There was only one question anyone wanted to ask Dr Richard Freeman on Friday after he was found guilty of ordering banned testosterone in 2011 while ‘knowing or believing’ it was to improve an unnamed rider’s performance.
‘So who was the rider?’ I ask the former head doctor of Team Sky and British Cycling, as we talk that day, socially distanced, in his office at Great Harwood Health Centre, a medical practice just outside Blackburn.
‘Well that’s the thing,’ he says. He looks deflated as he sits in his blue scrubs, breaking off from emails relating to his work rolling out the Covid vaccine programme in East Lancashire. ‘There wasn’t one.’
Dr Richard Freeman has broken his silence for the first time since his doping verdict on Friday
He pauses. ‘It’s so disappointing,’ he says. ‘It’s unbelievable. I have never doped a rider in my life. I’m still to see any evidence of who this rider supposedly was. I accept there are people who don’t believe me. They will say I’ve lied and changed my story and can’t trust anything I say. I’ve admitted to those lies.
‘And, yes, I deserved the GMC tribunal [a General Medical Council probe into whether he is fit to be a doctor]. But I can say with a clear conscience that I didn’t order Testogel knowing or believing it was for cheating.’
Freeman had already admitted to 18 GMC charges, including buying a box of 30 Testogel sachets in 2011, to lying to UK Anti-Doping (and colleagues) about it, to changing his story, to keeping inadequate medical records and to prescribing medicines to non-athlete colleagues.
‘We [Team Sky and British Cycling] were more interested in spending money on ceramic bearings instead of a medical records system,’ says Freeman. ‘I’m still shocked at this verdict. I’ve made plenty of mistakes but I’m not a doping doctor.’
So why did Freeman order the Testogel?
‘For Shane Sutton.’
Sutton was the head coach at Team Sky at the time and Freeman’s defence during the tribunal was based on him ordering the Testogel for Sutton’s alleged erectile dysfunction.
The 46-page official tribunal summary says no evidence was produced to show Sutton used erectile dysfunction medicine in 2011, although sections of the findings around his medical history were redacted when made public.
Ex-British Cycling and Team Sky doctor Freeman, 61, was found guilty of ordering banned testosterone ‘knowing or believing’ it was to dope a rider
The verdict threatens the reputation of ‘the medal factory’s’ era of dominance in the sport
The tribunal noted that Freeman had been an expert in erectile dysfunction and in the case he argued that prescribing Testogel to a non-athlete (Sutton) for the condition wasn’t in breach of the World Anti-Doping Agency code. This was presented as Freeman being ignorant of the WADA code.
Freeman shows me academic papers showing how ‘off label’ prescription of testosterone (for sexual performance) surged between 2010 and 2012. There was no binding consensus among multiple witnesses at the tribunal about testosterone and erectile dysfunction but the conclusion was to disbelieve Freeman. The summary acknowledges Sutton’s behaviour at the hearing was ‘intemperate’ and that he ‘could be a scratchy and irascible character and, when under pressure, he would, indeed, engage in bullying behaviour’.
Sutton alleged Freeman turned up to work drunk on occasion, which Freeman denies, and ‘went through a messy divorce’ (true, Freeman bitterly regrets that the demands and travel required at Team Sky contributed to his first marriage ending). His ex-wife Frances is among those who texted good wishes as we spoke.
Sutton alleged there were times Freeman couldn’t be reached in emergencies, and again the doctor doesn’t hold back. ‘It was a 24/7 job, for years. Of course there were times when my phone was on silent, or I was in the bath. That’s real life.’
But the tribunal ultimately said Sutton was ‘a credible and consistent witness’, and while the summary contains no direct evidence of a doped rider, named or otherwise, Freeman was convicted.
However, Freeman maintains that he is not a doper following the verdict that could define his 37-year professional career
May 16, 2011 As doctor for British Cycling and Team Sky, Freeman orders 30 Testogel sachets from Fit4Sport to the National Cycling Centre in Manchester.
Feb 28, 2017 Freeman fails to report to the Parliamentary committee hearing into doping, claiming he is too ill to attend.
