the first 8km and Froome is the only member of Team Sky to finish within the time limit, the one where 90-odd riders should officially have been disqualified.

There’s really not enough hours in the day to watch it all

There’s really not enough hours in the day to watch it all and right now, despite the sun and the scenery and the drama of the Vuelta, I’m veering towards watching two of our biggest cycling stars basically having a bit of a laugh around the lanes of this green and pleasant land.

To be a devoted follower of pro cycling does lead to painful decisions. As it is, stages by their nature will take place during prime cycling hours, at a time when, if you actually enjoy the pursuit of cycling, you’ll be out there doing it. Going to work could also prove difficult considering cycle racing tends to clash with that, too.

Such is the nature of professional cycling. It’s a daytime sport and the whole point of stage races is their length and their difficulty. It’s what makes the sport interesting.

It is also what poses the eternal dilemma for those attempting to make professional cycling more accessible to the viewing public. Racing is complicated enough as it is with its point system and its various jerseys and its specialists and its tactics.

Calendar clashes don’t help matters, especially when it comes to races that are going to divide viewer loyalty. Of course scheduling dilemmas are not unique to cycling, but the business model of cycling is different to anything else apart from perhaps motor racing.

But there is no team loyalty, how can there be when teams change by the season? Which brings us back to the scheduling - without the TV viewers, the sponsors don’t want to spend the money, and there’s a lot of money to be spent in running a team, just over £20 million per season in the case of Team Sky.

Even billionaires get fed up with running a world tour team - Oleg Tinkoff is pulling out of cycling after this year, spelling the end of Tinkoff Saxo.

Women’s cycling receives a fraction in sponsorship compared to men, simply because the women’s sport is not deemed to receive the same level of coverage. And it doesn’t; you’d struggle to find a women’s tour on the TV from one week to the next.

Will things ever change? There are now so many races on the pro tour calendar that there will inevitably be overlaps, and the Vuelta and the Tour of Britain have always clashed. That doesn’t make it any better for sponsors or viewers but does lay bare an underlying issue.

In the meantime at least the sponsors will be happy with Wiggo - running up that hill has got him more exposure than anything anyone in the Vuelta has done so far.

Maybe there should be a wacky rider jersey, that should draw some attention. Everybody loves a clown.

Call that a derny? I pity the Rio 2016 Keirin riders

Uproar in the Olympic velodrome as the Keirin is stopped for a second time after riders overlap the derny’s back wheel. Jason Kenny, already having cycled around the inside of the track at a snail’s pace for ten minutes while officials worked out whether or not to disqualify him, gets off his bike and sits down.

“This is unprecedented, never seen before in all my days,” say the commentators, one of whom is Chris Boardman. He should know.

The Keirin has always been a highlight of a track meeting, a cacophony of sound from the motorbikes as they drone around the track, deafening spectators, making conversation nigh on impossible, two-stroke fumes hanging thick in the air.

It is a weird, wonderful and totally eccentric aspect of track cycling that evokes nostalgia and excitement in equal measure. The first dernys were introduced to six-day and keirin racing in 1938 and they were built specifically for cycling. There are modifications that ensure the engine doesn’t seize if it cuts out and the rider can pedal a bit to get the bike up to the top speed of a massive 31mph. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that without dernys, track cycling wouldn't exist.

So what happens? Someone decides they are far too environmentally unfriendly and brings out a derny powered by a battery. An electric derny. First seen in the UK at the UCI Track World Cup in London in 2014, these German monstrosities have an appearance somewhere between a mountain bike and an invalid scooter. Which wouldn’t necessarily matter if they sounded remotely like a derny. If they sounded of anything. 

They didn’t get a good reception, because frankly there are some things you don’t mess around with, like the Coke recipe and Cadbury’s chocolate. By the following February, the petrol derny was back and the velodrome smelled like a lawnmower again.

