Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Once the most powerful man in cycling, Pat McQuaid is now living a quiet life in the countryside of southern France. After achieving success as a racer in the 1970s, he became involved with cycling’s governance starting in 1993, when he was elected president of the Irish Cycling Federation. As president of the UCI from 2005 to 2013, he oversaw a transitional period in the organization; the sport was growing rapidly in the wake of Lance Armstrong’s compelling story and seven successive Tour de France wins, and also due to globalization strategies set in motion by the UCI’s first president, the late Hein Verbruggen.
Recently, The Outer Line spoke with McQuaid about a wide range of topics in a recent interview. This is an excerpt of that Q&A.
The Outer Line: Cycling’s pro team structure has become more complicated over the last four years, with Velon and the AIGCP pursuing new and sometimes competing goals, and negotiating directly with the WorldTour and the UCI. How can the UCI get everyone on the same page?
Pat McQuaid: In short, by showing stronger leadership. The UCI needs to gain a greater respect from its stakeholders — as being the one neutral body which is mandated to look after the interests of all stakeholders in the sport. It is my personal opinion that Mr. Cookson doesn’t have the ability to move the sport forward over the next four years. He bills himself as a “consensus” builder, but unfortunately what this often means is that he just doesn’t want to take a decision. He has abdicated too many of his responsibilities to his Director General, Martin Gibbs, who takes care of the political and administrative decisions. And Gibbs doesn’t have the background or experience to do this; I know this, because he worked for me for two years. You have to keep in mind that the role of the UCI President and the UCI Director General are completely different. The President and his management board determine broad strategies, while the Director General sees to it that the staff carries out those mandates. The President takes day to day decisions on many important issues, which don’t need Board approval, and looks after the political aspects of the operation. It seems to me that this is not happening currently, and that Gibbs is making most of decisions — both political and administrative.
Mr. Lappartient, I believe, has a greater appreciation and respect for the history and the legacy of the sport. He has been successful with the French riders association, and I think he has a better understanding of the big picture. In my view, it is time for a change at the UCI.
TOL: What can/should the UCI do to make the WorldTour more exciting and relevant to attract new fans?
PM: The reforms of a couple years ago were supposed to do that, but they have largely failed. What we really need is a continuous narrative which begins at the start of the season and goes right through to the end in a cohesive way, with little or no overlap of events, and building to a grand finale. Continuing to add new events [as the UCI did in the WorldTour last year] does nothing to help that and only confuses the fans more.
In fact, I would actually reduce the number of events in the WorldTour calendar, and turn it into a more streamlined, year-long, with few if any concurrent races. I would also try to restrict the number of events on this calendar owned by any single organizer, in order that no single organizer would dominate the calendar or be able to use their influence to abuse the system.
We could also consider a second-tier WorldTour calendar running below this top calendar, which would include lower level European events as well as some of the best events on the other four continents. Below that we would still have the Continental calendars, all of which are working well and growing, and which are establishing some impressive races.
TOL: Looking back in retrospect, have you modified or softened your position with respect to the whole doping era in the 1990s and early 2000s?
PM: Well, I would say this. There is a lot of hypocrisy in this sport. Armstrong was run out of the sport entirely. But at the same time there are many French personalities — on TV, on radio, at the race starts, and so on — who were just as guilty as Armstrong, but the public continues to love them, and they don’t suffer any scrutiny of their past. The blame or the punishment has certainly been distributed unfairly. There is no such love for Armstrong, Riis, or Rasmussen.
At the time of Armstrong’s downfall, I was widely quoted as saying that I felt he had no place in the sport. But, in looking back, and to be fair, the same must be said of many other racers in the same breath. Perhaps Armstrong was the most aggressive, perhaps he gained the most, and so maybe it is only fair that he took the biggest fall. But at the end of the day, he was no different from the rest. We now know virtually everyone was using drugs, and so everyone’s performance went up.
One other thing I will say about Armstrong. When he was preparing to return, he called me and said, “Listen, I see that things have changed, that the sport is cleaner. I want to come back and prove that I can still kick some ass.” Although at that time I didn’t know about his past doping history, I do believe that he competed clean in 2009 and 2010. He was clearly the most physically talented and capable rider of his generation, and probably would still have won all of those Tours if the whole peloton had been clean.
I have some concerns with all the whistleblowers that we have in pro cycling today. I think whistleblowers are fine — in sports, in industry, in government; they should give their information to the proper authorities and then go away. But there are too many would-be whistle-blowers in cycling today who just want to settle old grudges, and continue to act without really changing or making things any better. I won’t mention any names here, but there are clearly some prominent ex-riders who sit squarely in this camp.
TOL: What other advice or commentary would you have for pro cycling today?
PM: Well, I could obviously speak for a long time on that! But I think the single most important thing for the survival and growth of cycling is to find a new financial model, and a new form of economic support. Teams need to be run more like businesses or private companies. We need a new business model and we need more experienced business people in the sport.