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The Line, by Richard Freeman

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Richard Freeman comes to the aid of Bradley Wiggins
Richard Freeman comes to the aid of Bradley Wiggins

Title: The Line – Where Medicine and Sport Collide
Author: Richard Freeman (with Andrew Holmes, foreword by Sam Allardyce)
Publisher: Wildfire
Year: 2018
Pages: 326
Order: Headline
What it is: The former British Cycling and Team Sky doctor engages in a little bit of image management
Strengths: If you’re looking for a cross between Inside Team Sky and The Team Sky Way then this is for you
Weaknesses: The reclusive doctor has very little to say about the only thing people want to hear him talking about – the TUEs, the Jiffy bag, and the testosterone

The line. It’s all about the line.

The start.

The finish.

Making others aware of it.

Going up to it.

But never crossing it.

Never crossing it? You’re not in the race if you don’t cross the start line. You can’t win the race if you don’t cross the finish line. Some lines, they’re meant to be crossed.

Some lines, they’re easier to cross than others. Consider this:

The right of Richard Freeman to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988.

This is a common line in publishing, virtually every author of every book asserts their rights under the relevant copyright legislation. But what does it mean to be an author? What expectation does claiming to have written a book create in the mind of a reader? Most people believe it means that the person claiming to have written the book actually wrote the book.

But most celebrity memoirs – most books like this – are ghost-written. A jobbing writer (the parenthetical ‘with’ in the author details in Café Bookshelf reviews) interviews the book’s subject a couple of times – often taking up no more of the subject’s time than a day or two at most – and then goes off and puts words in their subject’s mouth. It’s an accepted deceit within the publishing industry.

Sometimes, the celebrity clearly acknowledges the deceit. Bradley Wiggins’s Icons – My Inspiration. My Motivation. My Obsession. is quite forthright in acknowledging that Herbie Sykes played a major role in writing the book. How about Freeman here and his ghost, Andrew Holmes? No credit. Freeman, it would seem, actually wants you to believe he wrote this:

The jag screamed to a halt and we bundled out like troops deploying from an army helicopter: me clutching my trauma-bag; Diego with a front and rear wheel, the two of us sprinting along a sun-dappled road in search of our fallen comrades.

Me, I’d be very, very worried if Freeman really did write that, and other sub-Bravo Two Zero passages that litter the pages of The Line, for it would suggest a delusional doctor who too freely bought into Dave Brailsford’s stated desire of making British Cycling the SAS of the Olympic world. It would suggest a Walter Mitty-type who believed he was living out the pages of a military thriller. Thankfully, Richard Freeman is not the delusional type:

There used to be a trick called ‘sticky bottles’ where a rider would supposedly be ‘grabbing’ a bottle from the directeur sportif in his support car, but the transfer would take a little bit longer than it needed to as the rider benefited from a little vehicular forward propulsion. Doesn’t happen any more.

We know we can trust Freeman on that claim. Not because he’s a doctor and doctors are up there with accountants, priests, and policemen in the level of trust we automatically afford them. Oh no, nothing as simple as that with Freeman, he’s not the ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor’ kind of doctor. He believes in informed consent. He’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to agree with whatever course of action he’s recommending. And you can trust him on that. Because he tells you.

You also know you can trust Freeman because of the blurbs The Line comes with. Blurbs are another one of those lines the publishing industry likes to cross, a name more well known than the author’s flattering a book without having read it (“A jam-packed celebration of the connoisseur’s Grand Tour.”). The Line, though, is free of such lies. No, its blurbs are like courtroom testimonials for the accused. They come from the likes of Victoria Pendleton (“kept me performing at my best”) and Mark Cavendish (“incredibly kind hearted”), Joanna Rowsell Shand (“a source of unwavering support”) and Paul Manning (“one of the foremost sports doctors”), Steve Peters (“a compassionate doctor”) and Heiko Salzwedel (“professional and rational attitude”), Richie Porte (“a brilliant doctor”) and Bradley Wiggins (“a man of great integrity”).

On the one level, The Line is just the latest in the British-Cycling-and-My-Part-in-its-Rise-and-Rise-and-Rise genre, joining twenty-something books from Lizzie Armitstead, Chris Boardman, Mark Cavendish, Nicole Cooke, Rod Ellignworth, Chris Froome, Rob Hayles, Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny, David Millar, Victoria Pendleton, Steve Peters, Joanna Rowsell Shand, Geraint Thomas, Laura Trott, Charly Wegelius, Bradley Wiggins, and Sean Yates (with Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton’s long-promised contributions still stuck in limbo and purgatory). Think of The Line as the golden parachute Freeman had to forego when forced to resign before he had to be fired, an attempt to cash in on fleeting fame.

On another level, though, something else is going on with The Line: image management. Freeman doesn’t exactly hide this, he thanks M&C Saatchi in the book’s acknowledgements. By one of those strange coincidences life throws at us more often than we think is normal, M&C Saatchi are responsible for rehabilitating the reputation of Bradley Wiggins, following the tarnishing it’s suffered since since Russian hackers decided to use the TUEs of Olympic athletes as pawns in the new Cold War and since MP Damian Collins chose to use the story of the Jiffy bag to put on a piece of political theatre.

