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The world from Pat’s chair part II

By Mark Johnson • Published
Current UCI president Pat McQuaid in 1975, leading the Tour of Ireland. Photo: PhotoSport International

Editor’s note: This piece is part II of a three-part series. Before reading this, be sure to check out Part I

Excerpt from Part I:

McQuaid sees two structural models for the organization of sports, a European model and an American model. “The European model would more or less be the world wide model with the exception of North America. North America has its own model for sport, and that is the private leagues.” With the European, pyramid model the UCI follows, a structure is put in place that helps athletes transfer from the novice level in any of its multiple sporting disciplines then progress upward until they might reach the pinnacle of their sport as a professional rider. In a sense, the structure attempts to connect the 17-year veteran pro with the eight-year-old tyro on a BMX track. This is a clash of sporting structural models. One, very American, is designed with the interest of a tranche of owners and very elite players first—and meant to deliver a more compelling experience to fans than that people get from today’s sprawling, murky cycling calendar. The other, European, is at least theoretically organized around a perhaps more nurturing vision of global out reach to cyclists of every stripe.

The skirmish between what UCI president, Pat McQuaid, calls American and European sports structures is at the root of McQuaid’s disagreement with the idea of a separate pro cycling league that has been repeatedly floated over the years. As recently as April, 2011 McQuaid sent Jonathan Vaughters, the founder and CEO of the Garmin-Barracuda team, a letter demanding that, unless he stop rumored explorations of the idea of a separate pro cycling league, the UCI would charge him for the cost of its biological passport testing program.

In McQuaid’s words, “these competing models “go to the question of private leagues or breakaway leagues that we’ve been dealing with over the past year.” He explains that “there are people at the top end of cycling who do feel that maybe the professional elite groups should be outside the UCI and organize their own private league which would be linked with UCI. But the UCI would disagree that that would be a positive move.In matter of fact, there is no way we would accept it. We feel very strongly that the pyramid model is the best model and in actual fact the elite of the sport have a responsibility to those that are coming below them.”

He adds that the UCI holds that pros should show more responsibility to their sport by working more closely with the UCI to nurture future pros rather than to split apart and focus on the refinement of the sport’s top end. McQuaid says another problem with the idea of a separate pro league that delivers a tightly-packaged series of races more in line with the Formula 1 racing circuit is that it would lose cycling’s primitive and historic appeal.

Referring to a proposed league “with ten new four-day races appearing overnight on the calendar,” he says “it doesn’t work.” The reason being, he argues, is that cycling must respect its “historical nature and the historic prestigious events.” The way to do so is to add select new events to a global calendar “without interfering with the major events that are already there.” In sum, “you have to protect the prestige and the hierarchy and the historic nature of the events that are there, and bit by bit change the calendar.”

McQuaid confesses that the UCI has not sat down with the people who are agitating for a separate pro cycling league to hear the root cause of their discontent. “Because the people who are trying to create the new league have never come to the UCI and discussed it. All we are working on is information we are receiving and copies of documents and so forth. The people that are behind it have never come to the UCI and said, ‘Look, we think this is right and this is the way we want to do it.’ That hasn’t happened.”

He says that the UCI has met with the ProTour teams to hear their point of view. “We have sat down with team leaders and discussed different things that they are not happy about and decisions that the UCI has taken that they are not happy about. We’ve listened to their side of the argument and we’ve given them our side of the argument.” But, “at the end of the day they must accept that the UCI is the government of the sport and the UCI makes the rules that govern our sport. Even though they might not agree with it they must accept that that’s our role.”

Even though they are the lead actors in the global pro cycling theater, pro riders have long complained that they have little say in how the sport is run. This is partly the reality of the fact that they have no organized union to channel and focus their demands. Asked about this sense of disenfranchisement, McQuaid agrees that “the riders have always been the ones with the quietest voice or the least strength and least power in their voice.” In his opinion, that is because “they are employed by teams.” Over the years he says the UCI has worked to improve working conditions and salaries for riders “but we can’t dictate to team management the gross salaries they must pay to the riders. The market has to dictate that itself.”

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