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Brian Cookson: Rebuilding the UCI

When Brian Cookson defied the lightly tilted grey odds and became the president of the UCI at the end of last year, it breathed a new sense of hope into our beloved yet highly damaged sport. It was time for a change, well beyond time for a change in both leadership, structure and in morals for cycling.

We chatted at length with the new head-man about his experiences so far and his hopes and plans for the future of cycling. 

BA: When you took over as president of the UCI it had, to say the least, been through some tough times, and its reputation had suffered because of it.

How did things compare in reality to what you had expected, and how do you rebuild its credibility? 

BC: It was pretty well what I was expecting. Morale was very low with some of the staff. There was a lot of concern at some of the rumours that had been around during the election campaign; that the whole show was being driven from Moscow and that Igor Makarov would take over and the whole thing would be moved to Moscow, or even Manchester.

Some of those crazy ideas that had been put about had sunk home with some people, so one of the first things I had to do was reassure people that none of that was true and that we were going to run the UCI with transparency and honesty, and that we would not be moving the UCI.

Aigle is a great place to be, and whatever you may think of my predecessor Hein Vebruggen I think that he did a fine job in establishing that facility, and we get a lot of support locally and from the Swiss government.

This was one of the first things that came up in a staff forum; was I going to be living there? And yes! I have my apartment and Swiss residency, my wife is there, we’re not intending to move anything. 

BA: The whole election campaign seemed to be tainted by ‘dirty tricks’ from the existing president, and a lot of that support came from small Asian and other federations.

How have you been accepted by them and others? 

BC: I’d like to think that I’ve been accepted. I think that all of the work I’ve put in during my first few months helps. I’ve been to all five major continents and met with people, and talked with them.

We also held a congress at road worlds, and I think this contact was sadly lacking with the UCI before, and it seems to have gone down well.

What I’ve been incredibly encouraged by is that in the cycling world and the greater sporting media people have said to me; “You know, the UCI had to have a change of leadership, not everybody said so at the time, but now that you’re here we’ll work with you and help you”. That’s what I want to hear. My approach is consensus building and working with people, and not against them.

We were able to establish good relations with the IOC, WADA and the national cycling federations very quickly, and with other sports too – so it’s all positive. 

BA: You’re a very different character to your predecessors, and don’t have the same commercial interests as some did. You’re perhaps more clean-cut and straightforward; yet some of those interests courted favour in many areas. How different will your governance approach need to be? 

BC: Well, I think that the most important thing with potential conflicts of interest is that (we all do have them from time to time) you declare them and deal with them transparently and ethically.

If you look at any organisation – for example the UCI management board, there will people with other interests; Igor Makarov who owns a team for instance, and everyone has a point of view and theory about certain conflicts of interest. What’s important is how you deal with them.

What we’ve done is to try to run things more transparently, and we do now have a register of interests, and that’s not particularly being critical of my predecessors – my eldest son even works at Team Sky, so there are often conflicts, or apparent conflicts of interest.  What’s important is to have a mechanism to deal with them with integrity and honesty.

All through the election campaign I told people around the world “Look, vote for me if you want to, but don’t worry about not voting for me. I won’t hold a grudge if you feel that I’m not the right candidate. But what I offer you is that we will run the UCI with integrity, honesty and diplomacy, and that we will run it as a proper corporate organisation that can stand up to external scrutiny.”

And I do believe that with international organisations a much higher level of scrutiny is required. 

BA: There’s been a lot of questioning over the UCI’s involvement in event organisation, namely the Tour of Beijing. Where do you stand on the matter? 

BC: We’ve started looking at rationalising that. I think it’s a situation where we are not going to be pursuing Global Cycling Promotions as an alternative promoting body. I think we will be continuing with the Tour of Beijing, as long as it works, and we may do occasional other events. But our remit is to be a governing body; not to be an alternative promoter, not to run things. Our job is to work with other people and organisers as a governing body so that they can do things more effectively.

We do have to make the UCI financially viable, and make more out of things, like the world championships, which are essentially our area. This is the priority, not going out to be an alternative to ASO or anybody else. Our job is to work with these people and the industry to make something financially viable for everyone.

BA: How are you finding dealings with ASO? 

