Barely a year after disgraced American Lance Armstrong was banned for life for doping, cycling is about to elect a leader it hopes can pump fresh life into the sport and push it towards a doping-free future.
Yet what has become a duel between Irish incumbent Pat McQuaid and British Cycling president Brian Cookson has taken almost as many twists and turns in recent months as the storied career of the disgraced American champion.
Cookson, who has overseen Britain’s emergence as the world power in track cycling and the rise of its cyclists among a professional road scene once ruled by mainland Europeans, is believed to be the frontrunner. McQuaid, meanwhile, is widely expected to pay the price for what Cookson has labelled the UCI’s “inefficient handling” of the Armstrong affair and a stance which his critics say reflects too closely that of Hein Verbruggen, his predecessor.
In a sport that has suffered years of scandal, anything less than a juicy build-up to the fight for the UCI presidency would have been disappointing.
The seemingly squeaky-clean Cookson is “confident” of winning by a majority and said he would quickly launch a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process and build bridges with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
He also wants to “make our sport one where people can admire their heroes without doubt, aspire to compete, be a professional, even win a Tour or an Olympic medal and know that their friends will respect and not question them.”
If successful, it would be a major step for the unassuming Englishman who gave up his job as a top official in a local government urban design unit to devote more time to the sport in Britain. If defeated, McQuaid said he would walk away.
Although Cookson is “taking nothing for granted”, the signs suggest McQuaid’s time could be up. The Irishman has based his campaign on his efforts to eradicate doping, notably introducing the pioneering biological passport programme which other major sports are now beginning to adopt.
But while reported to have the support of delegates from Africa and Asia and some from South America, McQuaid reportedly has little favour with the majority of Europe’s delegates.
In one of the campaign’s many twists, McQuaid believes Igor Makarov, the Russian Cycling Federation president — who has reportedly compiled a secret dossier against the UCI chief — played a crucial role in that development.
Following a special assembly of the influential European Cycling Union, Cookson was endorsed as the continent’s man for presidency by the 14 delegates.
“It wasn’t a big surprise to me, because one of his (Cookson) supporters is Igor Makarov, the Russian oligarch,” McQuaid said.
“He carries a lot of influence within the European federations.”
Makarov’s secret dossier reportedly contains proof that McQuaid took and solicited bribes and tried to bend the rules for drugs cheat Armstrong.
Those are allegations McQuaid has denied and indeed it was he who permitted them to be made public.
But it already seems the damage by Makarov — who has always denied he is backing Cookson — has been done.
“He’s done several things and he’s certainly not working for me,” added McQuaid. “I hope his influence doesn’t swing the result.”
Following his rejection as a candidate by his home country, Ireland, and Switzerland, where he lives, McQuaid appears to have little chance of winning a third mandate because he now has to be nominated by another national federation.
But Cookson is not celebrating yet: “Elections can be won or lost in the last few days, I’m very conscious of that.”