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Bradley Wiggins and his infamous TUEs have been making a lot of headlines, but it was Chris Froome’s case during the 2014 Tour de Romandie that prompted the UCI to overhaul its procedures for issuing the controversial therapeutic use exemptions.
In an interview with VeloNews, UCI president Brian Cookson recounted how it was the Froome case that prompted his new administration to tighten up its internal TUE process.
“There was a controversy about one of Froome’s TUEs at Romandie, and that was when we looked at how we were issuing TUEs,” Cookson said. “We changed the rules about how TUEs were issued.”
Up until 2014, the UCI’s practice was to sometimes fast-track urgent TUE requests via just one of the UCI’s medical staff (usually former UCI medical advisor Mario Zorzoli) rather than a three-member panel. There were already growing doubts about the efficacy and reliability after many dubious TUEs were issued over the years — including revelations about Lance Armstrong’s infamous backdated TUE for cortisone in 1999 — but the issue soon reached a head. By 2009, the number of TUEs hit 239 across the peloton.
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By 2014, just months into his new administration after being elected as UCI president the previous fall, Cookson decided it was time to close the loophole and insist that all TUE requests go through a three-member review panel.
“We made sure there was an active TUE commission, not just one doctor that was consulted with in extraordinary circumstances,” Cookson continued. “We made sure those three doctors were people who were experts in the field, that they have to agree unanimously. That’s one of the reasons why there are less issued now.”
TUEs were already tracking downward even before 2014, in large part because salbutamol, a favored asthma treatment, was taken off the banned list in 2010. The number of TUEs dropped from 97 in 2010 to 30 in 2013.
By 2015, only 15 TUEs were issued during the entire racing season. Cookson also insisted the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, founded in 2008 to run anti-doping controls, is more independent than ever, and operates as an stand-alone operation rather than under the UCI’s legal department.
“We have made the TUE system as rigid and clear as it possibly can be,” Cookson continued. “We’ve handed the whole thing over to the CADF, so it’s not the UCI who is making the decision. OK, it’s still in Aigle, it’s on the other side of the building, but it’s not managed by the UCI, there are no board members. It is properly independent.”
Wait and see on Wiggins
When we talked to Cookson at the Santos Tour Down Under in January, he outlined his position on the brewing controversy involving TUEs that 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins was issued during the 2011, 2012, and 2013 seasons for triamcinolone, a powerful corticosteroid that Team Sky claims he took to treat asthma. The injections, taken ahead of the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France and the 2013 Giro d’Italia, also raised red flags about possible abuse to trigger weight loss and improve power-to-weight ratio.
The revelations, which came via leaked data from a hack into the World Anti-Doping Agency late last summer, created a firestorm in the British media. A formal investigation by UK Anti-Doping was opened, including inquiries over a mysterious package that was sent to the team during the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné. Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford eventually testified before a parliamentary committee, and findings could be issued as soon as this week.
Cookson, who was president of the British Cycling Federation during Sky’s formation going into its debut 2010 season until he was elected UCI president in 2013, has largely steered clear of commenting on the case.
“There is nothing that I can say that would not make it worse for the whole sport of cycling, so that is why I am not saying very much,” Cookson said. “I don’t know how many times you’ve got to keep saying this. Of course, I am not interfering with this. If someone breaks the rules, I am not going to sweep it under the carpet … but let’s wait to see what happens with this inquiry.”
The growing crisis has put Cookson in a bind, and he said he’s not been involved in the inquiry. And he also insisted he has no idea if any rules were broken, but he said it should not come as a surprise that Team Sky might have pushed the rules to the limit.
“As I understand it, WADA looked at all those leaks, and concluded that none of them required disciplinary action,” he said. “In that respect, and everything I’ve read, there is no suggestion that any rules have been broken. [The TUEs] have been issued within the rules and procedures at the time.
“I have said, people shouldn’t be surprised that professional sports teams push the rules to the limit,” Cookson continued. “That’s what they do, whether it’s soccer, tennis, and I am not just talking about doping, but all rules. Sports teams seek every advantage they can by pushing the rules to the absolute limit. As long as you do not pass that line, that’s OK. It might be uncomfortable for some people, but as long as they do not break the rules; that’s the end of the matter. But … let’s see what comes out of the UK anti-doping.”
And Cookson repeated that he’s playing no role in the current investigation nor did he have any idea what Team Sky might or might not have been during the Wiggins era.
“But the idea that I should know what was inside this package is ridiculous,” Cookson said of the so-called “jiffy bag.”
“When you are in governance of an organization, you are not involved in the management, so I have no idea what would be inside of any package.”