Brian Cookson, the President of British Cycling, talks about standing against incumbent UCI President Pat McQuaid in this year’s election for world cycling’s top job, restoring the UCI's reputation and running an effective sports federation.
Cookson is very much the people’s choice for UCI president - or at least the choice of the vociferous ‘Anyone But McQuaid’ camp - and even McQuaid’s own Irish national federation has declined to endorse his candidacy. The biggest challenge Cookson will face if elected will be restoring the UCI’s credibility in the wake of the last two decades’ doping scandals.
Cookson says the key change that must happen is the handing over of the UCI’s anti-doping efforts to a new and fully independent agency. Jack Thurston of Humans Invent spoke to Cookson about his life in cycling and why he’s chosen to square up to Pat McQuaid.
Q: How did you begin your life on the bike?
Brian Cookson: I’ve been involved in cycling for most of my life. My earliest memories are riding my little trike around the garden at home and then venturing outside with my dad and my sister into the lanes where we used to live.
I first got formally involved back in 1965, the year Tom Simpson won the world road championship. He was my hero and that’s what convinced me to join a club. I rode with the local CTC for a while then with Preston Wheelers and other local clubs in Lancashire.
Q: Have you always maintained the same passion for the sport? Do you still love to ride?
Brian Cookson: Yes, the weird thing is I feel ever more enthusiastic about the sport. Yesterday, I spent three hours with my old buddy riding out in the Lancashire fells and I’ve done two hours on the track this morning. I’m still dead keen on riding my bike.
First of all I’m a bikie and second I’m an administrator of cycling. I think it’s an absolutely vital order of priorities.
I think too many of us lose touch with our roots in the sport and I think it’s absolutely essential to remember how it feels in the legs when you try to ride fast or ride up a hill, it really keeps you grounded when you go out and talk with people at the track or in clubs or in cafés and so on. It keeps you in touch with what ordinary bike riders feel and that’s really important.
Q: What do you think are the connections between elite level cycling like the Tour de France and mass participation cycling? How would you, as UCI President, get more people riding their bikes, whether in races or simply for pleasure.
Brian Cookson: We are all inspired by the feats of great bike riders of both the current and past eras. You’ve only got to look at British Cycling’s membership to see how true that is.
Our membership has increased by fifty per cent since Bradley won the Tour last year and the high profile success of the Olympics. So there is that complete link between elite, competitive cycling of whatever discipline and inspiring people to get out on their bikes.
One of the things we’ve done at British Cycling is to promote women’s cycling much more effectively. Traditionally, cycling like a lot of other sports has been pretty male-dominated and we’ve been able to put things in place alongside our mass participation initiatives that have made it a lot easier for women to get involved in the sport.
People do want to come into our sport and appreciate it and join in with it but the world is a little different from what it used to be. You can’t just say to a thirteen year old, just turn up on a Sunday at half nine down at the crossroads and we’re going to do a hundred mile run and if you make it back with us you’re a cyclist, if you don’t you’re not a cyclist.
That’s how I started cycling. That’s how many others did. But those days are long gone. You’ve got to look after people a lot more now and those clubs that are doing that are the ones that are booming.
Q: Up until as recently as January you had given your strong backing to Pat McQuaid. You’ve said that he ‘has done an impressive job in frequently difficult circumstances’. What made you change your position and stand against him?
Brian Cookson: When you’re in a committee you express your view as forcibly as you can, sometimes you win the arguments, sometimes you lose them but then you go on and you have to accept responsibility along with your colleagues.
I became increasingly concerned, frustrated, and ultimately very disappointed that the views of myself and a number of others on the UCI management committee were not being properly taken account of. We were finding things out after they’d been decided and announced in public.
Ultimately, things haven’t been getting better, they’ve got worse in terms of the UCI’s reputation. The clear message to me was that the leadership needs to change so at that point, as we approached the deadline for nominations, it was now or never to put myself forward as a candidate.
Q: Was it more about Pat McQuaid’s style of leadership or was it about the actual decisions that were being made?
Brian Cookson: Well a bit of both. I think the style of leadership is something that’s concerned me for a while. We seem to have gone through a long period where all he seemed to do is get into conflict with the very people we should be working closely with to try to resolve our problems, like WADA and USADA.
It baffled me for a long while. Why on earth we had the UCI been arguing about the jurisdiction of the Armstrong case when what we should have been concerned about was getting it concluded and naming the guilty parties, not arguing about who had the jurisdiction. Yet that was where all the UCI’s effort was going into.
It’s also about the content of the decisions as well. There are good things going on at the UCI and there are good people working there and around the world but all of it was being undermined by the reputation and style of the leadership, the content of decisions and the way decisions were being made.
That Armstrong donation
Q: A central allegation against the UCI is that it protected certain riders who were guilty of doping. You’ve said you would open an independent inquiry to find out. You must be working on a pretty strong hunch that something was going on along those lines.
Brian Cookson: There are things out there that seem baffling and one of them is the accepting of money from Lance Armstrong for anti-doping testing equipment. This was a bizarre thing to have done.
I have seen the file and the UCI did apparently spend the money on the things they were meant to have spent the money on but the idea that you accept money for doping testing equipment from someone who is a suspect in doping cases is a bizarre one to me. I think that should never have happened.
While that issue is well known, debated and discussed, there are clearly other allegations around and we’ve got to get to the bottom of those as well, to the satisfaction of our partners like the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Q: You’ve proposed an inquiry to clear the air at the UCI. What makes you think your inquiry wouldn’t meet the same fate as the UCI’s Independent Commission?
