Opinion: Why I would vote for Brian Cookson

(Audio clip: Hein Verbruggen leaves angry voicemail for Jonathan Vaughters)

I don’t pretend to understand the art of politics. And I’ve proven very poor at politics, that is certain. My experience in that world, as AIGCP President, made me never want to rejoin the world of politics in cycling and almost made me want to leave the sport entirely. Even recently, many of my friends and advisors have been telling me I should not get involved in the fray of the UCI election, as it usually (as you’ll see below) leads to thinly veiled threats to me or my team.

However, when I expressed my fears to one particular friend, one who has spent his life going against the grain fighting doping, he said, “But, how will you feel if you don’t express your views? The election will have been altered because of your fear of retribution. Is that what you want?”

He was right. To be a truly democratic process, we all must express our viewpoints and make them heard, so that the delegates who are in Florence to represent cycling’s interests understand what the sport needs to flourish. So, my intention in writing this is simply to try and help the 42 delegates and the public at large understand what is at stake in the UCI presidential election on Friday. My hope is they will read this with an open mind and that it will cause thought and incite debate, just as true democratic process should.

The two questions that surround this race are very simple: 1. Is Pat McQuaid a fit and worthy president? 2. Is Brian Cookson the better candidate?

Answering these truthfully and without emotion is something each and every delegate must attempt to do in order to come to the best decision for their vote. While I am not a delegate, and I do not have a vote, I decided to go through this process myself so that I could logically explain my decision making.

Agree or not, here are my true thoughts and experiences, expressed the best that I am able:

To answer number 1, we must look at the eight years Pat McQuaid has been president of the UCI and how the organization has functioned underneath him. Most of the ups and downs of his time as president have been chronicled in the past year, so instead I’m going to focus on my experiences, good and bad, with Pat.

I came into the realm of managing a top level cycling team in 2008, as Slipstream Sports pushed its way into the top area of the sport. I was very aware of what cycling had been like during my time as a rider, yet I still had an unfounded optimism and idealism that things could change. I was the youngest manager in cycling by over a decade and most certainly the most naïve one as well.

During this time, Pat was very supportive of our team, our mission statement, and the people we had chosen to employ. We were the vanguard of the “new cycling” that Pat seemed to embrace. Doug Ellis and I visited Pat in Aigle and were treated to a very warm reception, a wonderful dinner, and a very engaging person. We were both 100% supportive of Pat, his outlook, mission and methods. He seemed to be willing to take very costly steps to clean up the sport. He was confronting the doping issue head on. I had become close friends with Anne Gripper, the head of UCI anti-doping. She also seemed to support Pat, which to me meant a lot, as Anne’s ethics and credibility were beyond reproach.

However, even this early in my management career, I found certain actions very odd. Pat’s fight with ASO, and particularly Patrice Clerc and Gilbert Ysern, seemed very strange, as there could not be two people more focused on eliminating doping from the sport. Yet, the UCI was fiercely opposed to any action Gilbert and Patrice took. It seemed more of a pride fight than anything productive.

I remember how saddened I was when I found out Patrice and Gilbert had been fired due to supposed political manoeuvres from Hein Verbruggen. They had tried to separate the Tour de France from the UCI over legitimate concerns, and they paid the price with their jobs.

Even more upsetting was that Pat, who was pushing to be strong on the anti-doping front, would, at every turn, violently defend Verbruggen’s record, even while members of his own staff privately admitted that Hein had not been so black and white when it came to doping. I had not met Verbruggen at this point, but had heard many stories, especially from our old Swiss chef, who used to be Lance Armstrong’s chef, and the stories seemed very simple: That under Hein, the rules are for everyone… except for a few guys who “help” the sport.

In 2009, my rather distant and idealistic perspective would begin to change. I was elected president of the AIGCP, an organization that was, in effect, defunct due to losing, on both sides, during the ASO/UCI conflict. However, it seemed many of the teams wanted to attempt and re-establish some sort of working group to represent them. I was fresh and idealistic, and had been on neither ASO’s or UCI’s side during the great ProTour fight. I was a rarity in cycling: politically uncompromised.

I took this new role on with enthusiasm and a real desire to move things forward in a positive way. I remember submitting a very detailed proposal as to how cycling could change and regain its credibility, with some very fundamental changes. I sent this proposal forward, thinking it would be received by people looking to truly move the sport forward (appendix 0). Instead, it seemed I sent this work into a black void where I was never allowed to present it, and I very much doubted anyone had actually read it. In my interactions with Pat, it was very clear he was dismissive of what I had proposed.

