As cycling braces itself for the busiest three weeks of the year, Cyclingnews sat down with UCI President Brian Cookson in Utrecht on the eve of the Grand Départ of the Tour de France to discuss some of the biggest challenges faced by the sport's governing body in recent months.
First on the agenda was the power struggle currently taking place between the sport's stakeholders after Cyclingnews revealed last week that the UCI, teams, and the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) - which runs the Tour de France - are at loggerheads over reforms to the structure of cycling.
The UCI also came under fire in June when it dropped its appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) over the Biological Passport case of Roman Kreuziger, whose original ban had been overturned by the Czech cycling federation. No reason has been given for the last-minute decision and fresh scrutiny has been piled on the role of the Passport as the leading tool in the fight against doping.
Finally, a major test of Cookson's stewardship has been the Astana case, in which five members of the Kazakh team's WorldTour team and Continental feeder set-up returned positive doping controls in the space of a year.
Cyclingnews: Can you start by updating us on where the UCI are with their latest reforms?
Brian Cookson: We’re making progress. The proposals that we’ve got are pretty much accepted by most of the stakeholders. It’s fair to say that there are some stakeholders who want further discussion and negotiation but I want to emphasise that we at the UCI are not in any way delaying this. We want to move forward as quickly as we can and want to give certainty to race organisers and teams, sponsors, the media and fans. So we are pushing as much as we can but we don’t want to have a war and we know the damage that it could create from the previous war and I think that we can find a solution and we’ll keep talking until we do.
CN: Were you surprised, then, by the leaked letter a few weeks ago in which ASO came out against the reforms?
BC: I’m disappointed that we’re not able to reach a full agreement. There are still some remaining issues which are not a surprise but I want to emphasise that there is very wide agreement. The UCI are not doing anything that threatens any organiser and team. We’re not proposing to shorten the Giro [d’Italia] or Vuelta [a España], and we want to expand and develop the WorldTour calendar.
CN: With ASO’s position in terms of what they hold, such as the Tour de France, it’s impossible to see any reform going ahead without their consent.
BC: They’re in a very powerful position there’s no two ways about that. Their job is to organise their races and nobody wants to damage that but what we do need to do is find ways of making everyone’s financial position stronger and more sustainable. I don’t think that necessarily needs to be seen as weakening those that have a strong position at the moment. Clearly there are elements that I find a challenge but I think that we can find a way forward for the good of the sport. We want to see the sport strong and want to see the teams and riders stronger. I don’t want to damage any of the wonderful existing events but I do think that we can find ways of expanding our sport worldwide. I think that doesn’t mean damaging the existing strengths.
CN: But what are you offering that ASO don’t already have?
BC: What we’re trying to do is have a stronger global narrative to the sport. We want to enhance the development and the pathways so that the teams can offer more sustainable returns to their sponsors and investors. Those things are hard to quantify. ASO are in a great position and they have a great series of events and many of those events that they’re developing would love to be part of the WorldTour as well but they should have an interest in making the WorldTour reforms work as well as anyone else.
CN: The Tour is the Tour though, and the best riders will always go there because teams need to please their sponsors, so invariably ASO are and will be in that position. On top of that, regardless of whether it’s dressed up as narrative, it comes down to revenue sharing, doesn’t it? They don’t want to carve up what they have.
BC: Nobody is threatening the existing revenues of the current stakeholders, whether it’s the teams or anyone else. What we’re trying to do with the reform is find new revenue streams and new possibilities of helping everyone in the sport get themselves on a stronger financial basis. All of the commentaries, blogs and discussion papers that I’ve seen tabled on the internet in recent months identify [...] as the key problem, the financial base of the sport is very weak and one element in that, ASO, is very strong and comfortable.
That’s good for them and they’ve done a great job and no one is criticising them or saying that the Tour isn’t the biggest and best bike race in the world. They’ve done fantastically well but cycling exists outside of the Tour de France and we’re trying to work with all the stakeholders in way that builds a consensus that makes the sport stronger around ASO. I don’t think ASO should see that as damaging or challenging. The fact that all of the stakeholders are pretty much agreed to the reforms that have most recently been proposed is a good thing. We can work on the details and I’m sure that we can find a solution.
