Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: State of the Union interview with Pat McQuaid, part 1

McQuaid at the GP Montreal in September In the five years since Pat McQuaid was elected president of the Union Cycliste International, he has become the public face of cycling’s world governing body. In contrast to former UCI administrations, he has made himself available for comment on…

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

In the five years since Pat McQuaid was elected president of the Union Cycliste International, he has become the public face of cycling’s world governing body. In contrast to former UCI administrations, he has made himself available for comment on any topic affecting the sport. This has sometimes put him in hot water, most recently with the ongoing Alberto Contador doping case that he discusses in this interview, but the 61-year-old Irishman seems to be impervious to criticism, and retains the optimism he previously showed as a pro bike racer and race organizer.

McQuaid is a fervent believer in the globalization of cycling, as he demonstrated with his recent announcement in China of a four-year contract for the Tour of Beijing as part of the UCI WorldTour. On his return from China last week, McQuaid told VeloNews, “The city has well understood after a period of having up to 10,000 new cars a week on the roads of Beijing that this has to stop, and they are very aware of environmental and sustainability issues for which they now have defined strategies. This race fits within this strategy and once again shows the huge and largely untapped potential of our sport.”

When it makes it debut next October with all the world’s top teams taking part, the Asian event will join Australia’s Tour Down Under and Canada’s Québec and Montréal Grand Prix races as the only non-European races in the WorldTour.

Besides international road racing, McQuaid is responsible for overseeing all branches of the UCI, including track racing, mountain biking, BMX and participatory events. Much of this work receives little publicity, but the Irishman shows the depth of his involvement in this exclusive and extensive interview that will publish in several parts.

This is part one.

VN:We’re five years into your term as UCI president. Let’s take a look at the different sectors of the sport for which you are responsible, starting with road racing.

PM: Talking about road, it’s been a difficult five years because from the outset of the UCI ProTour we’ve had our battles with the organizers who’ve refused to accept the UCI ProTour (now the UCI WorldTour) concept, mainly because they feared that the ProTour would ultimately harm their products. And they regard their events as products in a very commercial way. I don’t agree; I think their attitude was very insular, in a sense, and I think we are proving it now with what we’re seeing with (non-European) races like Québec and Montréal that are proving it was insular — because these events have been accepted really well by the peloton, by the team managers and so forth. And we saw a very high quality, high-level organization that many events in Europe could come and look at and learn from, especially as this was their first attempt.

So the globalization is continuing, and that’s been a strategy of the UCI for a long time, and a particular strategy of mine, because of my background as an organizer of events in Malaysia, the Philippines and Ireland. I knew there was a potential for the sport, and what a lot of people forget is that within the ProTour concept, we introduced the Continental Calendars and the hierarchy of teams, being ProTeam, Pro Continental and Continental. And when you look at the statistics in the other continents, the sport is growing.

More new events are coming in all the continents, and also teams are growing. For instance, in Asia in the year 2000 there were no Continental teams and now there are something like 20 Continental teams. So in the past five years the sport is developing internationally. I’ve helped that in certain ways, the UCI has, and then there is the fight against doping, which is one which I said in my very first congress would be one of my priorities, and it remains one of my priorities.

It’s still a battle that’s not won, but it’s a battle that we will continue until such time everybody in the sport learns that it’s no use getting involved in doping because you’re gonna get caught sooner or later. The introduction of the biological passport was a very positive thing for the sport, where the different stakeholders sat down together and said we need a major investment in anti-doping; the UCI was working with the Lausanne laboratory on a project which could assist that, but it was a very expensive project … and the only way it could be introduced was with the support of all the stakeholders — the teams, the riders, the organizers. We’ve done that and it’s proven to be a very effective tool in the fight against doping. An expensive one, but an effective one, and that has been major progress. I’ve always admitted there’s been a culture of doping in the sport, and it’s still not gone.

VN:The UCI, and you in particular, have received criticism for the handling of the Contador case. Why was there such a long time between his testing positive for Clenbuterol at the Tour de France in July and the facts being made public in September, and then again the time before the documents were passed on to the Spanish federation in November?

PM:The concentration of clenbuterol was very small and we wanted to know whether this result would be confirmed by the counter-analysis. If this would not have been the case, there would have been no case to answer. We also wanted to check the justification provided by the rider, and scientific examinations were conducted in consultation with WADA so that if it turned out that there was a case to answer we knew what we were talking about and could anticipate all kinds of comments and speculations that could be expected in such a high-profile case. These examinations took time.

However, when the case became public not all examinations were yet finalized. The file was passed to the Spanish federation as soon as WADA provided us with their report on the origin of the meat that the rider claimed to be the source of the clenbuterol in his urine.

It is important to underline that the results management of this case was done properly and thoroughly, in good cooperation with WADA and in conformity with the applicable rules, which also impose confidentiality.

VN:Returning to the World Tour for a minute, there was talk a couple of years ago of a Tour of China and a Tour de Sotchi in Russia; what’s been happening with those events? I saw there was an “amateur” Tour of China in September….

PM: That Tour of China was a 2.2-level event, but that isn’t the one we have been looking at. That would be the new Tour of Beijing. We have been in discussions with authorities in China for a couple of years. Sotchi I don’t think, but we may have a big event in another part of Russia. The infrastructure is not in Sotchi yet for a major bike race because they’re doing huge amounts of construction and building new roads for the 2014 Winter Olympics. So we would be looking beyond that date. In the meantime, something may come up in another part of Russia.