Cycling behind this poor berk on an electric bike is about as humiliating an experience as you can expect an Olympic athlete to undertake

So what do the Rio Olympics 2016 organisers do? They plug in that electric derny. You might think it couldn’t get any worse, but you underestimate the levels of ineptitude at Rio. Rather than have one of the older, more experienced and infinitely cooler derny riders zipping around in their black outfits, they decided on something far more jolly. They stuck some poor lanky streak of polo-shirted intern on it instead, and to add insult to injury they made him wear a cycle helmet. On an electric bike! If ever there was a poster boy for bike doping, this is most definitely not it.

So off he went, this bloke on his moped thing, with Kenny and crew in hot pursuit and you can see they’re struggling, right from the beginning. Not to keep up, they are struggling not to overtake him. This derny rider is going so slow in his silent machinations that he might as well not be there. If you closed your eyes he wouldn’t, because you couldn’t hear a thing.

And then, at the point where he is supposed to leave the track, this derny rider takes such a long-winded and gradual exit that the racers can contain themselves no longer. Cue “never seen before” infraction. Then it happens again. Eyebrows are duly raised.

I have a theory about this, and it boils down to embarrassment. Cycling behind this poor berk on an electric bike is about as humiliating an experience as you can expect an Olympic athlete to undertake. You wouldn’t see Olympic yachtsmen being led out by a pedalo. Tradition has to have a hand here and feet need to be put down through the track cycling community.

There is no place on the track for an electric moped masquerading as a derny because it’s not a derny and never will be a derny. What we need is a proper petrol driven bike, belching fumes and making such a racket that the boards rattle.

Apparently one of the biggest issues in actually deciding if any rules had been broken in the Keirin was that a camera wasn’t even in the correct position to record such an infringement, presumably because no one expected one to take place.

What a palaver, not that it did anything to stop Jason Kenny roaring to gold.

No word on the derny rider as yet. But then it’s not as if anyone would have heard him leaving.

Twitter makes us all a judge of Cav's Rio omnium crash

It didn’t look good from where I was sitting, on the sofa, better placed than anyone in Rio to pass judgement, especially with my extensive knowledge of track racing.

Mark Cavendish, high up on the boards as the Omnium racers come out of the bend on the 51st lap of a 160-lap race, looks behind him and then cuts straight into Elia Viviani. It’s not just a graze, this is a body blow. Viviani goes sprawling, Park Sang Hoon, the South Korean rider behind goes down, the race is neutralised, stretchers are brought out, the Korean remains motionless.

It can sometimes appear that crashes follow Cav around like a bad smell. There was a pileup at the 2010 Tour de Suisse, then the 2014 crash on stage one of the Tour de France to name two. There have been bumps and jostles which many will say are all part of a sprinter’s day. If it’s your job to win sprint finishes, you’re going to make sure no one gets in your way, aren’t you?

If the Twitterati had anything to do with it, Cav would have been manhandled off his bike and out of the velodrome, tarred, feathered and dumped in a favela

So you could say he has form, but did that make him culpable in Rio? Certain Twitter users certainly seemed to think so. If the Twitterati had anything to do with it, Cav would have been manhandled off his bike and out of the velodrome, tarred, feathered and dumped in a favela. One of the dodgy ones.

Thankfully the judges at Rio are not influenced by virtual juries.

I don’t have an extensive knowledge of track racing and that is why to me Cav’s move looked dangerous and intentional. The difference is that I didn’t immediately grab my phone and furiously bang out a tweet demanding the disqualification of Cav on the basis of said less than superior knowledge. That’s not what Twitter is for anyway, it’s for publicly shaming train companies.

There was a balance, not everyone was calling for Cav's head but I was surprised by the amount of people who should have known better also demanding action, but then it did happen in a split second and even in slow motion you could have thought this was entirely deliberate.

Except for a few things. First, this isn’t Wacky Races. Cav would be mad to deliberately attempt that manoeuvre in front of a velodrome full of spectators and expect to get away with it, and besides, it would have taken a degree of planning, positioning himself in such a spot along the track. Maybe he saw the opportunity to take Viviani out and went for it, some will argue, and Cav would have stood to gain from taking the gold medal contender out of the game at that point in the race, it’s true.

