A conversation with UCI president Pat McQuaid

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.”

Another criticism pro riders lodge against the UCI is that it does not keep them informed. Asked how the UCI communicates with the pros, McQuaid says, “In the past the only route we had to communicate with the pro riders was the CPA [Cyclistes Professionnels Associés, a riders’ association].

“From the time I became president I doubted whether the CPA was the model we should be using to communicate with the pro cyclists. And so that’s why the UCI set about creating an athletes’ commission last year. It sat for the first time for two or three days here in November.”

While pro cyclists are nominally represented by the CPA, it has never been much of a force. McQuaid explains that “The CPA is made up largely of the unions of the three or four major cycling countries which are big enough to have a cyclists’ union. And their priority is in looking after those type of affairs like salaries for the cyclists that they represent.”

Those countries include cycling heartlands like Spain and Holland. “But today’s peloton is much broader than the four or five main European nations, so therefore a lot of riders were left out of any sort of representation.” The athletes’ commission representatives “are elected by the athletes and they are there as a conduit to go between the athletes and the disciplines of cycling in the UCI. We would hope that this would develop into something more worthwhile which gives a direct link with the athletes.”

In 2011, controversy over the UCI’s efforts to ban race radios roiled the peloton. When the riders threatened to voice their dissatisfaction with the ban by boycotting the UCI-organized Tour of Beijing in October, McQuaid responded with a strong hand, sending the teams a letter threatening to pull their licenses if they did not show up in China. In the end, both parties backed down, with the teams racing in China and the UCI agreeing to give the race radio issue further consideration in 2012.

Asked if being a lightning rod for criticism is proof that he is getting things done, McQuaid is reluctant to agree. “To some extent yes, but we are also a lightning rod for criticism because today’s media with social media gives anybody a voice. And anybody who has an opinion feels like he has ownership of the sport of cycling and he wants to give his opinion and that opinion can become a virus overnight. So we do suffer from that.”

Compared to soccer, McQuaid says cycling’s diverse disciplines make it easier for anyone with internet access to gain a loud pulpit. Soccer “is very much controlled by FIFA [pro soccer’s governing body],” he explains. And because soccer is just one game, with one set of rules — “one discipline all the way through” — FIFA “can control it and it’s therefore more difficult for guys with social media to have any real hearing or generate any controversy, whereas it’s much easier with cycling.”

Today, the UCI oversees all cycling disciplines, including road, track, mountain bike, BMX and cyclocross racing. It also manages more obscure cycling flavors like trials riding, artistic cycling and cycle ball. Further, the UCI governs masters racing, para-cycling for challenged athletes and has its hand in sportif rides with its Cycling for All program, meant to encourage recreational cycling. Finally, the UCI organizes all cycling events at the Olympics.

Compared to American professional sports, the breadth of the UCI’s responsibilities is unusual. After all, Major League Baseball does not also oversee Little League, collegiate baseball and the local after-work softball league. Yet at some level the UCI does govern races from the Tour de France all the way down to your local USA Cycling-sanctioned weekend industrial park crit. McQuaid says the umbrella is not too broad.

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 worldwide 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.

“If you actually study the two models,” McQuaid claims, what you find in America is that “below the private leagues in their respective sports there is absolutely nothing, no structure, no nothing; it’s the private leagues up there on their own and that’s that. And then you see the problems that that brings about with lockouts and walkouts and all this type of thing that’s been going on in recent years.”

In comparison to America’s privately held pro sports leagues, which largely depend on athletes’ individual volition and college programs to feed them talent, McQuaid argues that the UCI structure “is the more common, worldwide model of sport.” He explains the UCI’s pyramid arrangement where professionals are at the top and are “connected all the way down to the base.” This system, which, at least in theory, builds upon a wide base of grassroots national cycling organizations with their own amateur and professional events and training programs, McQuaid feels is “a much better model.”

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 what 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 outreach to cyclists of every stripe.

Read: The world from Pat’s chair, part II

Check back for part III