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Under fire, defiant McQuaid reflects on career, anti-doping efforts

UCI president reflects on his long relationship with EPO and doping in cycling and says he is the man to lead the sport forward

DUBLIN (VN) — Pat McQuaid breezes into the foyer and it quickly becomes apparent he was doing a spot of shopping. He’s slightly out of breath, his coat is wide open and his scarf hangs loose. Last-minute Christmas shopping in Dublin — it can’t be too dissimilar from racing in the peloton, ducking and weaving and jostling for position, picking good lines and getting to the head of the queue first is all that matters.

McQuaid, in his day, was a sprinter of note and usually got to the top of the queue first; hence the few bags he’s carrying and it’s still only mid-morning in a capital choc-full of shoppers, tourists and vendors. He’s efficient. His time keeping is spot on, too, as we convene one minute before the scheduled meeting time.

The sport of cycling in 2012 endured the most difficult year in its much-maligned history and over the last four months the international governing body’s president has had emails, letters, phone calls and faxes telling him to “get the fuck out and resign.” That last flowery little dispatch came from three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, no less.

The Irishman has batted away accusations and fielded allegations of corruption and impropriety since October, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released its “Reasoned Decision” on widespread drug-taking in the Lance Armstrong-led U.S. Postal Service team during the late 1990s and 2000s. One can only wonder how much of a toll such vitriol can have on a man.

Searching for signs of strain or pressure, generally, isn’t a difficult thing to do — the mind’s construction is very often visible in the face and judging by McQuaid, he has the look of a man who’s more concerned with how his niece will take what’s in the bag resting against his leg, rather than the future of the sport resting on his shoulders.

Poke at him, just a little, however, and it soon becomes apparent the gun is always cocked, even in a salubrious setting where Christmas carols and teapots are the only other sounds.

“That irritates me,” McQuaid retorted tiredly when asked about journalist Paul Kimmage’s claim that he should be behind bars for the deaths of up to 30 young riders during the 1990s. “It’s way over the top. It’s a personal vendetta he’s got against me and the only way he can pull me down is to associate me very closely with my predecessor Hein Verbruggen, doping and Lance Armstrong. That’s the only way he can see to bring me down. This year hasn’t been easy for me. It’s been difficult and I’ve put up with a huge amount of criticism, most of which is unjustified, but that’s the way the media operate.”

First look at EPO

McQuaid must often wonder whether someone has put some cruel curse on him. Here’s a man who has been utterly besotted by cycling since he was a nipper winning races back in the early 1970s, but all the while, it’s been very much a tale of unrequited romance.

Picture the scene: the 1986 Nissan Classic took years of planning and persuasion. McQuaid was in the hot seat as race director. In the height of a recession he had the drive and desire to source sponsors, teams, riders, a route, media coverage — and do it all on the cheap. (He subsequently needed a dig-out of 30 grand to balance the books, but such was the success of the race, the sponsor willingly provided it.)

There were 16 teams in that edition of the race: 12 professional teams from Europe as well as amateur teams from Ireland, England, France and the Netherlands. LeMond, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Eric Vanderaerden and Steve Bauer were all on the start-line in Dublin; the who’s who of world cycling, all in Ireland, all because of McQuaid. This was going to look very good on his CV in years to come. But all was not well inside the sport’s poisonous underbelly and the toxic “D” word entered his domain for the first time, he explains.

“Stage 1 was a 135-mile trek straight across the country, finishing in Eyre Square,” he said. “A young Dutch rider, Johannes Draaijer, took off out of the bunch coming out of Lucan, in an orange jersey, on his own and built up a lead of 12, 13 and then 14 minutes by Athlone. He was in my rearview mirror the whole day because I was driving the car on front and I was delighted for him, to see an amateur beating all the pros — some of the best in the world. I was thrilled for him. As a sports fan you love the underdog. He didn’t win the stage, but he got a pro contract out of it. But a year or so later, he was found dead in his bed, at 23 years of age. That’s EPO.”

Draaijer had injected himself with so much of the then-legal substance that his blood thickened to mud, put huge strain on his young heart to pump it around his body and just days after a doctor declared him fit and ready to race in Italy, his wife found him cold as a stone. There would be plenty more like him. The pursuit of success resulted in an increasing mortality rate. Stories of junior riders in Europe going to bed at night but having to wake up at all hours to exercise on stationary trainers to keep the heart working and prevent a clot weren’t conjecture.

“I knew how Draaijer died; he died because of EPO,” said McQuaid. “That had a huge effect on me, the fact that drugs will do that. This guy I had watched that day perform so well — I was so thrilled for an amateur starting his career. Out of that result he got a pro contract. It’s just not acceptable and I didn’t find it acceptable. That, plus the (lack of) fairness of it and all that has conditioned my attitude towards doping and my attitude is as strong, if not stronger than a lot of these critics telling the UCI how it should be done. And when I became president in 2005, I laid out two objectives: the fight against doping and the globalization of the sport.”

