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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Pat McQuaid interview, part 2

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Dec. 7, 2010
  • Updated Nov. 5, 2013 at 5:32 PM EDT

McQuaid at the GP Montreal in September

Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a three-part interview with Pat McQuaid, focusing on McQuaid’s five years as head of the UCI. Part 1 looked at the sport’s globalization, the new World Tour and the process used to choose ProTeams for 2011. Part 3 will be published next week and will, among other things, delve more deeply into how the UCI has dealt with the doping problem.

To the general media, Pat McQuaid is a lightning rod in world cycling. He’s the go-to guy whenever a controversial development, good or bad, hits the sport. But most of the work accomplished by the 61-year-old Irishman in his five years as president of the Union Cycliste Internationale goes unreported or under-reported.

That was the case last Friday when McQuaid was in Paris for the annual meeting of AIOCC, the international association of bike race organizers, representing the sport’s top 75 race promoters. Also in attendance was AIOCC president Christian Prudhomme, race director of the Tour de France, along with the organizers of cycling’s other grand tours, who for the better part of seven years have fought a much-publicized battle with the UCI over their rights to invite whatever teams they want to the Tour, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

That battle officially came to a close on Friday when Prudhomme and his fellow big-race organizers agreed to the UCI’s new regulations concerning entry to all WorldTour races, whereby all 18 ProTeams get automatic qualification — leaving room for just four wild-card invites to the grand tours (and seven for shorter stage races and the one-day classics).

This successful conclusion to the long-standing dispute was worthy of major headlines. Instead, Europe’s top sports daily, L’Équipe, which over the years routinely blamed the UCI for a battle that threatened to close down pro cycling, buried the story in last Saturday’s edition on page 23 in a two-sentence paragraph.

It read: “The new qualification rules for events put in place by the UCI were accepted by the race organizers, whose international association (AIOCC) held its general assembly (yesterday). A development that’s less trifling than it seems, insofar as it officially brings to an end the long discord that opposed the UCI to the grand tours.”

That news was a clear victory for the negotiation process that McQuaid helped to engineer following a change of regime at Tour organizer ASO in 2008; but such legislation rarely gets the publicity it deserves.

Dealing with problems in international pro road racing and high-profile doping cases are only part of McQuaid’s purview — about which the UCI president elaborated in this exclusive interview with VeloNews. In Part 2, McQuaid talks about developments in mountain biking, an improved relationship between the UCI and the bicycle industry, the difficulty of increasing cycling’s popularity on television, the controversial decision to drop the individual pursuit as a medal event at the 2012 Olympic Games, and the chances of cyclocross becoming an Olympic sport.

VN: How do you see the state of mountain biking?

PM: It’s at a level that’s neither going up nor going down. And it’s something that the UCI needs to seriously address in the next year or two for a couple of reasons. One, it’s an Olympic discipline, and it’s very important that it remains an Olympic discipline; so we have to take cognizance of the evaluations that the International Olympic Committee do, because the Olympic Games belong to the IOC. They can decide what’s in and what’s not in … and if mountain biking is presented in a way that is not attractive to the public and television then it risks its position on the Olympic program. There’ll be another evaluation of that program in 2013, so we have until then to make mountain biking more attractive to television in particular.

By its nature and its traditional presentation, mountain biking is the most difficult and most expensive to produce for television in the Olympic program. In Athens, for instance, there were 45 TV cameras needed to cover the mountain bike course. We have since reduced the distance of mountain bike courses somewhat, but it still needs to be made into a more attractive discipline. I have great respect for the athletes because it’s an extremely hard discipline, but it doesn’t come across on television like that. We don’t want to turn into cyclocross, which is an attractive sport, but we do need to make changes.

One aspect of this is the recent improvements that have been made in the relationship between the UCI and the (bicycle) industry. That’s come about for two reasons. For a long time, I’ve felt the UCI should be closer to the industry and we should be working in harmony; and then, because of the problems last year with bikes being outside the regulations, I decided that we had to get closer to the industry. Hence, I went to Taiwan for the first time, to the bike show, in March; and then in Friedrichshafen, at Eurobike, we made a presentation to the industry as to how we’re approaching the problems on materials and so forth. So we’re now going from what was a philosophical approach to the regulations to reflect the (1996) Lugano Charter on how the sport should be regulated; and maybe from the industry’s point of view they weren’t clear enough or too ambiguous, which resulted in some of them going over the limits. So we’ve changed into a more engineering-oriented approach to it, and employed an engineer in the UCI; and we’re now working closely with EPFL, which is a high-level engineering department of (Switzerland’s) Lausanne University. So all the bike manufacturers will liaise with the EPFL to get approval for the dimensions and so forth. This will develop over the next couple of years and help the sport as well.