But the judges saw things differently and so did Viviani. At that point on the track, a rider is forced down the boards by necessity and gravity. If he doesn’t make that turn he’s going to end up in the stands. If you watch subsequent laps other riders take exactly the same line as Cav. You can crop that footage to make it appear that Cav deliberately rides into Viviani. You can crop out their position on the track, you can crop out the other riders so it looks as if it’s only the pair of them out there. You can then take Cav’s form and reach a conclusion.

Will it be the right one? Cav caused the crash, but was it deliberate? Who are we to judge, really?

The race was neutralised for ten laps and then the judges allowed it to restart after examining the footage and allowing Cav to continue. Viviani and Cav made up, Viviani wasn’t too upset, Viviani got gold.

And guess what? Today the Twitterstasi, those who know better than a panel of Olympic judges, they’re still bleating on about it.

In 140 characters or less.

Why that was my last Ride London

There are a few things I have taken away from this year’s Prudential Ride London-Surrey 100 other than a medal, and the main one is that I never plan to do it again.

I feel terrible writing that, especially having pushed my bike alongside thousands of remarkably chipper participants around some sizeable chunks of the route. You can’t help but smile when someone attempts to get a Mexican wave going, or demands that everyone sing happy birthday to his friend.

Spirits were high, even by the time the stoppages began to nudge double figures. And this is when I realised I had no place being there.

The organisers released 26,000 cyclists onto the closed roads of London and Surrey on Sunday, plus another 3,000 on a new 46 mile route. That is an ambitious goal at the best of times let alone doing it to a deadline with the prospect of a professional race barrelling along the same 100-mile course later in the day.

With those sorts of numbers the potential for disaster is omnipresent. One minor shoulder bump, one clipped wheel, one unnoticed pothole and you set off a chain reaction that can put people in hospital. And people were indeed put in hospital as a result of crashes. I don’t know the specifics of the incidents, but the numbers speak for themselves. Three serious injuries, 33 admitted to casualty. Although not thought to be related to a crash, one participant later died as a result of a heart attack he suffered on the course. 

If you want to look at it with a cold statistical eye, you might expect this kind of casualty rate among that number of riders. It doesn’t make it acceptable.

If you want to look at it with a cold statistical eye, you might expect this kind of casualty rate among that number of riders. It doesn’t make it acceptable.

But what do you do? Someone asked me exactly that in a Tweet and I struggled to think of anything that could be done to make it safer.

This event is run by the organisers of the London Marathon. They have years of experience in dispatching tens of thousands of individuals off around a course. The difference between the London Marathon and Ride London is the bikes. In marathons, there's not really any such thing as a high velocity accident.

Marathon runners don’t hit trees. If they collide with each other they probably won’t fall over too seriously. Also, everyone, from an early age, can run. It comes naturally.

Not everyone can ride a bike. But the real problem is, they think they can. Because there are different definitions of being able to ride a bike and Ride London has to cater for all of them.

If, for instance, you happen to be someone who is fairly fit because you ride a lot to work, you’re going to think you can accomplish a 100 mile ride without a problem. Likewise if you maybe nip off for a saunter every couple of weeks. Or you might be fairly new to the sport but want to raise money. You’ll put your training in and will be more than ready to cover the miles.

What none of the above considers is the added complication of cycling in close proximity to others for an extended period of time. We’re not talking about 20 minutes down Boris’s Superhighway here, we’re talking mile after mile, and at any moment that person next to you could veer into your path.

Group riding, cycling at speed within inches of another rider’s wheel, teaches you to think at speed, react in a split second and expect absolutely anything to happen at any time.

It is a competence that only comes with riding regularly and with others and usually means you are more comfortable at a faster pace and aim to get around the course in record time.

The Ride London organisers attempt to filter the more energetic riders to the early departures by asking each participant the time they expect to complete the course. Anything around five hours (averaging 20mph)  is considered a fair pace and should result in you being placed in one of the earlier departure waves.

It's the sensible way to do it. Getting the faster riders out of the way ensures the road is clear for everyone else.

The later waves are a study in cycling demographics. There are the big-hearted, bucket-list people who fancy a fundraising challenge. Amongst them might be the more relaxed club riders who don't care for Strava. The couples, the office teams, the families, the tourers, the list goes on.

