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The first 100 days: UCI’s Brian Cookson

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Jan. 6, 2014
  • Updated Jan. 6, 2014 at 7:06 AM EDT
Brian Cookson has been a busy man since his election as UCI president, and he's likely to be busier still. Photo: Franck Fife | AFP

MADRID (VN) — Brian Cookson might want to consider a job in a circus when he decides to step down as cycling’s head honcho.

Since taking the reins of the Union Cycliste Internationale in September, Cookson is proving quite deft at spinning the plates of his ever-ambitious agenda as the new president.

In his first three months in office, following his dramatic election victory over two-term incumbent Pat McQuaid, the 62-year-old Englishman’s juggling act has included putting out fires, mending fences, initiating new projects, building relationships, and reshaping the power structure at the UCI, all while trying to squeeze in a few bike rides.

“Plates are spinning everywhere,” Cookson told VeloNews. “It’s an interesting task, but it’s not a one-man show. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen.”

During his recent trip to Madrid, Cookson sat down with VeloNews for an extensive interview to discuss his first 100 days in office.

Cookson said he feels energized by the challenge of what he sees as a mandate to repair the tattered image of cycling’s governing body.

And he wants to take full advantage of the momentum that came with his intense and emotional election victory in September.

Referring to campaign promises he outlined last fall. Cookson said he and his team have already “done quite a few things” with the goal of making quick progress on some of the key points of his “manifesto.”

“All of those things have been very important on their own, and have helped set the UCI in a new and better direction,” he said.

Atop his sweeping manifesto is the creation of a three-member independent commission that Cookson promises will have full autonomy and freedom to delve into allegations of wrongdoing within the UCI. It will also grapple with the tricky question of trying to come to terms with cycling’s doping history.

“I am hopeful we can make an announcement very soon,” he said. “We are working on the independent commission to make sure that it is truly independent, that the people who lead it are recognized as the right people for the job, and that we establish it on terms and conditions that it will not be challenged by agencies like [the World Anti-Doping Agency] in the future. I am hopeful the world will like what it sees when we reveal it.”

Beyond that, there are other pressing agenda items crucial to Cookson’s manifesto, including improving the lot of women’s cycling, a dramatic reshaping of the elite men’s cycling calendar, and the creation of an anti-doping arm that will operate autonomously, free of any possible interference.

Behind the scenes, he’s shaken up the upper management at the UCI, quietly pushing out several key administrators and replacing them with confidants he believes he can trust to promote his program.

It’s certainly kept him busy. In addition to his recent trip to Madrid, Cookson has visited China during the Tour of Beijing, where he was trying to get his head around the UCI’s controversial Global Cycling Promotion. After that, it was off to South Africa and later to Egypt to coincide with the African championships.

On tap for early 2014 are stops in Australia for the Tour Down Under and the opening of the WorldTour. Next he’ll travel to Russia, attending part of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi to foster relations with key players within the IOC, and then head to South America for the track cycling world championships in Cali, Colombia.

“The reality is that my feet have barely touched the ground since I’ve taken over the role,” Cookson said. “I’ve been in more hotels than anywhere else.”

Cookson’s also been working the phones and pressing the flesh to mend fences with such organizations as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which had long been at loggerheads with the UCI, as well as building new constituencies within the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

“One of the first calls I made was to WADA, because it’s essential that we have good relations with them,” Cookson said. “The UCI and WADA spent a lot of time fighting and arguing with each other when they should have been helping each other to face the biggest problem of this sport, which is doping.”

For Cookson, the busy schedule and heightening sense of expectations is just fine. He says he feels like he’s a man on a mission.

“We have a beautiful sport that’s been damaged and reduced by people who should have known better,” Cookson told VeloNews. “A lot of people love our sport, and want to see it get better. My job is to help restore our sport.”

Ending the one-man show

In September, Cookson defeated two-term president McQuaid in a knockdown, drag-out brawl that went down to the wire in an emotional, tense UCI Congress in Florence.

His victory was the first time a standing president of a major international governing body had been defeated since Joao Havelange beat Stanley Rous to take over soccer’s FIFA in 1974.

Transitions of power within international sport federations typically are back-room deals, in which new presidents are named without direct challengers, with no real democratic process.

That’s a practice that Cookson hopes to change in what he sees as a clear mandate to lead the UCI beyond the era marked by Hein Verbruggen and McQuaid.

One key element of Cookson’s first 100 days has been a dramatic transformation of how the UCI president does his job.

Under former president Hein Verbruggen — and to a lesser degree, McQuaid — the UCI was very much a one-man show. Verbruggen, especially, had his fingers on the pulse of the sport, and if anything needed to be done, all it took was one call to the Dutchman, who some accused of running the UCI like his private fiefdom.

The new president has done some important restructuring of how decisions are made, promising a more transparent, more democratic process.

“The buck stops here — I am the president, no question about that — but my style has always been to delegate and consensus building, and I’ve taken great pains to consult my new vice presidents on all the important decisions, to involve them in the process,” Cookson said. “I want to delegate things through the different commissions, and work with the professional staff at the UCI.”

