Editor’s Note: This is part I of a three-part series
Among pro cyclists, UCI president Pat McQuaid is not loved. At last year’s Tour de France, when asked what motivates the Union Cycliste Internationale and its president, 2010 World Champion Thor Hushovd had a two-word response: “No comment.” Hushovd’s reluctance to express his opinion of the UCI is representative of a peloton that is often suspicious of the goals and motives of their sport’s Switzerland-based governing body.
Yet, while McQuaid, a 62-year-old Irishman who won the Tour of Ireland in both 1975 and 1976 is a frequent target for criticism, his passion for the sport is palpable. As we head into the 2012 season, VeloNews’ Mark Johnson spoke to McQuaid at length to collect his views on the state of pro cycling.
The UCI was formed in 1900 by representatives from national cycling federations from Belgium, Italy, France, the United States, Switzerland, and Italy. Today, McQuaid says its primary role is still unifying international cycling interests under a single governing umbrella. The UCI’s charter, he explains, “is to regulate the sport and to develop the sport.” That worldwide mission is handed down by the International Olympic committee.
Looking back at 2011, and with WorldTour pros already racing in January in Australia and Argentina, McQuaid says he takes satisfaction in the continued globalization of the sport. “Australia, Canada and China shows the sport is going in a very good direction,” he points out, referring to The Santos Tour Down Under, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal and Québec, and the first-year Tour of Beijing event organized by the UCI’s race promotion company, Global Cycling Promotion.
In Europe, “we had a very good Classics season, a very good Grand Tour season, in particular with the Tour de France, which had exceptional television viewership, particularly throughout Europe. It shows that cycling is on a good track.”
One reason McQuaid cites satisfaction with the Grand Tours is that they were free of major doping scandals. “Anti doping continues to be successful, continues to progress. Last year we did about four and a half thousand blood tests both in and out of competition on the top 950 riders that are in our registered testing program, which is an average of almost five tests per rider. It’s substantial and its paying its dividends.”
At least when compared to American pro sports, pro cycling drug testing and penalties really are considerable. It wasn’t until 2011 that a major American pro sport, the National Football League, began conducting blood testing, but the actual implementation is now stalled in discussions with the players’ union. And in Major League Baseball, drug positive tests are punished with penalties that range from 15- to 30-day suspensions for first time offenses with recreational drugs and stimulants. Getting busted for steroids only results in a 50-game suspension (about a third of the season). Cycling bans pros for two years on the first offense and the rider must forfeit their salary.
Partly because of the UCI’s draconian approach to doping penalties, and also due to the changing cultural acceptance of doping among younger pros, McQuaid points out that cycling is becoming a cleaner sport. This progress “makes me feel good,” he says. He adds that “the image of the UCI within the international Olympic movement, within the other international federations, and within the international sports movement and within WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] is extremely high as a federation that is doing its work in anti doping very, very seriously.”
While cycling is by no means beyond its doping past, cycling’s reforms have made it something of a role model for other sports. McQuaid admits that “It is true it could be an example for other major sports, in particular probably American professional sports that could or should be following the UCI example or should be following a much stricter and stronger anti-doping code than they currently do. The two or three major American leagues, they are just about paying lip service to anti doping.”
Yet, the UCI has its own image problems when it comes to enforcing its policies. Most famously, both Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis accused the organization of selectively enforcing tests involving Lance Armstrong. And to add to this perception that the UCI may not be the exemplar it claims to be, during his career Armstrong donated $125,000 to the UCI at the same time he was riding under their governance.
While both Armstrong and the UCI say accusations of underhanded dealings are nonsense, and while neither Hamilton nor Landis have much credibility, the balloons of suspicion have been released. Of these accusations, McQuaid responds that they are “very unfortunate, but the UCI refutes it completely. The UCI will not accept to be accused of corruption. We will act and we are acting because Floyd Landis accused us directly of corruption. We won’t accept that. The UCI has always worked with whatever measures were available to it, and I’m talking about scientific measures, to fight against doping.”
Referring to Marion Jones, the track and field athlete who returned her five Sydney Olympic gold medals after admitting that she had been doping, McQuaid points out that athletes in cycling and other sports can work with doctors and scientists to beat the system. “Marion Jones, you know, who claimed to have done so many hundred anti-doping tests during her career and she was never caught positive, she beat the system.”
McQuaid is clearly exasperated by doping athletes who work with scientists and doctors for years to outfox testing protocols, and then point to all their testing negatives as proof of their purity: “You can’t blame that on the UCI. We can only work with what the scientific community provides us with.”
As for the accusations that the UCI protects certain riders, he concludes, “To be accused of not being consistent in our decisions and how we go after dopers is completely unacceptable and there’s no evidence to that effect. There are guys making stories, guys whose careers are over who can say what they want; they’ve obviously no respect for the sport of cycling anymore and they couldn’t care less about it and all they want to do is bring it down and bring people down with it. But the UCI is big enough and strong enough and the sport of cycling is strong enough that guys like that will not bring it down. It’s common practice for some reason in cycling that guys who get caught red handed, so to speak, turn and decide to blame everybody else but themselves.”