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.