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Exclusive interview with UCI president Pat McQuaid, part 1

  • By Neal Rogers
  • Published Feb. 7, 2013
  • Updated Feb. 7, 2013 at 7:17 AM EDT
Pat McQuaid says that he has doubts about USADA and wants to work with WADA on Truth and Reconciliation. Photo: Wil Matthews | VeloNews.com


LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (VN) — It’s not been easy being Pat McQuaid.

The president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) since 2005, McQuaid has led the sport of professional cycling during its most difficult period.

At times fiery and stubborn, while also affable and intelligent, the 63-year-old Irishman has been involved in pro cycling for all of his adult life, as a racer, a race promoter, and a member of the UCI.

The former head of the UCI Road Commission, McQuaid was elected to president in 2005 after 16 years of leadership under Dutchman Hein Verbruggen, who had essentially led the UCI after the Fédération Internationale de Cyclisme Professionnel folded into the international federation in 1989.

Verbruggen led the sport during pro cycling’s most rampant doping period, the wild west era of the 1990s and early 2000s, before a test for erythropoietin (EPO) had been developed. EPO abuse flourished during Verbruggen’s tenure as UCI president, epitomized by the 1998 Festina Affair, and he was widely criticized for being too lenient on drug cheats; prior to a reliable EPO test, the UCI simply sidelined riders with a hematocrit level over 50 percent.

However, McQuaid has overseen the sport during its most turbulent period, as revelations and admissions of doping from the past 15 years has combined with a spate of more recent scandals.

Case in point: Today, in February 2013, the Operación Puerto scandal from May 2006 continues to fill headlines and tarnish the sport’s image, and two Italian investigations, in Padua and Mantova, promise to uncover doping and money laundering activities taking place as recently as 2011. This at a time the sport is reeling from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s “Reasoned Decision,” which, when released in October, blew open the lid on systematic doping within Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service and Discovery teams from 1999 through 2005, while also alleging that Armstrong continued to cheat, by using banned blood transfusions, during his comeback in 2009 and 2010.

That allegation, made by USADA, is particularly damaging to McQuaid’s tenure over the sport, as the UCI president proudly touts the biological passport program, the longitudinal monitoring of blood values, as one of his finest achievements. No sport will ever be clear of doping, the argument goes, but the biological passport is the greatest weapon anti-doping authorities have in the fight against cheats.

Enacted in 2008, the biological passport serves two purposes: first, to present evidence of blood doping in the absence of an adverse analytical, or positive drug test — it’s impossible to test positive for one’s own blood — and also to deter blood doping simply with the presence of a proven method of detecting transfusions.

Several riders have been suspended solely on the basis of biological passport data, including Italian Franco Pellizotti and Spaniard Igor Astarloa. Belgian Leif Hoste, who retired at the end of 2011, now finds himself at the center of a passport investigation.

However, the fact that USADA claims Armstrong’s blood values from 2009 and 2010 are evident of blood doping, and that UCI scientists missed that data, brings the entire biological passport under a cloud of suspicion, particularly in light of allegations made by former Postal Service riders Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, as well as USADA CEO Travis Tygart, that Verbruggen accepted a $100,000 bribe to cover up an Armstrong drug positive from the 2001 Tour of Switzerland. (Verbruggen and McQuaid sued Landis for defamation and received a judgment by default in October 2012 when Landis did not show to the hearing.)

Allegations found in USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” — that the UCI missed, or overlooked, Armstrong’s bio passport data, and was complicit in covering up a doping positive — as well as accusations from several riders that they were warned in advance about when UCI drug testers would arrive for surprise testing, paints a picture of a governing body more concerned in protecting its image and marketability, rather than protecting the rights of clean athletes struggling to compete.

Regarding Hamilton and Landis, in October McQuaid referred to them as “scumbags” at a press conference in Geneva, saying, “We called Hamilton in [after he failed a dope test]. He said our machines were wrong. We said ‘we are after you.’ He was positive two, maybe three times, and eventually he was thrown out of the sport. He then spends the next few years trying to prove he was a twin before he was born or something like that and prove the scientific community wrong. He loses his marriage and his money. What does he do now? Writes a book just before the USADA report is announced and is making money left, right, and center. What good is he doing the sport? He’s on a personal mission to make money for himself.”