BC: I feel that the ASO have had a difficult recent relationship with the UCI, which went back to the dispute over the Pro Tour. I think that they were probably looking for a change at the UCI. I hope that I’ve been able to put together a good relationship with them now through the people I have working with me.

It was nice that they invited me to the Tour de France launch and mentioned me in their speech, so I think it’s an indication that the relationship is stronger; and we do want to work with them.

I acknowledge their importance within the sport and that they have made a huge success of the Tour and they have a great portfolio of events. It’s important that we have a good working relationship with them. I think they understand that we don’t want to be ASO, and they don’t want to be the UCI either. 

BA: What are your thoughts on proposed changes to the Pro Tour and the race calendar? 

BC: It’s still a work in progress. I think everyone acknowledges that the calendar is a little bit overloaded and needs rationalisation in some way; but nobody wants to change their particular bit of it, so something is going to have to give somewhere.

I believe that we can achieve that through talking. I don’t want to start banging the table; I don’t think that’s the right way or making progress. I mean – the WorldTour; it has to be that, a genuinely international process and schedule, and it has to work for the riders. In an ideal world you see the best riders in the best events as consistently as possible. The problem is that the best riders in say Paris-Roubaix are not necessarily the best riders in a race like the Tour de France.

I think that the work being done is going in the right direction, but it’s still a little bit over complicated. The element that has not been addressed is the economic circumstance.

We’ve addressed the top end structure, like who should go where, to what events. But how we make the economics of pro cycling work better has been overlooked.

In sporting terms cycling is still small money. For example the budget of the Atlanta Braves baseball team is bigger than that of the whole of pro cycling scene. When you look at things you can analyse why (and I’m not saying that we could ever get to the financial level of American stadium sports or soccer) you can see why, but we do have to be in a better financial position than we are at the moment.

Teams are struggling, and we are at the mercy of benefactors in several cases, and semi-government assistance in some cases, and if that works for them it’s great.

There are a few teams that are on a rational financial basis; maybe Team Sky and a few more, but there are very few, if any teams that actually make a profit, and very few events that make profit.

The result is that teams are very fragile, and every couple of years we lose a team or two, and with a bit of luck we get a new team. You don’t have to scroll down too far to find teams that are absolutely on the edge, and we’re losing events in core nations too; Spain and Italy have really suffered, and Germany has really suffered from the damage of the Ulrich/Armstrong era; three pro teams and many major races all lost. So you have the biggest economy in Europe not contributing to pro cycling.

In other parts of the world you have people interested and wanting to invest, so you have to balance this. What I really want to do is find ways of making the whole economy of pro cycling bigger, so that everybody gets a bigger slice.

We tried the on-bike cameras in the Amgen Tour Of California, and that was fantastic, and I’m sure there’s a way forward there in ‘monetising’ the sport. It’s an ugly word, but it’s something that needs to be done.

The beauty of pro cycling is that it comes to you. It’s like having Wimbledon being played on every village green in England. But, that’s also the downside – there’s no ticket money or revenue return.

An event like the Tour of Flanders helps attain revenue with VIP stands and areas, and they had to change the course to do that. People object to that, but it has to be done – events and teams don’t exist without some form of income.

So looking at extra ways to monetise the sport is vital; those extra screens, video coverage, it all has to be paid for, and somewhere down the road some of that will have to come back onto the fans. It’s painful to accept, but people want pro sport, they want good salaries and prize money for riders and everybody else, but they don’t want to pay for it – and who is going to pay for it?

Ultimately somewhere along the line consumers and sponsors will have to pay some of that. Further down the line if we can restore the repute of the sport, it will make it more attractive and viable, and stakeholders could get some benefit from it, which will result in more investment. 

BA: Team Sky and Orica/GreenEdge have taken a ‘semi-nationalised’ approach to team branding and structure, is this a model that could take things forward? 

BC: Yes, it’s one way; but we are looking at other models too. Being president of British Cycling for 16 years I know quite a lot about that approach.

With Sky our intent was to have a British pro team to place the best British riders. Through the system we took them 90% of the way to the pro ranks, but were then faced with telling them they had to make that last 10% themselves, maybe taking it with teams they knew nothing about and with questionable morals, which was part of the reasoning for creating Team Sky.