However, in June that year in a hotel in the Northern Rhone valley, I was invited to meet Hein Verbruggen. I was not quite sure what the invitation was about, but as we sat down to dinner, Verbruggen motioned and made sure I sat right next to him. Hein, flattered me immediately, telling me he had read my proposals and found them intelligent and exactly what cycling needed. He said I was compromising too much and giving too much away to the race organizers, but that my concepts were spot on. I was very seduced. In this party, which was attended by many on the UCI management committee and other cycling dignitaries, Verbruggen had publicly anointed me a young protégé to take the sport forward. I still remember thinking on my drive home that night “Wow, he’s not such a bad guy! Nothing like all the rumors. He loves the sport too.”

During this time, I had successfully gotten the AIGCP readmitted into being recognized officially by the UCI, and as a result I would now sit on the CCP or Conseil du Cyclisme Professional. My first official board meeting would be at the World Championships in Mendrisio. I went in, full of ideas and vigor. I was now one of the few people who could engage upper management of ASO and Hein Verbruggen in the same day and maybe even get them to sit down at the same table. I read my materials and prepared for two days of debate and democratic process. However, what I came away with was an immense sense of disappointment and disillusion.

Nothing was debated at all during the CCP. It was simply presented to a room full of people who nodded their heads in agreement. The race organizers and riders themselves were underrepresented and their representation said nothing to contradict a single word that came from the various UCI speakers. The most important event of the day was lunch. The 5-star accommodations and the cocktail hour were clearly the most important items on the docket for most.

The meeting was dictated and mandated by Pat and Pat only, even though he was not the chair of the board. There was a feeling of paternalism that came from Pat that would be the theme of all of my interactions with him. He was the papa and the athletes, the teams, and any other interest in cycling were his belligerent children who needed punishment for being naughty. He did not view the other stakeholders in the room as equals. He saw them as obstacles and political pawns.

I didn’t realize how accurate my impressions were until the morning after the CCP board meeting. There, printed in l’Équipe and many other publications, it was announced that the UCI had agreed to ban radios from use in professional cycling. Right underneath it was a quote from Patrick Lefevere saying, “Vaughters is nothing but a doormat for the UCI, he did not try and defend the rights of the teams.” He was correct, I didn’t, because the issue was never even presented to the board that was supposed to govern professional cycling…

Any façade of democratic process was gone. We had been through some eight hours of meetings and this rule had never even come up as a possibility. Why? Because Pat knew the teams would fight it. It would be contentious and a close vote. But if it was never voted on, problem solved. We were treated as stupid little children that didn’t know what was best for us, so no point in causing a fuss.

The lack of proper governance, process and basic human respect was appalling. This was a “good ol’ boys” club and nothing more. I told Pat the next day I would fight him to the best of my ability of this issue, because I needed to represent the teams’ mandate. He laughed and wished me luck. The decision was already made, he said. I never felt very strongly about the radio issue, one way or the other. It seemed a stupid problem to be concerned with when cycling has major issues to deal with. However, when I saw how this rule was dealt with, I realized the root cause of the rest of cycling’s problems: The sport was being ruled without concern or care for the constituents that made up the sport itself. Radios were nothing more than a political offertory to consolidate peace between ASO and UCI. The sport had been brushed aside for backslapping and bonhomie. I left Mendrisio sad and beaten.

2010 came and went with more of the same. I went to the CCP meetings, and would attempt to insert my view and the view of the teams any time I could. It was clear the rest of the board was a bit upset and perhaps exhausted by my constant questioning of each measure. They were not used to someone asking for the minutes to be reviewed. They were not used to contentious debate over the rules of cycling. I felt as if I was a nasty and unproductive thorn at each and every one of these meetings, but I could not, in good conscience, let Mendrisio happen again. I’d been elected to represent the teams’ interests, so I was trying to do that, no matter how annoying it was perceived to be. The sneering looks I got were priceless…

2010 was also the year that Floyd Landis chose to come forward and lift the lid off the US Postal team doping, which was an interesting time. I watched as one person after another in cycling chose to disparage Floyd. Pat was no exception, as he name-called with the best of them, which I found disappointing from the leader of the sport. I imagine that he knew what Floyd was saying was true, but put appearance before truth. It was sad. What was more interesting during those weeks, was that we floated a policy and press release on May 27, 2010, that stated that any and all of our employees would be compelled by their employer to be totally honest and forthright if asked or questioned by any official anti-doping entity. We immediately got a call from USADA after this document’s release. We never heard from the UCI. They had no interest.

