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How Cookson got out-maneuvered, and lost the UCI election

The cycling world was in for a surprise Thursday morning with the news of the ousting of UCI President Brian Cookson after serving one term.

In a resounding victory, Frenchman David Lappartient won 37 of 45 votes in what seemed as much as a rejection of Cookson’s consensus style of governance as an endorsement of the Frenchman. One insider cast the outcome as a victory for “competence over campaign slogans.”

While he proved an expert campaigner, able to topple the powerful yet controversial former president Pat McQuaid in 2013, Cookson found governing the sprawling UCI a much bigger challenge. His legacy will include improved conditions for women’s racing, tightening of TUE rules, and an independent anti-doping body.

“The UCI I leave behind is unrecognizable from the organization I took over in 2013 and I depart with my head held high,” Cookson said defiantly. “Someone needed to stand up and take on the previous regime, who had dragged cycling into the gutter, and I leave the UCI knowing that I have delivered all the promises I made four years ago.”

Cookson, who so adeptly read the waters in 2013, was the odd man out when the votes were cast Thursday. Many expected a tighter race in the secret ballot than the eight votes the 66-year-old received.

In Lappartient, Cookson faced the ultimate insider. The 44-year-old served as UCI vice president and president of the European Cycling Federation and has deep connections across all major federations and institutions in cycling.

Lappartient’s public campaign focused on the menace of motorized cheating, a ban on corticoids, and battling a perceived growing threat from betting.

It was behind the scenes, however, where Lappartient proved most effective. He quietly met with the power players in person and worked the phones since announcing his candidacy in June. Old-school bastions of cycling were frustrated with Cookson’s apparent lack of results, and most of the European voting block supported the Frenchman. Asia, the Americas and Africa also threw their weight behind Lappartient in the landslide victory.

“It is a great responsibility, and I will endeavor in the next four years to be worthy of such trust,” Lappartient said. “It was not a photo-finish, the message of the membership was clear: they want to have new leadership.”

Insiders suggested Lappartient’s victory was fueled by discontent with how Cookson’s management team was handling elite men’s cycling as well as a sense of frustration at the perceived slow progress of anything getting done at the UCI headquarters. After dethroning two-term president McQuaid by promoting an aggressive manifesto of change four years ago, Cookson was perceived as being unable to follow through with decisive action.

By his own admission, Cookson preferred to govern by consensus rather than confrontation. Cookson knew a “war” against the likes of Tour de France owners ASO or the World Anti-Doping Agency would be futile. Some rolled their eyes when Cookson would call for a “study” of a particular issue or problem before taking a definitive stand.

How much of a marked change under Lappartient remains to be seen. Much of the real action will happen behind the scenes, either through staffing changes or back-channel communication with institutions and organizers.

As Cookson quickly realized, the UCI President has few real powers, especially when trying to battle against the likes of ASO or such institutions as WADA or the IOC. The office’s real authority comes from the power of persuasion and the occasional arm-twisting.

McQuaid, for all the criticism, was quite adept at corralling the divergent interests of the governing bodies, and pushing the UCI agenda across the international stage. Lappartient seems to have similar political instincts, both publicly and in boardrooms.

Cookson had a strong sense of personal decency and there was no hint of scandal during his tenure, but seemed to naturally recoil at some of the roll-up-your-sleeves style of politics, and often left the dirty work to designated underlings. Cookson’s consensus-based management style didn’t find a constituency among cycling’s voting federations, and they abandoned him Thursday.

If it might have seemed like sweet revenge for McQuaid, Lappartient was quick to distance himself from the former president, saying that the Irishman was welcome to attend races, but that he would not be receiving any official or honorary positions within his new administration.

With Lappartient comes the fear that the UCI will now become an extended arm of ASO. So far, there is nothing to suggest Lappartient will become ASO’s lapdog, but just as many feared collusion between Cookson and British Cycling, critics will surely look for links, real or imagined, between Lappartient and ASO.

Lappartient now has a mandate to do the job, and get things done. On Tuesday, he will travel to UCI headquarters in Switzerland to assume his office. Cookson, meanwhile, said he will return to his home in England.

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