GreenEdge is similar, and I know that the French federation want to do the same, but it may be more difficult for them. 

There are other models though; but it’s the fragility of many pro teams, and even the ethics of some of the owners of the past that have concerned me, which is why I think we got so deep into the doping problems – anything went if it made money.

I think that it’s become accepted by teams and everybody else that we have to restore the integrity of the sport to make it more viable, and we have to keep pushing that issue. 

BA: Do you think its naive to think that doping in any sport can be totally eradicated? 

BC: I think that now, with WADA and ever evolving testing methods that there is a much more narrow gap between substances coming in and being detectable.

That gap is much closer than it was 10 years ago, or even two years ago. When results start coming in that are abnormal they now know better where to start looking.

But, in any walk of life there will always be people who try to cheat, so governing bodies have to make sure that these people are caught and dealt with accordingly.

I think the way cycling is dealing with these issues now is more consistent than it was. There are two categories of sport out there; those who have a doping problem and are doing something about it, and those who are in denial about it.

Whatever sport it is there will be people that try to cheat, and some form or another of doping. I’m very pleased and proud that we are doing something about doping, and we’ve had to face some huge difficulties in doing it.

Teams have also realised that it’s not in their interests to do it, and that they will have difficulties in attracting financial sponsors if they constantly have doping problems, and they cannot be hidden. We will not hide any positive tests.

I feel there’s a big lesson that came out of the Armstrong era; that no matter how good you are at cheating, how much money you make, how powerful your lawyers are or how long you delay things, if you build your career around cheating it will eventually come out. No matter how deep you bury it, at some time the truth will come out, and your reputation will be destroyed.

If we’re not constantly fighting it, if dopers are not constantly looking over their shoulders, and while ex riders suffer life-threatening illnesses because of doping I think we’ve failed.

This is why we have the institutions we have and why we work with WADA, and why we’ve made the Cycling Anti Doping Foundation genuinely independent, because people must not get it into their minds that the governing body is somehow manipulating those tests results or covering them up. This is why I’ve asked an outside body to find out if those past (cover up) allegations were true or not. I would be delighted if they weren’t, but it has been so damaging to the UCI. It’s no good to say “it’s not true” – it needs to be clarified independently.

With an independent body dealing with the testing too I have no involvement in who is tested. The first I know of a positive test is when it goes to a hearing and an announcement is made.

People need to have confidence in the running of the sport; it’s all part of the process and we need to demonstrate that. 

BA: With Lance Armstrong opinion varies dramatically. There was talk of truth and reconciliation, and comparatively he has paid a heavy price for his doping – while compliant others have walked away with a slap on the hand – what are your thoughts? 

BC: Lance was the only one that won the Tour seven times. He was the only one that made many, many, millions out of cycling. He intimidated many people, so I don’t think that he’s been treated particularly unfairly.

I think it’s probably fair to say that others have got off fairly lightly in comparison, and there are others still going through due process and legal cases, so it’s difficult to comment on them.

Clearly Lance was not the only person cheating, and he was not the only one cheating so insidiously, and that’s been identified, and there are still lots of enquiries going on. What we’ve tried to do with the cycling independent reform commission is to look at this. We’ve agreed with WADA that they can offer reduced sanctions so that we can get to the bottom of this. I’m not trying to get to the bottom of historical ‘who was and was not doping’ issues. What’s important is that we try to learn lessons from that period and that we don’t repeat the cycle.

We want to see who is a right and proper person to be involved with a team, who was compliant in the past, who deserves some level of redemption – and this is what the independent commission is of doing

I’m not involved with this on a day to day basis, but I know that they have been talking to people involved at the pointed end of this, and that have more people to see and things to do.

There is an inconsistency in what has happened so far, but are we going to say let’s have a complete amnesty? I don’t think we can do that; we have to deal with the world as it is. If Lance is sanctioned by USADA then we are not going to change that. But if he was to come forward and give evidence to our independent commission then it might be possible to agree with USADA a reduction in his sanction – if he provides new information.

It does concern me when I see people still working in the sport who have been pretty unapologetic about for their part in things; but again, we have to balance that with legalities. 