Breakaway league

In 2011, things began to heat up considerably in the already broken relationship between the teams and the UCI. As the AIGCP began to strengthen its resolve and unify more, many members realized that continuing with a governing body that did not allow proper representation from its members to thrive was not in the best interest of the teams. The radio debate became more and more heated as the rule was now starting to be enforced. We walked out of a few CCP meetings, even had a mass walk out in a UCI informational session regarding license renewal. Teams and athletes were being treated as secondary pawns, even though they are the major players in this sport. The situation was untenable and we were making our voice heard, in unison, for the first time ever.

There was much talk about a “breakaway league”. However, the talk would have never gotten so far had Pat and Hein simply listened to what the teams were upset about – a confusing and unstable licensing system, no ownership of the sport, arbitrary rules being put in place without a democratic process. These all continued to build until some of us felt the only way out was to build our own league. Of course, such entrepreneurial thoughts made Pat boil over, as his children weren’t doing as he wished. In response to my fighting for the teams’ rights, I received this letter, along with Johan Bruyneel (who, despite our broad differences, and to his credit, was one of the few managers in cycling willing to publicly stand up to the UCI) (appendix 1).

In effect, this letter was stating, unless you quit trying to make your own business and start supporting my way of doing things, you will have to pay a massive fine, which is undisclosed, but would have been upwards of $500,000 if you understand the description of “fully funding the biological passport”. Unadulterated coercion, with Pat’s signature and UCI letterhead attached.

This would hardly be the end of the threats and nastiness I received that year. During the annual AIGCP reunion, the teams had decided that since they had not been included in the decision making process regarding radios that we would not attend the UCI’s race, the Tour of Beijing. We felt we had every right to not participate, as, after all, the investment dollars to start up the Tour of Beijing came from funding the teams themselves had given the UCI in 2004. No one ever gave the UCI permission to use this funding to start the Tour of Beijing, but, using unilateral decision making, Pat once again did as his predecessor, Hein, wished and gave away our money to be used to create an event that the teams had no desire to participate in.

So, with this as the background, we decided, in a unanimous vote, that we would not be racing in Beijing until we were given an appropriate voice in the governance of the sport. The radio issue was where we chose to make our stand. Within hours of informing Alain Rumpf of this mandate, I received a voicemail from Verbruggen which would prove emblematic of the way UCI ruled: through intimidation and bullying: (appendix 2). I was clearly no longer the protégé Hein wanted, certainly not at the cost of his clear interest in the Tour of Beijing. More disturbingly, this message made it clear – Pat McQuaid did not run the UCI, Hein wore the pants.

As Beijing approached, teams were understandably scared about losing licenses and scared at the threatening letters that had been sent to their sponsors mentioning that they could be hurt in a “commercial nature” by not participating in Beijing (appendix 3). So, in late 2011, I invited Pat to ride in my car at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. I figured over the course of six hours in the mountains that we could hash out our differences.

We went through many topics that day, but one always stuck out. I told Pat that the USPS case would come out in one form or another and that he should consider ways to deal with it. He bluntly stopped me saying that his sources said that Grand Jury testimony was sacrosanct and that it would never come out. He said that he would never believe athletes would voluntarily testify to USADA and that as soon as the US Government ended their investigation, the whole thing would be over. I told him he was wrong and that he should prepare. He didn’t believe me nor did he really want to hear any more about it.

In Salzburg, in June 2012, during what would be my penultimate CCP meeting, I had breakfast with Pat, once again telling him that the USPS investigation would be one he would have to deal with and that it would be best if he started a line of communication with USADA. I got a knowing stare and then he simply said: “I hope you haven’t gone and done something stupid?”

All through 2012, under Pat’s leadership, the UCI fought USADA for jurisdiction over the USPS case, something that is entirely unprecedented in the UCI’s history. Did they fight for jurisdiction in the Floyd Landis case? Tyler Hamilton? Anyone? No. However, in this case they wanted to be in charge of all of the evidence and not USADA. I cannot say what would have happened had they been given the evidence and testimony and had it been taken away from USADA. I can only say I am glad the witnesses themselves pushed for the publication of the affidavits, which had never been done before, and I am very glad USADA retained jurisdiction.

Finally: Today, Tour of Beijing still operates at a $700,000 annual loss, which is unwillingly funded, in part, by the teams’ license fees. Could this money not be used more productively to help small race promoters? And today, no effort whatsoever has been put forward by the UCI to examine the root cause of why it did not act, and in fact dismissed those who did speak up, regards USPS, when so much evidence was readily available for years? In my last real communication with Pat, I advised him to let WADA take control of a truth and reconciliation effort and stop fighting with them. I have to say, he seemed to hear me, for the first time ever, but I can’t say if it was real, or out of desperation or the need for a political ally?

