Britain’s cycling renaissance has been one of the sport’s biggest success stories of the past decade. Since 2008, Mark Cavendish has won 26 stages at the Tour de France, British cyclists have won 16 gold Olympic medals (mostly on the track), and Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have won three Tours de France. The program, funded both with public money and the darkest private money tap in existence, has increased recreational cycling in Britain and it’s also produced arguably the best team in cycling, Team Sky. Sky finally took their first monument classic last weekend, and they have the favorite for this year’s Tour de France.
Their rise is commendable, but this week has been shown the cracks in the organization. Yesterday, British Cycling’s technical director Shane Sutton stepped down amid claims of sexism against women in the program and discrimination against para-athletes. Jess Varnish alleges that Sutton joked about her “fat arse” and told her to “go have a baby”:
The 25-year-old, who was dropped from the GB team after failing to qualify for Rio, said she spoke out against technical director Shane Sutton to change attitudes at the organisation.
She alleged Sutton made sexist comments and told her to “go and have a baby”.
Sutton also called the program’s medal-winning para-cyclists “gimps” and “wobblies”:
On Wednesday, it started a further investigation and suspended Sutton after Darren Kenny told the Daily Mail he heard members of the British disability team referred to as “gimps” and “wobblies”.
Kenny, one of Britain’s most decorated Para-cyclists, later told BBC Sport the use of the word “became common”.
Institution-level malpractice is one thing. Doping is something else entirely. The British cycling program has always been vehemently anti-doping. Sky makes all their riders sign a pledge affirming that they have never doped and never will dope. Despite this, there have been rumors and bio passport issues with some of the team’s top riders, and Jonathan Tiernan-Locke was banned for two years for a biological passport violation.
This afternoon, news broke that Simon Yates had tested positive for terbutaline. Yates does not race for Sky, but he and his twin Adam are two of Britain’s biggest young stars and are considered possible future Tour de France material. Yates’ team, Orica-GreenEdge, have chalked it up to their rider using an inhaler and failing to apply in time for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE). Riders have told me in the past that applying for TUE’s are a pain in the ass, but it’s something that teams (especially huge ones like Orica) handle well in advance. None of this is to say that Yates is definitely guilty or innocent, but his explanation isn’t airtight.
The timing of all this couldn’t possibly worse, as the Olympics (which are always British Cycling’s main target) are this summer and the Tour de Yorkshire starts tomorrow. The new race is quickly becoming one of the most popular in the peloton, with even Bradley Wiggins showing his face once a year to race it with his development team. Adam Yates will lead Orica in the race, and he’ll face off with other up-and-coming stars of British cycling like Luke Rowe and Peter Kennaugh. But the narrative won’t be nearly as celebratory as its been in the past, and for the first time, British Cycling appears that it’s going to have to face the serious and systemic problems its contemporaries deal with.
It’s not that a positive doping test and (alleged) institutional sexism are connected that makes this week so acutely painful and revealing. The program branded itself the Medal Factory and tried to build a better sporting bureaucracy, but the test and the sexism allegations have shown that British Cycling is just as susceptible to the problems that plague cycling federations all over the world. Ex-UCI dingus Pat McQuaid once infamously said it was “very important that at the end of the day the Anglo-Saxon approach wins out – because if it doesn’t, then the sport is doomed.” The premise that McQuaid built his argument on is wrong; British Cycling is not special.