Team Sky is struggling. The Murdoch-funded cycling behemoth has won three of the past four Tours de France and will probably win this year’s edition of the race as well. The team has started this season well, with Colombian pipsqueak Sergio Henao winning an all-time Paris Nice by two seconds and do-it-all Polish star Michal Kwiatkoski capturing a gorgeous win at Strade Bianche, the best one-day race of the season so far. However, off the road, it’s not going well.
Olympic gold medalist and Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins remains in hot water over doping allegations, and team boss David Brailsford looks like either a complete boob or an evil genius over his handling and potential culpability in the Wiggins scandal. There is reported unrest among Sky riders, and it feels unlikely that both Wiggins and Brailsford make it out of this unscathed.
Amidst all that clamor, a former Team Sky rider has accused the team of covering up another drug violation. Josh Edmondson rode for Sky during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and he recently spoke to BBC about the pharmacological program he put himself through to compete for his place on the squad and try to make it on the best team in stage-race cycling.
His story is, foremost, about the pressure and soul-consuming grind of professional cycling. Edmondson said he developed a dependency on Tramadol, a powerful opiate painkiller, and it caused “severe depression” to the degree that he couldn’t leave his house for over a month. He also says that he bought vitamins and injected them secretly to give himself a performance edge.
While all the substances Edmondson says he took are technically legal, the Union Cycliste Internationale has a no-needle policy, and Team Sky has boasted repeatedly about their commitment to clean cycling. This means no Tramadol and no needles for their riders. Edmondson says he pushed the limits of what was legal and what was permitted by his team at points in the 2014 season because of the acute pressure of trying to get picked for his first Grand Tour.
Cycling teams have more than 25 riders on their roster, but just nine get to compete in the top races of the season. The calendar is big enough that everyone gets to rotate in and out, but young riders need shots at big races to prove themselves and earn contracts. Edmondson says that’s why he started cheating:
“You want to renew your contract for one thing, and for me the bigger thing was not letting anyone down - this team had given me a chance by signing me and a bigger chance by letting me go to a Grand Tour [the Vuelta a Espana].”
He explained that he took tremendous risks and was even tempted to start doping to maintain his edge. Edmondson never went that far, choosing to scrape the ceiling of what was legal:
“It dawned on me while I was doing it how extreme it was, putting the needle in and making sure there are no bubbles because if there is air in it, it can give you a heart attack and people can die from that,” he said.
“It is a very daunting thing to be doing, especially as I was sat in a room in a foreign country alone at night. It’s just a very surreal thing you do. It’s not something you take lightly. You’re doing it out of necessity really.”
Edmondson admits he was tempted to dope, adding: “But this was my way of closing the gap a little without doping. Some people think there is a grey area, and that’s why there is a no-needle policy, but people across sport have been injecting vitamins for years and it is an alternative to doping.
“It’s not the same—if you were doping, you are getting massive gains. This is just freshening what you do naturally.”
A teammate eventually found Edmondson’s gear and informed a team doctor. Edmondson denied using the needles, and after a brief discussion, the team decided not to report the violation to the UCI. A team doctor spoke to BBC and defended the decision, saying the team was concerned with “the welfare of the athlete.” Sky had Edmondson speak with a manager every week to check in on him and make sure his mental health was improving. The team denies that they did anything wrong because they were looking out for Edmondson. However, the rider sees it differently, calling the decision not to report the violation a “cover up.”
“I think that would have meant a bigger admission for them,” he said.
“They’d have had to say publicly a kid was injecting. Injecting anything’s bad. It’s not like they were banned substances but injecting is against the rules - to self-administer anything, I believe.”
While it seems that Team Sky avoided reporting Edmondson’s issues to the UCI or the public to preserve its then-pristine image, the larger issue of cycling’s nefarious gray area remains. Team Sky did everything right on the front end, as one of their riders reported his teammate using intravenous equipment. They might have tried to sweep it under the rug once they found out about it, but internally speaking, the system worked.
Zero-tolerance is a fine thing to aspire to, but when the margins between success and failure are so thin and the gradient between the highest level of cycling and the one below it is so steep, the system in place will always incentivize riders on the margins to skirt the rules to ensure their spot in the WorldTour peloton. Edmondson broke the rules because he saw it as the only path to staying in the sport, and Team Sky probably covered their asses because they saw it as the only way to protect their credibility. When gray eras are poorly defined and also necessary for a physically daunting sport, nobody wins.