Shane Sutton has described Sir Bradley Wiggins controversial use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) as a means of “finding the gains,” arguing that it was a legitimate ploy that the rules allowed.
Data published by the Fancy Bears hacking group after the Rio Olympics revealed that Wiggins was granted TUEs to take the drug triamcinolone ahead of three key races – the 2011 and 2012 editions of the Tour de France and the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
Each was granted around a week before the race in question in accordance with the rules and authorised by the UCI.
Wiggins was administered the drug for allergies, but a number of professional riders have admitted using it performance enhancement. New UCI president David Lappartient has said he wants to introduce a full ban on such corticosteroids from 2019.
Sutton is now head coach of China's track team, having left British Cycling in April 2016 following allegations of discrimination and bullying.
Speaking to the BBC for an upcoming documentary, he explained the circumstances under which an application would be made for a TUE.
"If you've got an athlete that's 95% ready, and that little 5% injury or niggle that's troubling, if you can get that TUE to get them to 100%, yeah of course you would in those days," he said.
"The business you're in is to give you the edge on your opponent… and ultimately at the end of the day it's about killing them off. But definitely don't cross the line and that's something we've never done."
Asked whether "finding the gains might mean getting a TUE," he replied: "Finding the gains might be getting a TUE? Yes, because the rules allow you to do that."
Gaming the system
Commentator and former pro David Millar – whose sister Fran is Team Sky’s Director of Business Operations – said the team exploited the rules.
"Do I think they were gaming the system? Yeah, I think that's quite obvious, I think we all know that.
"It's incredibly disappointing. Team Sky was zero-tolerance, so you'd think that would mean you wouldn't tread into that very grey area of corticosteroid use, because it is performance-enhancing. So when I heard that it was like, 'seriously?'
"A little bit of me died to be honest with you. I thought you guys were different."
Sir Dave Brailsford said his team played by the rules.
“If an athlete is hampered by an illness and there is a medication they can have and the TUE criteria are met, then they should [have it]. If Wada and the UCI signed this off and it was all absolutely clear and above board then I was comfortable with that.”
More criticism of Sutton’s management style
Sutton resigned from his position as British Cycling’s technical director in April 2016 following accusations of bullying and discrimination. The documentary also sees Dr Steve Peters, the psychiatrist who was with British Cycling until April 2014, reveal that he had expressed concerns about Sutton’s behaviour to Brailsford in 2012.
Peters clearly felt Sutton needed reining in as ‘sometimes his passion overran’.
"Shane would start to sort of cajole the athletes and they would feel that they were being intimidated or bullied – some of them, not all. Some of them welcomed it and said, 'no, this really gets me back in line again'.
"I don't think there was any malice there, I don't think he meant anything wrong, but I got to the point after London – we waited until after the Olympics – that I went to Dave and said: 'It can't continue.'
"I think Shane's very passionate and he contributed significantly to the success of the team but if something wasn't going right, Shane took it on his shoulders. That if this team didn't succeed in London, for example, then it was his fault, and that meant terrible pressure on him.
"And Shane himself would admit that sometimes his passion overran and then it might turn into what most people would see as hostility or aggression."
An internal British Cycling report carried out by Peter King in 2012 made explicit reference to “a culture of fear and bullying” and an “autocratic leadership style.”
The full details were never passed on to UK Sport and Sutton was subsequently promoted to technical director of British Cycling in April 2014.
Sutton denies that riders feared him.
"You can rule out the whole 'fear'. I love that word 'fear' – you're looking at a bloke here, 60 years of age, 65 kilos, and people fear you? You got to be kidding me, come on. No, fear doesn't come into it at all. Dave just set the bar high."
He also denied that he had told Jess Varnish to ‘go and have a baby’.
"There's been a lot made of that. I actually laugh about it when I think about it. Did I ask her to lose some timber? If that's what you want to ask next? Yes, for sure. I was hurt by what was said – I'd have walked across hot coals for those riders, I'd do anything for them."
For his part, Brailsford believes that British Cycling is now “too soft.”
"Life's not about being soft,” he said. “Life's tough. That's the reality of life and I want us to win. I want us to be proud of our nation – a nation of winners and I want to be part of that. I don't want to be a nation of losers."
Britain's Cycling Superheroes: The Price of Success will be shown on BBC Two at 9pm on Sunday.