Those TUEs and that Jiffy bag, they don’t take up a lot of space in The Line. The latter, we’re told, was delivered by “Simon Cope, who was on his way out to us anyway. We often used staff as couriers if they were travelling, in order to cut down on costs.” The envelope “contained a routine restock of Fluimucil, not triamcinolone”. Of the Fancy Bears, we’re told that “a journalist spotted the fact that Wiggins had had TUEs for both salbutamol (blue reliever) and budesonide (brown preventer) in the past.” Later, we’re told about the triamcinolone taken ahead of the 2011 Tour de France, the 2012 Tour de France, and the 2013 Giro d’Italia. Rules followed, Is dotted, Ts crossed, nothing to see here. Move right along.

Nothing to see? Well ... consider this comment about the first use of triamcinolone in 2011:

I have to say I was unaware of its alleged history of abuse in cycling. I did not know that it is said by some – particularly David Millar – to help riders lose weight without losing power. Personally I doubt it has that property, and indeed, according to Dr Brian Lipworth, of the Scottish Centre for Respiratory Research, speaking to the Daily Telegraph, there is ‘no scientific reason’ why a drug like triamcinolone would be performance enhancing.

Here we come to the major problem with books like The Line. They are exculpatory, one-sided, they cherry-pick the best bits for the defence. There’s no Rumpole or Ironside on hand to cross-examine them. And our reclusive doctor does seem to wish to avoid cross-examination. Yes, he was interviewed by UKAD as part of their initial investigation, but since then he has avoided having to answer questions at the DCMS hearings and he has avoided having to answer questions at Jess Varnish’s employment tribunal. How would he respond, the informed reader of The Line might wonder, to someone putting to him more from Dr Brian Lipworth’s Daily Telegraph interview, such as Lipworth’s claim that the use of triamcinolone “seems a bit bizarre to me when there are so many alternatives which are just as effective but with less severe adverse effects.”

Freeman, he doesn’t seem to think the use of triamcinolone bizarre, seems to be telling us that his use of the drug was perfectly routine:

In general practice I’d given it to people whose attempts to sit exams or take their driving licence test were being thwarted by congested or dripping noses.

Maybe Lipworth isn’t such an expert on the drug. After all, the Telegraph report does go on to claim “Lipworth said he could not remember the last time he had prescribed triamcinolone for hay fever.”

As for the claim that Freeman was unaware of the performance enhancing properties of the drug ... is it reasonable to believe that as late as June 2011 any doctor working in cycling – any doctor claiming to have been working at the bleeding edge of sports medicine for several years at that stage – could have been unaware of the abuse of corticosteroids like triamcinolone?

Maybe Freeman really was that ignorant of such things, maybe despite having gotten into sports medicine in 1990 it had simply never crossed his radar, maybe he lived in blissful ignorance of doping, even despite having worked with the FA on “their inaugural doping control programme.” Maybe despite his claims of bringing something new to the table, maybe despite his claims of being proactive, maybe he’d simply never thought to find out what the line was with corticosteroids, never thought to go up to that line, never thought to find out enough about that line in order to make others aware of it.

Or maybe Freeman is just spinning us a line.

Doping – the TUEs and the Jiffy bag, while the testosterone isn’t mentioned – accounts for little more than a dozen or so of The Line’s 326 pages. Doping may be the primary reason The Line exists and doping may be the primary reason most people will consider buying the book, but doping is not The Line’s chief concern. Across a foreword, prologue, 29 chapters, and six appendices, The Line is about half chamoir (days in the life of Freeman, in the Manchester medal factory and on the road with Team Sky) and half training manual (eat, sleep, hydrate). It’s about half Inside Team Sky and half The Team Sky Way.

The Line is, I guess, the perfect book for the sort of MAMIL who rides a Pinarello, owns at least two sets of Sky’s replica kit and probably has a full set of all twenty-odd of the British-Cycling-and-My-Part-in-its-Rise-and-Rise-and-Rise chamoirs.

It’s perfect, in other words, if you’re the sort of person who needs to be told this:

You are born with a VO2 max. Athletes naturally have a high count but training increases it, as does losing weight. A sedentary adult may have a VO2 max of 50 mls/kg/min. A top cyclist might have one of 97.5.

We’re born with a VO2 max? Talk about blowing my mind! Quick, tell me, are we born with height, and do athletes naturally have heights, which training will not increase, nor will losing weight, though shedding a few pounds might make you stand up a bit straighter and so look taller? Might a sedentary adult have a height of five foot six and a bit while a top cyclist might have one of six foot nine?

If those are the sort of questions you need answered, then this is the sort of book for you.

The Line – Where Medicine and Sport Collide, by Richard Freeman, with a foreword by Sam Allardyce, is published by Wildfire
The Line – Where Medicine and Sport Collide, by Richard Freeman, with a foreword by Sam Allardyce, is published by Wildfire