British cyclist Josh Edmondson has told the BBC he broke the sport’s rules by secretly injecting himself with a cocktail of vitamins when riding for Team Sky.
The 24-year-old, who was on the team’s books in 2013 and 2014, also said he had severe depression after independently using the controversial painkiller Tramadol.
Edmondson said the pressure of his selection for a major race in 2014 led to him breaching the UCI’s ‘no-needle’ policy “two or three times a week” for about a month.
Team Sky say legal vitamins and a needle were found in Edmondson’s room, but they did not report the incident because he denied using them, and over concerns he “could be pushed over the edge”.
Edmondson says he confessed to Team Sky at the time but there was “a cover-up” by senior management.
Team Sky are renowned for their robust, no-needle, no-Tramadol stance.
In a wide-ranging and emotional interview, Edmondson told the BBC:
- He travelled to Italy from his training base in Nice to purchase a variety of legal vitamins and intravenous equipment.
- He risked giving himself a heart attack by self-administering the medication secretly at night.
- He independently took powerful opioid Tramadol during the 2013 Tour of Britain. Team Sky say this was given to him without their knowledge by the race doctor, rather than their own team doctor.
- He didn’t leave his house for two months because of severe depression partly caused by using Tramadol.
‘An alternative to doping’
“In 2014 I was under a lot of pressure, not just from the team but from myself,” said Edmondson.
“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].
“I think it was just before the Tour of Austria, I went to Italy to buy the vitamins that I was going to later inject. I brought them all back to Nice. I bought butterfly clips, the syringes, the carnitine [a supplement], folic acid, ‘TAD’ [a supplement], damiana compositum, and [vitamin] B12, and I’d just inject that two or three times a week maybe. Especially when I wanted to lose weight, I’d inject the carnitine more often because it was very effective.”
The vitamins Edmondson bought are legal, but the UCI – the sport’s governing body – brought in rules in 2011 banning cyclists from using needles.
“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.”
Edmondson says he is prepared to now talk to the anti-doping authorities about his past.
While Edmondson was racing at the Tour of Poland, his secret was exposed when a team-mate took photographs of the vitamins and equipment he had bought, and reported it to team management.
“I got back from that and noticed all the vitamins which had been hidden in my room were on top of this chest of drawers – and I realised I’d been caught out,” said Edmondson.
“At that point I was panic-stricken. I’d never known anything like it. You just go weak and I had no idea what to do.”
Edmondson said Team Sky’s then head of medicine, Dr Steve Peters, informed him of the discovery of the evidence.
“He said ‘there’s been an incident’ and I broke down. I was crying, I was in shock. And he said, ‘somebody has sent us some photos of this intravenous equipment and the vitamins’.”
Team Sky’s inquiry
Dr Peters confirmed to the BBC that a member of Team Sky who shared a house with Edmondson had found “a needle and some vials”, and had taken a photograph of the evidence.
But Team Sky say the incident was not reported, after Edmondson told Dr Peters via Skype that he had not used the equipment.
“He fell apart at the seams quite dramatically. A number of things I asked him during that interview really alarmed me,” said Dr Peters.
“I was now in a position where I can say the welfare of the athlete was number one. Obviously, I’m working with the team and anti-doping is a secondary issue but a really important one, and we have to address it, so Josh explained that he had never used needles before.
“He was in a very stressful situation. He was aware that his role in the team was in jeopardy. We sent off the vials, there was only one that was open, the rest were sealed. They turned out to be vitamins which you can buy over the counter, so I asked him ‘why on earth would you?’ And he had not done any injection, he said he did not know how to use it. All he said was: ‘I did not know what to do so I left it.’
“This didn’t quite ring true to me. I felt this is very odd from what I’ve experienced in the past when I’ve been involved with anti-doping issues. So I said to the team: ‘I want to stop here.’
“Wearing my hat as a doctor, for somebody to be culpable they cannot be ill and I suspect he was ill. If he’s not able to give informed consent to what he is doing and say, ‘I understand this’, then in my world, as a psychiatrist, you are not culpable, because your illness is talking.
“The second point from me is, let’s say we went ahead at that point because obviously I do not want to cover anything up – there is no way I’m going to do that. But what is the consequence of him suddenly being exposed if I’m right and he’s not well? The reason I stopped it in its tracks is my concern has always got to be for the welfare of the individual.”
Dr Peters said he then met Edmondson on 2 September 2014, when supervision and a behavioural programme was set up until the end of his contract.
“Once a week he reported to one of the team managers, and she would check on how it was going. She would report back to me, because I can’t forcefully get people to speak to me. I don’t know what happened to him after that because he did not want to engage with us.”
Team Sky say they took legal advice at the time of the incident and say that, although Edmondson had been in breach of team rules by possessing the equipment, they were under no obligation to report the case to the authorities.