Doping has been part of the culture of competitive cycling for decades; however, since the launch of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999, following the Festina Affair at the 1998 Tour de France, all Olympic Movement sports that reside under the International Olympic Committee umbrella are obligated to follow WADA Code in its mission to preserve clean sport. (Just as all national cycling federations fall under the UCI, all national anti-doping agencies, such as USADA, fall under WADA.)

The UCI launched an independent commission in October 2012 to investigate whether or not the UCI has been adhering to the WADA Code. However, the UCI disbanded that commission on January 28, instead moving towards a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the World Anti-Doping Agency. The dissolution of the UCIIC wasn’t harmonious, however, as the commission complained that it had not received information from the UCI, while running into opposition from WADA over its Terms of Reference, which did not include a Truth and Reconciliation or amnesty process in order to protect witnesses from sanctions.

In the shadow of Verbruggen

With a UCI presidential election looming in September, McQuaid now finds himself in the unenviable position of defending both his tenure as the sport’s leader as well as the previous terms of Verbruggen, to whom McQuaid is fiercely loyal.

Both men have close ties to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). After leaving his UCI presidency — and being awarded with an honorary presidency — Verbruggen moved on to a position with the IOC, overseeing the 2008 Beijing Games. McQuaid is an IOC board member.

Since 2007, Verbruggen has been president of SportAccord, formerly known as the General Association of International Sports Federations, a Swiss entity formed in 1978 to promote communication and cooperation among various international sports federations. Following Verbruggen’s second election in 2011, McQuaid was appointed to the SportAccord Council, and until recently the Irishman was considered a potential candidate to replace his former boss as president of SportAccord.

In the years after he left his post, rumors circulated that McQuaid had, on several occasions, excused himself from important meetings, only to be spotted outside the meeting room consulting with Verbruggen by phone.

In January, Verbruggen acknowledged to Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland that the UCI had informed dozens of riders, including Lance Armstrong, over a period of years if they had recorded suspicious doping test results.

The revelation drew sharp reaction from WADA, which described the practice as entirely contrary “to the purpose of an effective anti-doping program.”

Mounting pressure

Criticism of McQuaid’s leadership has been stern, including everything from a mock Twitter account, @UCI_Overlord, with almost 13,000 followers, to a pressure group of heavy hitters, Change Cycling Now, which includes Greg LeMond, Paul Kimmage, and David Walsh.

Some critics claim that McQuaid is dictatorial, aloof, and, even worse, disconnected and oblivious to the sport’s real challenges. [In the February issue of Velo, our editorial staff presented a five-point plan to save the sport; one of those steps centered around installing new leadership. Prior to this interview, McQuaid acknowledged that he’d seen the article, but had not read it.]

Many point to the UCI’s commercial arm, Global Cycling Promotion, which is openly promoting and taking an ownership stake in pushing new event properties, presenting an obvious conflict of interest. Two new races in China — the Tour of Beijing and the Tour of Hangzhou — were rubber-stamped and given WorldTour status, meaning they carry the same weight as historic races like Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné. The latter failed to take place in its 2012 debut season, despite appearing on the sport’s premiere calendar.

In the midst of all this, the UCI has had to contend with the possibility of a breakaway league, World Series Cycling, initiated by London-based Gifted Group that would have replaced the current UCI WorldTour.

Over the past 10 days, the UCI president found himself under attack from WADA president John Fahey, blood-doping researcher Michael Ashenden and Lance Armstrong, who called him “pathetic.” Perhaps the ultimate insult came when spectators at the world cyclocross championships roundly booed the UCI president as he presented medals to the elite men’s podium on February 2.

This all came on the heels of news that McQuaid had stepped down from the IOC’s 2020 host city selection committee, and that longtime UCI communications director Enrico Carpani would be stepping down in March, seemingly fatigued by the never-ending swirl of controversy around the sport and its leader.

Following his week of public spats with WADA, McQuaid reached out to all 101 members of the IOC, asking for support in his quarrel with WADA in a January 30 letter, writing, “We would welcome any support you can offer in underlining to WADA the importance of working in partnership and cooperation with the UCI to establish this Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

On Friday, February 1, McQuaid met with the UCI Management Committee in Louisville, Kentucky, the site of the cyclocross world championships. Of the news to come out of that meeting was the appointment of two Management Committee members, UCI vice president Artur Lopes of Portugal, and former French federation president Daniel Baal, to work with WADA on the implementation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a way for the sport to put its sordid past behind.

Several national federation members in Louisville, who asked not to be identified, alluded to a growing lack of confidence in the UCI president, questioning whether he could, or should, run for reelection in September.

