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Commentary: Professional cycling is a ship that needs a captain

The listless ship that is professional cycling demands new leadership and we lay out the case for new energy

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Editor’s note: The following excerpt first appeared in the February 2013 issue of Velo magazine as one pillar in our five-point plan to save cycling. We run it here, in its entirety, on the day British Cycling’s Brian Cookson announced he would pursue election as the new UCI president.

Christian Vande Velde once called pro cycling “the biggest amateur sport in the world.” Though established in the late 1800s, cycling has never matured into a stable, well-managed business like the leagues that run professional soccer, tennis, baseball, or Formula ı. Samuel Abt, the American journalist who covered 31 editions of the Tour de France for The New York Times and International Herald Tribune, put the sport’s chronic lack of leadership and organizational sophistication in these terms: “It’s back in the medieval times.”

Today, while floundering in the wake of another titanic doping affair, the sport is even more desperate for a firm hand at the tiller. Over the past six months, UCI president Pat McQuaid and his predecessor, Hein Verbruggen, have been on the receiving end of no-confidence votes from national governing bodies, sponsors, team managers, riders, and from a joint manifesto printed by five European newspapers. With the next UCI election slated for September 2013, and an independent commission expected to release its findings in June, it seems unlikely that either man will continue to steer the ship moving forward.

While the recent Change Cycling Now meeting in London may be a promising attempt to bring together riders, race organizers, and team owners to negotiate an equitable future, no single leader has emerged to guide the sport into an enlightened adulthood. CCN’s nomination of Greg LeMond for interim UCI president was problematic on several fronts, including LeMond’s reluctance — “I’m not here because I want to be president, but I would do what I had to do and my goal would be to help the group” — as well as procedures the UCI has in
place to elect its president (see page 32).

Three sports that are well managed, profitable, and popular — Formula ı, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR — were willed into maturity by the appearance of powerful leaders. The stories of each of these men offer lessons in what qualities an effective leader would need to guide pro cycling into a more stable future, whether as an individual or as the head of a committee.

Fueled by France

The seeds of NASCAR were planted in the 1920s when Prohibition-era moonshine runners raced their jalopies over twisting Appalachian roads and damp Florida beaches. When the first formal stock car races began in the mid-1930s, a Daytona Beach mechanic named Bill France began entering his cars in events. While fan interest in stock car racing boomed after World War II, race promoters were shady, collecting entry fees, often absconding before the race took place.

In 1947, looking to end these grimy proceedings, France organized a meeting in Daytona Beach with racers, mechanics, and drivers. That gathering led to the creation of NASCAR, an organizing body that formalized the racing circuit and rules. France grew NASCAR into a family-owned business that generates some $3 billion in annual revenue and is the second-most watched U.S. sports television property after the NFL.

Where NASCAR differs from pro cycling is that Bill France was able to organize the sport at its earliest stage, before any business or governing bodies (like ASO and the UCI) had developed deep roots. And unlike cycling, which grew organically in multiple international locations beginning in the late 1800s, NASCAR began as a regional sport in the southeastern United States. Lack of entrenched interests and geographic simplicity eased France’s organizing task.

Yet France offers lessons in that he saw an opportunity in the midst of crisis. The systematic mistrust and corruption laid bare in cycling today was also dividing stock car racing in 1947. Both fans and racers alike were hungry for a cleaner, more understandable playing field. France seized that opportunity, built the first NASCAR track, created a logical series of races that culminated in a champion, and nurtured and marketed the sport into something that, like the Tour in France, is now integral to the culture and identity of the United States. Furthermore, when France held that first organizing conference in a Daytona Beach hotel, he showed his understanding of the importance of meeting face-to-face with the stakeholders in his sport. Sitting down at a table to craft solutions is an area in which pro cycling’s leadership has never excelled.