Oct 20, 2017 Freeman resigns from Team Sky, citing ill-health.
Oct 28, 2019 Start of Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) hearing to investigate whether Freeman ordered the sachets for an athlete, if he lied when claiming to UKAD he ordered the sachets in error and subsequently returned them to Fit4Sport and if he took precautions to protect his medical records.
He admits to 18 of 22 charges including that he asked Fit4Sport to state that the sachets were sent in error but says Shane Sutton bullied him into ordering Testogel for the GB coach’s erectile dysfunction and not for athletes, which Sutton denies.
Oct 7, 2020 Freeman claims he had not read the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules on ordering Testogel and thought it would be permitted for non-athletes.
He then admits he destroyed the sachets and that he damaged his laptop containing key medical records before turning it in to the General Medical Council in 2019, but that he has ‘nothing to hide’.
Feb 12, 2021 UKAD charge Freeman with two anti-doping violations: possession of a prohibited substance and tampering or attempted tampering with any part of doping control. He admitted the tampering charge.
Mar 12, 2021 Medical practitioners tribunal concludes that Freeman ordered testosterone knowing or believing it was to dope a rider. The hearing will resume on March 17.
Our meeting on Friday is punctuated when Freeman, 60, takes phone calls, receives texts and has to nip in and out to orchestrate his daily work. A neighbour at his late mother’s home calls to say there is a camera crew outside. Another crew is roaming the local countryside, he is told. His four grown-up children call to see if he is OK, as does his partner, Sally. He says he’s fine. I’m not so sure.
There is obviously the theoretical prospect he will be struck off, banned from being a doctor for ever or ‘erased’, as the technical parlance has it.
He won’t know for days or even months whether this will happen. Even the theoretical avenue of appeal is just that for now: theoretical. Can he access funding? Can he win? He doesn’t know. He can’t comment. Neither will he make any kind of statement on whether he feels the verdict was fair or balanced.
‘I believe in due process,’ he says. ‘I believe in evidence. I believe the truth will come out. I’m not a doper.’
We spend perhaps an hour rehashing questions and issues that came up in the tribunal, about his lies, his mental health, his bipolar disorder that saw him signed off work by his psychiatrist in early 2017. He was advised not to speak to UKAD for their ‘Jiffy-gate’ inquiry around that time but went anyway and, not wanting to say he ordered the Testogel for Sutton, lied and said he ordered it by mistake.
There is a moment of dark humour as Freeman reveals that the fateful package delivered from British Cycling’s HQ in Manchester to the Team Sky bus at the Criterium du Dauphine in June 2011 was not in fact in a Jiffy Bag.
‘But Generic A5 Envelope-Gate doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?’ says Freeman, deadpan.
That Jiffy-gate episode was sparked when UK Anti-Doping were handed ‘intelligence’ in September 2016 by an informant. That set in train a turbulent four-and-a-half years for Freeman.
Two weeks last Friday, the strain took its toll in physical terms, he tells me. Out for a walk with Sally, she urged him to hurry up to shift a chest pain she was sure was stitch.
In bed later, by 1am, he was woken with ‘proper chest pain, from my right shoulder and through to my back’.
He took Paracetamol, had a hot drink and a bath, and with no respite called his paramedic son for advice.
‘He said “For God’s sake, Dad, phone an ambulance! You’re 60. You’ve been under stress. You’ve got to see if it’s cardiac”.’
The ambulance didn’t arrive quickly and the pain was now ‘the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life, by far. Indescribable. I just didn’t know what to do’.
Sally called about the ambulance again. They said it was on its way. It didn’t arrive. Sally drove Freeman to Blackburn Royal Hospital. The initial diagnosis was heart attack. Freeman was given aspirin, then a heart trace, then morphine: ‘Thank God.’
Further tests indicated it wasn’t in fact a heart attack but ulcers burning down his oesophagus.
Sally sat in her car outside the hospital all night – not being allowed admission due to Covid – and got updates via nurses by phone and text.
