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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Pat McQuaid interview, part 3

McQuaid at the GP Montreal in September Editor’s note: This is the final part of a three-part interview with Pat McQuaid, focusing on McQuaid’s five years as head of the UCI. Part 2 was published last week and part 1 on Nov.

2010 Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal, Pat McQuaid
McQuaid at the GP Montreal in September

Editor’s note: This is the final part of a three-part interview with Pat McQuaid, focusing on McQuaid’s five years as head of the UCI. Part 2 was published last week and part 1 on Nov. 29.

In his five years as president of the Union Cycliste Internationale, and almost a year as a member of the International Olympic Committee, Pat McQuaid has been constantly on the move. He travels to every continent, attending meetings with government officials or speaking at press conferences with race promoters, going to competitions like the Asian Games or the African Cycling Championships, and making appearances at world cycling championships in every discipline, while always staying in contact with UCI staff on the multiple challenges he has to deal with every day.

So it was appropriate that for the last portion of this extensive interview with the 61-year-old Irishman, after he’d wrapped up business for the year at the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, he was driving across France on his way home to Ireland for a wedding and the holidays. One of the first questions VeloNews asked him was about his meeting with the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation in Paris a few days earlier.

VN:The CADF was founded two years ago to help manage and fund the UCI’s anti-doping activities with two goals: to get rid of cheats and dissuade riders from resorting to doping. What’s on the agenda for next year?
PM:Our main thrust next year is using the biological passport to target athletes, and using intelligence as much as we can. With the passport in particular, we now have a huge bank of data on all of the athletes in our sport. That gives us the ability to target riders. So we’re going more and more in the direction of “intelligence” testing and targeting because of the data that we have and how it can be evaluated.

VN:Some riders have appealed their suspensions that are based on the passport data, like Franco Pellizotti has (successfully for now) with the Italian authorities. Are those sorts of appeals going to become more common?

PM:You’ll always get guys appealing because most of the time they’re being led by lawyers. And lawyers, who are in the business of making money, convince athletes that they should appeal. So you’re always going to get appeals, whether against classic (doping) cases or biological passport cases. But from the outset of the passport I never felt that it was going to become a definitive source of prosecutions without an eventual appeal.

The biological passport is a very technical document and there will always be lawyers who try to find holes in it. So it doesn’t concern me, even if we should lose an appeal against the passport, just as we can lose an appeal on a classic doping case. You win some, you lose some.

VN:Two of the most notable cases during your tenure have been those involving Floyd Landis in 2006 and Alberto Contador this year. What were your feelings when you heard that the Tour de France winner had tested positive?

PM:They’re two different stories. I remember vividly the Landis story because I got off the plane in Munich on my way to a meeting, I opened up my phone and there was a message from our lawyer saying, “As soon as you get this message ring me.” I rang him and he said, “Are you alone?” I said, “Yes.” And so he said, “I’ve got some bad news. We have a positive on the Tour de France.”

Immediately he said that, I knew he wasn’t talking about a low-down rider. I knew he was talking about someone serious. In fact, the first thing that went through my mind was the yellow jersey. And it was. A whole lot of things went through my head in the next few minutes: what the next few days are going to be like, what the next weeks are going to be like, what the next months are going to be like. Because at that moment it was the first Tour yellow jersey to test positive.

So a whole load of stuff went through my mind, how things were initially going to be dealt with by the media, the effect it was going to have on the (anti-doping) work being done and on the sport, especially the bad media the sport was going to get following on the bad publicity we’d already got with Operation Puerto a few months earlier. So I knew it was going to give the sport a helluva lot of damage.

Now the Contador case was slightly different. Landis was caught in a classic testosterone case. But when I was told about Contador and that we’d sent samples up to Cologne to be tested and there was a small amount of clenbuterol in his sample, and it was the yellow jersey, it was a different feeling.

I can talk about Landis now because he has been proven guilty and he has even admitted it, but Contador is still claiming his innocence. So I can’t really talk about it from the point of view of his being innocent or guilty, but I can say that the feeling in my own head was one of great disappointment — if it is true and he has broken the rules — because he was one of the riders that I had used as an example of the new generation who had put doping aside. But we’ll have to wait and see what the outcome of this is….

From the sport’s point of view, I didn’t feel cycling was going to take as big a hit as it did with Landis because I think the sport has moved on. The media now know that the sport is doing a huge amount in the fight against doping, and if you do a huge amount in the fight against doping you catch guys, whether it’s for small things or big things. I think everyone, from the media to the fans, accepts that the sport has changed a lot in four years.

VN:Like Contador, the Chinese rider Fuyu Li tested positive for a similar amount of clenbuterol and blamed food contamination, and I believe he has been suspended two years….

PM:From the UCI’s point of view, the UCI didn’t do anything different. We passed on the file, when we had the whole dossier, to the Chinese federation and they suspended him. So the UCI and WADA don’t need to do anything more. In the Contador situation, the UCI has been criticized that it didn’t announce anything about Contador until such time as it was leaked by the German media, but the fact is the UCI followed the rules all along.