This is where the danger lies. So many levels of ability in such a tight squeeze. It has the feeling of a vast stream of random atoms bouncing around each other. Inevitably some will collide and then tailbacks begin.

The shame is that a lot of these people didn’t ride 100 miles in the end. The multiple hold-ups were so severe this year that the professional race behind had to be neutralised for 30 minutes as amateur riders were diverted away from the course and taken from the 48-mile to 70-mile points, thus missing out more than 20 miles. We didn’t do 100 either. By the time we had got to the Leith Hill turning, it had been shut off and we missed a 10 mile section of the route.

But the smiles on the faces of the people around me at Buckingham Palace said it all - they were elated. They didn’t mind the two-plus hours of walking, some of them probably welcomed the respite.

That’s when I realised I have no place on Ride London. I understand the need for the emergency services to deal with incidents but that wasn't the only reason we had to walk. More often than not it was a bottleneck caused by sheer weight of numbers. If I wanted to wait around in a traffic jam I'd get in a car.

You could perhaps limit these delays by neutralising the ride after a certain time of the morning - everyone gets the same time, thus removing the incentive for those who fancy themselves but whose enthusiasm doesn’t match their ability.

“Impossible!” You might cry. “How do you prevent riders from cycling too fast?” One possible solution could be to introduce pace cars or bikes ahead of each wave, travelling at the speed that particular wave is expected to safely achieve. Some riders might slip through but the majority could be held in check.

You never know, it might help minimise the risks. I’m all ears to other suggestions.

One thing is for sure, on events such as this, even a single accident is one too many.

The secret of Froome's Tour de France superiority (it's not rocket science)

So what do you reckon about Froome? Is he legit? That's what the text from my mate Boris said.  

My first reaction was to tell him to clear off, or words to that effect. But since Boris is a bit of a layman when it comes to cycling, and as he added in a subsequent text, "he's so far out in front that a lot of people will be asking the same question," I decided it best to dignify his question with an answer. 

It's true that on the face of it, Chris Froome's achievement looks difficult to believe. Here he is about to win his third Tour de France. His performance in the mountains has been remarkable even without those memorable moments when he attacked down the Col de Peyresourde and won stage eight. And how can we forget the sight of him running up Mont Ventoux when his bike was wrecked on stage 12? 

He has always maintained his strength and aside from a tumble on the wet stage 19, has suffered little in the way of Tour threatening incidents.  

This is what will raise suspicions, but this isn't about him. It is about a team so strong that no one can touch it. Dave Brailsford's marginal gains win again. You'd think after all these years the other teams would have caught on to why Team Sky are so successful. It's not all about the money, although it clearly is an advantage to have a purse big enough to choose the finest riders cycling has to offer for your team. It's more than that, though. It's more about the attitude towards rider welfare. 

It's no secret that Team Sky take the comfort of their riders very seriously. Granted, those hours riding a tour stage must be sheer hell but every other waking moment is dedicated to making riders feel as comfortable as possible.  

If you question the importance of a good night's sleep to performance, consider this. Team Sky take pillows and mattress toppers to every hotel to ensure riders receive as peaceful a night's sleep as possible.  

At the other end of the scale, Bora Argon18 actively discourage riders from even bringing along their own pillows, lest they all decide to do it. "These are young riders, they shouldn't need to bring their own bedding," they told RCUK's Oli Gill. This is a prime example of why Team Sky are so far ahead in the GC. The other teams still don't get it. They can't get their heads round the fact that little things add up and together create an advantage.  

This is how Chris Froome is still supported by his wingmen far into a stage and often right through to the end when the key riders of other teams are forced to battle it out alone because their teammates have been forced to fall back, out of sheer exhaustion.  

Froome is blessed with a natural strength, which comes with growing up at high altitude. He has bigger lung capacity than others.  

This, combined with a fresh, powerful and rested support team have made him unstoppable.   

That is what has given him the advantage and until rival teams wake up to what makes Team Sky consistently better than rivals, is what will continue to do so.

So Boris, there is your answer. I'm off to Paris for stage 21.