Brian Cookson interview: UCI president talks achievements, goals, election rivals, technological fraud and ASO
In September 2013 Brian Cookson beat outgoing UCI president Pat McQuaid to take over at the top of the international federation. The battle for power was a hard-fought one, and was followed by a period where Cookson and others worked to restore the reputation of the UCI following the Lance Armstrong affair and other doping cases.
Four years later Cookson is once again poised to fight an election, although it remains to be seen who will go up against him. While Frenchman David Lappartient and the Belgian Tom Van Damme are both thought to be considering fighting for the position, nothing has yet been declared. In an interview carried out on Tuesday, Cookson tells CyclingTips that he would be surprised if either of the two runs for the position, floating the possibility that he could be a shoo-in for a second term.
He also discusses his achievements, his manifesto, the non-payment of salaries to some who worked on the 2016 world road race championships in Qatar, the fight against technological fraud, the future of the UCI WorldTour plus the federation’s current relationship with Tour de France organisers ASO.
CyclingTips: First off, what would you consider your key achievements are from the first four years of your presidency?
Brian Cookson: I think the main achievement is to restoring the reputation of the UCI, in getting us out of all the constant battles that we were in with WADA, the IOC and everybody else. I think restoring the integrity by establishing the CIRC report, learning the lessons of that period and talking all of the recommendations that were made by that report into practice. I think also moving forward substantially on women’s cycling with huge progress with the women’s WorldTour, equalizing the prize money for men and women at world championships and World Cups.
If we look at globalizing things, then expanding the WorldTour to becoming a genuinely world-level event with events on almost every continent [was an achievement]. And also investing in developing cycling in the smaller nations of the world. I think that is the really important thing.
And I think also getting us involved in advocacy for cyclists’ rights and investment in cycling infrastructure and so on. This is something that the UCI didn’t really do in the past.
So all of those things…and, also, making all of our anti-doping processes genuinely independent and impartial so there is no possibility of conflicts of interest and so on.
The most recent announcement was extra Olympic events for the sport. Given that there was an issue before with a limited number of events being available for cycling, I presume you would see this as one of the successes of your presidency?
Well, absolutely, when you look at the situation we were in four years ago, when part of the dispute was the threat of cycling being withdrawn completely from the Olympic Games. And now we have a situation where we have four extra medals and cycling is now the third-biggest sport in the Olympics.
I think that tells a story all of its own. That is certainly one of the major achievements of the last four years.
When Pat McQuaid was running for election there were doom and gloom predictions because he said cycling was going to lose his seat at the IOC and that in turn was going to lead to problems. Yet you have this extra allocation of medals now. So, was this down to a lot of extra work with the IOC, to improved relations with the IOC, or to something else?
I would put it down to long-term investment in restoring integrity to cycling. To getting us out of that dispute with WADA. To building bridges with the IOC on a political level, if you like, but also on the operational level. We have got really good relationships.
When I look back over the last couple of decades, cycling in the Olympics has got smaller and smaller and more and more challenged. Events have been lost from the track programme and so on to bring in BMX, and also to include gender equality. Gender equality is a good thing, and we have moved in that direction. But I have managed now under this new administration to get an increase in cycling’s participation, in terms of medals at the Olympic Games, which is something that my predecessors didn’t manage to achieve.
There was talk about balancing the quotas. I interpreted that as being slightly less male riders in some events to ensure there is an equal number of females. Is that correct?
That is right. As regards exactly how that is going to work, we will be working with the UCI’s road commission and with the IOC’s specialist sport department over the next few months to work out the detail of that plus the qualification system. But essentially that is the situation – the quota had to stay the same. A number of sports have seen reductions in their athlete quota. We have managed to stay the same. We have got to make it work now and we will make that work.
Election rivals and manifesto targets
The UCI presidential election is just over three months away. There has been talk of David Lappartient running and possibly Tom Van Damme. Do you know who the candidates will be?
No, I don’t know if there will be any other candidates. Both the two names that you mentioned have been members of the UCI management committee for the last four years, so they have shared in the administration that I have led. They have obviously taken part in the decision and the discussions that we have made as a management committee.
So I will be quite surprised if either of them choose to stand. Let’s see what happens.
So there is the possibility that you could be unopposed in the elections?
Well, there is always that happy possibility [laughs]. If I am not opposed, that means we can spend the next three months governing and managing and developing the sport of cycling instead of worrying about an election process. But that is not a matter for me – I have made it clear that I am willing to do another four years. I have formally submitted my candidature now to the UCI’s legal department. The closing date is, I believe, the 21st of June. So let’s see what happens.
