Team Sky and Marginal Games

15 Jan 2018 Posted by

Here’s a #fourminutemull I did on Saturday, in the aftermath of Dan Roan’s great work on obtaining a letter that had been sent by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) to British Cycling in the aftermath of the Jiffy Bag investigation.  In it, UKAD lists a series of processes and governance areas that they say compromised their investigation and hindered the resolution of that case.

Remarkably, this list was not enough to compel any further action – anti-doping is impotent and far too reliant on a positive test – and it is now left to the GMC to investigate Dr Richard Freeman on this issue.  And so the investigation was closed.

The letter, however, which many had tried to obtain before Roan succeeded, is eye-opening.  Not because it necessarily adds to the concept of Team Sky being something of a shambles, but rather because it reveals the scale of it.  And that’s important because a foundation for Team Sky was their unmatched professionalism in areas of HP management and support.  There is no greater priority area than the medical support provided to the athletes, and this was a list of how not to be world-class.

Here is the article by Dan Roan on the issue, and here is the letter that UKAD sent to inspire it.

I can’t believe that Sky have any credibility left on any issue, yet some are adamant that there’s no problem.  Their continued belief reveals only that they don’t mind being lied to. Repeatedly.  Sky rolled into professional cycling with a ton of money and a handful of promises, none of which have been kept.  Transparency?  Zero tolerance on doping?  No and no (though in fairness, the latter was a foolish commitment).  The hiring of Leinders (oops, our bad) was taking the redemption shtick a little bit far though.

Throughout, it’s been pretty obvious that not all was as it appeared to be. At times, it was like re-reading the Armstrong playbook – the attention to detail, revolutionary training methods, bike advances, state of the art services and support, sports science and medicine, “crazy attention to detail” (Brailsford’s own words), the most professional team in the sport – all packaged into a Marginal Gains concept that was peddled to a public through a segment of compliant media who bent over backwards, not simply to communicate the myths, but to package it even more attractively.

Yet this is a team that had in its midst one of history’s greatest ever cyclists, not just once-in-a-generation good, but historically dominant, for years, and didn’t realize it, to the extent that they were trying to hand him off to other teams (who also didn’t want him).

Then it all changed, thanks to a bit of weight loss caused not by the attention to diet detail within the team, but to an outsider with no formal diet training, and finally treating a mystery disease that is actually very easy to identify and treat if you know a person is from Africa.  That this change happened when Froome was not even receiving the support of the “A-team”, and led Brailsford to ask his own staff to explain it, doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence.  It is at least more compatible with what is revealed by the UKAD letter.

Marginal gains is dead.  You know this because Matthew Syed, who doesn’t let two weeks go by without invoking it, has been silent on the topic since the Froome salbutamol positive was announced.  There is no chance he’ll comment on this letter.  It would hurt book sales and corporate speaking gigs, where he gets to tell audiences that it’s about aerodynamic bikes, mattresses, diet tweaks, anti-bacterial hand gels and the apparently unknown relationship between pasta, cadence and power output (Youtube video via @digger_forum).

All of which needs the rest of the world to be idiotic morons who’ve never thought of performance optimization.  Armstrong needed the same myth – I remember being at my first international sports science conference in France in 2004, and was struck by the caliber of scientists working in professional cycling.  Their attention to detail and advanced level of thinking was eye-opening.  Diet, power, training, engineering.  They had it all covered.  Each presented their approach from within the pro-peloton, and I remember being in the audience thinking “This doesn’t sound like what you’d read about in “It’s not about the bike” and US newspapers every July.

You could write the same now, except the books are “Black box thinking” and “Inside Team Sky”, and the newspapers are published in London.

I think the reading material that tells the uncomfortable truth was laid out in the letter from UKAD.  Emperor Dave has no clothes.



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