The Tour hits Ireland

Though the Nissan race would fade away after seven strong years, McQuaid, whose “ambition outweighed talent” in every sense, went after the biggest race of them all, the Tour de France.

“I was on a committee set up by Gay Mitchell at the time in the Dublin Sports Council and he was looking to bring a big international event here. He thought he’d get the Olympic Games once so that would make two ambitious people! We sat around the table and I said, ‘The Tour de France would come to Ireland,’ and everyone there went, ‘What!? But that’s in France, how would it come here?’ This was in 1992 and I said, ‘Well, in actual fact, I’m currently working on a project to bring the Tour to England in 1994, so if they’re prepared to come to England, maybe they’d come to Ireland,’ I said.

“But there were huge logistical things to consider,” he continued. “It would have to be the start of the race here. We couldn’t start in France, come to Ireland and go back to France. So immediately everyone said, ‘Do you think you could follow up on it?’ and I said ‘Well, I know (Race organizer) Jean Marie LeBlanc very well; I know he loves Ireland because he used come over to the Nissan for a week every year. I think I could sell the idea to him.’”

“’Have you thought about this?’ he said, and I replied, ‘Yes I have. We can’t do what we’re doing next year (with England in 1994), but a Grand Départ can be done,’” said McQuaid. “And I’ll never forget his words: ‘Look, I’ll tell you this, and you can go back to your people and tell them this — if it’s possible, it’s possible.’”

Possible to LeBlanc meant logistically, financially and politically possible.

“And that’s all I needed to hear. So that meant talking to the government and it took me two-to-three years of talking to them. Enda Kenny was Minister for Tourism then and I spoke to him about trying to get 1.5 million pounds to make it happen,” said McQuaid.

But, according to McQuaid, the Irish government had never invested in a sports event and winning favor took time.

“I brought Jean Marie over with (businessman) Tony O’Reilly and had a function down in his house. We brought him to rugby matches to keep the Tour de France warm while I was trying to get the conditions right with our government,” said McQuaid. “Then, Enda Kenny said to me, ‘The way this has to be done is, we’ve a cabinet that meets and when something goes to cabinet, it’s not generally discussed there. All the discussion takes place beforehand; when it goes to cabinet it’s rubberstamped and that’s the way it’s dealt with, that’s the way things go.’ So they came to me in 1995 and they said, ‘We’re good to go.’ It went to cabinet, it was approved and that was it. That gave me two years’ work and it was me just sort of following a path, one thing leading to another. My rise up the ranks was no accident or certainly no design.

McQuaid and partner Alan Rushton hoped that the Tour’s Grand Départ would spark a renewal of the Tour of Ireland.

“It gave us a chance to show sponsors that cycling was great to promote a country and that was to be the case,” he said. “But then Festina came along and fucked all that up!”

Festina hits the skids in Ireland

Festina. Team manager Willy Voet caught with a car-load of performance enhancing drugs at the French border bound for Dublin effectively ruined any chance of the Tour of Ireland coming back. A golden opportunity wasted. McQuaid was abhorred and disgusted by the scale of doping in the peloton. Just a year previously, he was elected to the Board of the UCI and was made president of the road commission where he remained for eight years (until 2005), charged with overseeing juniors, U23s and women from his base in Asia. But those years were the dirtiest in not just cycling, but sport.

If those two incidences didn’t make him question why he was getting in so deep with the world governing body, then the Armstrong affair and all it encompasses surely must have.

When he took over from Hein Verbruggen in 2005, the horse had bolted and with it, took seven Tour de France titles, not to mention millions upon millions of U.S. taxpayers’ money, endorsements and a throne as the king of the sport.

But did McQuaid see anything, ever? Did he hear anything? Could he have stopped the Texan’s drug-fueled reign before it grew into the greatest sporting myth of our lifetimes?

“Look, we’ve said this over and over and over,” he said. “The UCI tested Armstrong and his team so many times, it was always negative. WADA tested him, always negative, USADA tested him, always negative. AFLD (French National Doping Agency) tested him, always negative. CONI (Italian Olympic Committee) tested him, always negative. So the fact that the results were always negative, you ask could more have been done? No it couldn’t, simple as that.

“It’s very easy, and a lot of people fail to see this, but look at anti-doping today and it’s a totally different landscape to what it was 15 years ago. When we knew guys were using EPO and dying, the UCI introduced a hematocrit control because there was no test for it. We invested in the money to create the EPO test, we knew guys were using EPO because they were dropping dead, but all we could do was put a control on it; but in doing so, we were creating a situation where teams were then buying centrifuges, and testing blood themselves and keeping their riders below the limit. So they were using EPO to a certain level but there was no test to show it was being used until it came in and once it came in it changed the landscape. There’s been a lot of that as time goes on: the UCI introduces new tests and then the landscape changes.”

The best man

With such a seemingly impossible war on his hands, did he ever consider resigning?

