On the outskirts of the small Swiss valley town of Aigle you’ll find both the UCI’s headquarters and the Centre Mondial du Cyclisme (WCC), a gleaming success story in the biography of the beleaguered governing body of cycling.
The thermometers were topping the high 30s outside while the UCI’s embattled President, Irishman Pat McQuaid, rushed between meetings in a bid to unravel the awful mess that competitive cycling was spiralling into – the uncovering of mass systemised doping within the pro peloton by the USADA. The temperature inside was even hotter inside in McQuaid’s office, only in a different way.
Needless to say it was a pressurised and frantic time at the Aigle UCI base camp. Few, if any of us really know what has been going on behind the bolted and seemingly endless political doors of the offices of the powers that be. In fact, the powers that be are also, apparently, obscured in a veil of high-ranking mist. It’s a tangled web, and the headman of the UCI is bearing the brunt of this backlash.
Meantime, just a few meters away from the presidential hot seat, on the opposite side of the same building that houses the UCI’s top brass, is the Centre Mondial du Cyclisme (The World Cycling Centre, or WCC). Here stands a steeply banked 200-metre velodrome, the heart of the WCC. Beneath this is a huge gym and workshop, while outside are BMX and cyclo-cross tracks.
It was early September and the velodrome was empty, apart from a young Thai cyclist sitting on the steps beside the track, checking his emails. At almost any other time of the year you’ll find between 25 to 30 young and aspiring bike racers somewhere in the alcoves of this rather special complex. This was the annual summer break, when these riders would head back home to Asia, Africa, South America, and even to other parts of Europe or Australia.
In such a troubled time for the UCI it’s easy to forget that such life-changing initiatives as the WCC exist and thrive. It was set up some ten years earlier as a ‘centre of excellence and learning’. The centre was the conceptual brainchild of the former UCI President Hein Verbuggen, a man who is biting the bullet even harder than his successor, McQuaid.
It may seem strange that no such globally focused place had existed before within the sport of cycling, yet somehow it hadn’t. Sure enough we have AIS facilities here in Australia, and most other major cycling bodies also have similar set ups. But until this place was constructed there was nowhere for the minority cycling nations and their riders to get mainstream and qualified experience, or indeed any form of a crack at the great whip of international bike racing.
The concept of the centre was, and still is, to provide top-line training facilities for athletes, coaches and officials. Mostly these athletes come from minority cycling nations, although Australian, British and other national teams are also occasional visitors to the centre, making the most of its high-tech onsite facilities. Britain’s Victoria Pendleton even spent two years training at the centre, not only benefitting her own top flight career, but passing on the gift of her learning to riders from numerous smaller nations.
Since its conception the centre has steadily grown in both its stature and its available facilities, and has seen around 600 athletes from 118 countries pass through its doors.
The UCI provides around 75% of the total funding, with the rest coming mainly from Olympic foundations. This means that a rider coming from a nation where an entire month’s salary wouldn’t even cut his slice of the WCC’s Swiss restaurant bill can be afforded the same opportunity for success as a rider from anywhere else in the world. There are very few places on Earth where a rider from Mali could live, eat and race on a level platform with a Norwegian athlete. Here all things are equal, at least during that window of opportunity given by the UCI.
Gifted and promising athletes are nominated by their national cycling and sporting federations or coaches for WCC scholarships. Depending on their discipline and other commitments, they generally show up early in the year in Switzerland and spend three to six months training and racing from the centre, and many return for several more seasons.
Road, track, mountain bike, cyclo-cross and BMX are all part of the current program, and during its ten years of existence the WCC has succeeded in helping several riders to Olympic and world titles.
Perhaps their shining ideal is Orica-GreenEdge rider Daniel Teklehaimanot from Eritrea, who in 2012 signed up for two years with the Australian team, becoming the first ever original-African rider to race on a World Tour team. His graduation is a huge feather in the cap of the UCI as he is effectively a role model for WCC’s schooled athletes.
The long-term aim of the WCC is to help to globalise cycling by developing athletes, and in turn developing and promoting the sport in smaller and less mainstream cycling nations.
When a rider shows up at the WCC in Aigle, they effectively enter another realm. They become a trainee pro-rider. The whole approach of the WCC and the staff is to run things as a pro team, apart from the commercial and other aspects associated with corporate sponsorship.
Riders get new bikes and kit, accommodation; everything is provided. But perhaps even more beneficial is the unbiased and in-depth coaching, and training facilities which are all laid on to help them develop and progress at the right rate, and in the right way. The aim is to prepare these riders to become professional and Olympic athletes, and to take them somewhere they simply could not go without this support network, and to expose them to top-class competition around the world.
Going beyond the riders themselves, the centre also provides vital training and experi
ence for coaches, managers, commissaries and other backroom staff, which is critical to the development of the sport. It also regularly places experienced western coaches with smaller cycling federations around the world, who in turn help by not only coaching athletes, but also with firsthand knowledge and experience to boost levels of home-grown coaches, many of whom also come to the centre to receive training.
