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The world from Pat’s chair part III

A conversation with UCI president Pat McQuaid

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

Excerpt from Part II:

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.”

Asked to assess his greatest successes over his tenure as UCI president so far, McQuaid says “the most important one for me is changing the culture of doping. We are not there yet. It’s still going to take a couple more years. But we are on the right road and we are on the right path and we are going in the right direction.”

When it comes to his shortcomings, McQuaid reflects, somewhat allusively, that he is unhappy with “some things I see happening on a daily basis, which indicates to me that there are still people who don’t think exactly the same way as I do in relation to sport and fair play.” He also says work remains to be done to further globalize the sport. “I think in the next two or three years it will snowball a little bit and grow fairly rapidly.” Expansion of cycling into countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China is a signature McQuaid goal and he says that only when pro racing is established in these growing economies will he be able to look back with satisfaction.

Other disappointments include the battles the UCI waged with the Grand Tours that took place beginning in 2005. He explains these struggles as “basically a clash of philosophies. The UCI had a philosophy of globalization and developing the sport around the world and the Grand Tours had a philosophy which was purely pan-European, so to speak.” He says the UCI also wanted to “give some stability and guarantees to the teams” that they would be included in the Grand Tours, “but the Grand Tours didn’t want to do that.” He recalls this time as “four very hard years which were very damaging to the sport.”

Today, he says, “we are in the process of rebuilding a relationship which had broken completely.” The Grand Tours in France, Italy and Spain “realize that the sport is growing rapidly around the world and that there are actually opportunities for them as well as highly-respected organizers to work in that environment.” Indeed, Tour de France organizer ASO now assists with the organization of events including the Amgen Tour of California and the Santos Tour Down Under. He concludes that the Grand Tours “are prepared to work with us and we are prepared to work with them on the future development of the sport and we have a very good working relationship and that’s something we will continue.”

Compared to other international sports, one of pro cycling’s weaknesses is that, in the eyes of the general public and advertisers, it only has one event, the Tour de France. It would be as if golf only had one big major competition, the green-jacketed Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. McQuaid agrees with this assessment: “I wouldn’t disagree that there is an imbalance and that the Tour de France is way up there, much higher than all of the other events.” But, he points out that it is difficult to counterbalance because the sport is so traditional.

“It’s going to take time for new events outside Europe to grow and come in to a very high prestige and a very high stature.” But, “that will happen in the coming years and our calendar will be a more balanced calendar. The way it has been, our world calendar has more or less been a European calendar which is very much a pyramid with the Tour de France at the top and all of the other events in the pyramid below it. What will happen with the development of the WorldTour in the coming years is that the new events will gain prestige around the world and people will look to the other events rather than all looking to the Tour de France.”

Careful not to pick a quarrel with the ASO, he adds that he does not think this leveling “will take anything from the Tour de France,” but instead will just raise the stature of the other events. “And it’s going to take time, and it’s not helped by the fact that the sport is so traditional in its roots.”

Asked how to attract multinational corporations to cycling and its ever more attractive base of well educated, aspirational participants in the public, McQuaid responds, “Make no mistake about it, the image of our sport, the credibility of our sport, took a severe hammering over a period of 10 or 12 years, from 1998 right through to this year or last year. So you are talking about 10 years of doping affairs.”

He mentions the 1998 Festina drug bust, where a Festina team car was caught with more than 400 vials of doping products three days before the Tour de France was scheduled to start in Dublin, Ireland.

McQuaid, at the time an organizer of the Dublin race start, recalls the Festina bust as “a huge shock to the cycling family.” Then, he adds, “it got quiet for a little bit after that and just started to grow and grow again as riders got into new methods and so forth — new methods of trying to beat the system. When I was elected in 2005 I was faced immediately with Operation Puerto, and in 2006, Floyd Landis.”

In 2007, things didn’t get better he says, mentioning “Rasmussen, Vinokourov, Kasheckin,” three riders, who, along with Iban Mayo, Cristian Moreni and Patrik Sinkewitz were all implicated in doping scandals around that year’s Tour de France. He mentions Alberto Contador, too. “There were all these major scandals. Contador, we are still waiting on the results of it, but all of these had a major effect on the credibility of the sport of cycling world wide.” That credibility gap in turn scares sponsors away.

McQuaid feels teams are working to clean up the sport, but it is not a speedy process. “You are changing a culture, and changing a culture takes time. And also regaining the credibility takes time.” He is optimistic that the scandal-free nature of 2011 is positive, but admits that “it will take four or five years to bring about that change and to ensure that these CEOs who are out cycling bikes will use some of their companies’ money to invest in the sport.”

He points out that the upmarket demographic profile of the golfer that sponsors have long adored is shifting to cyclists not just in America, but also in traditional cycling strongholds in Europe. “The same guys who 10, 15 years ago would have gone and played golf, now they feel that golf isn’t physical enough for them and doesn’t push them enough and they want to go cycling.”

Looking forward to 2012, McQuaid says “the Olympic games are going to be a huge thing for our sport.” He forecasts that the road race in London “will see the biggest number of spectators ever seen at an Olympic games road race. I would predict at minimum a million people on the roadside.” The 155-mile mens race and 87-mile women’s race from central London’s Mall will kick off two weeks of track, time trial, mountain bike and BMX events. “It’s going to be a huge boost to the sport, as long as everything goes well with it.”

In the political realm, “I hope we can come to terms with these teams who are thinking of breaking away; that they give up on that idea and decide, well, let’s work with the UCI and try and develop our sport together. Because we are certainly prepared to work with them and try to improve their lot as well.” But, he clarifies, by improving the teams’ situation, he does not just mean enrich team managers. “I don’t think we should be working to improve the lot of 18 team managers so they can take more money home at the end of the year. Extra monies that are coming in needs to be passed down to the riders as well.”

Concluding where 2011 ended, with the controversial Tour of Beijing, McQuaid says the Chinese race is again an important part of the UCI’s goals for 2012. “Despite the attempts of some to sabotage the event last year,” he holds that Beijing was a positive. “It’s a unique showcase for cycling even if there have been some problems with pollution.”

The UCI president is also tuned to the economic realities of running a money-intensive sport during the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. “China has provided a new sporting destination for the UCI, and also a new economic opening for all sponsors in the professional sector. In these difficult economic times in Europe, and I think certainly in America as well, you have to grasp an opportunity like that with both hands.”

As for what keeps him going even though he is the target for a lot of tomato throwing in pro cycling, McQuaid chuckles at the image and explains that his energy comes from the fact that, “I love the sport. It’s probably not the right expression to use these days, but it’s in my blood and it always has been. And I’m in a position where I think I can do some good for the sport. I love to see development, and I love to see new kids coming along and kids coming from unusual places like Daniel Teklehaimanot from Eritrea.” (24-year-old Teklehaimanot signed with the Australian GreenEdge ProTour team for 2012 and 2013.)

On his travels around the world, especially to third-world and developing countries, McQuaid says that “when I see the enthusiasm and the love of cycling that these young disadvantaged kids a lot of the time have, it gives me great pleasure to see them succeed and see them come through.”

Mark Johnson has contributed to VeloNews as a writer and photographer since 1993. A category 2 rider, he also likes to go slow, having ridden across the United States twice on his loaded touring bike. On March 1, 2012 his new book on life with the Garmin-Barracuda team, Argyle Armada, will be published by VeloPress.