On Saturday, however, British Cycling president (and UCI Management Committee member) Brian Cookson, a name that has been discussed as a possible candidate for the UCI presidency, told Cyclingnews.com that he was fully supportive of the UCI’s leadership, and that the sport’s governing body was united in its approach to any possible Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It was against this backdrop that VeloNews editor in chief Neal Rogers sat down with McQuaid on February 2 for a 45-minute interview in Louisville, which follows, in its entirety, broken into two parts. Part 2 will run on Friday morning.

VeloNews: There’s a feeling that for sport of cycling to move forward, it needs to shed the albatross of doping — Lance Armstrong, Eufemiano Fuentes, and Michele Ferrari, all of these characters — and it seems as though actions, or inactions, of the UCI are intertwined in these affairs. As an example: Hein Verbruggen acknowledging that riders were alerted about suspicious blood values. Cycling fans are having a lot of trouble understanding how that was ever allowed to happen, and it puts you in the position of having to speak for your predecessor.
Pat McQuaid: It does, yeah, for the policies of that time, if not necessarily for my predecessor. First of all, that’s no longer the UCI policy. Secondly, what a lot of people fail to do, and it’s probably understandable, is to look at the anti-doping landscape of 20 years ago, and look at the anti-doping landscape of today. It was completely different 20 years ago. You had a product which was in use, which was undetectable for four or five years. The UCI were the ones to invest in a test, and the first to use the test for that product.

So what do you do in that situation? You know a product is in use, you’re not a police force, there are no rules other than the anti-doping tests in place, and when they’re coming back negative, but you know the product is in use, the policy at that time was to inform the riders. And the UCI was not the only international federation doing that. All of the international federations at that time, I believe — I wasn’t around — but there are minutes from meetings which took place between international federations at that time discussing how to deal with it. Several international federations, including the international skating union… there was an article in the Dutch press last week, which said that they did the same thing. They warned skaters that their values were suspicious and that they would be targeted. That was a means to, number one, frighten them to stop doping… and that’s all the means you have, because you didn’t have the means to catch the guys.

It’s easy today, to sit down with the biological passport, and say, “no, we don’t warn riders.” You have the armory now we didn’t have in those days. Without criticizing the UCI policy at the time, it was the only way they could deal with it. It was a very primitive anti-doping situation. Remember, 1998 was the Festina Affair, 1999 was the creation of WADA; you’re only starting to get anti-doping tests then. The landscape was different.

VN: The UCI has lauded itself for the biological passport. Yet USADA says that Armstrong’s values from 2009 and 2010 are evident of blood doping. The UCI was running the biological passport, and there was no red flag from the federation about his values. And just last week Michael Ashenden released a statement that the UCI has not been honest about the depth of its biological passport testing.
PM: That was a subject that has come up recently, and there was some mischievous reporting going on by certain people. That subject [Armstrong’s 2009-2010 values] was explained by Francesca Rossi to the Management Committee on Friday [February 1]. He had something like 30 tests during the 24 months of his comeback. Those 30 tests were evaluated, I’m not sure if all 30 were blood tests for the passport, I’m not sure of the proportions, but anyway, all of the tests were evaluated by independent experts, including, I think, Michael Ashenden. But they would be evaluated as anonymous; they don’t know who the athletes are. And none of them, when we went back and looked at the Armstrong tests, none of them at no time did the experts say to the UCI there was suspicion, and that he should be targeted. His passport was normal.

Now, to the best of my knowledge, USADA did some tests on them as well. If they felt those tests were showing blood values that showed doping, why didn’t they open proceedings?

VN: Presumably because at that time the Department of Justice was building a case against Armstrong and the management of the U.S. Postal Service team.
PM: Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think so. If any agency, including the UCI, has evidence that they think they can take to court and win, they would do it, any time. Even if they were working with the federal investigators, if they could have nailed him on a violation, they would have done so.

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Neal Rogers

Neal Rogers

Neal Rogers is editor in chief of Velo magazine and VeloNews.com. An interest in all things rock 'n' roll led him into music journalism while attending UC Santa Cruz, on the central coast of California. After several post-grad years spent waiting tables, surfing, and mountain biking, he moved to San Francisco, working as a bike messenger, and at a software startup. He moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2001, taking an editorial internship at VeloNews. He never left. When not traveling the world covering races, he can be found riding his bike, skiing, or attending a concert.

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