With that independent commission coming down the pipeline sometime in 2014, Cookson has distanced himself from his two predecessors, saying he’s had no contact with McQuaid and has exchanged only superficial e-mails with Verbruggen following his election victory.

And he’s bid farewell to some of their people, too.

Cookson chose Antonio Rigozzi of Switzerland to replace long-time legal counsel Philippe Verbiest, a right-hand man of Verbruggen who helped expand the scope of the fledgling governing body in the 1980s and 1990s.

Cookson also appointed Martin Gibbs, his presidential-campaign manager, as the new UCI director general, replacing Christophe Hubschmid.

And he immediately named three new vice presidents to head UCI committees, including Tracey Gaudry, president of the Oceania confederation, the first woman to be appointed to such a high post within the UCI.

At the same time, Cookson moved to assure the permanent UCI staff that there would be neither wholesale lay-offs nor drastic moves, such as relocating the UCI headquarters.

“One of the things I was very anxious to do when I arrived at Aigle was to reassure [the UCI staff] that there were not going to be any huge redundancies. We would reorganize rationally and sensibility, with context of a new senior team,” he said. “We had to get rid some of the scare stories that we were going to move the UCI to Manchester or to Moscow.”

Cookson said he now has an apartment in nearby Montreux, and “will be based there as much as possible.”

He also delivered on a promise to disclose the president’s salary. After a review by the three new vice presidents, Cookson agreed to cut his pay from the 440,000 Swiss francs that McQuaid received to 340,000 Swiss francs annually.

‘Change in tone’

Cookson is optimistic that these moves, as well as preliminary work on such items as the independent commission, will set the stage for important changes in 2014.

He said he’s been careful to reach out across the sport, making contact with international federations to clear any bad blood that might have carried over from the election, as well as conferring with cycling’s major interests, such as teams, athletes, and race organizations.

Many within the cycling community are carefully watching Cookson to see how he manages the transition of power. And so far, it seems like he is saying and doing the right things.

“The change in tone is significant,” said Luuc Eisenga, the managing director of the AIGCP, the professional team’s association. “He and his team are listening, and the conversation is at a good level.

“In the past, there were times when the UCI and the teams were fighting and arguing, and it didn’t bring anything good. All the stakeholders want to work together.”

Eisenga, who started with AIGCP in January 2013, said the simple fact that the UCI and the major teams are engaging one another marks an important breakthrough.

In 2012, relations between the pro teams and the UCI soured over the notion of a race radio ban. That issue is off the table, at least for now, as Cookson presses for action on more critical fronts, such as doping, cycling’s credibility, and how to restructure the sport financially for the future.

Bringing together all the disparate interests of elite men’s professional racing is no easy task, but Eisenga said Cookson’s team is at least open to discussion.

“One of the things is that the stakeholders have a certain relationship with each other, and that’s hard to change,” Eisenga said. “Cookson understands where we all come from, but there’s only one option left in the sport, and that’s to work together. We all have to share the responsibility to improve the sport. That’s not an easy talk, but they are trying.”

Cookson’s naming of Gaudry as a UCI vice president, and charging her with a commission to study ways to improve women’s cycling, has also been welcomed as a breath of fresh air.

When asked by VeloNews why women’s cycling is such an important agenda item, Cookson replied, “Because it’s half the world’s population, Andrew!”

Locking down the UCI data

Perhaps no single move demonstrated Cookson’s resolve more than what happened within minutes of winning the election in September.

Upon hearing the news of Cookson’s victory in Italy, an information security company moved into the UCI offices and backed up and locked down all data and communications going back to the first computer systems at the governing body.

Cookson said this extraordinary step was necessary to protect the integrity of any future investigations and safeguard his mandate.

“It was a premeditated step and a precaution. And it was essential,” Cookson said. “If we hadn’t done that, we would have been criticized about letting some critical information slip away.”

Intent on removing the shadow of doubt that’s hung over the UCI since the revelations that came with the Lance Armstrong investigation in 2012, Cookson said an independent panel would have full access to UCI communications and data.

“We locked it in a safe, under lock and key, and it will only be released on my say-so,” Cookson said. “I will release it to the president of the independent commission when they ask for it. And they can use it as they see fit.”

Cookson said the action was not solely directed against McQuaid, as was reported in some media outlets last fall. Sources close to McQuaid, however, insisted that the former president also saw his personal computer retrieved by the security company, and that all e-mails and data were removed from the hard drive.

For Cookson, removing the stain of controversy from the UCI is essential before the governing body can move forward. And he’s hopeful that the independent commission will be able to achieve that.

“I am not pre-judging any of that, but the Armstrong case is one of several, and the allegations that have come out of that are very worrying ones. They have to be investigated properly,” Cookson said.

“Obviously, the people implicated in those allegations deserve a truly independent, objective investigation. If they are exonerated, then that’s great, and I would welcome that, but if they’re not, then we need to draw lessons from it.”

Moving on the ‘manifesto’

As Cookson admits, there are “a lot of spinning plates,” but he insists he’s galvanized by the challenge of the job and the sense of mission that comes with it.

