Commentary: Should we believe in Sky’s miracles?

There is so much smoke around Team Sky that cycling can't help but cough. The Fluimucil story is still full of holes and inconsistencies.

“The last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.” -Lance Armstrong

Those words are 11 years old now. They were spoken from the podium on the Champs-Elysées by a man resplendent in yellow and without a hint of shame, because it was an honest statement. He’s still sorry everyone couldn’t just believe. If we all believed in miracles, he’d still have seven Tour wins, wouldn’t be fighting a lawsuit that could cost him $100 million, wouldn’t have his name dredged from cycling’s doping morass only for stories like this one, stories about our collective trust issues.

That infamous line came to mind as I watched and listened to Shane Sutton, former head coach of British Cycling and personal coach to Bradley Wiggins, reprimand British MPs on Monday for a similar lack of faith. “You’ve actually upset me there, in the fact that you’ve not embraced the success of British Cycling as a whole and what Team Sky and Sir Dave Brailsford have achieved,” he said. “I’m astounded that you would make that sort of tone to me, suggesting we haven’t done everything by the book.”

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It was almost as if he was sorry for them, these cynics and skeptics of Britain’s marquee Olympic sport.

Monday’s session of the Culture, Media, and Sport select committee of the British Parliament was convened to question the heads of British Cycling and Team Sky, including Brailsford and Sutton, over the various scandals that have plagued both groups since mid-summer. MPs focused on the previously unexplained medical package that was delivered to the Team Sky bus at the Criterium du Dauphiné in 2011, and why it has been so difficult to get a straight answer on the subject.

Finally, Dave Brailsford answered the question the world’s press has been asking for months: What was in the package?

His answer: Fluimucil, an over-the-counter decongestant.

And this is where our sport’s collective trust issues return. We cycling fans are conditioned to prepare for fire when we smell smoke. We assume that flimsy, fake-sounding excuses are only hiding the real, nefarious truth. Arguments to the contrary must be overwhelming, buttressed by substantial evidence, coherent and immutable. Anything less, and we just envision Armstrong standing on that podium in 2005, begging us to believe in miracles.

As a cycling fan, I must admit that I’m smelling smoke around Team Sky. As a journalist, Brailsford’s explanation answers few of my questions. In fact, it only creates a long list of additional questions that require an explanation. Here are the most pressing ones:

– Brailsford has spent weeks dodging questions about the contents of the mystery package. First question: The product Fluimucil is not on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list, so why keep it a secret?

– The package was sent from Manchester to France with British Cycling coach Simon Cope.  Second question: Fluimucil can be purchased at any French or Italian pharmacy for less than $10, so why ship it all the way from Manchester?

– Fluimucil is not readily available in Britain, where its active ingredient is not approved for inhalation in the UK. Third question: Where did you buy it in Manchester?

– Fluimucil can have dangerous side-effects for asthmatics like Wiggins. Fourth question: Wait, why give this to Wiggins if it can hurt him?

– There has been no documentation to prove that the package contained Fluimucil, only the testimony of Dr. Freeman. Sky staff testimony has proven unreliable in this case already (see the bus incident, below). Can documentation be provided that proves the package contained Fluimucil and only Fluimucil?

– Back to the storyline. The package was flown across international borders, through customs, by Cope, who claims ignorance of its contents. Brailsford said the package was for Emma Pooley, Great Britain’s 2008 Olympic silver medalist, who was a few hundred miles away in Spain. Now we know that Cope flew into Geneva, drove to the Dauphiné finish at La Toussuire, delivered the package, then returned the same evening. Fifth question: Why was all of this crazy stuff going on for a simple over-the-counter decongestant? Imagine how Sky would treat a Flintstones vitamin, for god’s sake.

– Then it was claimed by multiple Sky staffers that the contents of the package couldn’t have been given to Wiggins that day on La Toussuire because he hadn’t made it back to the bus in time, except there’s a video of him signing autographs at the bus on YouTube. Why lie about Wiggo’s location?

In the Daily Mail on Monday, reporter Matt Lawton, who broke the mysterious package story in early October, relayed a previously off-the-record conversation in which Brailsford offered a different, “more positive” story in exchange for keeping the package story under wraps. Brailsford said that he thought the package story could be the end of Team Sky.

And of course this story comes just months after we learned that Sky found a way for Wiggins to legally take a well-known PED during the 2012 Tour de France. Wiggins’s explanation for that controversy? Allergies. This explanation is hardly akin to Armstrong asking us to believe in miracles, but it’s not exactly coherent and immutable. More smoke.

Now, Sky and Brailsford have another incoherent explanation on their hands. If Brailsford, Wiggins, Sutton et al. had practiced the transparency they have preached for years, then perhaps there would be less smoke, or none. But they didn’t, and now we don’t know what’s to come out of their mouths next. Is Fluimucil the last revelation for Team Sky? If history is any guide, it’s probably not.

There is so much smoke around Team Sky at the moment that cycling can’t help but cough. The Fluimucil story is still full of holes and inconsistencies. We have too many questions that cannot be ignored. Brailsford has done his best to try and make this problem go away, but it has not. The demand should not be for our faith but for their proof, yet right now he’s asking us to believe in miracles.