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Americas: The swing state of the UCI election for president

Friday's vote for UCI president will likely come down to a split among the federations in the Western Hemisphere

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The race for UCI president ends tomorrow, but it’s very far from over.

As the contest for the top post at cycling’s world governing body reaches its boiling point, the nine votes from the Americas remain crucial, and will split between the candidates, according to USA Cycling president Steve Johnson.

The political clash between incumbent Pat McQuaid and British Cycling president Brian Cookson will draw to a close midday Friday in Florence, Italy, when the UCI Congress elects one of the men to take the helm of pro cycling amid troubling times. The path to the UCI presidency is convoluted, however, and the votes belonging to delegates from the Americas may prove pivotal.

The voting federations — the U.S., Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, St. Vincent, and Puerto Rico — are not required to vote en masse (similar to the European Cycling Union delegates), and don’t agree on a candidate. Each has one vote. Cookson and McQuaid each need 22 votes to win, though in the past not all those eligible to vote have done so, potentially lowering the number needed to carry the presidency. With 42 total delegates, the even number of votes could prove problematic if delegates break from their geographic regions.

“We don’t vote as a block like the Europeans do. And I think that was apparent certainly tonight. We had a meeting with all of the delegates, and there wasn’t a clear consensus on a candidate from the discussion as far as I could discern,” Johnson told VeloNews. “I think in the Americas it’s going to be split. There’s some folks in that group who have long-standing relationships with Pat McQuaid, and indicated that they were supporting him. And there were others who indicated they were leaning toward Brian. But I think everybody’s keeping their cards pretty close to their vests at this point, for whatever reasons. My gut feeling is it’s probably 50/50.”

Johnson said the discussions among his delegation have covered a range of topics, from the dossier compiled by critics of McQuaid and said to contain proof of his corruption to adapting the model the sport has run on for years to better fit here and in the smaller countries.

“I think everybody’s trying to understand the issues. Concerns over whether the dossier information is relevant or not. My positions is that, at this point in time, we don’t know much about it, so that’s not part of my deliberation, frankly,” he said. “I look at — what we talked a lot about as a group is what’s best for the Americas going forward. Which of the two candidates do we think is going to have the best perspective of the special needs of cycling on our continent? It’s very different than western Europe, and we’ve been dealing for years with a European model that’s been made to fit on different continents.”

USA Cycling has already declared its support for Cookson, the president of British Cycling.

“It’s time for a change in the sport. We have gotten to a point where there’s a cloud over the organization. We need a fresh start, I think, to get out from underneath that. I think that from my experience over the last eight years we haven’t made any progress on what I think are special needs of America and the Americas for growing the sport on this continent. And I think Brian is absolutely indicated he’s very willing to, I think, discuss modifications to this kind of Pan-European model that we’ve all be operating under for years.”

Johnson said that those supporting McQuaid were doing so on the basis of well-worn relationships.

“Just long standing relationships with him. So, he’s been basically a fixture for, you know, frankly, 16 years,” he said. “He was head of the road commission for eight years before he was president. So he’s been around our continent at major events. He does a good job at showing up at the congresses in America, and things like that. Some people vote based on personal — what you might presume as — friendships. Others are more concerned about the needs of their respective federations and the sport.”

With less than 24 hours to the election, there is a feeling in Florence that the vote could fall to either Cookson or McQuaid. Cookson should, based on the European union’s rules, have 17 votes locked up (14 from Europe plus three pledged from Oceana). Asia, if it votes in unison, will likely put its nine votes behind McQuaid, who has overseen major expansion of the sport there. Africa may follow suit, giving the Irishman 16 votes before the Americas’ are tallied.

Garmin-Sharp CEO Jonathan Vaughters and former Tour de France champion Greg LeMond were among a chorus of Cookson backers trying to rally support on Thursday.

“Earlier I made clear my belief that the sport needed new leadership and I still feel the same today. Pat McQuaid has had many opportunities to take that leadership, to tell the world of cycling that the past is the past, and that this sport will never allow what took place over the last 20 years to ever happen again. He had his opportunity and failed. It is time now for change,” LeMond said in a statement late Thursday. “I truly believe that if there is no change in the leadership of the sport that the impact will be felt for years to come, in every aspect of the sport. From the parents that do not encourage their children to take up cycling as a sport of choice, to the sponsors who are sick and tired of the scandals and their costs, both social and financial.”

Johnson described a race that, on the eve of the vote, is too close to call.

“I think the vote is very close, and I think — I’m not a betting man, but if I were I’d have a hard time betting on an outcome,” Johnson said. “And part of it comes from the fact that people haven’t been real open about their thoughts, and I think there’s a little bit of sort of a tradition of keeping, like I said earlier, cards really close your vest, trying to line up on the side of the winner, hoping at some point down the road that benefits you. But our approach is, we think there is a difference between the two candidates, and I’m voting certainly as what I see as their respective merits.”

Whoever wins the crown will inherit a sport fighting a credibility problem. The negative publicity from the Lance Armstrong scandal, shrinking revenues, and the suffocation of smaller races all indicate there is work to be done, and fans and journalists pelted champions with cynicism all season.

“I think we need to get it behind us and go forward,” Johnson said.

Whether the world’s federations agree, we will see on Friday.

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