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David Lappartient sets UCI and cycling on a new course

Recently elected UCI president David Lappartient brings political cunning and diplomatic prowess to usher cycling into new era.

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SARZEAU IS AN OLD FRENCH TOWN OVERLOOKING the Atlantic coast, in Brittany’s wild and windy Morbihan region. There are big sandy beaches nearby, and it’s renowned for its excellent shellfish. Five hundred years ago, the countryside around the town was popular with French dukes, who enjoyed hunting in the local forests.

These days Sarzeau has a youthful, dynamic mayor with a ready smile, and a steely resolve. He’s something of a hunter too, stealthily making the journey from humble race commissaire to the most influential job in cycling, president of the International Cycling Union (UCI).

When David Lappartient toppled Brian Cookson last autumn to become the UCI’s grand fromage, the French were delighted. At long last — after Dutchman Hein Verbruggen, Irishman Pat McQuaid, and then Brit Cookson — one of their own was UCI president.

Cookson, on the other hand, was left wide-eyed and disbelieving, muttering of betrayal and broken promises. Lappartient’s coup of the UCI called a halt to the sweeping Anglo-Saxon domination of European cycling, personified by Team Sky’s success and the love-in between Yorkshire and Cookson’s presidency — relationships which were, for many in France, too cozy for comfort.

Lappartient’s victory went down well with those who’d grown weary of the British surge, particularly in Paris. Then, almost within days of his election, Team Sky’s shining star, Chris Froome, suddenly had an issue with an adverse analytical finding for salbutamol.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing Froome scenario — and Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France, has made it clear he wants the situation resolved “as soon as possible” — the Tour’s parent company, ASO, has been making all the right noises about Lappartient’s success.

“He is a man of action, and I have no doubt he will be true to his word,” Prudhomme says of Lappartient. “Let’s work hand in hand to help the sport grow and make people dream, but in order to do that cycling must be credible.”

It’s a sentiment Lappartient echoes when VeloNews meets him at the UCI’s headquarters in Aigle, on an icily cold December afternoon. “That’s the job of the UCI,” he says bluntly, as we climb the stairs to his office, “to guarantee credibility.”

So it seems probable — though not definite — that the years of bitter conflict between ASO and the UCI are long gone. It was, according to former UCI president and Cookson’s predecessor, Pat McQuaid, a war that at times threatened to cripple the sport.

“When we were at war with ASO, their lawyers would send a very strong letter on Friday afternoons at 4 p.m.,” McQuaid recalls. “We’d ring Hein [Verbruggen] and have a laugh over it. We called it the ‘Friday afternoon letter.’”

Now, those days seem to be long gone. Lappartient’s appointment has ushered in a new age of healthier relations.

[pullquote attrib=”David Lappartient”]“I know it was a big shock for Brian. He still thought he could win.”[/pullquote]

LAPPARTIENT’S TOPPLING OF THE erstwhile Cookson last autumn was hardly a giant-killing win — more of a slaying foretold. Lappartient claims now that he knew what was coming, as did most of the UCI delegates. They just didn’t tell Cookson, who until the last minute truly believed he could retain his position.

“I know it was a big shock for Brian. He still thought he could win,” Lappartient says. “He was expecting at least 30 votes.”

Sitting in the warmth of his office, as winter tightened its grip on the Swiss Alps, Lappartient insists he never doubted the outcome. “I knew delegates were ready for change. I knew that I had more than 35 votes. I worked very hard but I didn’t want to make big statements before the election,” he says. “The day before the vote, I told my wife, ‘I will be around 37, 38 votes.’ So I was relaxed.”

Cookson meanwhile seemed consistently oblivious to the possibility of defeat. In the end, he lost the vote, 37-8.

“Brian made two or three mistakes,” Lappartient says. “He didn’t listen to the UCI management committee when we warned him about the situation inside the UCI. We elected him as president but the feeling was that he wasn’t leading the UCI himself.”

Instead, it was the Cookson-appointed Martin Gibbs, the UCI’s director general, who was widely assumed to have taken the reins from a diffident and distant Cookson. Gibbs, according to Lappartient, is a man of both strong character and personality.

“There was a lot of dissatisfaction with Cookson and with Martin Gibbs,” McQuaid says. “Gibbs was effectively running the UCI while Brian was flying around taking selfies. Cookson was told that the board was unhappy, but that didn’t have an impact and the irritation grew.”

As concern over Gibbs’s prominence grew, the UCI’s management committee made their dissatisfaction painfully clear.

“We had a private meeting with Brian about this in June 2015 and asked him to think about it. I said to him, ‘If you don’t want to listen, then maybe this will affect your presidency. But he wanted to keep it that way,” Lappartient says. “It wasn’t personal between us, but he wasn’t strong enough to lead the organization, so there was a divorce between him and his high-level staff.”

David Lappartient
Brian Cookson and David Lappartient. Photo: ©Tim de Waele | Getty Images

DAVID LAPPARTIENT IS A politician and a diplomat, a man who chooses his words carefully. He reaches a consensus, defuses explosive situations, gets the job done, wins elections — or, at least that’s his image. But he’s also said to be his own man, willing to stand alone if needed.