Brian Cookson: The inquiry into allegations of misconduct at the UCI in terms of cover-ups and so on, I think that’s a separate thing from the so-called Independent Commission which had the task of looking at the longer term and broader issues of doping in our sport.
First priority is for a once-and-for-all, forensic investigation of the allegations about the UCI’s corruption. That is separate but linked to a broader independent inquiry into the way in which doping during the 90s and 2000s became out of control and we lost control of it as a sport.
For the first one you need a short but intensive and detailed inquiry into those detailed allegations and then after that you need a broader inquiry and I’m looking at the model of the Mitchell inquiry into baseball which was very, very well received.
Pat McQuaid went a long way down establishing this so-called Independent Commission and he was advised, I think wrongly, to base it on the model of a British public inquiry with huge teams of lawyers on either side and the UCI having to have its own team of lawyers as well. The cost of that was phenomenal: 2.5 million Swiss francs wasted on something that never even happened.
The problem with the Independent Commission of course was that if it was allowed to run and cost even more and then twelve hours after it published its results others could have said ‘we have no confidence in this anyway’.
What really has to be done right at the start is to establish a format, not just the one that I want, or that somebody else wants, but one that’s acceptable to all those stakeholders like WADA like the IOC and others in the anti-doping and sports governance arenas.
Blocked by UCI Congress?
Q: First of all you’ve got to get elected. Isn’t the problem that the UCI Congress – and these are the people who decide whether it’s you or Pat McQuaid who will lead the UCI – have expressed an opinion against any investigation of the past. So in a sense you are appealing to two constituencies in this election campaign: the fans, who, it seems, do want to get everything out in the open and are backing you on this; and the UCI Congress, who are the ones who actually have the votes, who would rather not delve into past events.
Brian Cookson: I don’t think there’s any doubt that the UCI Congress will want a full and radical review of this whole situation. There are a lot of people around the world who are very concerned about the damage done to the UCI reputation by the Armstrong affair in particular, and the prevalence of doping in pro road cycling in particular over the last fifteen, twenty to twenty-five years – and I guess beyond that as well.
In terms of the voting structure, all international bodies are rather complex and complicated in the way that votes are resolved. In our case it’s through the continental confederations, so Europe has 14 votes, Asia has 9, pan-America has 9, Africa has 7, Oceania has 3. So 42 voting delegates and you need 22 to win.
I’m making it my business to go out and talk to as many of those people as possible, to talk to as many national federations as possible, if I can’t talk to them personally, to get my manifesto out there, to make personal contacts through email and phone calls, to persuade them that mine is the right path to follow.
All of them have got their own processes to go through and that’s right and proper but I’m confident there’s a groundswell of support for me now and we’ll have a good contest and I believe that I’ll win the election at the end of the day.
Q: One plank of your manifesto is about globalising the sport. You say you want to globalise the sport but you must recognise that the roots of cycle sport, particularly top level road racing, is in Europe, with a fairly established calendar of events that have a long history and a rich heritage. To grow the sport globally you’re going to have to hold more top-level races around the world. Doesn’t this mean you’ll to have to sacrifice some of its European events and the heritage that goes with them?
Brian Cookson: The mistake is to try to replicate the European pro road cycling model around the rest of the world because that’s not necessarily practical or deliverable. I think there will just have to be changes within the European calendar.
There are some events that will need to look very radically at their format but that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of those races, and some of the proposals I’ve seen are not workable.
There’s too much arguing about who is going to have a bigger slice of the cake but we should be trying to make the cake bigger. We can do that, not by ignoring the heritage of the sport, far from it, but building on the existing heritage: ASO’s events, the Giro, the Vuelta, the Flemish classics – the landmarks of the sport.
We need to build and support the events that are struggling, and find better ways of financing them and help to find better ways of financing the teams. I don’t think that runs counter to broadening the sport worldwide, the two can run together.
We need to look very carefully at the calendar and have a broad review with all the stakeholders – the event organisers, the teams and the national federations – and find changes that are acceptable to everybody.
In terms of developing cycling around the world, what’s been tried is to replicate the European model and that doesn’t work very well. I’ll give you an example. At the end of every year, each of the top pro teams is meant to give ten bikes to the UCI’s solidarity fund and these are sent out around the world to various places.
A president of an African federation told me that it’s not very helpful. Some of the bikes have ten-speed, some have eleven, some have electronic shifting, some are Shimano, some are Campagnolo. They’re top of the range bikes but they can’t get spares for them and so they’re no good to them.
What would be a much better solution would be a more effective knowledge transfer, so maybe send out a coach from one of the pro teams to work with a national federation in Africa for three months in the off season, or second one of their coaches to come and work with a pro team or a national federation. So a national federation like British Cycling could twin with one of the countries in the developing world, in South America, Asia or Africa and have a really good knowledge transfer arrangement.
You don’t help agriculture in the developing world by sending over ten combine harvesters; you help by educating people in agriculture.
Turning around British Cycling
Q: You are among those who claim credit for having turned around British Cycling as an organisation and achieving some extraordinary sporting results along the way. What are the lessons from that experience that you’d apply at the UCI?
Brian Cookson: I’ve been President of British Cycling since the end of 1996, when it was in a dire state, a bit of a meltdown, close to bankruptcy. We were able to stabilise the organisation, to recruit good people, to get all the stakeholders around and to get the confidence of the public authorities, UK Sport and the National Lottery, and the commercial sector in terms of our sponsors.
That’s emerged as a wonderfully effective three-way relationship with Sky, with UK Sport and ourselves. Once you get everything on a stable basis with a clear strategy, and with good standards of governance backed up by effective management, that’s the way you can deliver a good future for a governing body.
Jack Thurston presents The Bike Show on Resonance FM and is the author of Lost Lanes.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.