Sir Bradley Wiggins says that he needed therapeutic use exemptions for the banned corticosteroid triamcinolone because he was already on ‘the maximum for over-the-counter products’ and was still often suffering allergy problems.
In a long interview with The Guardian’s William Fotheringham, who worked with him on his 2012 autobiography, Wiggins explains how he has suffered from the effects of pollen allergies since the 2003 Giro d’Italia, arguing that at times they have significantly affected his performances.
As one example, he said he won the time trial in the 2011 Bayern Rundfahrt, but believed asthma problems prevented him winning the overall. “I’d had quite a vicious attack with it earlier in the week and it felt like it always did – leave me feeling a bit weak the next day.”
He also describes a mountain stage in the 2010 Tour de France, where he finished 23rd, “sneezing my head off, blowing snot out of my nose, unable to breathe.”
Wiggins said he had long managed the condition with a variety of treatments. “Continual medication … two Clarityns per day, one in the morning, one at night, nasal sprays, inhalers – two in the morning, two at night, eye drops as and when. I was on the maximum for over the counter products.”
Wiggins explained that his symptoms varied from day to day and at times the over-the-counter medication wasn’t enough. “If we were on top of a mountain it’d be completely different to if we were finishing in a town, a small village or something. You could never predict.”
Many have questioned how someone with apparently severe breathing problems could have any success at all in a sport like cycling. However, a number of the symptoms described by Wiggins would perhaps better be characterised as congestion.
“One thing I would constantly have is a blocked nose. I’d be constantly like I was full of a cold. Particularly when I was lying down, having a massage on my front, my nose would fill up and you could hear it in my voice talking afterwards. People would say, have you got a cold, you’re not ill are you? No, I’ve got hay fever, allergies. It was just a constant thing. That didn’t stop me from being able to perform and train, it was kind of … A lot of it I found was a build-up. If I was symptomatic for a long period over time I found that I really weakened off and I’d notice the effects more.”
Restricted breathing does get a mention though when he adds: “Uncontrollable sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, the urge to rub my eyes constantly, and in doing that the eyes becoming bloodshot … extreme. My breathing became restricted, like breathing through a straw at times.”
The current manufacturers’ guidelines for the use of triamcinolone state: “Patients with hay fever or pollen asthma who are not responding to pollen administration and other conventional therapy may obtain a remission of symptoms lasting throughout the pollen season after a single injection of 40mg to 100mg.”
After seeing a specialist, a corticosteroid injection was recommended for Wiggins before the 2011 Tour de France. “At that time it was like this is going to cure … This is going to go a long way towards you not having any problems for the next three weeks now,” he says.
The timing is something many have questioned. Explaining why the injection was given immediately before his target races, Wiggins said: “The problem with [the allergy] was it was unpredictable. I couldn’t say, well, this was going to happen on this day or wonder what the weather is going to … if we are going to have a hot Tour, if we’re going to have all this stuff floating around the air, that the helicopter’s chopping up from flying over.”
David Millar used Kenacort, a trade name for triamcinolone, during his career. He has argued that it should be banned during races. Wiggins says more context is needed to draw such conclusions.
Speaking about riders such as Millar and Jorg Jaksche – who has also admitted to using the drug for performance enhancement – he said:
“What doses were they taking then? Let’s have some more specifics please. When did you take it, how much did you take, how did you feel the day after when you took it? Just to put some context to this dose for this specific reason … And then what else were you taking at that time in conjunction with that? Was it just cortisone in that period? Was everyone abusing cortisone? Or was it in conjunction with EPO, with testosterone, all those other things?”
Wiggins claims that on at least one occasion the triamcinolone injection had a negative effect on his performance. Speaking about the 2011 Tour, he said: “I actually think it was a detriment to my performance. As the first week went on I felt like I was getting weaker and weaker, I didn’t have the power. Obviously I crashed out so I will never know. I was borderline there anyway, right down probably below [the weight] that was ideal for me and I think this just tipped me over the edge.”
As for why there is no mention of his allergies and treatment in his autobiography, Wiggins said it was simply because it was something he had got used to.
He said when he’d had bad days on the bike in the past, he’d been paranoid about making excuses on the grounds that such explanations would have garnered little sympathy from people - and in 2012, the problem seemed even less relevant.
“I’d won everything that year. When I was writing the book I wasn’t sat there thinking, “I’d better bring my allergies up”. I was flying on cloud nine after dominating the sport all year. It wasn’t something that I brought to mind.”