This brings us back to the discussions I had in Friedrichshafen with the owners of the main manufacturers, and each one of them said to me that we need to consider what we’re doing with mountain biking, because it’s extremely important to the industry. So they’ve agreed to work with the UCI to try to bring the sport up a couple of notches. So we’ll sit down with them in the new year and hopefully work out something.

My reasoning for getting close to the industry was, the UCI’s working very hard to globalize the sport, and we’re under pressure from the IOC to do that, and if we do so the beneficiary is the industry. It’s in both our interests, so why can’t we work together to help globalize cycling?

VN: The engineering connection, is this for all types of bikes or just mountain bikes?

PM: For all types of bikes and in particular for road bikes, because that’s where we have the biggest problems. And it’s also for (new) materials. The EPFL is run by Professor Jan-Anders Manson, who has worked for instance with Boeing in Seattle for several years, and worked on the development of the Alinghi (America’s Cup-winning) boat and the solar-powered plane that flew over Switzerland for over 24 hours. The EPFL is also the unit that FINA (the international swimming association) went to to help with their problems on race-swimsuit technology.

So they’ll also help us in the matter of new materials and technology, all of which can have an effect on the athlete’s performance that wouldn’t fall within the philosophy of the Lugano Charter.

VN: How will Manson work with the manufacturers?

PM: My understanding is that manufacturing (a new bike) is a three-year process from the original design through delivery. Now, manufacturers can come to him at an early stage — there’s obviously confidentiality involved here, but he’s working in a very professional way. If they want to come with particular components, or whatever, they will come to him with their designs or new technology, and if he determines it’s not gonna be something that will aid the effort of the cyclist, he’ll say I’ll go to the UCI and you can go ahead with that process. And they’ll come back to him at the next stage ….

When I made my presentation on our philosophy in Friedrichshafen, he made one on his approach to things. The reaction from the industry was very positive. They see that they can deal with someone at the same level who understands their position and ours. Also, an engineer is coming from the EPFL to work on a three-year contract for the UCI as the liaison person. All this will serve the industry a lot better than we have in the past.

VN: Moving on to track, which is a big part of the sport, especially at the Olympics … What do you see as the state of the game there, starting with your decision to make changes to the Olympic program, which has eliminated the individual pursuit from the 2012 Games.

PM: I think people need to understand the situation the UCI was in with relation to the track program. First of all, we were under pressure — the IOC told us, as well as all sports, that we had to be gender equitable. That was something we needed and what I think in the long term is a good thing for the sport. When we were in the situation of having seven men’s events and three women’s events, federations, national Olympic committees and governments were naturally diverting most of their resources to the men’s track program. And so women’s track racing wasn’t progressing very much. The fact that we’ve made it five and five means that the resources will be spread equally and women’s track will now develop at a fast rate over the next two Olympic Games.

The second aspect is that when we decided we had to do it — and this was discussed amongst the track commission, and the federations, who were told the situation we were in — it didn’t come as a big surprise. Our thoughts were, what do we do if we have to drop two men’s events, and do we have three sprint events and two endurance events, or vice versa? Now since track racing is basically a sprint sport, we felt three sprint and two endurance would be the best way of doing it.

After that we had to decide what events you do, and that’s where we had the hard decisions to make — and the hard decision was to drop the individual pursuit, the Madison and the points race, and replace with one event, the omnium. Now, the points and the pursuit are both part of the omnium. Also, had we not introduced the omnium and kept the individual pursuit, we would have had a track program that would have been over in about three days, because they’re all quick events. Whereas the omnium gave us the opportunity not only for a five-day program but to extend it to six days.

These are factors that the IOC recognized and encouraged, and for London in particular they were screaming at us for an extra day in track racing — because that’s gonna be the most popular event there in 2012. Besides all this, we still have an individual pursuit and a points race (as part of the omnium) and also included a new one, the elimination race, or devil-take-the-hindmost as we used to call it in my day, again as part of the omnium.