Formula for success

At the same time that Bill France was professionalizing backwoods stock car racing, the French Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) was formalizing the rules for Grand Prix motor racing in Europe. During the 1940s and 1950s, Formula ı teams, like many cycling teams today, were largely supported by wealthy benefactors. However, this financial structure, which relied on the support of the aficionado, put the sport on unstable footing and made it unattractive to stability-seeking corporate sponsors.

The teams (called constructors in Fı parlance) lived a tenuous hand-to-mouth existence, much like today’s pro cycling teams. At the time, the sport also centered on one race that mattered: the Monaco Grand Prix.

In the 1970s, realizing that Fı could not grow if it only circled the single sun of Monaco, and seeing vast growth potential in a sport packaged for TV, a team owner named Bernie Ecclestone challenged the Fı power structure.

A signal showdown at the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix changed everything. Ecclestone, representing the team owners (the Formula One Constructor’s Association, or FICA), demanded that the Monaco race organizers and FIA allow 26 cars to race instead of the mandated 16. The organizers said ‘no,’ even locking the teams’ cars in an underground garage until FICA dropped its demand. But the constructors stuck with Ecclestone. Eventually, the organizers relented and the race started with 26 cars. Ecclestone showed the undeniable strength of solidarity, and forever shifted the Fı balance of power away from a single incestuous event and governing body. He led the sport to its position today as an enterprise forecasted to generate $3 billion in annual revenue by 2016, up from some $2 billion today.

Ecclestone offers cycling a crucial lesson: to be a true leader, one needs to realize a future far beyond what the power players of the day can envision. An English upstart who did not take no for an answer, Ecclestone also understood the power of bargaining. Rather than just asking for the teams’ blessing as their leader, he gave them something in return: he assumed the enormous financial burden of shipping hundreds of tons of cars and equipment to tracks around the world in exchange for their commitment to his guidance.

As Ecclestone biographer Terry Lovell wrote, the team owners were delighted to have someone take on the headache of negotiating with the FIA and race organizers. “Ecclestone was a businessman first and a racer second. Cutting deals was not a burden to him, more the very elixir of life,” Lovell wrote.

The search for a professional leader

There is a desire for someone with the conviction (if not the abrasive personality) of an Ecclestone to challenge the existing ASO-UCI power structure. “I don’t see any reason at all why the teams don’t leave and create their own Formula ı,” television commentator Paul Sherwen observed of the sport’s stasis. WorldTour veteran Vande Velde put it more bluntly: “Someone who has a massive stance in the sport needs to take the bull by the horns.”

While he might not yet have a highly visible stance in pro cycling, Canadian Serge Arsenault wants to be that person. In 1974, then working for Canadian Broadcasting, Arsenault covered Eddy Merckx’s triumph at the world road championship in Montreal. For five years, he organized a pro race in Montreal and bolstered successful television networks and production companies. Then, Arsenault, 64, had an urge to return to his “first love” — organizing bike races. North America’s only WorldTour events, the Grands Prix Cycliste de Montreal and Québec, are the result of that desire. Experience with both the buying and selling sides of the pro cycling business equation — and the general entertainment sector — give Arsenault a unique perspective in a sport filled with operators who have known nothing but cycling. As a race organizer, he works with teams and riders to create a product he can sell to television networks and their advertisers. As a network owner, he understands what products TV stations and advertisers are willing to pay for.

Arsenault says that the person who will guide cycling forward must understand that the sport’s traditional short-term thinking makes it ragged, unpolished, and chronically uncertain about itself. Of the cycling establishment that he has observed for four decades, Arsenault is frank: “No one took the lead to say, ‘Hey, you are a bunch of amateurs. You don’t even deserve the name pro.’” Comparing cycling to tennis and Fı, he adds, “To be pro, you have to be pro everywhere. Pro in your marketing, pro in your product.”