Some have wondered if David Lappartient is close to ASO. Do you think that is accurate and, if so, would there be a danger to a UCI president in lacking distance from ASO, which is already very powerful in cycling?
I don’t think I want to comment on that, really. I think that will be a matter for David or any other candidate, to assess their impartiality and integrity. I will be confident that David will rely on his professionalism and integrity to make any judgements if he was president, as I have to do in exercising my role as president.
You have sent out a manifesto, but for those who will see this interview, can you sum up what you believe are the main areas of that manifesto?
Sure. I have a six-point plan. It is difficult to distil all of the working of all of the disciplines of the UCI for the next four years into a few short bullet points, but I will try.
Essentially, I want to try and drive growth across all of cycling’s disciplines. Cycling is not just about pro road racing. I want to make sure that we look after all of our disciplines equally well. I want to try to accelerate international development, so try to give those smaller countries in the world who are perhaps not as well placed as some of the stronger nations, to make sure that they can fulfil their potential, both for growing the sport in their own territories, and for producing potential athletes to get to the highest possible levels of our sport, again across all our disciplines.
I want to do more on equalizing opportunity and possibilities for women, and I think we have made a really great start there. I want to do more again, as I said, on this championing of cycling – if I can put it that way – for transport and leisure and participating fully and making cycling on the roads a safe and pleasurable activity as a means of transport and leisure and an enjoyable pastime. Not just an elite-level competitive sport.
I think that is important for all cyclists. Whatever level we compete at, we all have to ride our bikes on the road. So we have obviously got to try to collaborate with our national federations, with governments and so on, and other organisations around the world to try to make cycling safer and more pleasant for all of us.
In terms of the UCI, I want to make sure that we keep improving our professionalism operationally, that we get better and better at what we do, as good as we can possibly be. I have said for a while is that one of the things I want to see is that we become recognised as the best international federation across all sports. That is a good aim that we have for the organisation.
And, you know, I am not at all complacent about the progress that we have made in anti-doping or integrity issues or anything else like that. We have got to keep the pressure on, we have to keep lowering the radar and tightening the net. Whatever analogy you want to use on issues that affect the integrity of our sport.
So that’s a summary of the six points.
Chasing Qatar payments, and policing the sport
On another matter, something else which cropped up recently was the issue of the world championships in Qatar and the non-payments of salaries to some who worked on that race. Where is that situation at now?
Well, we are aware of this problem. The UCI’s legal department has been trying to assist in the situation. I am not sure what the final outcome is likely to be, but it is obviously quite a difficult situation in Qatar at the moment, politically. And this is something that we will keep working on.
If the organisers don’t pay up, is there an obligation on the UCI itself to make things right with those people?
Absolutely not. We are working – and I think we have an obligation to do that – to ensure that the organisers live up to their contractual responsibilities and liabilities.
How confident you are that that will be successfully concluded?
I understand that we are making progress. I am not personally involved in those negotiations myself, but I understand that we are making progress. Certainly we would expect that a local organising committee – whatever country it was in – would live up to their contractual obligations.
The report into British Cycling will be out on Wednesday. You were British Cycling president prior to becoming the UCI President. Some have said you haven’t been available enough to talk about this in recent months. How would you answer to those criticisms?
Well, I can’t really say anything until the report is published. The fact is, what I said earlier in the year is that I wasn’t initially to contribute. I was finally asked, I have made a contribution and I will await the outcome of the report. I don’t think it is right or proper for me to comment until that report is published. So it is not that I am reluctant to comment. It is that I think there is time and a place for these things to go through due process.
The due process is that the outcome will be reported tomorrow, and let’s see what it says.
So will you be available to media after tomorrow?
Sure, yes. Yes. By the way, I haven’t seen the final report yet, so I will need to have some time to digest it as well. Let’s see what it says.
You mentioned the independence of the CADF and the importance of that. Technological fraud is something that the sport is also dealing with and, in some ways, there are a lot of similarities with doping because it is another form of cheating. Is there not the same conflict of interest for the UCI to be policing that aspect, given that the two are essentially quite similar? Do you recognise that maybe the CADF or another such body would be better to police the technological aspect as well as the chemical aspect?
Well, I understand the argument. But I think there are differences. I think if you look at doping, this is a problem that affects all sport. Now there is an international agency dealing with all sports, then I think WADA is the appropriate body. The fact that we have an independent organisation, CADF, between us and WADA is a good thing.
I think in terms of technological fraud on bikes, I think that is a legitimate issue for the international federation to concern itself with at international level, and the national federations at national level. So I think we have to take responsibility for some things, I think, 100 percent within our organisation. It is a legitimate function of the international federation of cycling, I would suggest, to control for technological fraud.