Globalisation, along with destroying the inherent doping culture of pro cycling, have been McQuaid’s and the UCI’s two manifesto priorities for some time now, and when you take a look at the ever-changing colour and culture of bike racing, and at the number of minority nations beginning to earn championship medals, and at the ever-expanding and varied exotic racing calendar, you have to admit that they have at least made a significant hole in in the globalisation process.
The program may be slightly limited by its size and resources, but a ‘road map’ has been in place for some time now. The first stop on that road map was a town called Potchefstroom, in South Africa. This was the first of 10 planned UCI Continental Centres, which are effectively regional WCCs. These can offer more focused and localised development, and then feed the prime ‘students’ on to the WCC, thus expanding the overall effect.
There is also now a fledgling centre at the long established Keirin school in Japan, and another is planned for South Korea, which will hopefully be followed by Brazil or Argentina.
It may take some time, but it is happening, and the effect should go a long way to raising the standard and profile of every aspect of global cycling in the years to come. Let’s hope it doesn’t all get swept away in the aftermath of recent events.
Ten minutes with Pat McQuaid, UCI President
Bicycling Australia: When you took over the presidency of the UCI what were your main aims?
Pat McQuaid: Two things, that I’ve always spoke about as my objectives; first to change the culture of doping in the sport, and to get rid of doping in the sport, and the second to make the sport more global, and that is in all disciplines of the sport – especially road, which is the one that needs it the most.
I’d like cycling to become a major sport in countries and continents all around the world in the way that it is in Europe.
BA: The London Olympics were a huge success from a cycling point of view, especially for the home nation. Add in Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France two weeks earlier and the sport has suddenly gone from a minority sport to a major player in the UK. How do you see this?
PMQ: Firstly, home advantage does play a part in any Olympic Games, and the British have been doing well in the Olympic cycling since Sydney. And their preparation program started well before that. They went from there to Athens, and then Beijing with increased success. So it was always going to happen that the British track team would achieve success.
And then likewise after Beijing they started the road project with Sky, with a view to winning the Tour de France. When that came together it was like their stars all aligned. For three weeks in July cycling was getting a very high profile in Britain, and that culminated with winning the Tour de France, and the following week it was the Olympic Road Race, so it was natural that people were going to come out to see such a successful British team going for the first gold medal of the Olympics, and they did. There were 1.5 million people out on the course, and then it went right through.
Now the job of British Cycling is to capitalise on that success, and they are very well structured and capable of doing that. We (the UCI) as an organisation also have to work on the fact that cycling got such a huge worldwide audience and capitalise on that, and it’s our job to make the most of that and to help globalise and promote the sport. That is what we intend to do.
BA: Globalisation has always been a passion of yours, and you’ve been involved with many far-flung races so you have a good idea of how things are on the ground in these areas. China seems to have become something of a focus point for the UCI. Is this primarily economic or from a mass population point?
PMQ: It’s not so much that I’m aware of how things work in these countries, it’s more that I’m aware of the potential of these countries, and of the athletes that could come from them.
China has taken the focus mainly because the Beijing Olympic Games opened up China to the rest of the world. It meant that after the Olympics, China wanted more interaction with the international sports world and this gave us the opportunity. There are many provinces in China that are crying out for international events, and many governors that are approaching the UCI and we are reacting to that.
BA: In many Asian and other countries the major cycling events receive considerable state backing, which is not so much the case in the west. How important is this in the development of the sport?
PMQ: It’s extremely important, and it will continue to be because cycling really cannot exist without the support of local authorities. We (cyclists and the UCI) have a lot to offer these authorities, and it’s reciprocal.
When you look at the current economic crisis in Europe and see the fact that local authorities can no longer invest in cycling in the way they have done in the past, it shows how important it is that we have that resource outside of Europe, and that we have governments and local authorities investing in cycling. It’s up to us (UCI) to ensure that the product is worth investing in, and we’ll continue to do that.
BA: At an elite level the colour and culture of the sport has changed dramatically during the past 20 years and now has a distinct Anglo dominance. Who will be the next cycling superpower?
PMQ: I think that the South Americans could be the next to start coming through, particularly in the run-up to Rio (2016 Olympics). They will begin to concentrate on their own development, and aim to get people at a very high level in all sports, including cycling. I can see countries like Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina coming up very strongly in the next couple of years. After that there’s Asia. There are still many countries in Asia that have a lot of potential to develop as well.”
BA: What is the importance of the WCC in the overall plan for development and globalisation of the sport?
PMQ: It’s extremely important. We don’t only work with developing nations, we work with Olympic Solidarity to assist athletes from developing nations, and also well-developed nations, so it’s a centre for all federations.
Our facilities, our coaches and the sporting environment are here, and it’s very important for the worldwide development of the sport.