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Promises, Promises: Is Brian Cookson on track?

In the wake of the UCI's decision not to pull Astana's WorldTour license, a look back on the first year of Brian Cookson's presidency

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Velo magazine.

By the end of Pat McQuaid’s presidency at the UCI, there was a thick malaise hanging over the governance of professional cycling.

Trust was low. The incumbent president had to run on the dubious, perhaps illegal, backing of two countries not his own in order to even stand for a vote.

At 2013 UCI world road championships in Florence, Italy, the UCI Congress could hardly decide if a vote could even take place. It crystalized the dysfunction and favoritism many had long accused the UCI of, notably after the Lance Armstrong scandal.

Enter candidate Brian Cookson.

Cookson called for a vote then and there in Italy, even though he had everything to gain from McQuaid being shot down before a single ballot was cast. Was this — this bold candidate who demanded a vote with everything to lose — the president the sport would get?

One year later, the short answer is: maybe.

The same man who called for a vote in the chambers Machiavelli once haunted has been UCI president for a year now and has seen that life as a leader is slower and more opaque than life as a candidate.

Promises are no longer olive branches for election but rather switches with which the elected are scolded. Cookson presented a roadmap of the things he would do in the election run-up, grand platitudes that, however noble, would prove hard to execute.

Transparency

Firstly, Cookson said he would embrace openness and transparency, a tenet he all but had to push, given the distrust for the past administration’s handling of the EPO generation and its chummy relationship with the sport’s power brokers.

To make a dent in negative perception, Cookson established the CIRC, or the Cycling Independent Reform Commission, a brand of truth and reconciliation commission aimed at offering leniency in exchange for information on PED use and those involved in the prevailing culture of blood-doping’s unabashed days. The three-member panel is independent of the UCI and underneath a different roof, and has pledged a report by January of 2015.

Thus far, it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of the clandestine commission, though it’s known Lance Armstrong spent hours with the group. The UCI is bankrolling the effort to the tune of $3.35 million, so if it doesn’t produce results, it will have been an expensive mistake for Cookson.

Such a measure was true to his call for transparency. But the UCI’s handling of another issue seems at odds with that pillar of Cookson reform; a president who called for openness ended up with a high profile therapeutic-use exemption on his hands that left media and fans jilted.

Sky’s Chris Froome pulled out of Liège-Bastogne-Liège this season citing a chest infection, and a week later won the Tour de Romandie. Froome had a TUE expedited by the UCI’s scientific advisor, Dr. Mario Zorzoli, for the oral corticosteroid prednisone. Zorzoli granted the usage without sending Froome’s medical file to the three-person TUE committee, per the World Anti-Doping Agency code, a French newspaper reported.

In June, at the Critérium du Dauphiné, Froome was photographed with an inhaler in his hand mid-race. He cited a long-running TUE for asthma, downplaying its importance; however, in cycling, when it comes to anything that boosts performance, everything is a big deal.

Cookson has since said the UCI committee should review every request, and that it was only being used in some cases.

“The TUE committee for the UCI was only being used for cases of a complex or potentially controversial nature, but what I’ve said since that came to light is maybe they’re all of a controversial nature and maybe we then need to look at continuous improvements of our processes,” Cookson said.

The TUE issue is one that will not go away anytime soon and is difficult to navigate based on medial privacy. But if Cookson stands for openness, TUE transparency should become a priority. Cookson is working closely with WADA Director General David Howman on this topic; changes to the rules are expected to go into effect in 2015.

Anti-doping reform

In a similar vein, Cookson also pledged to “revolutionize” the UCI’s anti-doping measures. On this front he has been effective.

Beginning January 1, 2015, cycling’s anti-doping cases will be handled by an independent and international tribunal instead of the national federations. The seemingly obvious decision is designed to erase doubts caused by nationalism, such as the instance in which the Spanish federation pardoned Alberto Contador in 2011, or the Czech Republic’s recent clearing of Roman Kreuziger for biological passport irregularities.

It is widely agreed that the biological passport has helped clean up the professional peloton, though the issues of jurisdiction do remain, which the UCI will aim to combat with a sanctioning process that’s international.