But, you know, it is something that we will continually look at from time to time, and if we think there is a problem, then we will look at it again. But I want to emphasise that I have got 100 percent confidence in the methodology that we have developed, in the science and technology behind it, and in the people who are implementing it.
I think this is something we got a grip of. We didn’t even have rules to prevent it until two years ago, until the system that we brought in. We have not only developed the rules, we have developed the technology and put resources in. You know, over 20,000 bikes tested last year. Over 3,000 at the Tour de France. Frankly, if people are going to try to cheat in this way, it is very, very difficult. In fact, I would think it is well-nigh impossible. But, you know, ingenuity knows no bounds. We will keep on top of it.
And if people have some evidence of some new methodology that they believe can beat the technology that we are deploying, then I challenge them to come and let us know about it, and test it. Because I am very, very confident that the flexible system that we have got is as future proof as we are likely to have, and that it works very, very effectively.
Part of the reason for the question is that a couple of different TV programmes have asked questions about Mark Barfield, the UCI’s technical manager, including suggestions he frustrated a French police operation. There was never really an outcome to that. This is an area where a conflict of interest could be damaging to the UCI, so do you see that side of the argument [for having another body tackling technological fraud]?
Well, I see where some people might want to criticise the UCI on that basis, but I don’t believe there is any substance to it. I have got complete confidence in the integrity and the professionalism of the people who are carrying out those checks. And don’t forget – there is not just one person doing that, there are several people. There are different people at different events. So a lot of people would have to be falling down in their responsibilities for cheating to be taking place in any sort of widespread way.
You know, I just think there is a lot of paranoia out there at the moment, that almost anybody who wins a race now seems to be accused of cheating in some way by some people on social media.
Well, okay, maybe that is a thing that we all have to put up with now, but just because someone wins a bike race doesn’t mean that they are necessarily cheating.
UCI WorldTour expansion, and the current state of UCI/ASO relations
I’d like to get your thoughts on the WorldTour expansion and where things are going in the future?
Well, I think first of all the WorldTour is still a work in progress. We have seen a big step forward this year. If you just step back a bit, look at all the events that have been added to the WorldTour. Look at all the events which were existing before and those which were added this year. All of them have been incredibly successful, and I think we have had some fantastic racing.
The new events have really added to the WorldTour, events like Strade Bianche and so on. I think we have still got a few little wrinkles to iron out here and there on some of the events and some of the participation rules and so on. But the Professional Cycling Council are doing a good job of looking at the detail of that. We have got another meeting in a couple of weeks’ time to try to look at next year’s terms and conditions. And I think the WorldTour is a big success this year. There are minimal amounts of overlap, but there will always be overlap as long as we have three three-week Tours to fit in the calendar. I think that will continue for the foreseeable future.
I think if we look at things in the bigger picture, we have now got a WorldTour that genuinely touches most parts of the world. Not Africa yet, and not South America, but perhaps we will see some progress there in the future, But I think we are seeing some fantastic racing.
Again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A lot of organisers want to be in the WorldTour. A lot of teams want to be WorldTour teams, and all of the riders going in to the system, whatever age group, their ambition is to be a rider on a WorldTour team. I think that is a great, great thing.
How would you say things are with ASO now? Previously there were tensions about the WorldTour. Have those settled down?
I think ASO is an excellent organisation. They do a great job of developing and managing their events, which are amongst the greatest in cycling’s whole calendar. The Tour de France will probably always be the biggest and best bike race in the world. They do some great other events. They are a professional organiser. We are the governing body. And I think one of the things I stopped when I became president was Global Cycling Promotions, which put the UCI in a real conflict of interest position as an organiser of events.
Well, we are not organising events any more, other than our world championships, World Cups in the other disciplines and so on. What we do is facilitate organisers, teams, riders and other stakeholders to take part in and develop and promote our sport in a way that suits them. I think that is a legitimate role of an international federation, of a regulator, and I think that is a role we are fulfilling well. I think there are others like ASO who are fulfilling their roles as organisers very well, and good luck to them, I say.
So, to return to that question, have things improved with ASO? There was obviously a bit of disagreement over the WorldTour in the past. Would you consider things are better at this point?
Well, as far as I am concerned they are better. I have no reason to believe there will be any reoccurrence of the dispute. I think we work closely with them. Christian Prudhomme is a member of the Professional Cycling Council, and I think we work very well with all parties.
We may from time to time disagree about different elements and so on, but I am invited to the Grand Depart and I will be happy to meet and talk with all of my friends and colleagues from ASO when I am there in Dusseldorf.