The recent Tour de France brought some great racing and also many talking points over the three weeks of action. As expected, battle was intense within the peloton, but there was also plenty of friction and discussion off the bike too.
Chris Froome’s dominance and the actions of those questioning his performances was one big theme, with the Briton and Team Sky riders being booed and, at times, spat at and hit.
On the other end of the scale, the debut of the MTN-Qhubeka team was almost universally praised, with that team’s leadership in the King of the Mountains classification, its aggressive performances and the stage win it took with Steve Cummings all earning attention.
The squad had entered the race via a wildcard invitation and while the performances of some of the other invitees were more muted, the African team more than paid back the faith shown in it.
More topics of discussion from the race were the new WADA rule allowing night-time testing – which is yet to be green-lighted in France – plus the intermittent tests for motors by the UCI.
The latter was carried out several times during the race, but questions were raised when no testing at all was carried out between stages ten and 17. This meant that the bulk of the mountain stages were not scrutinised, in theory creating the possibility that riders could have used a method of cheating described as a real danger in the Cycling Independent Reform Commission report.
UCI President Brian Cookson was present on the final day of racing in Paris and, during a rain-splattered La Course race, he spoke for some time with CyclingTips.
The Briton was asked about the aforementioned topics, giving his thoughts on those matters.
Extracts of that conversation follow below.
CyclingTips: First off, what were your thoughts on the men’s Tour?
Brian Cookson: I think it has been an incredibly exciting men’s Tour, one of the most intriguing for years, although you might say Froome has been in the lead since the first week. In fact, there have been challenges to him virtually ever day and there have been other exciting incidents every day.
We see some of the underdogs, if I can call them that, in the peloton coming up and getting stage wins. People like Steve Cummings, Simon Geschke. That has been great to see. Every day we have had a challenge to the leader in the Alps and so on. Even right up to the summit of Alpe d’Huez, the result was in doubt.
It has been a well-planned race. I congratulate Christian Prudhomme and his team and I think ASO have done a great job. This has been one of the most memorable Tours for many years, I think.
Do you think this format is going to be preserved? There weren’t many sprint opportunities, for example, as the opening week was so tough.
I think it was that and there hasn’t been a long time trial, so I think those are things the organisation can vary from year to year. I think the nice and exciting thing about the Tour and about all the stage races is they can be dynamic, they can change. They are different year after year. That is one of the beautiful things about our sport.
It is not a stadium sport, it doesn’t take place on a standard pitch or whatever. It varies year after year and that is part of the excitement and the intrigue. Looking at the new routes when they are announced in the autumn and winter of every year and what we have got to look forward to.
You mentioned Steve Cummings’ win. It has been a huge Tour for MTN-Qhubeka. This whole continent is taking off now. What are your thoughts on that?
It is absolutely great. It is really exciting for us at the UCI. We have got five ex World Cycling Centre trainees in the Tour de France doing great rides. It is great to see the guys from Africa, South America and various parts of the world coming through now.
We are seeing cycling globalised a lot more strongly now. It is going to take time, perhaps we have lagged behind other sports in that, but I think it is really exciting. For instance, in the way that Daniel Teklehaimanot has been received by the crowds and the media and so has been absolutely enthralling and rewarding for those of us who want to see cycling grow as a global sport.
Out of competition testing, Froome’s French reaction and the need for eternal vigilance
You mentioned night-time testing, which under WADA rules means that for the first time riders can be tested after 11pm at night. However it is not in yet permitted in France. Why is that?
Well, this is a technical legal matter which I think will be addressed pretty quickly by the French government. It is allowed under the World Anti Doping Code. It is something that I am sure the French will want to sign up to. But of course that kind of thing is perhaps not as critical in competition as it is out of competition.
There have already been night-time tests out of competition. I would expect them to continue now that it is available under the rules.
Chris Froome has had some negative crowd reaction at the Tour. Do you see any way to avoid this in future?
Well, I think it is unfortunate. What I can say is that I believe cycling has got the best anti-doping procedures of any professional sport anywhere in the world now.
We are running those processes now with independents through the Cycling Anti Doping Foundation. We are running them in partnership with the support of WADA. In the case of the Tour de France, we are in partnership with the AFLD. So those processes are independent, they are impartial. They are effective, the science is as good as we can get it.
Does that mean that there are no people ever cheating? Well, probably not – there probably are a few people [still doing that]. But I believe that we have now lowered the radar, tightened the net as effectively as we can. I think if you look at the riders and the way that the race is conducted now, you are seeing exhausted riders crossing the finish line.
At the summit finish a couple of days ago, people had to be pushed [after the line]. It is not that long ago where you would see a rider win a stage like that an almost immediately be addressing questions from the media and not being out of breath.
I do think we can see that [improvement], but we need eternal vigilance. We need to make sure that people aren’t finding new methods and we are constantly using an intelligence-focussed approach to these things.
I think we are targeting much better now, I think the science is better, the procedures are better. They are generally independent and impartial now. For instance, I don’t know if we have had an anti-doping rule violation until shortly before you guys and the public know.
And I am only told so that I am not wrong-footed as it were in any media interviews. I don’t say, ‘test them, don’t test them, go after this rider, don’t go after that rider, that nationality, that team, whatever.’
All of those processes are now entirely separate from the UCI’s leadership and management.
Motors, intermittent testing and clarification of penalties
There was a gap with the testing for motors from stage nine to 18. It meant that most of the mountain stages weren’t covered. Do you think the ball was dropped in this regard?
No, not at all. I read your article on that and I think you have got it a little bit wrong. Perhaps there is something that you weren’t aware of, I don’t know. What we are doing is leading an intelligence-led approach to those things. So we are not going to carpet test ten every day or twenty every day or whatever.
We are going to test where and when we think it is appropriate, where and when we think there is a possibility, where and when we have heard allegations.
So the very fact that we are doing that is a disincentive to people trying it. I think if you look at the consequences of mechanical doping, that would be absolutely devastating. Firstly to a rider, and secondly to his team if they were ever found to have been indulging in something like that.
A rider’s entire career would be questionable and he would be a laughing stock. As regards the team, because it is almost impossible to imagine a rider doing it without the team or a number of people in the team being complicit, I think it is devastating for the team as well.
We would certainly take action against the team as well as against the individual rider if we found an example of someone trying to cheat in that way.
We spoke about this earlier this year in an interview carried out between us. You accepted that it is another level of cynicism to have a motor in a bike. Yet the ban is six months as opposed to say two or four years…
…That is a minimum. And the rule is about technological fraud. Perhaps there are other forms of technological fraud. If this was the case then I think obviously the disciplinary commission would take a very, very serious view. If a contender in the Tour was found to be using an electric motor, I think you would be looking at more than a six month ban.
There is some talk about the potential of wheels with electromagnets, a new form of mechanical doping. Are those checks being doing too?
We are aware of all of those allegations, all of those possibilities. That is something that is being looked at as well.