It’s worth remembering that many cycling greats – indeed most – have been dopers. Eddy Merckx, the greatest: a doper. Tom Simpson, whose memorial on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in Provence has become a place of pilgrimage: a doper. Lance Armstrong, the “most sophisticated” doper. The problem stretches back to the 1880s: doping, doping, doping. There is a blindness or cognitive dissonance among many of the sport’s fans to this fact.
Still, there was hope when Team Sky was founded in 2010 that we were entering a new era. It would be scrupulously clean; there would be a zero-tolerance approach to cheating. But how, everyone asked, could such a team compete if everyone else was on the juice? This was where general manager, David Brailsford, the clear-eyed, evangelical pitchman, came in. Team Sky would prevail by having space-age bicycles and a fancy team bus. They would cart mattresses and hypoallergenic pillows around France for all the riders.
And we bought this narrative of science, modernity and tactical ingenuity, more, perhaps, because we hoped it would be true. Last week’s proceedings at the culture, media and sport select committee have left cycling’s credibility, in the words of one MP, “in tatters”. The scale of the deception by Team Sky is still unclear and certainly no one believes that we are dealing with the drug use, cover-ups and bullying of the Armstrong era.
Still, it is a stretch to believe that an outfit that was obsessed by the amount of dust in a rider’s bedroom would not keep track of the amount of triamcinolone it ordered. Brailsford professed to be ignorant of the reputation of the corticosteroid, a favourite of Armstrong and now-reformed doper David Millar for helping them lose to weight and pedal harder, which, again, is difficult to fathom when he is so fixated with every single cog of the organisation over which he presides.
Should Brailsford stay in charge of Team Sky? The mysterious Jiffy bag containing who-knows-what substances; the laptop of medical records lost on a Greek island; the tactical deployment of therapeutic use exemptions by Bradley Wigginsjust before major races in 2011, 2012 and 2013. All are Brailsford’s responsibility. All contravene the spirit that Team Sky was set up to exemplify. He looks destined to become another cycling great who disappointed us. But Brailsford’s personal fate is really of little importance. If this latest scandal derails the heartening boom in recreational cycling we’ve seen in Britain in recent years, then his legacy will truly be in the gutter.