It is true we were informed around the 20th of August that there was a positive sample, and in the circumstance (a small amount of clenbuterol) we had to ask the athlete the reasons why he thought the drug was there, and on the basis of that we had to decide what to do: whether to immediately start the procedure or do further investigation. We gave the athlete the opportunity to tell us what happened, and 24 hours afterwards it was contamination, and he asked for the B sample to be tested. And during that time we did further investigation into the possibility that it may or may not be food contamination; and that took some time. So we had to wait until … Again, following the rules, working with WADA, we had hoped to arrive at the conclusion of that investigation before making the announcement.

And had we made the announcement (when we wanted to) we would have put in all the relevant dates of when things happened, and now this is what we’re doing. Unfortunately, we had to pre-empt that and put out a statement prior to doing that. But we’ve done nothing different to what we did in the Chinese case. We gathered the information and sent it to the federation.

(Editor’s note: The Contador and Fuyu Li cases have followed similar, five-month time frames. Li tested positive at a Belgian race on March 23, he was provisionally suspended by his RadioShack team on April 22, and after the B-sample proved positive Li claimed that he had never doped and the positive must be due to food contamination. After a hearing with the Chinese federation he was handed a two-year suspension in August, five months after the initial test.)

VN:Anti-doping has of course been one of the major focuses of your presidency, but your work involves every aspect of competitive cycling — it has been part of your life since you were a kid. In fact, most of your family is involved in the sport. Has this fact given rise to any conflict-of-interest issues for you in the past five years?

PM:That’s a good question as I have been accused of it by bloggers and others because of the fact that I have a son who’s a qualified lawyer and manages some athletes and another son who’s in the bicycle business — he’s a distributor and has a bike shop and also works on events. He’s worked on events since 10 years of age and he’s now 32.

In terms of conflict of interest, I’ve always dealt with it openly and transparently, with the UCI board in particular. Because it has been mentioned at different times, I brought up the subject myself at the last UCI management committee meeting and informed them of the fact — most of them knew anyway — that I wanted it put on record that I had family members, brothers as well as sons, involved in different aspects of the sport of cycling, and if any element of their work ever touches on the UCI and there’s a discussion of that work in the UCI then I step out of the discussion. And they (my family members) have the same access to UCI staff as any other manager or whatever, but they do it directly themselves and not through me.

VN:There was a perceived conflict of interest a few years ago when the Venezuelan physician Walter Viru was team doctor of Kelme and allegedly running a UCI-accredited testing laboratory in Valencia at the same time. Was that conflict ever looked into?

PM:That may be the case, but when I checked up on that I couldn’t get it confirmed that he was a team doctor and running a laboratory at the same time. The point is, when it became apparent that he was involved in doping programs, and that’s more recent, Dr. Viru was no longer in cycling and there was nothing the UCI could do about it. It’s a bit like the case with Eufemiano Fuentes and his associates (involved in Operation Puerto). The UCI didn’t do anything against them because they weren’t license-holders of the UCI.

VN:Turning to the huge amount of travel you’ve done over the past five years, far more than any previous president of the UCI. What have you learnt in traveling to so many countries?

PM:How to pack and unpack a suitcase with the greatest efficiency!

No, I’ve learnt that cycling is a sport that is in all countries and a sport that has huge respect from both sporting and governmental officials in all of the countries that I’ve visited, and most of the people within the IOC, WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and national governments now respect and understand the work that the UCI is doing in the fight against doping. That’s credibility that we’ve regained there … but the thing that I’m seeing more and more of is the fact that countries are looking at cycling as a means of promoting their country. Which is something I’ve known for 20 years since I was involved with promoting Ireland through the Nissan Classic (Tour of Ireland). And that’s becoming more and more prevalent….

For example, the Canadian government invested in the two new UCI races in Québec and Montréal to promote their country. And at the first race the Québec mayor was looking at the big screen all day and remarking on the wonderful shots of Québec that were going all over the world. So it is a sport that is one of the best — and the Tour de France is the best example of it — to portray countryside from the tourism point of view. So I think a lot of countries are opening up to that view.

I remember well Dr Mahathir, the prime minister of Malaysia, back in the early ’90s, he wanted a Tour de France in Malaysia (which led to the Tour de Langkawi) for the very same tourism reasons. I think that in all the countries I do visit the ministers and so forth I meet tell me there’s a huge potential for our sport in their country. And quite a lot of them are doing it. Malaysia for example, is now about to build a new velodrome in Kuala Lumpur because of the success of Malaysian track cycling over the last couple of years.

It shows that once somebody puts a program together and gets a good coach, they can deliver results. The cyclists are there — and the same applies to the road — it’s just a question of getting them and developing them. That’s why I get great satisfaction from the work that’s being done by the UCI in the World Cycling Centre.