“The biggest surprise has been the amount of commitment and excitement there is out there for cycling,” he said. “I’ve had so many people approach me, stop me in airports, to wish me good luck. It was a bit strange at first being recognized in public places, but it shows there is a massive amount of enthusiasm and public support for our sport.”

Central to Cookson’s mandate is the sweeping manifesto outlined in his campaign last year.

In late October, Cookson called a special session with the powerful UCI management committee to devise a plan to bring his campaign promises to fruition as quickly as is practically possible.

Here’s an update on the major points:

1. Independent commission

Central to Cookson’s agenda is a thorough investigation into allegations leveled against the UCI that were revealed during the USADA case against Lance Armstrong and other scandals. Cookson said it’s critical to the UCI’s reputation and standing that a credible and independent inquiry has a free hand.

• Where it stands: Cookson was hoping for an announcement before the holidays, but promised for movement by early 2014. Cookson said he’d like to have the inquiry headed by a three-member panel wrapped up within one year, but vowed not to set limits to its scope.

• Cookson: “Let’s get this era behind us, let’s learn the lessons, and let’s put in the procedures that will prevent us from repeating the same mistakes. There will always be people who try to cheat; what’s important to us is that we do not collude or be somehow complicit to the cheating.”

2. ‘Truth-telling’ panel

Cookson refuses to call it “amnesty,” and vows to have another name for it, but part of the independent commission will be a reckoning of sorts with cycling’s doping past.

This is perhaps the most challenging element in Cookson’s manifesto — trying to find a structure and mechanism through which current and former riders can admit to doping and receive an appropriate disciplinary response.

With no real legal power, it will be a completely voluntary effort. But one way to encourage participation could be setting a standard that could be applied for future work opportunities. For example, if a rider does not come clean now, he or she could be banned from future employment if evidence of doping were later disclosed. It’s all still very much a matter under discussion.

• Where it stands: This will be wrapped into the independent commission, and will surely present the most complicated part of the mandate.

• Cookson: “Until we have this process, to give people an opportunity to come forward in a structured manner, we’re still going to have this drip, drip, and drip of revelations, of people writing books. If we had a proper process, if we put something in place that allows people to come forward and give evidence, then we have a chance to move forward. That doesn’t mean everyone will come forward. It won’t be a perfect mechanism, but it will be the best mechanism, and it will allow us to start the process of healing the damage that’s been done to cycling.”

3. Restructuring elite men’s racing

In an effort that was already under way before Cookson’s election, the UCI is considering a major restructuring of the elite men’s racing calendar.

There are several motives behind the proposed changes — healthier and cleaner racing, maximizing events, streamlining the calendar — but the bottom line will be a reduction in team sizes, a reduced racing calendar, and ideally a stronger financial footing.

• Where it stands: Discussions are under way as part of the UCI stakeholders’ effort that began last year, with a proposed five-year timeline for implementing changes once consensus is achieved on the major points.

• Cookson: “I want to protect the heritage of cycling, and at the same time, we have to look to new markets and strengthen the financial base of our sport. Too many teams and races have disappeared, so something clearly has to change. There will be some restructuring of the calendar. We want a vibrant season that has a narrative that makes sense to the public.”

4. Women’s cycling

Based on the success that women’s cycling enjoyed while he was president of British Cycling, Cookson sees untapped potential in that half of the sport. A panel will discuss such issues as a minimum wage, the expansion of the existing World Cup, and ways to provide incentives for elite men’s pro teams to include a women’s squad.

• Where it stands: Efforts have already begun to create a working group to discuss various ideas and propositions that will later be introduced for more concrete action.

• Cookson: “I think women have had a raw deal, not just in cycling, but in all sports. I see massive potential, and it’s not going to happen overnight. Part of that is just hearing their voice, so I made sure that I have at least one woman on every commission. I am confident we can make some real progress.”

5. Independent anti-doping agency

One easy way to eliminate conflicts of interest in the enforcement of anti-doping regulations is to take the UCI out of the loop.

• Where it stands: Much of that is already in place with the existing protocol with the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, created in 2008, but Cookson has also called for a review of the UCI’s anti-doping procedures.

• Cookson: “A lot of good work has been done, we need to take it a few steps further. Personally, I do not want to get involved in anti-doping matters. I don’t hear about the cases until they’re about to be announced publicly. The cases this week [notably Jonathan Tiernan Locke], I didn’t know anything about them until the communication was about to go out. This is the way I am doing this.”

6. Improving the image of cycling

Perhaps the most important chore, this will be the most difficult to measure. Cycling has been dragged through the mud, a degradation for which the sport itself bears plenty of blame.

• Where it stands: While cycling’s image varies widely depending upon the eye of the beholder, Cookson seems determined to at least set a different tone. The task at hand is, at its heart, a simple one, he says.

• Cookson: “Ethically and morally, our job is very simple. We have to have a sport where a parent can bring their child, and know that that kid can go all the way to the top of the sport if they have the ability and dedication, without having to lie, without having to cheat, without having to do things that will risk their health, without having to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder. If we cannot do that as a governing body, then we have failed our members and our sport. And we are not going to fail. We are going to succeed.”

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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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