Although the UCI has a rule about people who have had a doping sanction not being able to work with teams for a number of years, it’s only been on the books for a couple of years, and cannot be applied retrospectively.

There are so many people out there who I wish would have retired quietly, although I think it would be naïve to expect that to happen.

It’s difficult to have an amnesty, and it’s difficult to have a zero tolerance policy, as it just encourages people to say nothing – you only need to look at the difficulties that policy has caused for Team Sky. I think they’re doing the right thing, but it’s difficult.

We’re still in that process of evolution – between where we were and where we want to be. Stuff like the biological passport and teams realising they cannot go on like this is helping.

When Paul Kimmage released his book and said, “This is a major issue that needs addressing,” the reaction of the UCI was not ‘Oh my god’. It was “No, no, this is just some sad rider who was not good enough and can be ignored.” 

In 1998 there was the Festina affair – I do have some sympathy with Hein Verbruggen there, he tried, but there was no test for EPO so he brought in the haematocrit limit, which in its self was flawed as some riders have a natural level of 50%, and then everybody in the peloton started to say we need to be 49.9%.

Once EPO became detectable that was good, but then it moved to transfusions and more, and there were horror stories, it became a danger to public health – that of the riders. That led to massive problems that had not been dealt with at the time. I think all of that stemmed from the era when it was not to be talked about. 

BA: The painkiller Tramadol is the latest issue in doping – where are things at with its usage? 

BC: I’m aware of it as a substance, and it’s something that even before I was elected had been referred to the UCI and WADA, and WADA have a comity looking at it and monitoring it, and I think that is right. It’s not the role of the UCI to ban a product without scientific evidence.

We need to be consistent with WADA, and producing the scientific evidence is their role. We are the body for the governance of the sport, and will act accordingly. There are some pretty dire side effects, which have caused a number of teams to say they will not use it, which is good. That’s them taking responsibility for the riders, which is how it should be.

The problem is that if the UCI says it’s banned, the minute we sanction a rider the lawyers will come out and say that it’s not on the WADA list and ask for scientific evidence and take us to CAS and every court they can, which is a nightmare scenario for us. When WADA makes that judgement we will support it 100%.

BA: How much do you think doping overshadows the sport in general? 

BC: It’s right that people have concerns about the integrity of our sport, but there is certainly a subset of people on the internet who see anything as evidence of doping; if I rider wins it’s because he’s doping, if a team is strong it’s because they’re doping. If a rider gets dropped it’s because he wasn’t doping today. It a team doesn’t perform as well one year it’s because everybody else has the same stuff as they had before, particularly with Team Sky, and these people are unrelenting.

I found it really disappointing that people were booing and hissing at certain riders in the Tour last year. The damage that’s been done by the Armstrong era makes it that no rider can say anything anymore. I feel sorry for the riders who are at the top through their own endeavours (I hope through their own endeavours) who have to see their every performance lambasted with doping allegations because of what happened 10 years ago.

We will restore the reputation, but it will take a long time. Some see conspiracies, all sorts; that’s up to them – but ultimately some of us have to take a more optimistic approach. Sure there are liars and cheats out there, but there are good people too, and our job is to try and make it possible for them to win races. 

BA: A number of riders have testified, some under oath, that when Lance left the room they no longer doped, yet they continued to perform at the same level – how do you view this? 

BC: Quite sad; there’s no point in half-truths. Some have fallen outside of statute limit so cannot be sanctioned. But that’s why we set up the anti doping commission, to let them come clean.

The commission doesn’t have powers to subpoena and so on, but they can determine sanctions. The issue is that when people come forward and tell half-truths and then someone else comes and tells the full truth their sanctions can be increased – it’s better to be truthful from the start, which is a strong incentive.

There is a court of public opinion too; if you’re seen to have been genuine and done your part to try and help the sport people will respect that. If you just deny it then people will treat it with the contempt it deserves.

The ‘I was innocent, the big bad wolf made me do it’ – come on, we’re all adults.

I do feel sorry for all of those riders who went over to a big team and were faced with the choices and decided no. They went home, got a job, quit the sport and missed the big contracts and the ranches. But at least they can sleep at night. 

BA: Are doping sanctions tough enough? 