Freeman claimed he ordered Testogel sachets for coach Shane Sutton’s ‘erectile disfunction’, which Sutton (pictured) denies
‘I was terrified the chest pain might come back that night,’ says Freeman. ‘As everyone says, doctors don’t look after themselves. I’d never had my blood pressure checked. My cholesterol was last checked perhaps 15 years ago.
‘People say there are moments that change your perspective on life and in the hospital that night, I did. It has been stressful these past few years but what matters is health, family, getting on with my life.’
Freeman is under no illusions that last week’s verdict and Jiffy-gate will define his 37-year career as a doctor. His inclination is not to stop seeking what he sees as ‘the full truth’ about these and other cycling matters.
‘The reputations of many good people are under a cloud and that’s just not fair, not least on them,’ he says. He is adamant he knows of no riders who broke anti-doping rules by using banned performance-enhancing drugs under his care. ‘With coaches it’s different,’ he adds. ‘I’m well aware about some of those now, although I wasn’t at the time.’
Freeman denies injecting Bradley Wiggins (pictured) with a banned substance, a position he will maintain until his ‘dying breath’
What does that mean?
‘People left in 2012, that’s public knowledge.’ It’s a reference to various Team Sky staff members who admitted historic doping, either privately or publicly, and then left.
‘Some doctors too,’ he adds. I query whether he means notorious doping doctor Geert Leinders, the Belgian hired by Dave Brailsford and Steve Peters, who worked briefly for Team Sky in late 2011 and was banned for life in 2015. ‘Yes,’ he says.
Freeman knows the speculation won’t die down any time soon. He faces two UKAD anti-doping charges, one of simply being in possession of the Testogel he ordered, another for telling UKAD he ordered it by mistake.
He won’t be drawn on UKAD’s Jiffy-gate inquiry aside from maintaining his years-long position that the fateful parcel contained a legal decongestant, Flumicil, administered legally to Bradley Wiggins at a training camp on the same night the parcel arrived in France.
The former team doctor opened up on the health implications that the high-profile case has had on him, having suffered from ulcers burning down his oesophagus two weeks ago
UKAD’s inquiry took 13 months and cost hundreds of thousands of taxpayer pounds, and found no evidence that the package contained the drug Triamcinolone as alleged. Damian Collins’ parliamentary inquiry similarly concluded with no published evidence of Triamcinolone. In fact, a ‘whistleblower’ document revealed in Collins’ final report declared the parcel contained Flumicil.
‘I said under oath at the GMC that I did not inject Bradley Wiggins with Triamcinolone on the back of the bus in June 2011, and I’ll defend that to my dying breath,’ says Freeman.
In so many ways these cases, like much of life these days, is polarised. Those who believe the ‘Jiffy’ contained Triamcinolone and that Freeman bought Testogel to dope a rider won’t easily have their minds changed.
Those who think Team Sky and British Cycling have been paragons are equally deluded. The notion Freeman is some lone wolf uber-doper holding dark secrets that only he knows is, surely, also unlikely.
Freeman now works on the NHS frontline in Blackburn, helping with the Covid vaccine rollout
There was much mirth during the tribunal about how many laptops Freeman had owned. The mundane reality is one computer did indeed get stolen in Greece in 2014 and contemporary police and consular reports back that up. Three more were studied by UKAD and Freeman is still waiting to gain access back to at least one of his own personal devices.
One old laptop was taken away, then returned to Freeman. He was going to throw it away but his son advised he shouldn’t do so without destroying the hard drive for security reasons. In the tribunal this was presented as him covering his tracks when he says the authorities had already finished with the machine.
I have been in Freeman’s company for five hours when he needs to go into a meeting about vaccines. ‘It’s ironic, isn’t it?’ he says as I leave.
‘A year ago I got an email from the GMC asking me if I’d please think about returning as a doctor to frontline medicine to help with national health emergency. Even as we were in the middle of a GMC tribunal.
‘I didn’t hesitate. I’ve never worked harder. I’ve never done anything more important. You remember at times when life gets rough what really is important.’