CN: When it comes to the consensus that you mentioned, is there consensus within the UCI’s Management Committee? Because on the outside it looks confusing to say the least because you have members of the committee, your own vice-president [David Lappartient], wearing a French Federation hat, then an ASO hat. Where does that fit into things when it comes to chairing the reforms and then later saying we need to look at the reforms again?
BC: First of all the Management Committee is concerned not to have a repeat of the damages and wars we’ve had in the past. We want to achieve solutions by consensus and that means we need to keep talking. Individuals’ positions within that, I don’t want to comment on.
CN: Avoiding a war with ASO, would you say that an individual is trying to orchestrate one?
BC: I’m not going to answer that.
CN: On what basis?
BC: Well I’m not going to go into individual personalities or individuals’ positions. This is about trying to achieve something that’s good for the sport as a whole. That’s what I was elected to do. To stop all the warring and the battles that were raging for many years and to try and bring integrity to the sport in a transparent way. In doing that, to try and make sure that the fans of the sport had a sport that they could really accept was transparent and not full of doping and other forms of cheating and restore the reputation of the sport. That’s still a challenge but we’re working on it and I’ve got a great Management Committee that are supportive of me. There are different views from time to time on different elements but we don’t want a repeat of the things that damaged out sport.
CN: But, while of that is good - and few would argue with the ethos of what you’re trying to achieve - it must still be frustrating that the reforms reach such a point but your vice-president, who was chairing those reforms, is the person who puts a block on them?
BC: You’re characterising it in that way. I think it’s more complex than that but all of us at the UCI are doing our best for our sport. We have differences of opinion that we will talk through. I understand why you’re asking me the question but this isn’t about personalities; it’s about trying to do the best for the sport.
CN: If I were to ask you if Lappartient wants to run for the UCI Presidency you’d tell me that you couldn’t comment on his behalf, so I’ll ask it differently. Do you envisage him challenging you for the role?
BC: That really is a question you’d have to ask him.
CN: You couldn’t envisage that scenario playing out?
BC: Everyone who works so hard to develop our sport has ambition, I’m sure. Some have ambition to be president of the UCI, others have ambition to lead a national federation. That’s natural and understandable but my view is that it’s not a good idea to put personal ambition above the good of the sport. I’m not pointing that at one individual, I’m just making a general point.
CN: To another issue – the Biological Passport, and the Roman Kreuziger case. I remember we spoke at the Commonwealth Games in August of last year and you told me that there were serious anomalies on his passport. He was provisionally suspended but the case was dropped just before going to CAS and no one is any wiser as to why that happened, what the serious anomalies where, if they still exist or if there are still concerns.
BC: He was pulled by his team from the Tour de France last year and subsequently I was advised by the Cycling Anti Doping Foundation that there were serious anomalies in his Passport, to the point where he should be provisionally suspended. I was acting on technical advice given to me and that case proceeded with due diligence. Additional information was provided by both sides as I understand it and the Passport experts, who are also WADA experts, concluded that the new information provided had given them sufficient cause for doubt and the decision was taken, along with WADA, not to pursue the case further. An agreement was reached with the rider about the terms and conditions on how that would happen, and one of the conditions was that we wouldn’t comment any further.
CN: That may not fill fans with confidence in the Passport given that at one stage there were serious anomalies and now there aren’t.
BC: I don’t think that we can draw conclusions from the Passport per se. I think due process was entered into and the athlete was given the opportunity to produce evidence, which he did, and in those circumstances, after a lot of deliberation, the case was dropped. You can say that’s due process and natural justice. That’s the outcome and I can’t say any more.
CN: Lets not mince words. You thought he was a doper, on the evidence you had. Are you now saying that Roman Kreuziger is not a doper?
