A great loser

‘Is it the Truth, or in fact a Lie?’

Right now you may be forgiven for considering the option of giving professional cycling an amnesty, to pull all of the skeletons out of the closet, naming and removing the bad actors and their techniques permanently, and starting again. Be it mechanical or chemical doping, or less scientific, good old fashioned cheating, perhaps Rob Brydon could head up a UCI initiative with a cycling special episode of ‘Would I lie to you?’. The stories are endless so I am sure Mr Brydon would not be short of material, though clearly whether we would ever get anyone to actually tell the ‘truth’ would be a special challenge for this episode. If the truth was told, I am sure it would be jaw dropping! Meanwhile, back in the real world, what is really known about what has gone on is going to stay firmly embedded within the conscience of those involved. Moreover any evidence has long been destroyed, or perhaps exists only on a USB memory stick at the back of Michael McIntyres ‘man drawer’, and the chances of it seeing the light of day are comparable with me winning today’s Milan-San Remo, as I sit typing in my Lincolnshire office.

The striking off of Dr Richard Freeman (Former British Cycling and Team Sky (now Ineos Grenadiers) chief doctor) has certainly caused me to question again whether even in such recent history cycling was, is or can be clean? If you missed the news in the last two weeks, according to Sky News, Dr Freeman has either admitted or been found guilty of 21 of 22 charges relating to the procurement of Testosterone gel, and it being delivered to British Cycling Headquarters in 2011, which was / or was not intended for a rider – who has not been named. My key concern is; when… 2011 is relatively significant as it is where British Cycling really ‘kicked on’, and how much (if any) of our celebration of 2012 and beyond was actually a lie? Clearly the success wasn’t delivered just through a tube of Testogel! But what else don’t we know?

While Egan Bernal placed relatively well, Ineos Grenadiers were somewhat a no show in last weeks Tirreno-Adriatico. Was this a total co-incidence? If I remember well, around the time of the revelation of the now infamous ‘Wiggins delivery’, there was similar invisibility of Ineos (pre-Grenadiers!) within the peloton. I think it would be only natural that if someone is throwing rocks, or casting aspersions about your team, club or organisation, it’s going to impact performance both individually and collectively. I’ve certainly seen this in industry, as employees themselves start questioning decisions, or what they know about what’s really gone on. The ‘delta dip’ can be profound – ask British Airways Cabin Crew following then CEO Alex Cruz commercial suicide decision to make the passengers pay for drinks and snacks… the Cabin Crew were as (if not more) upset at the deterioration of the brand and the role they now had to play in representing it, as the passengers were at having to pay for a luke-warm M&S bacon buttie. So I can well imagine all not being ‘well’ under the surface of the Ineos Grenadiers camp right now.

While Sir Brad has certainly been vocal recently, what of Mr Dave Brailsford? One of the heroes of Britains biggest sporting achievement in recent history, and the head of both Team Sky and the British Cycling efforts at the time of Dr Freeman and the ‘Wiggins delivery’… why no comment, yet? In the wake of the case against Dr Freeman, Mr Brailsford has become as invisible as the team he leads… and this troubles me. Why no denial, or that this was done without his knowledge and that the controls in place in the early 2010’s were shambolic? Was a blind eye being turned, as it suited the narrative of the time? Or were people really going rogue making big decisions independently, without oversight, knowledge or recourse? It just doesn’t add up to me.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s (Ineos owner) position is clear… Ineos engagement in the sport is dependant on it being as clean as their sanitising products, and will not tolerate any form of cheating. Admirable indeed. Considering this, with a sport that has been so badly damaged by its past through what was perhaps the necessity to be the ‘best of the cheats’ to win, the fact Sir Jim put his money into the sport in such style was indeed a bold move. While the teams primary care must be the riders and their health and well-being, the sport in general and teams individually really do owe it to the fans to get the sport straight, and stay straight (not that I am saying it’s not straight right now, of course). However sponsors are perhaps indirectly, as much to blame as the teams or individuals that come up with such schemes themselves… when big money arrives, success is required, and therefore more risk will be taken, as the stakes become bigger. Surely, no organisation ever went into sports sponsorship to be ‘at the back’.

The Lanterne Rouge itself is a well regarded position – but name the rider that took the acclaim of the Tour De France, Lanterne Rouge in any of the last 30 tours? You’d be doing well to name but a handful off the top of your head, never mind who they rode for, or critically who sponsored them. Formula 1 is a solid demonstration where struggling teams are typically in a downward spiral as sponsors don’t want to put their name on a loser, and so less money means less development, which means they fall further behind. Sponsors and investors want to put their money and crucially their name on a thoroughbred winner – otherwise why be in the sport at all? I’ve seen some incredible statistics regarding ‘screen time’ versus success in motorsport and it was, as you would expect, exponential. (I do think that producers are more balanced with coverage today though – but that may purely be down to the fact that all of the ‘racing’ is mid-field and backwards). But cycling is no different.. hence some of the apparently pointless ‘attacks’ on some stages, where some are about obtaining ‘screen time’ for sponsors. Yes sponsorship is an important, nay vital part of the sport, however this cannot be at ‘any cost’.

If we learnt nothing else from Lance Armstrong, if we really needed any proof, we did learn that it really isn’t just WHAT you achieve that’s important, but it’s HOW you achieve it that will define your legacy. It’s the same outside of sport too. I’ve met and worked for many successful leaders who I would run through walls for because of how they led and engaged with me, their teams, customers, and suppliers. I’ve also met and worked for very ‘successful’ leaders who have delivered exceptional results while leaving a string of disasters and a very sick organisation in their wake. Legacy and culture are both perhaps hard to define, but for me are certainly heavily intertwined… without a culture that encourages, facilitates and demands that things are done in the right way, the legacy will only ever be as good as the last truth or lie that was told about it. Crucially, with a sick culture, there are going to be more lies to deny. Ineos Grenadiers and British Cycling offer that they have done little wrong, other than perhaps not maintaining sufficient processes and controls. It remains absolutely possible, perhaps probable, that this is true and that they have done nothing wrong, and their integrity is being questioned largely because of their association with the legacy and culture that has gone before it, that still to some extent defines cycling today.

I see the UCI and WADA’s biggest challenge is to develop and maintain the sports credibility in order for it to continue to move forwards. Culture is like an oil tanker (taking a long time to change direction) and people’s memories are long, and only through time can cycling shake off its past that hangs around like a truly annoying and dangerous parasite. The growth in women’s cycling (pro and amateur) and other forms of cycling (cyclocross, e-bikes for example) can only help in driving a new culture that the sport would appear to need… one of inclusiveness, openness and transparency, where we all have one thing in common… we love riding bikes. The more of that the better!

Winning isn’t everything, though I do recognise to some poor souls it is the only thing. And I personally will never cheat to win, it just doesn’t mean that much to me. Looking at myself in the mirror and believing who I see will always be more important than that…

And fortunately, I’m a great loser.

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