Crucially, his path through the French Cycling Federation ensures that he is steeped in the culture of French cycling, and that he understands its recent traumatic past.

There is a sense that Lappartient will be in the role for the long term. “I think his longevity is assured, so I see him being there for a while,” McQuaid says. “But Cookson changed the rules to a maximum of an eight-year term.”

McQuaid would prefer to see a 12-year limit for the presidency, with elections held every four years. “It takes four years to find your feet because it is completely different once you become president. It’s a steep learning curve,” he says.

In the aftermath of Verbruggen’s autocratic presidency, the UCI has struggled to find the right person for the job.

McQuaid, Verbruggen’s own choice to succeed him, was regarded as too much of a stooge — the Dutchman’s puppet. This characterization may have been a little unfair to the Irishman, who spent most of his presidency battling to keep his composure through a series of scandals, gaffes, and crises.

Cookson, who rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong scandal, was seen as a safe pair of hands, an experienced and moderate veteran of the boardroom who could steer British Cycling into calmer, profitable waters and manage egos both domestically and internationally.

McQuaid’s bluster was dumped in favor of Cookson’s considered demeanor, but as the ties were definitively cut with the Verbruggen-McQuaid era, Cookson increasingly seemed to drift, conflicted and uncertain, lacking in vision.

Decisiveness, not dithering, action not appeasement, was what was needed both within and beyond the UCI’s committee rooms. But on too many high-profile issues — racism, sexism, nepotism, and technological fraud — Cookson seemed a deer in the headlights.

“I knew Brian wasn’t presidential,” says McQuaid, who lobbied for Lappartient. “I was concerned for the UCI. I have an affection for it and I was concerned over a weak president.”

McQuaid says Lappartient was a natural candidate. He has a background in cycling, he has proven himself to be a capable politician, and he speaks fluent English and French.

“[Previously] his politics weren’t apparent,” McQuaid says. “That happened when he became president of the French Cycling Federation. For me, it was always a matter of time before he stood to be president of the UCI.”

[pullquote attrib=”Pat McQuaid”]“He’s a pragmatist. He will look for things to fix.”[/pullquote]

LAPPARTIENT ALREADY HAS PLENTY of issues to consider: the improved detection of technological fraud; salary caps on WorldTour teams; the further growth of women’s cycling, including a new women’s Tour de France; an improved level of expertise among UCI commissaires; the use and abuse of TUEs. No doubt his first four years will be busy.

“He’s a pragmatist,” McQuaid says. “He will look for things to fix; for example, he feels strongly about technological fraud, but then the French do generally.”

McQuaid believes Lappartient will forge a relationship with the MPCC (Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible) to battle the use of legal but dubious substances, such as corticosteroids and the painkiller Tramadol.

McQuaid imagines Lappartient will be more likely to get into debates with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) than with ASO. One of those flashpoints may be the use, and misuse, of TUEs.

“I’m not comfortable with the way TUEs are operating right now,” Lappartient says. “It’s clear that you can use TUEs to avoid the normal rules. I saw what Shane Sutton said [about TUE abuse] and I wasn’t very comfortable with it. If you have a TUE, it’s not to boost your performance.”

Sutton, an Australian coach who was technical director at British Cycling and remains a consultant for Team Sky, said in late 2017 in a BBC documentary that it was common a few years ago for athletes to use TUEs to “find gains” if they had a minor injury which permitted them to apply for one.

“If you have an athlete who is 95 percent ready and that little five percent niggle or injury that is troubling him, if you can get that TUE to get him to 100 percent, yeah, of course, you would in them days,” Sutton said in the documentary.

Atop the Frenchman’s hit list, though, is the growing belief that technological fraud has been practiced at the highest level in professional racing.

There is now a renewed sense of urgency on this issue, particularly in France. That has been fuelled by the publication of a new book by L’Equipe journalist Philippe Brunel. In it, he details the development of Hungarian inventor Istvan Varjas’ micro motors, which Brunel describes as the size of a USB.

And there is also the matter of a judicial investigation into the murky world of motor doping and corruption within cycling. The inquiry is led by two fearsome judges, including one, Claire Thepaut, who subjected former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to 15 hours of interrogation over corruption charges in July 2014.

Lappartient clearly detests the spiral of conspiracy that is growing around technological fraud and says he plans to attack it head-on.

“I worry that motors have been used,” he says. “I have no proof, but it’s not impossible. Now I want to be sure that we deliver a sport without doping and without motors.”

Lappartient admits that amateur races will always be open “to something crazy,” such as motorized cheating. The UCI, he says, has an obligation to protect the highest levels of sport from fraud. He is eager to move on from the system of tablet computers that testers have used in the past. (He hoped to unveil his plan for combatting motorized fraud in January.)

His strategy to bring about a quantum leap in the credibility of the UCI’s tech-fraud detection capabilities hinges on the appointment of Jean-Christophe Péraud, who finished second overall in the 2014 Tour de France.

Péraud, a qualified process engineer, had been working in thermal hydraulics since retiring in 2016. He succeeds Mark Barfield, who led the frequently criticized technological fraud team until Cookson’s defeat.