But vis-à-vis the WorldTour, which combines the ProTour and the Historical Calendar, one of the fears of the grand tour organizers is that the traditional, historical races of cycling would be eventually diminished with the introduction of new events around the world. But the UCI has always maintained that was never the intention and is still not an intention. We still have to respect the major events that have built our sport in the heartland of the sport, which is Europe.

The point is, what we want to do is have some events in different parts of the world around those (traditional) events. It’s not a question of putting new events in all over the place; there is a period of time when most of the races take place in Europe — the classics season and the major tours — and a period before and after that, and sometimes in between. If events for geographical reasons take place in mid-summer in certain places and want to become World Tour races we have to consider them, but it’s a question of trying to fit in spaces in the calendar with new events rather than doing damage to existing events.

VN: The other part of the WorldTour is the teams, and I don’t think the success of that program has been publicized enough, especially with the organization and structure these teams have today.

PM: No, I don’t think it has been. Again, one of the achievements of the past five or six years is the way the UCI has on an annual basis continued to raise the bar in controlling teams and in the development of teams, and managing the administration of teams, along with the licensing commission that looks at the ethics and financials in terms of a team obtaining a ProTeam license. That has all worked to improve the quality of the professionalism within the highest levels of the sport, which is very necessary.

The other thing which probably hasn’t been recognized enough is the fact that having these ProTeams, having the stability of them for four or five years, means that they develop an audience and a following as the team rather than as the individuals within the team. And that means when you are in Québec, for instance, and you’re bringing the 18 ProTeams, the public are seeing Liquigas, AG2R and all these big teams that they see in the Tour de France; the Canadian races didn’t have to have a Contador, a Lance Armstrong, or whatever, the public came out to support Saxo Bank, say; and a lot if it is because the teams and the team names have built up a reputation that the public will support.

VN: On that point, though, there’s some teams that change sponsors quite regularly, like Footon, which was Fuji last year and Saunier Duval before that, and is Geox in 2011 … so is there a way of the UCI helping teams secure sponsorships for longer periods?

PM: The best way of doing it is to do what the UCI wanted to do, give out four-year licenses. But the grand tour organizers again are against that for their commercial reasons, not for sporting reasons, and there’s no doubt that to give a four-year license is beneficial to the stability of the teams, because companies coming in with big money to sponsor teams want to know what races they are going to be taking part in for a couple of years; then they can invest in the team and invest around the team. But with teams in all sports, sponsors come and go ….

Saunier Duval became Footon became Geox, but by the same token Rabobank is Rabobank for 15 years … so there is a certain stability. And the more we can get stability in the sport, agreement between the major stakeholders in the sport — that’s still not there 100 percent — but when we can get there we can get more stability for sponsors I’ve no doubt.

VN: I asked about accomplishment in the past five years in road racing, so are there things that you haven’t achieved and can see happening in the next five years?

PM: We haven’t achieved full agreement with the major tour organizers, and that’s disappointing. We’ve got close at times, but it got very volatile in 2008, with them taking their races outside the UCI. With the two main actors being replaced within ASO (Patrice Clerc and Gilbert Ysern), it started a new round of discussions and negotiations; they still haven’t reached a final agreement, but I will say now at this point that there are ongoing discussions as we speak, and I will be very hopeful that they will bear fruit. That will start a completely new landscape for the sport, and settle that whole problem.

UCI teams’ sporting evaluation

Here’s how the UCI defines its sporting evaluation of the world’s top teams:

The sporting hierarchy is calculated on the basis of the team members for the coming year and therefore reflects the sporting value of the teams’ 2011 squads. The teams’ sporting values are calculated using results obtained in 2009 and 2010 by the 15 best riders in their 2011 squads, taking into account all the events on all the circuits of the UCI International Calendar. In addition, the calculation of a team’s sporting value takes into consideration the collective value of the team based on placings in team classifications of stage races on the UCI World Calendar and HC events on UCI Continental Circuits during 2010.

We have changed the rules for the WorldTour, which is an effort to meet what their requirements are. Because they continue to maintain that they want sporting requirements to determine the top 17 teams, or whatever number it is, whereas we want other requirements in there as well, like ethics, the administration, the stability, the strength of the team. And now what we’ve done is in an effort to improve the actual hierarchy of the sport and ensure that you’ve got a first division, a second division and a third division, with clear lines between them, and the best riders in the world are in the first division.

We’ve brought in this system of evaluation (see sidebar box) where we take the best 15 riders of each team, and when the season’s over, we have a ranking. And then we go through the process with all of those teams, with the best 15 riders, taking into account all of their performances during the year — not just their performances in the ProTour calendar.

It is an internal UCI evaluation; the riders don’t know what place they are, because then there’s a danger that riders will use it for augmenting their salary. We don’t want to do that; all we want to do is create what is a means of defining on a sporting level what are the top teams.

It means that teams that have a ProTeam license for four years can’t sit back; it means they’ve got to continue to invest in riders and that means the best riders are always in the top division. And I think that satisfies largely what the grand tour organizers claim was one of their strong requirements; and so hopefully within that, and within some of the other discussions we’re having, we can come to a final agreement.

(In the upcoming part 2 of this interview, Pat McQuaid talks about the future of mountain biking, improving relations between the UCI and the bicycle industry, increasing cycling’s popularity on television and the controversial decision to drop the individual pursuit as a medal event at the 2012 Olympic Games.)

JWilcocksonEditor’s note: VeloNews editor at large John Wilcockson has reported the Tour de France for more than forty years, written for publications including Outside, Men’s Journal, and The Times of London, and is a former editor of VeloNews. He is the author of a dozen books, including 23 Days in July, one of ESPN’s “Top 10 Sports Books of the Year.” He lives in Boulder, Colorado.