A good example is Daniel Teklehaimanot from Eritrea (who won five gold medals at the 2010 African Cycling Championships in November), especially when you know the background of the country where this kid comes from. We helped to bring him through into the elite level of the sport. It’s a wonderful story and the more of that type of thing we can do the better for the overall development of the sport. The success he’s already achieved has made him a big star in Eritrea, where cycling has a history as a former Italian colony.

So I get that satisfaction seeing these young riders come to our headquarters in Aigle to train on the track, or in BMX, or whatever it may be. We’re probably the only international sports federation that has the activity going on around the staff, who daily see the athletes taking part in the different disciplines and courses, and that’s a great motivator for the staff to see that, rather than just working in an office block.

VN:You and your staff are responsible to more than a hundred national cycling federations affiliated to the UCI, to control and develop the sport. How do you see cycling at the top level and its possibilities internationally in the next few years?

PM:I think we can achieve a truly global international calendar that will be attractive to the sport, naturally, but also to the sponsors. If we can have an event, not more than one, in all of the major international markets and the powerful developing countries like China and India, then I think that can be a big catalyst to developing the sport in those countries. We bring the best in the world once a year to China or America or South America, wherever it may be, with the support of the teams and the sponsors, I think we can do a huge amount to develop the sport — if everyone is working together.

VN:Sports like tennis and golf have developed dramatically on an international level. In that respect tennis, which was in the dark ages not so long ago when Wimbledon was still an amateur event, has leapfrogged over cycling.

PM:It has. And one reason is that tennis is a wonderful example of gender equity. The women are equal to the men, not only in terms of their imagery but also in the amount of media attention they get for their performances.

VN:That really began when the U.S. Open started paying the same prize money to men and women three decades ago, eventually followed by the other Grand Slam tournaments. Can you see something like that happening in cycling?

PM:Maybe in 10 years … it would take that length of time. I think women’s cycling will continue to develop well; it’s developing slowly. And it needs a couple of good sponsors to come in to sponsor teams. And there’s the recent idea that ProTeams should have a women’s team (like HTC-HighRoad and Garmin-Cervélo), and I think that’s something we can look at, and see how far we can go with that idea, because that would help the women’s scene a lot.

VN:What other things does the sport need to do in the future?

PM:There are certain things we have to do … the anti-doping still has to be worked on. Maybe we will have to look at the regulations in relation to races, the grand tours maybe. I think we have to strongly consider introducing a third rest day into the grand tours. And I think the UCI will have to look very closely at any ideas the organizers come up with to bring the grand tours to far-off places, because we always have to consider the health and sporting aspects of the athletes … and that will determine how a proposal such as the one for starting the Giro d’Italia in Washington, DC, works logistically for the riders.

The other thing is to continue to create stars and try hard to find another global superstar. Despite everything that may be going on at the moment, Lance Armstrong was a truly global superstar for our sport who was a household sport and did a lot for cycling. We need to find one or two others who can communicate by their persona, their performances and the way they interact with the media to become international brand names. Because that’s what every sport needs to be a global sport.

VN:In many people’s eyes, Armstrong has tarnished or even destroyed his image as a global superstar because of his alleged involvement in doping practices. So how do you feel about the ongoing federal investigation into his former teams, U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel, and the comments you’ve made about Landis and the accusations he has made about organized doping within those teams?

PM:It’s not something I want to talk about in any detail because there is an investigation going on and I can’t comment on that … but I have been saying all along that Landis has an agenda. The agenda is (1) to bring down Lance Armstrong and (2) to bring down the sport of cycling. And his actions support that agenda.

Now, Armstrong is under investigation and we’ll have to wait and see what comes out of it. Whether it’s positive or negative for the sport, we’ll deal with it; but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Lance Armstrong is a global superstar. And as we globalize cycling, we need to be taking the sport into areas where the people know who the athletes are, know the big names, so I still maintain that the sport does need global superstars.

VN:Finally, the day after you had that CADF meeting in Paris, your representative Philippe Chevalier attended the annual meeting of the Association of International Cycle Race Organizers (AIOCC). That’s where your long battle with the grand tour promoters effectively ended when they accepted the new rules of participation: all 18 ProTeams plus four wild-card teams. There were rumors that you made a deal before that ruling was accepted.

PM:Well, the new rules were on the AIOCC agenda and all of the organizers agreed to the new system. But when people say a deal was done that’s not the case. We announced the system in September at the world championships in Melbourne and the first opportunity that the organizers had to discuss it, and accept it, was the general meeting of AIOCC. Which they did. And from that point of view I’m pleased that they accepted it. I didn’t really think there was going to be any difficulty with it, but that they publicly stated that they accepted it is a good thing.

* * *

Many other subjects were discussed in this ongoing interview with Pat McQuaid, including his plans to extend the UCI World Road Championships over two weekends, to include a team time trial for the world’s top pro teams (not national teams), starting in 2012. But along with the UCI president’s other ideas to expand the sport internationally, make doping suspensions longer and perhaps reduce the length of the Giro and Vuelta a España, those discussions will have to wait until a future date.