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Cookson wins UCI presidency after Machiavellian drama

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Sep. 27, 2013
  • Updated Oct. 30, 2014 at 5:30 PM EST
In a dramatic gesture on Friday, Brian Cookson told the lawyers to stop posturing, stood for election, and won the UCI presidency. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

Editor’s note: As we ring out 2013, we look at 13 of our favorite stories of the year. Andrew Hood’s retelling of the dramatic election of Brian Cookson to the UCI presidency originally appeared on Sept. 27, 2013.

FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — The UCI Congress was descending into chaos. Well into the fourth hour of proceedings, exasperated delegates were turning acrimonious over the legitimacy of standing UCI president Pat McQuaid’s candidacy.

Months of intrigue, politicking, posturing, and allegations of bribes, and other dastardly deeds reached a boiling point. Many questioned whether McQuaid, who stood on the rather dubious backing from Morocco and Thailand, should even be allowed to stand for reelection.

Finally, British Cycling president Brian Cookson stood up and simply stated, “Let’s have the vote right now.”

With those few words, the most bitter, drawn-out election in UCI history quickly came to a close. Cookson defied the odds, and resolutely ended the McQuaid era at cycling’s world governing body, winning the vote 24-18 in a secret ballot.

“I wasn’t confident at all [of winning], but I felt I owed it to the cycling world to put an end to the misery that we were all going through,” Cookson said when asked by VeloNews. “I think people respected that.”

Cookson, 62, immediately assumes the office of UCI president in what was viewed by many as an important and necessary change in leadership atop the scandal-tarnished cycling federation.

The Englishman promised to herald in a new era underscored by transparency, cooperation, and the pledge of rebuilding the sullied image of a sport racked by decades of doping scandals.

High stakes game in Florence

Friday’s election was a high-stakes game of winner-take-all, and it all came to a head during a tension-filled UCI Congress on Friday morning inside Florence’s medieval Palazzo Vecchio, where Machiavelli once roamed the hallways.

Cookson insisted his bold, put-the-cards-on-the-table gesture Friday of calling for the final vote rather than allowing proceedings to be being drawn out in a battle between lawyers speaks volumes about the style of leadership he promises to bring to his four-year term.

“Today was pretty disastrous to the image of the UCI,” he said. “It was mishandled in so many ways. We heard all the arguments. We were going around in circles. I decided it was time to put the matter to the vote.”

With the call to vote, 42 delegates were called one at a time into a balloting room to make their picks. Four observers later counted the votes on a table at the center of the hall to assure there were no charges of fixing the election.

The stacks of paper were counted out: 24 on one pile, 18 on the other. The tension was visible on both candidates’ faces. One quickly turned to joy, the other to disappointment. Cookson was in; McQuaid was out.

Cookson said he believes his presidency comes with a clear mandate for change. He immediately called for creation of an independent anti-doping agency that will act beyond the direct control of the UCI, and promised to begin some sort of reconciliation with cycling’s dirty past.

“I am hoping to help cycling heal the wounds that it’s inflicted upon itself,” Cookson said. “Yes, I do believe I am a candidate for change, and I have been elected with a mandate to change how things are done at the UCI, and that’s what I am going to do.”

Many were quick to cheer his electoral victory, but McQuaid supporters were quietly muttering that the two-term incumbent was given a raw deal, both in the media and by Cookson backers.

The election defeat delivers an unsavory exit for the 64-year-old Irishman who went down swinging. McQuaid stubbornly stood for reelection despite having both the Irish and then the Swiss cycling federations refuse to endorse his candidacy.

“Being elected as UCI president was the proudest moment of my life,” McQuaid said Friday in an emotional farewell. “Congress has spoken, and I accept their decision. I wish to express my gratitude and thanks to the delegates who supported me.”

So ends McQuaid’s long career at the UCI, which dates back nearly two decades. He served eight years as head of the influential Road Commission before winning election as UCI president in 2005 to take over for the exiting Hein Verbruggen. He was unchallenged for a second term in 2009.

It was his close links to the controversial Dutchman, however, that would both help and haunt McQuaid throughout his tenure.

Verbruggen ran the UCI with an iron first, and many suggested that McQuaid was little more than a puppet for Verbruggen, who exited the UCI to serve as the point man for the International Olympic Committee during the 2008 Beijing Games.