“The force, incredible strength, is between the riders, the real team owners, and the real top organizers,” Arsenault says. Once these three parties begin working together, he maintains, the sport can realize tremendous commercial and sporting potential. The driving force who makes this happen “won’t be a European guy.” Arsenault, who is from Quebéc, reaches for a French term, assembler — one who puts existing things into an ensemble— to describe the person who could make pro cycling worthy of its prefix. He feels if cycling falls back to its provincial, piecemeal way of getting things done, with “a deal with UCI, a deal with ASO,” it won’t progress. The sport needs long-term, holistic guidance and strategy, not hand-to-mouth jungle survival tactics. “We have to be strong enough to say, ‘that’s all, that’s finished,’” he says of the bailing-wire tradition of striking a bunch of one-off, short-term deals with race organizers, teams, and the UCI.

In addition to having the financial wherewithal to survive for a year or two, Arsenault argues that the assembler should not represent either a team or the riders and would need to operate out of a selfless love of the sport. “You have to have somebody who doesn’t put his personal interests before the cycling interests.”

Jonathan Vaughters, the founder and CEO of the Garmin-Sharp pro team, suggests Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala may qualify for the role Arsenault describes. While Bakala is European, he is steeped in the American way, having earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkley and an MBA from Dartmouth before building a fortune in energy and mining. (Forbes magazine estimated Bakala’s wealth to be $1.9 billion.) As a 70-percent owner of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step Belgian super team, Bakala has skin in the game. And his stakeholder position gives him insight into the root causes of the sport’s dysfunctions.

“I think Bakala wants to move cycling in the right direction,” said Vaughters. “Who is going to step in and invest millions of euros into bike racing right now? It’s gonna take someone who is a visionary, who has balls, who is willing to see that money go away, who has the resources, who has the perseverance, and Bakala is the only one I’ve seen that has all that.”

A passionate cyclist in his own right, Bakala has stated that he recognizes economic possibility in the mismatch between the enormous global popularity of bike riding as a participant sport and the immaturity of bike racing as a profession.

Speaking of the latent potential in the soccer- and Fı-sized volume of fans who follow the Tour de France, Bakala has said, “cycling has a long way to go” to realize its full potential. Speaking of how Bakala could improve the sport with his financial resources and business acumen, Vaughters told Velo that, “It has to be someone who basically comes in, purchases a lot of the properties that exist in cycling, gets rid of some of them, consolidates the rest, and says, ‘Okay, here’s how we’re going forward.’” Even if Bakala didn’t have interest in being the leader, Vaughters finds it promising that, as an investor, Bakala might be the catalyst who causes a reaction in cycling and “moves it in a different way.”

Lessons from a true believer

Marvin Miller, the man who transformed professional baseball by organizing the players and challenging the team owners’ lock on the sport’s governance, certainly didn’t put his financial interests above the athletes he represented.

One hundred years after baseball got its start in 1869, pro baseball was still a relatively provincial, crudely managed affair (much like pro cycling today). A handful of politically and economically connected team owners ran the sport as their own personal fiefdom. In some respects like the UCI, baseball’s rulemaking commissioner, while ostensibly independent, essentially served to protect his own interests by doing the owners’ bidding. At the time, baseball also thought small. The team owners were doubtful their sport could conjure up enough fan interest to nationally televise more than one game a week.

Miller’s leadership changed all that. After organizing a player’s union in 1966 — keeping the players all pointed in the same direction during the sport’s first-ever player strike, and using collective labor action to force the team owners to treat the players equitably —

Miller’s leadership was instrumental in turning Major League Baseball into a monumental success. The sport’s gross revenue is some $7 billion dollars today. In November, Miller died at the age of 95. Sports journalist Joe Posnanski wrote that, “Miller is where it all began. Miller was the sun and the moon of one of the great sports fights of the last 100 years.”

While Ecclestone burned bridges and friends on his way to building Fı and vast personal wealth, Miller never seemed to be in the organizing business for money. He saw that baseball could be much better than the runt he discovered in 1965; he understood that great things could be achieved when interested parties sit down at a table and patiently, doggedly, negotiate terms — something cycling has never been able to do, but which recent developments like the Change Cycling Now conference show are possible.

