Incumbent UCI President Brian Cookson has told Cyclingnews he is happy that Lance Armstrong has turned against him on social media, considering it a positive endorsement of the work he has done during his first term to fight the problems of doping and to drag the sport from the "dark old days" when Hein Verbruggen and, later, Pat McQuaid were UCI President and Armstrong was at the height of his powers.
When Frenchman David Lappartient confirmed last week that he would stand against Cookson, Armstrong tweeted "ABC (Anybody But Cookson)" above a message from Lappartient. Armstrong's former team manager Johan Bruyneel, who was also banned for doping offences, also pitched in with criticism.
"I'm happy that those people are not supporting me. I'd like to think that it's a sign I've been doing the right thing," Cookson told Cyclingnews during an exclusive interview.
"I know that people from the past have been trying to drum up support for David. I'm confident that people all around the world in the cycling family don't want to take the UCI back to very inglorious times. I think on my website I've got really good people endorsing me. People like Travis Tygart, Rochelle Gilmore, and Jamie Fuller from Skins who is considered to be an expert commentator in integrity and anti-doping. I have the support of many riders and teams too. I think that speaks volumes about my candidacy."
Armstrong is banned for life after being pursued and exposed by Tygart and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). He gave evidence to the 2015 Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) into doping and governance but failed to receive any reduction in his ban for his efforts.
"I suspect Lance thought he'd get a more sympathetic ear than seems to have been the case," Cookson suggested. "But I don't want to reopen a dialogue or dispute with Lance Armstrong. He's got enough things going on in his legal case at the moment."
Cookson, formerly a town planner before entering full-time cycling politics, is known for being a mild-mannered man. He occasionally lets slip and speaks his mind when not reading from carefully prepared speeches or one-liners from his communications consultants, but he has preferred a strategy of diplomacy rather than Alpha-male leadership.
Lappartient has criticised Cookson for a lack of backbone, using it against him. In Wednesday's L'Equipe, in side by side interviews, Lappartient suggested that it was UCI Director General Martin Gibbs who controlled the UCI, rather Cookson, while suggesting he has far more authority and leadership ability.
Cookson hit back by saying that running the UCI and its 30 million Euro budget is not like being the mayor of a 'small Breton village'. Lappartient mixed a role in local politics and the presidency of the French Cycling Federation before becoming UCI vice-president, the president of the UCI's Professional Cycling Council and president of the European Cycling Union (UEC).
Cookson admitted to Cyclingnews that he was surprised that the Frenchman even decided to run against him.
"He never made any approach to me about standing or not. I was neither expecting or not expecting him to stand, if I can put it in that slightly gnomic way," Cookson said.
"David has been a UCI vice president for four years and so if there were things he was not happy with, then he could have raised them at the time. He's participated in all of the UCI Management Committee decisions and so I'm puzzled as to why he is now mounting a challenge. Maybe he wants cycling to go back to the way it used to be."
Cookson is trying to stay upbeat about his chances of a second term despite Lappartient throwing his hat in the ring and launching an aggressive media social media campaign. However, one well-informed UCI source described the UCI presidential elections as a 'very close race, with every vote now important'. Among some of the traditional European federations there is a growing feeling that Cookson has failed to live up to expectations.
The vote for UCI president will be held on September 21 during the UCI congress at the Road World Championships in Bergen, Norway. 45 delegates from five continents vote in a secret ballot, with 23 votes needed to win.
Cookson won 24-18 when a total of 43 delegates voted in Florence in 2013. He hopes to have the backing of delegates from Asia and Australasia as well as North and South America.
The European Cycling Union voted to back Cookson in 2013, with Katusha team owner and Russian oligarch Igor Makarov helping to sway his campaign via funding a number of causes with minor federations. This time it seems the European Federations are tired of Cookson's global approach to the sport. In contrast, Lappartient has offered to give the European Federations more influence.
One source told Cyclingnews that Lappartient and not Cookson will secure the 15 UEC votes and so lay down a corner stone to any successful bid. The UEC federation representatives are expected to mandate their delegates during an exceptional general assembly just as they did in 2013, when they voted 27-10 to back Cookson instead of McQuaid. In March, the UEC voted to choose its 15 delegates. None from Britain were selected, perhaps as a way for the European Federations to protect against any rogue votes in the secret elections in September.
"I'm confident I've got a lot support across Europe and that people don't want to go back to the dark old days. I'm confident that many of the UEC voters want me to continue as UCI president," Cookson told Cyclingnews, repeating his mantra of fear of the past.
"I think the UCI is now seen as an independent balanced organisation that acts in the interests of all the stake holders. I'm committed to doing the job of President impartially and with integrity. People see that the UCI is no longer in crisis mode. Calm has been brought to the UCI and we've had a year of stability. We've resolved the issues of integrity and reputation that were causing so much damage."
Cookson highlights the addition of the men's and women's Madison and BMX Freestyle to the cycling programme for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Cycling is now the third largest sport in the Olympic Games, both in terms of medals (22) and athlete quota (528). He denied it is a pay-off for the Olympic velodrome being 150km outside of the host city.