BC: I’m saying that the expert advice a year ago was that there were serious anomalies in his Passport and that since that time, the additional information was provided and analysed and considered to cast doubt on the judgment of the experts.
CN: So those anomalies are no longer anomalies?
BC: I don’t want to comment further.
CN: Personally, though, with the information you have but can’t share, how are you going to feel if Roman Kreuziger wins a stage of this year’s Tour de France?
BC: I can’t comment any further.
CN: What damage has been done to his career, then, because he has been tarnished and he’s been pulled from races and was suspended by the UCI?
BC: I can’t really answer that question. Due process was carried through and all in good faith. He was able to provide an explanation to the experts at that time so an agreement was made to drop the case.
CN: Are you now expecting a legal case from Oleg Tinkov?
BC: I think that’s a matter for Mr Tinkov. I don’t believe that I or the UCI has acted inappropriately in this matter but I’m not about to have a public row if he or anyone is threatening legal action.
CN: But with the case, why not even bring it to CAS so that he could, or not, be cleared publicly?
BC: As President I act on legal advice brought to me and have to operate within the framework of the WADA code and WADA’s legal advice.
CN: So instead of risking a lot of egg on the UCI’s face if you lost your appeal to CAS, is it fair to say you were looking to minimise the damage that could have been inflicted on the Passport?
BC: I wouldn’t characterise it that way. I think Mr Kreuziger continues to believe that the Passport is a strong anti-doping tool. If you look at how the Passport works, there is expert opinion that’s needed and if that opinion changes or has any doubts then it could cause a potential problem, so it’s important that if things do move to action we have a strong case.
CN: Of course hypotheticals are dangerous but you could have had a scenario whereby a sponsor decides to pull the plug because of the bad image cast on them. That could have cost an entire team all their livelihoods while in the end the rider wasn’t even a doper.
BC: The stakes are high now in anti-doping with the new UCI regulations and the WADA code, with fines and, in some cases, what could be the end of teams. But we, WADA, and everyone else has to be 100 per cent certain when we’re pursuing a case to its ultimate. The stakes are high and we have to make sure that if we’re protecting clean riders we’re doing it in the right way and don’t damage the integrity of the process.
CN: But that integrity has been undermined. If we’re to believe that Kreuziger is clean, you have undermined his position and his team over the last twelve months.
BC: People have to draw their own conclusions from that.
CN: It’s hard to draw conclusions when there is a lack of transparency over why the case is no longer on the table.
BC: It’s not really a lack of transparency. What we have is a situation where we can’t reveal the scientific and medical issues around this without opening doors to other people who want to find different ways of cheating. I’m trying to protect clean athletes and ensure that we catch people who are cheating, but it’s challenging.
CN: Moving aside to a team that Roman Kreuziger used to ride for, Astana, are they still in that last chance saloon?
BC: They’re constantly being assessed and the Licence Commission said what they said – that they would continue to look at the team for the rest of the year. I’m not going to say any more than I’ve already said. I think that from what we can see the team is making great efforts to comply with the recommendations of the Licence Commisison and comply with the UCI regulations. If they don’t, they’ll face the consequences and in this case the consequences would be quick, given what’s happened so far.
CN: Is it not difficult or frustrating–
BC: Many parts of my job are frustrating.
CN: But you did push for the withdrawal of the licence?
BC: I’m very happy with the Licence Commission’s decision because Astana are taking their responsibilities more seriously and are making great efforts to run a clean team and are complying fully with the recommendations of the Licence Commission. We’ve changed the UCI regulations over the winter and we have greater sanctions for offences and for teams, and the possibility of banning teams that we didn’t have last year. The sanctions go much, much further than they did last year.
CN: Do you wish that those measures were in place 12 months ago?
BC: Clearly we changed the regulations with the consent of others in the sport because we want to restore the reputation of cycling but we can’t wind the clock back. We have to live with the world how it is and how things were applied at the time. The process has been a good one. No one wants a team destroyed or innocent people put out of work. All teams have a responsibility to do things the right way.