It’s also worth noting that if pro cycling ever finds its pied piper, that person will not tread a flowered path. Miller — an economist by training, a savvy individual with more than two decades of experience organizing steel and auto workers — was originally demonized by all his sport’s stakeholders: players, owners, media, and sponsors. And it was Miller’s unwavering calm and steely resolve in the face of withering criticism, even from those whose interests he was defending, that cycling’s leader would most need. A firm grasp of economics, and an understanding that negotiations work best when they benefit all involved parties, would also prove to be qualities that would secure this pragmatic visionary’s success, whoever that might be.

“He was a true believer to the last,” Posanski writes. “And it’s the true believers who change the world.”

Replacing the UCI president: Not as simple as it sounds

Union Cycliste International president Pat McQuaid has held his job since 2005; he is currently serving his second four-year term. The next election is to be held in September 2013 at the world road championships in Florence, Italy. Greg LeMond has said he would be willing to serve as an interim replacement, but making this happen would not be easy.

There are four primary ways a sitting UCI president can be replaced:
1) The president resigns.
2) He is voted out at the end of a four-year term during a scheduled congress of delegates from cycling’s five continental confederations: Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.
3) The UCI’s 15-member Management Committee calls for an extraordinary congress and a new president is elected outside the normal four-year election cycle.
4) During a special meeting or one of their twice-yearly scheduled meetings, the Management Committee votes to suspend or dismiss the UCI president.

There is actually a fifth option — presidents must retire at the age of 74 — but this does not affect 63-year-old McQuaid.

McQuaid has shown no intention of resigning, so for LeMond to take power, he would need to run for election or turn to the last two options. While the latter might seem faster, their path to power also runs through its most protective gatekeeper: the UCI Management Committee, which is chaired by McQuaid.

While the members of the continental federations have some say over UCI actions, it’s the Management Committee that truly runs the show. The UCI constitution reads, “The Management Committee shall be vested with the most extensive powers as regards the management of the UCI and the regulation of cycling sports.”

For LeMond or another UCI outsider to take the presidency outside the normal four-year election cycle, they would need to first convince at least five members of the Management Committee to call for a meeting to discuss removing or suspending McQuaid (outside the committee’s normal two annual meetings, a special meeting can be called at the request of either the UCI president or five or more committee members).

According to the UCI constitution, through a majority vote this committee can dismiss its own members, of which McQuaid is a member. Again, employing a vote, the Management Committee has power “to declare the suspension of members of the UCI,” which would then be approved or rejected at an official congress meeting.

While McQuaid’s suspension or dismissal would seem to open the door for LeMond’s ascension to power, neither of these options makes a real difference in the UCI’s power hierarchy.

That’s because, by constitutional rule, one of the Management Committee’s three vice presidents would become interim president, not LeMond.

For conversation’s sake, let’s assume LeMond persuaded the Management Committee to vote to remove its leader. Even then a vice president becomes president, and LeMond’s work would have only just begun.

LeMond would then have to campaign to gain a majority of the votes of the 42 confederation delegates. The choice those national representatives would face would be either to vote for LeMond or, in keeping with the Hein Verbruggen-Pat McQuaid lineage that has controlled the UCI for five consecutive election cycles, put another UCI insider back in power.

Depending on your point of view, the lugubrious process is designed to either let cooler heads prevail when a UCI president makes difficult, but necessary decisions, or to ensure that the UCI management structure exists in a state of permanent self-preservation. Either way, becoming an interim UCI president requires both time and a lot of convincing, of both Management Committee members and continental confederation delegates spread around the globe. Even if LeMond runs during the scheduled 2013 election cycle, persuading the delegates to vote for one of the UCI’s most vocal critics would be asking them to display a show of hands against the very status quo that secured their position in the cycling establishment.