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The world from Pat’s chair part II

A conversation with UCI president Pat McQuaid

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Editor’s note: This piece is part II of a three-part series. Before reading this, be sure to check out Part I

Excerpt from Part I:

McQuaid sees two structural models for the organization of sports, a European model and an American model. “The European model would more or less be the world wide model with the exception of North America. North America has its own model for sport, and that is the private leagues.” With the European, pyramid model the UCI follows, a structure is put in place that helps athletes transfer from the novice level in any of its multiple sporting disciplines then progress upward until they might reach the pinnacle of their sport as a professional rider. In a sense, the structure attempts to connect the 17-year veteran pro with the eight-year-old tyro on a BMX track. This is a clash of sporting structural models. One, very American, is designed with the interest of a tranche of owners and very elite players first—and meant to deliver a more compelling experience to fans than that people get from today’s sprawling, murky cycling calendar. The other, European, is at least theoretically organized around a perhaps more nurturing vision of global out reach to cyclists of every stripe.

The skirmish between what UCI president, Pat McQuaid, calls American and European sports structures is at the root of McQuaid’s disagreement with the idea of a separate pro cycling league that has been repeatedly floated over the years. As recently as April, 2011 McQuaid sent Jonathan Vaughters, the founder and CEO of the Garmin-Barracuda team, a letter demanding that, unless he stop rumored explorations of the idea of a separate pro cycling league, the UCI would charge him for the cost of its biological passport testing program.

In McQuaid’s words, “these competing models “go to the question of private leagues or breakaway leagues that we’ve been dealing with over the past year.” He explains that “there are people at the top end of cycling who do feel that maybe the professional elite groups should be outside the UCI and organize their own private league which would be linked with UCI. But the UCI would disagree that that would be a positive move.In matter of fact, there is no way we would accept it. We feel very strongly that the pyramid model is the best model and in actual fact the elite of the sport have a responsibility to those that are coming below them.”

He adds that the UCI holds that pros should show more responsibility to their sport by working more closely with the UCI to nurture future pros rather than to split apart and focus on the refinement of the sport’s top end. McQuaid says another problem with the idea of a separate pro league that delivers a tightly-packaged series of races more in line with the Formula 1 racing circuit is that it would lose cycling’s primitive and historic appeal.

Referring to a proposed league “with ten new four-day races appearing overnight on the calendar,” he says “it doesn’t work.” The reason being, he argues, is that cycling must respect its “historical nature and the historic prestigious events.” The way to do so is to add select new events to a global calendar “without interfering with the major events that are already there.” In sum, “you have to protect the prestige and the hierarchy and the historic nature of the events that are there, and bit by bit change the calendar.”

McQuaid confesses that the UCI has not sat down with the people who are agitating for a separate pro cycling league to hear the root cause of their discontent. “Because the people who are trying to create the new league have never come to the UCI and discussed it. All we are working on is information we are receiving and copies of documents and so forth. The people that are behind it have never come to the UCI and said, ‘Look, we think this is right and this is the way we want to do it.’ That hasn’t happened.”

He says that the UCI has met with the ProTour teams to hear their point of view. “We have sat down with team leaders and discussed different things that they are not happy about and decisions that the UCI has taken that they are not happy about. We’ve listened to their side of the argument and we’ve given them our side of the argument.” But, “at the end of the day they must accept that the UCI is the government of the sport and the UCI makes the rules that govern our sport. Even though they might not agree with it they must accept that that’s our role.”

Even though they are the lead actors in the global pro cycling theater, pro riders have long complained that they have little say in how the sport is run. This is partly the reality of the fact that they have no organized union to channel and focus their demands. Asked about this sense of disenfranchisement, McQuaid agrees that “the riders have always been the ones with the quietest voice or the least strength and least power in their voice.” In his opinion, that is because “they are employed by teams.” Over the years he says the UCI has worked to improve working conditions and salaries for riders “but we can’t dictate to team management the gross salaries they must pay to the riders. The market has to dictate that itself.”

Going back again to the globalization of the sport, he believes as the sport’s image detaches itself from doping and becomes more worldwide, more sponsor dollars will flow and that in turn will increase rider compensation. “But, it’s all down to all of the actors, and that is the cyclists themselves, and the staff of the teams and the management of teams, realizing that until such time as the credibility of our sport is at a height of similar nature to other sports, we are not going to get the major investors in.”

McQuaid sees 2011 as a promising start, but firmly puts responsibility for staying clean in 2012 and onward — and thereby reforming the sport’s image and further empowering and enriching riders — into the hands of the athletes and their teams. “As they say,” he quips, “one swallow doesn’t make a summer.”

For pros in their early twenties who are riding clean and who take offense at the UCI’s assumption that the riders have not conclusively stepped away from drugs, McQuaid is sympathetic. “I do understand” their frustration at being painted with the same brush as their older colleagues who grew up in the drug-fueled last decade, McQuaid says. “Each year we have a bigger number of clean athletes in the sport. We know that,” he says, referring to UCI reviews of biological passport results. “But we’ve got to reach the stage where they are in the large majority.”

As riders in their mid-30s retire, McQuaid feels “there’s less and less pressure on the younger ones to dope.” That said, he is realistic that as age starts to affect today’s younger riders‘ ability to perform, they will again face temptation. “The ones who are 22, 23 and 24, when they get to 30 and 31, as they are maybe over the top of their career, they may once again be faced with choices in order to try to extend their career a year or two.”

So while he is optimistic that the generation born in the late 1980 and early 1990s—the Taylor Phinneys, Andrew Talanskys and Tejay van Garderens—are growing up in a culture where doping is not a de facto part of their job description, he is realistic that later in their career they may have to make decisions about shortcuts. “It’s not just a question of when they come into the sport first; its also when they first get to be a Grand Tour contender, and then when they are in their later years. You have to make that choice several times, at several stages of your career.”

On the subject of young riders, I ask McQuaid what I should tell my 14-year-old son if he were to ask, “Dad, I want to be president of the UCI. How do I do that?” Laughing, he responds, “It’s a good question!” As for how one becomes the UCI president, he explains that “It’s a political position. It’s elected by the national federations. Our direct stakeholders are the national federations and we have 175 of them in the UCI.”

These national cycling federations are the delegations that both present candidates for the UCI president and vote for his or her election. “There is an election that takes place every four years and any federation can put forward a candidate to be president of the UCI. Each continent is represented by voting delegates. There are 42. This is the way our constitution was structured in 1993.” The delegates are distributed geographically. “14 voting delegates from Europe, three voting delegates from Oceania, nine voting delegates each from America North and South and Asia, and seven voting delegates from Africa.” Those allocations, he says, were decided upon in 1993 “on the basis of the importance of the sport of cycling within each of those continents.” Each continent’s federation has an annual congress where they elect their delegates. Check back for Part III