Brailsford was responding to a question from Damian Collins, the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) select committee, and it came after Collins assured the cycling boss he had permission to answer questions about a package taken to Team Sky’s doctor at the end of the 2011 Dauphine Libere, a key Tour de France warm-up race.
That package, delivered by British Cycling employee Simon Cope and intended for use by star rider Bradley Wiggins, has been the subject of a UK Anti-Doping investigation into alleged “wrongdoing” ever since the story was revealed in October.
The allegation has been that the package contained triamcinolone, a powerful corticosteroid that Wiggins was given a medical exemption to use before his three biggest races in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The 2011 exemption, however, was granted specifically for the Tour de France and would not have allowed him to use the otherwise banned drug on the final day of the Dauphine, a race he won.
Inquiries about the package’s contents to British Cycling and the team in recent weeks have been either “I don’t know” or “I can’t say”, and that looked set to continue after the first three witnesses at yesterday day’s CMS session on ‘combating doping in sport’ stuck to that script.
British Cycling president Bob Howden and the chair of its ethics committee Dr George Gilbert were the first in the firing line in Portcullis House’s Thatcher Room.
Their testimony got off to a bad start when Collins read out an email from UKAD chairman David Kenworthy saying “it would be quite proper” for the panel to ask questions about the package, despite it being under investigation, because of the “wide public interest in the subject”.
It was not an invitation Collins normally requires and it did not say anything about the witnesses being compelled to answer. It also threw Gilbert and Howden into a panic from which they never quite recovered.
Over the course of 75 minutes, both said they did not know what was in the package because they had been told by UKAD to leave those questions to its investigators — what CMS committee member Paul Farrelly summed up as being told “to butt out”.
This position was ridiculed by other panel members, though, most notably Ian Lucas and John Nicolson, and the duo’s evidence ended with a chastened Howden promising Collins he would find out what was in the package and write to the committee with the answer “within a couple of days”.
The mystery of the package’s contents continued with the next witness, former British Cycling technical director and Team Sky coach Shane Sutton. The Australian, who admitted “arranging” for Cope to come out from Manchester to the top of La Toussuire ski resort to make the delivery, denied any knowledge of what was in the package and said he had never asked as “stuff flies all over the place, 24/7” in professional cycling teams and he stuck to coaching, leaving medical issues to the doctors.
Sutton, however, did go further than anybody connected to the affair so far in admitting it was a medical product and Freeman told him he had administered it to Wiggins. He immediately clarified that point by saying he would put his “life on Brad” being a clean athlete, before launching into a passionate defence of Brailsford as a “pioneer” of drug-free cycling and saying Team Sky was the “cleanest team on the planet”.
This then led to a bizarre exchange with Lucas when Sutton said he was “astounded” and “upset” that anybody would question British Cycling or Team Sky’s anti-doping record.
“You sitting up there as a British person shouldn’t be looking for something that isn’t there,” said Sutton.
This looked like being the main talking point until Brailsford, Sutton’s close friend, decided to take Collins’ bait and answer a question he has sidestepped since October and his fellow witnesses had just spent two hours avoiding.
“Dr Freeman told me it was Fluimucil for a nebuliser. That was what was in the package,” said Brailsford.
When asked if there was any documentation to support that, the 52-year-old restated it was what Freeman told him, before adding it was his “understanding” that Wiggins has made all his medical records available to UKAD.
With the key question answered, the panel backed off and Brailsford was able to easily handle more general questions about the team’s policies on TUEs, its refusal to join a group of teams that has voluntarily agreed to stricter anti-doping rules and his mistake in giving the now banned Belgian doctor Geert Leinders a job with the team in 2011 and 2012.
On the latter, Brailsford admitted this was “not his greatest decision”, but on the wider claims about Team Sky not living up to its much-touted zero-tolerance approach to doping, he was adamant the team’s “culture is world-leading”.
He ended the session, though, by delivering another ‘mea culpa’ and that was to the question of why it took a parliamentary hearing to discover that Wiggins was using a cheap, over-the-counter product for excess mucus.
“Of course it should never have got here,” said Brailsford, whose team has won four of the last five Tours de France. There’s always lessons to be learned and you start with yourself. I could have done a lot better quite frankly.
“They (Team Sky riders and employees) don’t deserve to have this shadow cast over them.
“These are people who are performing fantastically well, who don’t deserve that, and it pains me that they’ve had any doubt cast over them because of my actions.”