‘It was a lot of agonising’
Asked whether Team Sky should have handled the case differently, Dr Peters said: “We could have reported it. We could have made a different decision. We’ll never know in hindsight. I suppose if I’m looking at safety issues I did think there was a really big risk this lad would be pushed over the edge. I stand by my decision.
“I think I’d definitely have told them if I thought this young man was trying to cheat, but I don’t think he was doing that. I think it was a panic reaction. He is making very poor decisions because he is not well, and therefore we need to treat him first of all and then get to the bottom of it. But actually to put him through some kind of investigation or disciplinary at that point could’ve been very serious and damaged this lad’s health.
“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have reported him. We had to make a judgement call which was difficult. I don’t think you could go back and think maybe we should’ve done it and took that risk. I don’t think it was easy and I think the problem is if you look at it in black-and-white terms it makes it so that there is a right and a wrong.
“There are shades of grey. Let’s be honest, none of us were comfortable but we had a lot of discussion around this and one thing we could say was he violated our rules. On the UCI technicality, he had not violated because he told us very clearly at the time that he had not done the injection because he did not know how to use the needle. This is what he told us at the time.”
When asked if there were members of Team Sky’s senior management who wanted to report it, Dr Peters replied: “Yeah. We had a lot of debate and discussion. It wasn’t just something we decided that we won’t bother saying anything. That did not happen. It was a lot of agonising.
“We’ve got this in the minutes. I’m named as the person saying: ‘Please stop until I make sure this young man is OK.’ I was involved right from the beginning and I’m trying to explain it is a difficult one. We could have judged differently. I could’ve done it. I’m saying take it to me, not the team.
“We did it on good faith and decided on two counts. One, we didn’t think he’d violated any rules and second and, most important, he was not in a good place.”
‘It’s not a cover-up’
Edmondson now claims he did tell Team Sky’s senior management he had self-injected at the time, but that there was 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.”
Team Sky firmly deny the claim. Dr Peters said: “It’s not a cover-up. Once you use that word you are saying there was an intent behind us to conceal and that was never the case.”
‘I felt like someone had thrown me down stairs’
Edmondson also told the BBC he had severe depression after independently using controversial painkiller Tramadol.
He said: “I was depressed sometimes, because if you use it in a race and you come out of the race afterwards you’re just absolutely battered.
“Tramadol makes you feel ‘dead’ the next day. I felt hungover. The withdrawal from the Tramadol made me feel depressed. It feels like you’re hungover, so you need to to just get through and I think the withdrawal from that… just immediately after a race, I was just depressed. I felt like someone had thrown me down some stairs for a few days.
“The dangerous thing about it is you don’t know when you’re coming to your limit. It’s not a performance-enhancing drug, it doesn’t make you any better, you’re not getting any more from your body, you are just pushing yourself a bit harder.
“When you’re young and you are facing some kind of depression and it might be linked to some sort of drug you are definitely in denial about what that problem is – I just saw it as the stress of doing that job and training hard. I wouldn’t have ever acknowledged that Tramadol was doing that.
“It was a serious problem for me especially towards the end of 2014. I didn’t leave the house for two months. It doesn’t get much worse than that.”
Tramadol has been blamed for causing crashes in cycling by making riders drowsy, and there are concerns it may have addictive side-effects. The Mouvement pour le Cyclisme Credible, and both the UK and US Anti-Doping Agencies have called on the World Anti-Doping Agency to ban it.
In 2014, former Team Sky rider Michael Barry said he and some of his team-mates had used Tramadol between 2010 and 2012.
Team Sky responded by saying: “None of our riders should ride while using Tramadol – that’s the policy of this team. This has been our firm position for the last two seasons.” The team have also called for it to be banned.
When asked why he chose not to tell Team Sky about his difficulties, Edmondson said: “I was just really worried how it would look and it was a naive thing to do because I know now that if I’d gone to someone, like Dr Freeman or Wiggo [Bradley Wiggins] or anyone really, someone I’d trusted, they would have helped me, and there’d have been no problem.
“It just seemed at the time that if I’d gone to them and told them, ‘I’m having this too much, I might be abusing it a little’, I didn’t think they would help me, just see it as a negative thing.
“I’m not trying to pass the buck. I realise I made that mistake. It was something I was doing and I don’t want to be that guy moaning about how they didn’t pick up on it, but if there was another rider in that position now I would want to help them and I would want there to be a system in place to help someone like that. You’d have thought there’d be a system in place to pick up on someone who’s depressed, regardless of drug use.”
In a statement, Team Sky said: “We are confident we have mechanisms in place which encourage a rider to bring any issues they may be experiencing to staff in confidence.
“We are also satisfied that staff are equipped and able to raise any concerns they may have regarding a rider’s welfare, and for the team to offer support.”
Last year, former Team Sky rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke told the BBC he had been offered Tramadol at the 2012 World Championships in the Netherlands when riding for Great Britain.
He retired recently after serving a two-year doping ban for a biological passport infringement prior to his spell at Sky.