Early in his first term, a bitter fight with Tour de France owner ASO over the ProTour project bogged down McQuaid. The Operación Puerto doping scandal in Spain soon followed in 2006.

In the wake of the disastrous Puerto scandal, which revealed that doping was still deeply entrenched in the pro peloton, McQuaid eventually helped introduce innovative anti-doping measures such as the biological passport, a no-needle policy, and the ADAMs system to monitor riders’ whereabouts to enable more out-of-competition controls.

Further controversy followed, including a serious row with the teams over a race radio ban and questions over Alberto Contador’s positive control for clenbuterol in 2010.

Despite his groundbreaking anti-doping efforts, McQuaid seemed to receive little credit for real advances made in cleaning up the peloton. His distractors charged he was more often an impediment to change, and accused him of being distracted by the political side of the job.

Tension came to a head last year with U.S. Anti-Doping Agency case against Lance Armstrong and the doping machine at the U.S. Postal Service. The release of USADA’s reasoned decision in October 2012 saw the UCI and McQuaid overwhelmed by accusations of cover-ups, corruption, and ineptitude.

McQuaid was unable to effectively deal with the fallout from the Armstrong scandal, and soon was fighting for his professional life.

Enter Cookson, and desperation

The entrée of Cookson as a viable and clear alternative set the stage for a bitter, six-month battle, which came to a head on Friday. Final-hour efforts to change the UCI Constitution to allow McQuaid to receive endorsements from any federation were seen by many as desperate maneuvering to maintain power at any cost.

Cookson began his campaign on the back foot, at least when it came to nurturing vital delegates essential to winning the election. While pilloried by many in the media, McQuaid enjoyed strong backing among international federations, who counted on the Irishman’s deep links to the IOC to assure a presence in the Olympic Games.

Cookson began a deliberate, well-planned campaign both in the media and behind the scenes to promote his candidacy. Overseas trips to Asia, Africa, North America, and Oceania allowed him to meet face-to-face with potential voters, and paid huge dividends Friday.

Critical moments came when Australia, the United States, and the entire European delegation publicly backed Cookson. McQuaid, meanwhile, was counting on votes from Asian and African delegates.

It all came down to the wire in Friday’s too-close-to-call election.

“I was expecting to win, but I was not taking it for granted, especially with a secret ballot,” Cookson said. “I got strong support from the U.K. and from Europe. I was confident that I did a lot of work, and I spoke with a lot of delegates the last couple of days. We worked very hard, and we had a very good team with us. At the end of the day, we got the result we were looking for; 24-18, that is a very strong message.”

The heat ticks up on Cookson

By Friday afternoon, Cookson quickly discovered there that the UCI kitchen comes with a great deal of heat. The first question he was asked was over reports of alleged payoffs of $25,000 to Greece to support his candidacy.

“That is absolutely preposterous. Of course it’s not true,” Cookson said. “That has nothing to do with me. That’s not the way I do business; never have, never will.”

He was also queried over close links to magnate and Russian cycling federation boss Igor Makarov, who publicly backed Cookson’s candidacy.

“I will prove my transparent approach to the UCI. I have nothing to hide, nor will I,” he continued. “Makarov is important, he is the Russian federation president, and a member of the Management Committee, of which he was duly re-elected today. He deserves respect and I look forward to working with him.”

Once the historic vote was taken, Cookson went to the dais to speak briefly after winning the election. Nearly overcome with emotion, he promised a new start for the troubled cycling governing body.

“I was emotional, because I love this sport,” Cookson recounted. “I’ve been involved in this sport for years, and like everyone else, I hated to see the damage that’s been inflicted. It’s passion, it’s love, it’s emotion for cycling. That’s something that I will never lose.”

Cookson now has a tough task ahead of him, while McQuaid will discreetly exit life at center-stage. It’s not known what the Irishman will do, but he vowed to stay “involved in cycling.”

McQuaid choked up as he bid adieu to delegates in his final official act as UCI president.

“I close by saying my wife finally has me back. She has me back as her husband, and my children have their father back,” McQuaid said, fighting back the tears as supporters broke into cheers. “I declare this conference now closed.”

With those words, the McQuaid era unceremoniously ended, and the Cookson era began. After an intense few months, Cookson emerged the clear winner in a nail-biting, tension-filled finale in Florence. Machiavelli would have been proud.

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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