The ghosts of British Cycling's past
In his first election bid in 2013 Cookson was able to use his tenure as the president of British Cycling and the success of the sport in Britain at every level as his calling card. Four years on, things are very different after a series of damaging accusations about bullying and poor management. UK Anti-Doping is still investigating possible wrongdoing at Team Sky and there has been little clarity on the Jiffy Bag scandal that embroiled the team, manager Dave Brailsford and 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.
Cookson has tried to distance himself from the scandals that emerged in a recent report into British Cycling by pointing out the events emerged after he had moved onto to become UCI President. A hard-hitting draft version was edited after Cookson forced his opinion to be heard.
He now suggests that Brailsford's decision to leave his role as Performance Director of British Cycling in 2014, to focus fully on the management of Team Sky, changed the delicate balance of strong personalities at British Cycling that had previously delivered success. In a recent interview with the British Press Association news agency, Cookson described the management structure in charge of the highly funded Great Britain performance plan as a finely balanced stew. A three-legged stool also comes to mind as a comparison.
"There was a great balance and it's like a stew - if you miss one of the ingredients it doesn't work. Things changed when the personnel leading that programme changed," he said.
Cookson admitted to Cyclingnews that the huge success at the 2008 Beijing Olympics forced the British Cycling Board to back Brailsford and his management team in view of the London 2012 Olympics on home turf. Brailsford was able to demand a huge salary after 2008 even though he went on to split his time between British Cycling and Team Sky.
"Certainly I think the results of the 2008 Olympics were stunning and it became clear that the team behind the athletes was very successful. Given that funding was medal dependent, UK Sport encouraged British Cycling to continue to support the team we had in place," Cookson said, defending the UK Sport funding philosophy despite it recently being criticised for being far too focused on Olympic medal counts while caring less for athlete well-being.
"I wouldn't project that as a negative model. When you have a winning formula, you want to stick with it and make it even better. Of course you also need to eliminate any problems areas too," Cookson argued.
Signs of problems with athlete well-being were first picked up by former board member and CEO Peter King. His findings for a 2012 internal report highlighted complaints of bullying and intimidation. It was suggested that the management had broken down and there were doubts about Shane Sutton's behaviour as a senior coach and management figure. It was a red flag but one that wasn't seen or was overlooked. Sutton went on to be lead the Great Britain team when Brailsford left but complaints became even stronger. He quit in 2016 after direct sexism allegations from sprinter Jess Varnish sparked an investigation.
Cookson claims he only saw a summary of the Peter King report but refuses to blame then Chief Executive Ian Drake for failing to implement the action plan. He suggests that things changed when Brailsford opted to fully focus his efforts on Team Sky and not to stay in charge of the Great Britain team until 2016.
"The idea that we did nothing is complete wrong," Cookson argued. "There were lots of good things going on but one or two that needed attention. The behaviour was one of them and we agreed the action plan.
"We understood that there were five or six key elements to stability within in the team. One was that Dave would remain as performance director up to Rio 2016 and that the link to Team Sky would continue to benefit British Cycling as it did in London 2012; that Steve Peters would remain to help podium athletes and then develop a new sports psychologist who would take over after him in 2016; that a new role of programme director would be recruited and that the person would take a lot of management work off Dave, Steve and the others. Chris Boardman would also stay until Rio for Research and Development, while Shane Sutton would be moved to a different role where he wouldn't have hands on coaching with athletes but he'd be working and mentoring the coaches.
"That was all agreed at the end of 2012 and that started to be implemented at the start of 2013. I don't know what happened there after but Dave decided not to see things through until Rio 2016.
"I thought that at the time (in 2012) the structure worked very, very well. The outcome was a very successful British cycling team. When you change that balance, any balance, then different parameters and influences start to apply. Perhaps that's the situation subsequent to me leaving."
Nothing personal against ASO
Cookson that he will be in Dusseldorf for the Grand Depart of the Tour de France on Saturday. UCI presidents have been 'persona non grata' at ASO's flagship race in the past but Cookson insisted he has a good working relationship with the management from the dominant French race organiser despite disputes and power struggles about the structure of the men's WorldTour.
"I've always got on well with people from ASO," Cookson said.
"We've disagreed on a couple of things but I've also got on well with every race organiser and also the teams organisations. Marc Madiot (of FDJ) is one who said he'd like to see David as the next UCI president but that's a matter for him. It's his opinion."
Cookson is careful about making accusations that his rival David Lappartient maybe biased towards ASO if he is elected.
"I think the people who vote will have a view on that. What I've always tried to do as UCI President is to balance the needs of all the stake holders, not just one of them, however big they are. I hope that people have respected that. I think they do."
Despite his diplomacy and sense of fair play. Cookson is not afraid of only being a one-term UCI President if he loses the election to Lappartient on September 21.
"I'm not afraid of anything. At the end of the day I've done my best for the last four years. As in the case of British Cycling, I think the results speak for themselves."