Bouchard-Hall prepared for ‘world championships of change’
Reporters are accustomed to terrible answers to doping questions. Weak answers, answers that don’t answer anything. Derek Bouchard-Hall answers doping questions with gusto.
“When we talk about doping, the victims of doping, there are a lot of victims,” he says. “But the greatest victims are those who were cheated of the opportunity, and that was me.” There’s conviction in his voice, he leans forward and his fists clench just a bit. “I’m pissed off about that, and I will be forever. That sticks with me.”
The new CEO of USA Cycling is now just over 100 days into his post. Those first 100 days, they matter. They set the tone. Problems are identified, if not always fixed. Changes are made. Staff is moved, sometimes removed. The organization slowly begins to reflect the new head on its shoulders.
USA Cycling has an image problem. It has structural problems, too. Entire parts of the country, entire parts of the sport, have seceded from its control. It has revenue problems. It has Volkswagen problems. It has world championship and Olympic selection problems. It has, for decades, publicly ignored its problems as it stewed, boiled at times, internally.
Though talk about doping gets Bouchard-Hall fired up, and may go a long way toward correcting that image problem, USA Cycling’s doping-related history is just one in a long list of troubles.
“If you’re in the game of trying to take an organization and make it work better, and meet its goals and aspirations, and change what it’s doing, this job is the world championships of change,” Bouchard-Hall says.
Bouchard-Hall was a bike racer, once. A damn good one. He still has the build, a few inches over six feet and so lean that the tailored suit he wears can barely keep up. He was — or is — a businessman, too, with degrees from Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard, and a recent successful stint at Wiggle in the UK.
We meet in the lobby of the Richmond Marriott, HQ for Team USA, 50 meters from the worlds finish line. The air conditioning is unkind to those without natural insulation, and Bouchard-Hall is shivering as he drinks a tall coffee from the Starbucks next door.
We talk about change, about modifications to USA Cycling’s structure, who works there, what roles they are playing. We talk about changes to how USA Cycling has “communicated, listened to groups, worked collaboratively with folks.” The USA Cycling that exists today is not the same organization that will exist six months from now, a year from now, a year and a half from now, Bouchard-Hall says.
We talk about doping, too. We have to. Bouchard-Hall raced in an era and at a level that suggests he had to make hard choices.
“Yes, I was faced with that, but in a different way than other people,” he says. He was older, wiser, with two degrees in his pocket by the time he reached the top. Cycling wasn’t his only way forward. He could have easily found out who to go to and how to get involved, he says. And the pressure was there. He was doing everything, all the right things, and the “one lever that could really change things, really make a difference, was doping. To not do that, it’s really hard. I understand the draw.”
But he didn’t pull the lever. And now, he has the perspective of a man who lived through the era. For all the business acumen, all the degrees and success, this is one area where he is uniquely suited to cleaning up USA Cycling’s image. He talks about doping because he can be proud of his decisions, he says.
“Anything involving doping and decisions we have to make, how we deal with dopers, I have an instinct of throw them under the bus and let me back it up and run over them,” he says. “But there’s another side to it which is that I also am in an amazing position, having gone through that era and not doped. There aren’t many of my peers at the same level who are willing to have this conversation and can talk about it with a badge of honor.”
Bouchard-Hall’s predecessor, Steve Johnson, rarely answered doping questions. The candor of USA Cycling’s new CEO is absolutely refreshing. He says all the right things but recognizes gray areas, too.
“If you remove that entire generation you remove a lot of capital. I’m not sure that’s right,” he says. Our acceptance of those previously involved with doping should rely on context.
There is one line in the sand, though.
“There cannot be any people [at USA Cycling] working with athletes who have a doping past. Full stop. There will be no coaches [at USA Cycling] working with our athletes or directly with athletes who have a doping past. Full stop.”
Turning around USA Cycling extends well beyond doping. Anti-doping is the prerequisite, the baseline upon which a successful leader of the organization can stand.
So the conversation shifts to business.
Sport governing bodies don’t tend to be popular. Their obligations are too disparate, their revenue streams are too weak, their leadership is occasionally (OK, often) corrupt or inept or both. There is little oversight and few mechanisms to keep them on track — they are monopolies in their field propped up by an Olympic movement that leaves little room for competition. That they suffer from bloat and poor customer service is no surprise. They are too big to fail and too poor to succeed.
Mandates are loosely defined, too. USA Cycling must create elite athletes that can win medals at the Olympics. But how? Like any form of government, there are debates over how far a governing body’s fingers should stretch into and across its sport, how it should gain revenue, how much control it should truly have.
The UCI has had the same debates. Its race organization arm, Global Cycling Promotions, is now gone, folded away by president Brian Cookson. USA Cycling has been accused of overstepping its own mandate, getting into race promotion, for example.
Bouchard-Hall disagrees. “I don’t think that we’ve overstepped, I think it’s actually a necessary evolution,” he says. “Have we made these steps well? No. I don’t think we have. Has it had consequences in terms of spreading the organization thin and making it more difficult? But that’s also a necessary evolution.”
He is methodically moving through the various arms of the organization and asking a simple but important question: “Is it right for USA Cycling to be involved in this?”
“There are some areas where the question hasn’t been answered ‘yes, we should do it,’” Bouchard-Hall says. Registration services, which USAC currently offers to race promoters, is one example. “What should we be offering there? What is appropriate? That hasn’t been answered yet in my mind, yet, as to what we do there,” he says. “On the one hand, we could have the ability to really help serve race promoters and to run their events if we had a really good system, and that would be a valuable service to the race community and a source of revenue. It could be a win-win.”
Bouchard-Hall operates with a belief that the governing body should be the best organization to run much of American cycling, positioned as it is with the biggest scale and the ability to “network, tie things together.”
“We were talking earlier about how important it is to have revenue, and that’s the only lever we’ve got,” he says. “It would be wonderful if we had these sources of revenue pouring in that didn’t involve broadening what we do and taking a more commercial perspective, but we don’t. I think it’s very important that we pursue these initiatives.”
USA Cycling operates on $14 million per year. That’s not enough to succeed, Bouchard-Hall says.
There are limited ways to grow that pie. Membership is one, the biggest one — see USA Cycling’s new “Ride” membership, designed for a more casual rider. TV spots ran during coverage of worlds, urging American cyclists to join up. There are donors, too, and Bouchard-Hall sees opportunity there. Olympic funding is mostly tapped, unless American cyclists see a medal breakthrough.
“There’s nothing obvious to me in the three months that I’ve been here that’s going to blow the resource problem up,” Bouchard-Hall says. “It’s going to be moving that line further and further, how can we get more out of it by growing the membership.”
Volkswagen is a concern. The company’s recent turmoil surrounding emissions cheating in 11 million of its diesel cars has put it into crisis mode, just as it was about to sign on for another year as USA Cycling’s most important partner. “We were expecting to have an even bigger contribution next year,” Bouchard-Hall says. Now that’s on hold, and a sizeable chunk of USAC’s $14 million is on hold along with it.
“We can better allocate resources, better run ourselves, be more responsive; we can restructure the organization and have more focus, we can do a lot of good things with the same amount of money,” Bouchard-Hall says. “But a lot of the problems cannot be solved without growing the pie.”
The new CEO has a long road ahead. USA Cycling’s image problem has its roots in poor governance and poor communication, stubborn but not impossible problems. Bouchard-Hall’s world championship of organizational change has only just begun.