As for the Madison, that wasn’t such a difficult position, even though I have great respect for the Madison, which is an incredibly skilful race to watch. The problem is, live in the track, if you understand what you’re watching you can follow the Madison. But as soon as you take your eye off it, it’s gone. Now, commentators on TV end up having even bigger problems with it …

People also need to understand that the Olympic Games and the world championships are two different events altogether. When the world championships are on television anyone switching them on has switched them on because they want to watch the world track championships, and they understand what’s going on. But 80 percent of the audience at the Olympic Games don’t understand what they’re looking at. They’re just general sports people that have got caught up in the Olympic Games and are watching. So if you’ve got a Madison on the program nobody will watch it because they can’t follow it.

These are all factors that we had to take into account, all of which brought us down to the five and five that we’ve got. Now, I’m not particularly happy with the five and five. I’ve had a discussion with the president of the IOC already, and I’ve said that we do risk damaging track cycling … if this program is not 100 percent successful.

What I’d like to see is to go to six and six, and bring in a third endurance event whatever that might be, which would give us a balance that would be much more equitable. And it would be more in tune with keeping the track a strong discipline, because the endurance guys who ride the track are important — a lot of them are road guys who come to the track. And it’s important to have them instead of just pure sprinters. My objectives post-London would be to try very hard to get another medal event in both men’s and women’s track racing.

VN: What about the track World Cups? They seem to be a mixed bag: some are successful, others don’t attract spectators at all.

PM: It’s true that some venues don’t attract spectators. I don’t fully understand why because the racing can be spectacular. One thing I would say about the track World Cup, it has been responsible for the massive improvement in the quality of track racing. Were it not for the World Cups, you would have the riders only coming together once a year for the world championships. Here, you get the best in the world coming together four or five times a year. It’s because of that constant competition between the top guys that the standard has gone up.

The World Cup still needs to achieve something in terms of the live spectator audience and television audience. The UCI’s problem is that we’re limited in resources. We’re not like FIFA (the international soccer association), which receives big television fees to broadcast their games. We’re the other way round and have to buy television time for certain disciplines.

The big tours have no problem getting on TV, but once you leave that then there’s a lot of sports competing for time. There’s a lot of channels and then the Internet with social networking and live streaming, which has actually diminished the desire of TV to pay money for sports events because people can watch it for free…. If we could find some big sponsors who wanted to work with us on a discipline like track we could do a lot with it. But we don’t have the money to do that at the moment.

VN: In North America, cyclocross has become a big part of cycling, and the world championships are coming to North America in a few years. Do you think there’s any chance, now that you’re member of the IOC, that ’cross could become part of the winter Olympics — because it is a winter sport?

PM: That’s actually a discussion I had recently with the president of the IOC (Jacques Rogge), and his response was no. My discussion with him was on the back of a discussion my colleague Lamine Diack at the IAAF (international track & field association) had with him because he was pushed at his congress to ask that cross-country running become part of the Winter Olympics. Rogge said no because the Olympic charter states that Winter Olympic disciplines must take place fundamentally on snow or ice.

Cyclocross can take place on snow but that’s not a primary part of the sport — it is a winter discipline that takes part on grass. So it doesn’t match the criteria to be in the Winter Olympic Games unless they change the charter. And cycling wouldn’t have the power or capacity within the IOC, or I wouldn’t, to push for a change in the charter for something like that, whereas the IAAF might. If they were to achieve that for cross-country running we would be on their heels straight away.

(Editor’s note: Cyclocross would qualify as a winter Olympic sport on another criterion, the number of nations that take part. Whereas sports in the summer Olympics need participation from a minimum of 50 countries, only 15 are needed for winter sports’ disciplines. And currently the world cyclocross championships attract teams from about 20 countries.)

Having said that, the discipline is growing, it’s successful and its one of the most spectacular events to watch and one of the most physically demanding to compete in. And the fact that it’s now growing well outside of its traditional heartland in northern Europe is very satisfying for the UCI. That’s why we’ve given a world championships to USA Cycling (to be held in Louisville, Kentucky, in January 2013). There are some good promoters in North America that want to develop the discipline.

(In the third and final part of this interview, Pat McQuaid will talk about what he has learned about the world of cycling in his five years of traveling the globe as UCI president, the work done at the UCI’s World Cycling Center in Switzerland, a second look at the sport’s major problems with doping, the continued expansion of road racing worldwide, and the future of cycling at the world championship and Olympic level.)


Editor’s note: VeloNews editor at large John Wilcockson has reported the Tour de France for more than forty years, written for publications including Outside, Men’s Journal, and The Times of London, and is a former editor of VeloNews. He is the author of a dozen books, including 23 Days in July, one of ESPN’s “Top 10 Sports Books of the Year.” He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

FILED UNDER: Mountain / MTB / News / Olympics / Road TAGS: / /

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