“This should ensure consistency and uniform quality in the decisions, significantly reduce the number of cases that go to CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) on appeal, and lift the operational burden from the national federations,” Cookson said.

Cookson’s effectiveness regarding other pledges is more difficult to take stock of, at least at this point.

The Brit said he would grow cycling worldwide, develop women’s cycling, embrace the future together, and, finally, overhaul the structure of elite road cycling. Some of those run together.

Marketability and women’s racing

On the marketability aspect, there have been encouraging signs, such as the adoption of on-bike cameras, which provide a magnificent window into the pandemonium and positioning of the professional peloton. In a sport that’s long been stagnant in its presentation to fans, the tight action shots offer a fresh glimpse. Further commercial development details are expected as part of the UCI WorldTour Seminar in December, with a new plan in place by 2017.

Recent efforts to increase the profile of women’s cycling include high-profile events, one brand new: La Course by Le Tour de France, a women’s race upon the Champs-Élysées hours before the men arrive in Paris is back for a second year, and the Strade Bianche will host a women’s event on March 7. The Giro dell’Emilia has also added a women’s race on October 10.

Cookson appointed Tracey Gaudry as the UCI’s first female vice president immediately upon taking office, and there is now at least one woman on 18 of 19 UCI commissions.

“Our progress in women’s cycling goes beyond UCI structures. I’m delighted to say that 2014 will have seen around 80 elite level women’s events — the highest number ever,” Cookson said during his speech to the UCI Congress this fall.

It is true that the new events certainly bring a higher profile to the women’s side of the sport, which is a very small piece of the larger pie. But Cookson and other players, such as Tour organizer A.S.O., will be pressured to do even more.

In keeping with a globalization approach, the UCI awarded the 2017 world championships to Bergen, Norway. Those races will come after worlds in Richmond, Virginia, in 2015, and Doha, Qatar, in 2016.

The 2014 Tour of Beijing — organized by Global Cycling Promotion (GCP), a for-profit branch of the UCI that Cookson acknowledged presented a conflict of interests — was the last iteration of the late-season race, and may signal larger revisions to the calendar, though little about that reform process is known at this point.

Changes to grand tours?

The UCI’s biggest focus is the elite men’s road racing calendar. On that front, there are grumblings from the peloton that not much has changed. Some say the UCI remains an aloof and out-of-touch institution. One team manager characterized Cookson as “clueless” when it comes to the realities of pro racing. A meeting between the UCI, teams, and race organizers that coincided with the Vuelta a España, covering planned reforms of the racing calendar to be introduced by 2017, ended acrimoniously, according to sources.

The UCI supposedly wants to reduce top team sizes to 22 riders per team, and shrink the race calendar to 120 days. Though the Tour de France would remain 21 days, slashing both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta to two weeks is under heavy consideration. Another idea to impose a two-tier racing system, with 16 WorldTour teams and eight Pro Continental teams, received heavy resistance from teams and race organizers, who say such a move would kill any team not within the system, as well as stymie the arrival of future sponsors.

“When you have meetings, it’s normal that not everyone is in agreement,” Cookson said. “We’re in the middle of this process, but we’re anxious to do something that is simple to understand by the fans and the media. We want to respect cycling’s heritage, but we also have to look to new horizons. It’s still a work in progress.”

Times at the UCI, they are a changing.

Sources also say Cookson, and his right-hand man, former campaign manager and now UCI director general, Martin Gibbs, are cleaning house, forcing out many former Pat McQuaid-Hein Verbruggen loyalists. Cookson’s decision to shut down GCP, created during the McQuaid era, came only after they botched a deal to extend the Tour of Beijing with Chinese officials, one source said. The same source said the UCI “is not a pleasant place to work,” and accused Cookson and Gibbs of “very good PR, but very little substance.”

At this point, we know this much: the legacy of a leader’s tenure is seldom measured one year after it begins. What the CIRC reveals is yet to be seen, and calendar changes could alter the complexion of pro cycling. Running the sport is akin to racing in it: variable and unexpected. As for how history reviews Cookson, it’s too soon to tell; we’re still off to the races.