By Andrew Hood
UCI president Pat McQuaid has had his fair share of fires to put out since taking over as the head of cycling’s international governing body last fall.
Squabbles over the ProTour and the shadowy undertones of the “Operación Puerto” doping investigation in Spain, however, have paled in comparison to the high-profile damage to cycling wrought by the Floyd Landis doping scandal.
With the international media taking a mostly negative view at cycling, McQuaid has done his level best to react in a positive, constructive way to lead the sport through its darkest hours.
McQuaid is calling for a revision of cycling at all levels to create what he calls a “sport where there’s no excuse for doping.” That effort will take several months, but McQuaid promises to push through with the reassessment of cycling’s status quo.
The latest blow in the wake of the Landis Tour de France scandal was Tuesday’s decision to fold the Phonak cycling team at the end of the 2006 season. VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood caught up with McQuaid Wednesday to gauge his reaction to the news. What follows are excerpts from that interview.
VeloNews.com: What is your reaction to the news that Phonak is folding at the end of the season?
Pat McQuaid: It’s very unfortunate. iShares put this off because of what Floyd Landis did. It’s tough for the sport and sad for the 60 employees of the team. It shows the seriousness of the implications of the actions riders take and the decisions they make. As I keep saying over and over, until the process on Landis is completed, he still has the presumption of innocence. The [Landis] affair has had a huge effect on the sport and now we’re seeing the immediate effect of riders losing their jobs. That’s a tragedy for the sport, no question about it. To try to sell that team to a sponsor after what happened with Landis would take a hell of a bloody operation.
VN: Many believed Phonak to be a dirty team, others called it ‘cursed,’ did the UCI ever see any evidence of wrongdoing?
PM: The team has had some bad luck with the cases it’s had. Given all that we know, we have no knowledge that that the team was involving in systematic doping. It was the actions of individual riders. The team made a big effort in the middle of all this, replaced its sport director and manager and introduced new strict testing methods to have new controls. It just shows individuals can still come up and do these things. It was individuals working with Operación Puerto. Then Landis gets two positives and that’s a huge shock for any team. I feel very sorry Andy Rihs and for all the effort and time he’s put into the sport. He’s done a lot to support the sport and it’s a shame to go out like that.
VN: Are you worried about other sponsors leaving the sport?
PM: The Phonak case was a little particular. Phonak decided many months ago to end its sponsor, so it’s not as if it’s an ongoing sponsor pulling out because of this disaster. This is a team where a new sponsor decided not to come on, so it’s a slightly different situation. Even though, having said that, it’s very unfortunate. The sponsors that are in the sport, who understand the sport and know the value of the sport, and know what they can do to help improve the situation, and what they can do to help distance themselves from the doping cases. And if they come within the teams, they know what they have to do.
VN: Does T-Mobile come to mind about how a team can react differently to a doping scandal?
PM: T-Mobile is a perfect example of that. They saw equally great shocks before the Tour and they are doubling their efforts to combat doping. They have introduced new controls and new restrictions on their riders. They are working closer with German officials in a strong effort to clean up the sport. It’s the same point that the UCI shares with AIGCP. The teams are working together and taking steps to ensure our credibility can come back. That’s not to say we cannot go from one crisis to another. We have to come to grips with the situation.
VN: The sport has been taking a lot of lumps in the mainstream media, is there any way to recover lost ground?
PM: It’s very frustrating, unfortunately that’s the image that we get when it’s the Tour winner. It’s a global story with Landis in the Tour de France and it hit us very hard. It is frustration that we in cycling go further than other sports. We operate in a very transparent way. Only the criticism from Dick Pound has sunk to an all-time low. It’s completely out of order and unacceptable.
We test on a day of competition while some sports call the athletes to announce it 24 hours ahead of time. We conduct out-of-competition tests. We are the only sport that takes athletes out of competition on the implication of a doping affair. We do that with our Ethics Code. No other sport does that. As soon as Landis came back positive, it was announced right away, while with [sprinter Justin] Gatlin, it took months. The number of positives is not significantly more than other sports. We know it’s a small number of people that are involved in all this. We test riders and we kick them out, we don’t push things under the table. We target riders when we know something suspicious is going on and that gives us even more doping positives. When we have information, we go to the authorities. Look at the damage it’s doing to the sport, but we do it anyway. If we hear about other labs or networks like this, we will pass it along to the authorities just like we did in Spain.
VN: What more can be done? You’ve mentioned of a complete revision of the sport, what’s the status on that effort?
PM: We have to have a high-powered review of the sport by a panel of international experts at the highest level. We need to bring in world-renowned experts and take a hard look at cycling. We have to know exactly why guys take a decision to dope, when, how and understand the life they are leading and understand the pressures they come under. We need to create a sport where there’s no excuse for doping. The sport is completely different than it was 10 years ago, 40 years ago, 100 years ago. We cannot forget about the wonderful past of this sport, but we also have to have a sport that lives in the 21st century. We have to create a sport that can operate without doping. We have to make changes.
VN: Have you set a timeline for action?
PM: I have not set a timeline yet. We are still discussing elements and setting it up. It’s not something that will happen today or tomorrow, it will take some months to set up. If we are looking at changing regulations, the way the doping tests are conducted, things like that, then we’re looking at instituting changes in 2008, not 2007. We need to take time to study and reflect. It’s not time for knee-jerk reactions. We are just getting things off the ground. Maybe by the time of the world championships we will be able to give a more definitive statement.
VN: This review could include such changes as shortening races, increasing doping controls, is everything on the table?
PM: Nothing is off the table. Everything is on the table. It’s very ambitious and hopefully it’s very far reaching. It’s something I thought of after Operation Puerto was announced. That worries me more than Floyd Landis, even though what’s happened with Landis has been more damaging in the media. Puerto showed a very sophisticated form of doping. It’s not just one cyclist. When we realized what they were doing and how they were operating, and they were not getting caught at the tests. That worries me more than Landis, which is a one-off case. He’s been caught. It was after Operation Puerto that I first started thinking about it, then the Landis case, and the shock and damage that’s come with it, it’s done more to convince me that we have to go in that route.
VN: Are there more names on the Puerto list and have the documents been sent out for the riders implicated?
PM: Not that I know of. There are 58 names in the public arena. Our legal department is working through the documents. Some pages have gone out. The Basso pages have gone to Italy and the Ullrich stuff to Switzerland. It’s been a huge amount of work involved in it. It’s a 500-page document with names all over the place. It’s a police report, it’s not like the documents we are used to working with. It’s new ground. It’s taken three lawyers almost working full-time to get through this.
VN: What about the retired or sanctioned riders implicated, such as Tyler Hamilton or Roberto Heras? What will happen with them?
PM: We haven’t looked at them as urgently. We will look into those once we get through the active riders.