BC: The new WADA code asks for a four year sanction for a first serious offence, which is good. For a pro that’s a big chunk of their racing career.

It needs to be applied with intelligence; there are people who get caught with foolish things, but I’m as suspicious as anybody else – no smoke without fire etc. But when you’re in a judicial and disciplinary role you have to take the evidence as it is, not how you’d like it to be. 

BA: Technology, where are things heading? 

BC: Well, I am something of a traditionalist as such. I think that it should always be the rider that wins and not the bike, but that said the technology is all part of it. We all love poring over the latest developments, it’s a large part of the attraction of our sport, and to kill that is a mistake.

What we’ve done is to bring in Dimitris Katsanis to look at all of those things; we have a new equipment commission with people form teams, the industry, officials and so on, and they are taking a radical look at things.

Things won’t go as far as recumbents; a bike will always look like a bike and rider like a bike rider, but within that I think we can look at all sorts of ways of trying to encourage innovation.

I do think that the Lugano charter was put together for the right reasons, you have to have some controls, you can’t just let anything go – but there is a balance to be had there and we’re moving forward with it.

For example the hour record; the idea now is that you can ride it on a bike that is track legal for pursuit, to me there was no point as it was, although it was a nice idea (the athletes/Merckx bike). I think that this will now stimulate it, and I’d like to see riders going for it; Cancellara, Wiggins, Phinney, Martin, maybe Bobridge, who broke Boardman’s 4,000m record in the ‘superman’ position. Wouldn’t it be great to see if he could hold it for an hour?

BA: Road disc brakes – are they the way ahead? 

BC: My personal view is that it will come, one way or another, and we’re working with manufacturers to see how to introduce it with teams, as there are concerns about the discs being hot and with braking being differential.

I can’t help thinking that some of those issues are being a bit exaggerated; there’s always been differential in braking. I think with input from the trade we’ll see it sooner rather than later.

When I was part of the cyclo cross commission we raised the issue – why are we not allowing disc brakes when we do in mountain biking? Sven Nys was on the commission, he said it was not traditional, and that cantilevers were part of cyclo cross tradition; I asked him what groupset he was using; Di2. That ended his argument. 

BA: You suggested moving the track cycling to the winter Olympics? 

BC: I’ve gone so far as to say why not look at the whole balance of the winter/summer indoor sports and perhaps put some of the summer sports into the winter Olympics, which hasn’t won me many friends (from track racing nations).

But what I’m saying is that if you redress the balance and have a winter/summer Olympics every two years (alternating) it could help to solve some of the inconsistencies in the summer games.

What I’m saying is, let’s think outside of the box; what I want is more cycling in the Olympics and not less; be it winter or summer.

The Olympics has such a stranglehold on sport now, and almost every government who are funding sport will only fund Olympic sports.

It’s the same all around the world; if it’s not an Olympic sport, governments will not support you, so part of this is about raising the profile of cycling within the Olympics. 

BA: The loss of the Kilometre TT, individual pursuit and other blue riband events from the Olympics in favour of BMX hit hard to traditional cycling fans, arguably they were the prime disciplines?

 

BC: Many of us may think that, but a lot of other, smaller track cycling nations would see the points race as more important, or even the madison, as there is more variability and more chance to qualify, where as in the individual disciplines you have to be within seconds of the best guys to even qualify let alone get a medal.

Some events were lost because of gender equality, which I’m all for; but I don’t understand why we had to lose them, when other sports have so many medals in fine variations of disciplines. Maybe they have a higher status within the Olympics than cycling does.

And then, like in London, we have the issue of only being able to have one sprinter at the games, when we already have three sprinters in the camp anyway (for the team sprint), which means that even the likes of Chris Hoy could not defend their titles. Half of the best track riders in the world were not at the last Olympic Games. It has become easier to win an Olympic medal than a world championship medal, and that can’t be right, and the IOC have recognised and corrected that now.

I was watching the beach volleyball, with USA vs. USA, how can that be? It’s ridiculous. There has to be consistency across the sports – both Britain and Australia could have fielded two team pursuit teams. Those inconsistencies run throughout the Olympics because of its history. I can’t do too much to change them, but it’s my job to point them out when it concerns cycling.

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