“The tablets are useful,” Lappartient says, “But I’m not 100 percent sure that we will find all of the cases with them. We need more than the tablets, and we are working on some new technologies for the future.”

Among the rumored options are giant portable X-ray controls, which would test every frame and wheel, with all results being made public.

The high number of bike and wheel changes that have become so commonplace in recent years puzzles Lappartient, as it does many others.

“The bikes will be checked, we will be able to look at every changed wheel, which we will tag, and we may do random testing during the stage. We are working on creating that,” he says.

Even so, he hopes that a hidden motor will never be found at the very highest level. “It would be a disaster,” he says. “I have to be sure that this will never happen.”

David Lappartient
Lappartient is eager to move beyond using tablet computers to detect technological fraud. Photo: ©Tim de Waele | Getty Images

LAPPARTIENT HAS ALREADY BEEN accused of being too compromised by conflicting interests and of being overtly pro-French. That feeling hardened towards the end of last year when he floated the notion that both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España could be cut down in days, but not the Tour de France.

“[Shortening the Giro and Vuelta] could be a way to allow the top athletes to do two grand tours, or even all three,” Lappartient said in a November interview. “That could be good for the business of these races.”

He cracks a wry smile when those comments are quoted back to him. He says he knew at the time that his remarks would be construed as being motivated by nationalism. Lappartient backtracks on the statement, saying he would never force a grand tour to shorten its race.

“But if we want to reform them, then all subjects must be on the table,” he says. “And maybe doing this can be a positive thing for the race.”

Lappartient proposes a scenario in which riders could participate in all three grand tours, or combine the major races. He says that if the revenue models allowed, then why not operate a four-week race? Whatever business model serves the races should be the one that promoters adopt.

“But for the teams, it’s so important to be in the Tour — you can see that from the teams that don’t get into the Tour, especially French teams, because their sponsors pull out,” he says.

While sponsors occasionally throw in the towel on teams — and even the team of 2017 Tour runner-up Rigoberto Urán, Cannondale-Drapac, scrambled for survival last autumn — other headline-grabbing teams seem to get richer.

[pullquote attrib=”David Lappartient”]”The job of the UCI is to guarantee credibility.”[/pullquote]

“I can’t blame Team Sky for being the best,” Lappartient says. “They have more money, they have the best riders, they’re very professional, so you have to say, ‘Okay, well done, congratulations.’”

Lappartient points out that big-money teams have dominated cycling in the past, referencing La Vie Claire in 1986. The Bernard Hinault-Greg LeMond led super-team had five riders in the top 12 finishers that July and also won the Tour the previous year.

“But if you have a salary cap for WorldTour teams — because I’m against individual salary caps — that could be a way to avoid having the best riders all in one team,” he says. “That would be one way to try and create more exciting racing.”

The French have a word for Team Sky’s riding style — cadenasse, which means to lock up — and it’s a term that has been used frequently in the media to describe the British team’s tactics.

Lappartient says he has no plans to change the current rider limit for WorldTour races — eight for grand tours and seven for shorter races.

But would that stalemate happen quite so often if budgets were limited? If a salary cap were in place, would all the top teams be able to secure all the top talent? Lappartient freely admits he’s looking into it.

“I don’t know that it will be possible, and it would take two, maybe three years to put it in place,” he says. “But we don’t want the gap between teams to get any bigger, and at the moment the range of budget is between 12 million to 34 million Euros.”

He is also acutely aware that, as the fat cats in the men’s WorldTour get richer, women’s cycling, despite its ever-increasing popularity, remains chronically under-funded. Lappartient says he hopes to improve the situation, but admits that solutions are not coming fast enough. He references a study that says 67 percent of elite female riders earn less than 10,000 Euros a year.

“That’s very bad, totally unacceptable,” he says. “But there is a bright future for women’s racing. You can see the passion around the women’s Tour of Britain, which is now one of the world’s top races for women, and the interest in La Course.”

Meanwhile, he is counting on the Tour de France organization to invest more into women’s racing. “I want to see a women’s Tour de France within the term of my presidency. La Course is nice, but ASO can do more and I have put pressure on them to achieve this.

“I think right now it’s too unfocused, too widespread,” he says. “We have a lot of women’s teams but they’re not all able to fulfill all the events. The base needs to be stronger, and we are discussing with women’s teams how to improve the situation. I think cycling can be one of the top three women’s sports.”

But one thing he won’t do is seek to learn from former dopers. His face darkens when the name of one, in particular, is raised.

Others’ attitudes may be more forgiving and Lance Armstrong may be welcomed back to the Tour of Flanders this spring, but the Texan is unlikely to be invited to lunch at the UCI.

“Some have paid their debt to cycling society. But I don’t think I will be consulting Lance Armstrong on strategy,” Lappartient says. “He was the one who took money from other riders. They lost part of their career because of him. He took the other guys for nothing. He had no humility. I’m very clear on what Lance’s story is.”

Inside the UCI, Lappartient is building his own story. For the next four years, and perhaps beyond, he’ll be relying on his political skill and sense of diplomacy to set the world governing body on a new course.