In Defence of the Sceptical



A few days on from the flagship annual cycling race of the season reaching its climax and I’m left feeling decidedly flat about the 2018 edition of the Tour de France. This despite it being won by a Welshman, born less than 5 miles from where I live and someone I have in the past counted among my favourite sporting heroes. I once passed Geraint Thomas training on my local roads, he’s easy to distinguish from Team Sky FKWs, especially if you watch as much pro cycling as I do. There’s a framed photo of him by the lifts in the hospital where I go for physio which I always glance at as I pass (way more often than I’d like). You’ll not have been able to avoid the jubilant headlines on Sunday and the gazillion interviews in the British media that followed which generally all resulted in the same few insights: • “It’s been a whirlwind” • Maindy Flyers • Whitchurch High School • The other Geraint Thomas • “I haven’t signed a contract yet” It’s all lovely and fun isn’t it? A cycling good news story. A rider who personally hasn’t had any drugs controversy is one the British press can properly back with full on flag waving (even if that flag bears a big red dragon). There were a few passing references to the suspicion and controversy that has dogged Team Sky over the years but I’ve only seen 2 instances of that being properly aired in the mainstream media to temper the over-the-top celebrations; First, Dan Roan’s balanced written piece on the BBC website: And secondly, Steve Scott in a far less comfortable interview for ITV News than most of the giggly nonsense we saw on programmes like The One Show:

However, in my opinion, one particular article, truly needs to be addressed. Now I’m a fairly laid back kinda gal, not into slanging matches but Matthew ‘ping-pong’ Syed’s piece in The Times has got my bullshit radar beeping hysterically.

Allow me to elaborate on why I’m so incensed by this particular article. Back in 2012 we were sold a fairytale of ‘marginal gains’, of hard work, dedication and attention to detail. Bradley Wiggins was the poster boy and Dave Brailsford feted as the architect of a genius, clean, recipe for success across both Team Sky and British Cycling. Most of us suckers bought it. The euphoria of that Olympic summer swept us off our feet and we willingly basked in it and lauded the heroes, heaping accolades and gongs on them. We didn’t look too deep at the time but bit by bit it all began to unravel and eventually with the Fancy Bears leaks and the jiffy-bag whistle-blower it became clear that it looked to good to be true because it actually wasn’t true. I don’t know about you but I hate being made a fool of. So to Syed and this week’s attempt to sell us the old story once again. In a weak attempt to start from an unbiased standpoint he sets out both sides of the debate on whether Thomas’s victory at the Tour is tainted by the reputation of Team he rides for, the system he was groomed for success in (British Cycling) and the man who masterminds the team and formerly the system (David Brailsford). Here you see a roll call of success attributed to Brailsford countered by the phrase “the opposite camp have no such respect” suggesting something negative about the character of the sceptics. He cites only 2 of the many points upon which Team Sky have been brought into question and even then, adds a caveat about the morality of hiring Knaven. Here’s a more comprehensive list of questionable activities and personalities associated with Sky (done off the top of my head, not necessarily complete): • CIRC report • Jiffy bag contents • Dave Brailsford’s lies re: jiffy bag • Shane Sutton • Bradley Wiggins’ TUEs • Chris Froome’s TUEs • Chris Froome’s salbutamol AAF • Richard Freeman’s conduct re: DCMS Committee • Richard Freeman’s inability to upload medical records then get the only copy stolen • Jonathan Tiernan-Locke • Sergio Henao • Hiring Servais Knaven • Hiring Geert Leinders • Testosterone patches • DCMS Report

In his usual style, Syed derives inspiration from an obscure source (usually a philosopher or psychologist you’ve never heard of), in this instance psychologist Charles Lord, who did an experiment in 1979 the result of which showed that it was hard to change the minds of people with an opinion and attempts to do so will likely make them even more entrenched. In an unexpected twist (not) Syed later concludes that he has not had his mind changed and he retains his belief in Team Sky, Brailsford and Geraint Thomas even though he has seen the documentation available to arouse serious suspicion and concern. He even cites the fact that Geraint Thomas doesn’t have asthma as a good reason to believe in him and follows with a quote from a confessed doper who served a ban, David Millar to back up this position.

Next, we have Syed using the argument that “nobody would have given Thomas a shot at winning the Tour a decade ago” as further evidence that hard work, training and science under Brailsford is what did it without the consideration that all the other teams might use hard work, innovation and science nor that Wiggins and Froome also used hard work innovation and science for their wins but also asthma medication (in Wiggins case with pretty powerful side effects). Syed’s reference to “silent majority” who believe in Thomas’s victory (and Froomes’ for that matter, why does he leave Wiggins out at this point?) suggests that to his mind most readers are taking in his bullshit because it is somehow ethically right to do so and I find this particularly offensive as someone who believes the evidential background here gives us an absolute right to question this remarkable event.

Syed talks of “presuming innocence” and “benefit of the doubt” before “nailing his colours to the mast” and declaring that “scepticism surrounding Thomas, not least from sections of the French public, particularly unjust”. Now Geraint Thomas has been at Team Sky from the very beginning. He has ridden alongside all the riders in the list I gave above. He has been coached/managed/had medical advice if not treatment from the staff listed above. He’s one of the biggest names in the biggest cycling team there is. So no, Matthew, he doesn’t get immunity from the scepticism just because his school teachers and former teammates say nice things. It is entirely justified. As for the swipe at the French public there, don’t think we can’t see you sucking up to Brailsford.

But why would Syed want to publish such an article? Why is it so important to persuade us to abandon the scepticism and believe it’s all been done by a superior strategy rather than bending, stretching and maybe even breaking the (ethical and/or literal) rules? Maybe because he has a vested interest in pumping the marginal gains philosophy.

Unlike Matthew Syed I have bucked the trend that the cited psychologist discovered and allowed myself to be swayed by the evidence rather than to entrench my position as a fan with blind faith that Team Sky and indeed British sport as a whole is clean. I won’t be going to the homecoming event for Geraint Thomas next Thursday in Cardiff. A part of me still wants to believe and to be in awe, to have that feeling of joy in the victory of someone you admire, however, I won’t be hoodwinked by snake-oil salesmen like Brailsford and Syed again.