Is Pat a horrible person? No, I don’t think so. Is he corrupt? I don’t know. What I can conclude from my five years of interacting with him is that he is not an effective leader: He chooses his own opinion over expertise. He chooses special interests over the best way forward. He makes public remarks without thought of the impact or meaning. He does not delegate effectively and leaves his staff little room to grow and lead. While he is charismatic, he is not an effective communicator. He consistently takes the advice of Hein Verbruggen and UCI attorney Phillipe Verbiest over his own good conscience. These are all unacceptable for the president of the UCI.

To me, this is not about Pat McQuaid being the big bad wolf, as many would have you believe. Pat isn’t such a bad guy, and I think his heart can be in the right place. However, he has proven he is not a leader willing to do what is best for our sport.

Brian Cookson, my perspective and thoughts:

Unlike with my relationship with Pat, my dealings with Brian started off very poorly. When Brian and I first met, Brian had just written a blog about how a bunch of rabble rousers in the teams were making the UCI look bad, and all over this silly issue of radios. I was angry about his view and how seemingly misinformed he was. I found some contact information for him and wrote him a rather terse note asking to meet up. He proposed the Tour of Flanders, and I obliged.

We never met that day due to logistical issues, but we had a long talk on the phone. It started off rather poorly, with me stating that he did not understand how the teams were being treated and that the radio issue was simply a symptom. He shot back, defending the reasoning Pat had put forward to the management committee for this rule change and then generally started to defend Pat, saying he was looking after the safety of the athletes. At this point in the argument, Brian made his leadership abilities clear to me: he ended his defensive posture and said “OK then, I’ve made my points, I’d now like to hear yours.”

While we still did not agree by the end of the conversation, he clearly had absorbed what I told him, and it had made an impact on his thinking on the topic. It was clear to me that he would listen to those who worked in the field and would adjust according to their expertise. Did he change his mind 180 degrees? No. But he didn’t dismiss my thoughts and he didn’t dismiss me.

My dealings with Brian have been fewer and certainly less contentious than with Pat, but I’ve watched him very closely. At first, I wasn’t quite sure he had what it took to lead such a rough and tumble world. However, from all I’ve observed, I can say this: while he’s not the charismatic and loud leader we are often used to seeing and he’s clearly not a natural politician, he is someone who does not force his opinions, and what he does do is deliberately and methodically work towards the best solution for the people he represents, not just himself.

Brian does his work, organizes and motivates the people he thinks will be best to accomplish the task, and then lets them get on with it. He objectively uses the best resources he has to solve a problem in the best way possible, whether he personally benefits from the solution or not. He is neither self-involved nor terribly interested in the glad handing and small talk of politics. However, through subtle encouragement, he manages people. He leads the collective of talented people under him to find the best way forward.

Need some evidence? The record is clear, UK cycling has gone from a backwater, tertiary cycling country to the most successful nation on earth during Brian’s presidency. The growth UK cycling has sustained in the last decade is extraordinary and the envy of many. Such growth is not easy to manage, even under the best circumstances, and it is telling the way he has managed it. While some would say this isn’t Brian’s sole doing, the fact is that he’d be the first to tell you just that and then give credit to those who helped him along the way. Which is what great leaders do: give credit to those due credit.

Brian is in the mould of a modern business leader who understands that the thousands of blossoming ideas from his constituents and employees will lead to a greater solution than the one idea he himself came up with himself. He reminds me a bit of IDEO CEO Tim Brown a bit. Reticent and a bit shy, but a deadly effective leader when looking for solutions. Right now, that is exactly what cycling needs. Cycling needs objectivity, organization, and focus, and that’s what Brian provides.

Most importantly, to me, I respect Brian for going against the grain during the tense times of the USADA case. I was ‘persona non-grata’ at my final CCP meeting, as I was seen as someone who had spit in the soup by many in UCI management. However, Brian made the time to discuss what I felt could be solutions to the issues at hand. He met with me, in the open, when doing so was seen as very politically risky. I remember calling Travis Tygart during my final CCP reunion and saying to Travis that Brian had been very kind to me and listened to some of the ideas of amnesty and “truth and reconciliation”. Travis chuckled and said “Brian is the one and only guy from the UCI management committee that called USADA and asked what he could do to help. That took a lot of courage on his part.”

That quiet, understated courage that led him to follow his conscience and call USADA, as opposed to follow his peers’ will, is what cycling needs right now. I may not have always followed my conscience the best I could have, but I can chose to follow a leader that has shown he is willing to do that, even when it’s not popular.

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