“Not for a second,” he said. “I’ve done nothing to warrant resigning. Listen, all I’ve done since I became president is fight doping as best I could. All I’ve done is fight doping, promote the sport, working 365 days of the year for the sport, traveled the world developing the sport, introduced the Biological Passport, introduced a no-needle policy, introduced a rule whereby athletes caught in doping can never come back into the sport as part of the entourage. I’ve introduced all those regulations and if somebody comes to me with another regulation which I can introduce, which will strengthen the fight against doping, straight away I’ll introduce it. That’s as much as we can do. We’re not a police force. My attitude since day one is ‘do whatever it takes.’ I don’t see any reason why I should step down, to let somebody in and maybe doesn’t know as much, or is as capable, or isn’t as passionate, or as dedicated. I think I am the best man.”

But why is cycling in such a mess if the UCI is undertaking all of these measures?

“Look, I cannot as such speak for the UCI between the period of 1999 to 2005. I can talk about the UCI from 2005 onwards, but the UCI that I know from 2005 onwards, if they worked the same as they did prior, which I do believe they did, then the UCI has nothing to fear. And a lot of what was said was political. The USADA report was a novel. I accept everything that’s in there, but the way it was presented, it was presented as a novel, you know? I’m not a lawyer, but lawyers have told me they’re used to seeing reasoned documents and decisions and reading them that the public after two pages would close because it’d be all legal-speak. But this was written in a different way; it was written for public consumption and the sad part about it is the whole process was done in the public arena.”

Listening to his tone, vendettas are always between the lines, begrudgery and spite. McQuaid mentions “mischievous reporting” several times. Like the time it was reported that the UCI didn’t interview riders who put up red flags about doping.

“Not true. We’ve interviewed riders; the UCI had Tyler Hamilton in the office in 2000 or 2001 and he lied through his teeth. Our medical doctors said, ‘We’re looking at your parameters and we can see that you’re up to something and you’re going to be caught.’ ‘Well, your machines must be calibrated wrong’ he said. Floyd Landis is another one. At the end of the day, the UCI caught Tyler Hamilton and Landis.

“One thing I do remember is Landis. I got off a plane in Munich and I was in transit to Switzerland coming back from somewhere and I switched my phone on and there was an SMS from our lawyer saying, ‘Ring me when you get this.’ This was early August. ‘Are you alone?’ he said. ‘You better sit down because we have a positive on the Tour de France.’ And he didn’t even have to tell me and I knew who he was talking about. The 48 hours after that were like hell on earth.”

McQuaid says his phone never rang all day and night until he turned it off.

“It was a huge story. But the UCI caught those guys. Then those guys each spent a small fortune of their own money plus other people’s money. I know for a fact of a guy who was quite friendly with Tyler Hamilton and Tyler was going through this process of appeal after appeal after appeal and he spoke to Tyler. This guy is a millionaire and he said, ‘Did you do drugs? Look me in the eye and tell me.’ And Tyler says ‘no.’ ‘Right, here’s a million dollars to help your case,’ the man said, but eventually the truth came out. He came up with such a cock and bull story about a twin that was never born. But that’s their life and they’ve done that, but what I question is the real motivation behind them coming forward with this information. I’ve no problem with Landis giving information to the feds, which eventually brought Lance Armstrong down because if it helps cycling, then that’s a good thing. But where do these guys stop lying and start telling the truth? Where is the divide? I don’t know.”

Since the Armstrong affair exploded, McQuaid and former International Council of Arbitration for Sport John Coates have set up and independent commission to investigate claims the UCI was complicit in the doping of Armstrong and others.

“The next step is seeing what the independent commission come up with,” said McQuaid. “But by the way, there’s more mischievous reporting there. That commission was set up to investigate us and how we handled the Lance affair. There’s been mischievous statements coming out from people like Jaimie Fuller, saying the UCI set the terms of reference and gave them to the commission. The UCI did not set the terms; the commission themselves set the terms of reference. The first I saw the terms of reference was an hour before they went public by the commission!

“There’s nothing to hide to hide from my point of view. I do believe, either way, come 2013, Lance will be forgotten anyway. The sport will move on. Look at Wiggins this year. I think the sport is in a very good position. Cycling shouldn’t be judged on the Lance Armstrong story. It should be judged on the Olympic Games, 1.5 million people on the road for the road race, the velodrome was the hottest in terms of atmosphere. The BMX was hugely successful, the mountain biking was hugely successful. The sport is in a great place and is growing. Look at the development in Africa; South America is growing and will grow further because of the Olympic Games in Rio (de Janeiro). Asia is growing with new teams cropping up, so the sport globally is going very well. So I don’t think this is going to have any huge negative effect on the sport. Things are going in the right position.”

Here’s hoping.

Brian Canty lives in Cork, in the south of Ireland, and claims to know the sport of cycling like the inside of a pint glass. When not chasing stories for the Irish Examiner as his day job, he’s either traveling, trying to learn Spanish or riding in the gutter of some country road miles from home.