Since announcing his candidacy for the UCI presidency and launching his manifesto, Brian Cookson has hit the campaign trail at the Tour de France. With nominations now closed, Cookson is the only challenger to current incumbent Pat McQuaid and he discussed his campaign in an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews.
Cyclingnews: You were on the campaign trail at the Tour de France. How did that go?
Brian Cookson: It was very much worthwhile. I met some interesting people and had some good feedback on the things I’ve been talking about in my campaign and it was very worthwhile going there. I went in order to meet as many people as I could, see many influential people, and hear what they had to say. We’ve had the closure of the nominations with myself and Pat McQuaid standing. I think there’s a very strong opinion that this is a time where change is needed and I’m confident that it’s going well.
Have you received any criticism stemming from you manifesto?
Not really. Generally from those that have taken the trouble to read it, it has been well received. The main principles are about establishing a much stronger reality of independence over anti-doping and the structure of cycling, to re-establish the credibility of UCI and then to further develop women’s cycling and cycling around the world. I’ve said this before, but what’s 100 per cent clear from the UCI’s own consultation is that change at the top is needed and I think that I represent that change.
Because of the politics of the UCI and governing bodies as a whole, how much change can one individual really make?
You’re right in that the UCI is a large and complex organisation with many facets around the world and many different disciplines. What I think a leader can do is set up a tone for the organisation and the tone that’s been set up in the past and probably going back for the last 20 to 25 years has been one of conflict, argument and trying to force a certain direction, all while not appearing to listen to peoples’ points of views.
Those that have studied British Cycling will know that’s not my style and part of the reason for our success at British Cycling is that we’ve listened to other people and taken on board good ideas. We’ve been able to learn from our mistakes.
You mentioned the last 25 years and the past but you’re also part of that history. How do you distance yourself from that and have you had conflict within the UCI because of having your strategy in comparison to how the governing body has been run?
Well, yes. I’ve been on the UCI Management Committee for four years now and as I’ve said before when you join an organisation like that you are bound by collective responsibility for the decisions so you try and input and you try and learn as the ‘new boy’. You try and find common ground on the board and then you try and effect change. Sometimes you win those debates, sometimes you don’t, but ultimately I became more and more frustrated that what I wanted to see happening wasn’t [moving forward. ed] and we as a Management Committee were not being properly engaged in the decision making processes. Too much was coming from the President downwards and we were not making the right collegiate-based decisions. We were all left to clean up after the events. The last few months with USADA and the Armstrong revelations are absolutely clear examples of that.
You mentioned the tone within the UCI and one word that you used in a press release referring to McQuaid was ‘bullying’. Is he bullying you?
I’m not easily bullied. That was an attempt, I think, to try and use the force of a position against a contender and it was misplaced because all it did was bring sympathy to my side. People were outraged by the silly allegations he made and now we see that as he tries to demean my manifesto. For example he said my proposal for completely independent anti-doping were completely impossible, well within 24 hours WADA said he was wrong. So which of us knows their stuff? I’ll let everyone else decide that one.
With regards to McQuaid, what do you think has been his biggest mistake as President?
I’ve advised Pat many times that he should have distanced himself more from Verbruggen and I think again that has come back to cause him problems. Hein did many good things for the UCI and cycling but clearly the relationship he had with some of the people close to Armstrong and around him were damaging for the UCI. It’s not just me saying that, you only have to look at the impression that people have from the media, the internet and elsewhere. The idea that the UCI accepted money for dope testing equipment from a man that was being investigated for doping is bizarre. That was a clear error in judgement and I think that even Hein Verbruggen himself has admitted that.
If you were President would you ever take a donation for anti-doping from a rider?
Of course not and it’s an absolutely ridiculous thing to have taken place. Look, I’ve seen the documentation and they did buy that testing equipment, and so on, but it’s not about whether they did or didn’t. The reality is about what this looks like and like I said you don’t take money for crime-fighting from criminals. I’m not making a direct analogy there but it’s quite clearly a conflict of interest to have accepted money for something from someone that is being investigated for that very same activity.
Have you had any interaction with Lance Armstrong? I saw that you were ‘Tweeting’ at each other.
That’s the only interaction. I’ve never met him or talked to him on the phone. However, if I’m elected President and Lance Armstrong feels like he has things to say that could help the future of cycling and the fight against doping then I’d be happy to meet with him and talk to him. Lance has told some of the truth and I think it’s important that he tells all of the truth as soon as he possiblly can.
If you win this election do you think it will be because you’re simply not Pat McQuaid?
Clearly the image of Pat amongst cycling fans and other parties around the world is very poor. I hope that I’m more than just ‘not Pat McQuaid’. I know that there’s someone who has already collected that identity for himself on the internet to amusing effect, arguably, and good luck to him, but I hope I’m more than just that and I’d urge people to look at my manifesto which has a lot of detail in it.
Talking about manifestos and documents, what was in Mike Plant’s dossier?
I want to be clear on this. We’ve not seen an actual dossier. What we’ve been told about is a dossier that has been prepared, and in it are a number of allegations about the conduct of the president. I understand that the Ethics Commission of the UCI are now going to have a look at these allegations and that’s all I can say at this moment in time. My campaign isn’t about these allegations. My campaign is about the two approaches on leading the UCI, my manifesto versus what Pat has done in his eight years.
What’s in the dossier?
I’ve heard some of the allegations but that’s going to be presented to the Ethics Commission, from what I understand, in the near future.
As someone that stands up for transparency can you share what the allegations are?
I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to say anymore whilst investigations are ongoing. It’s not that I’m not in favour of transparency, it’s just that due process must be followed in a case like this. What I will commit to, is that if I’m elected President and we do conduct an independent inquiry into these allegation then I will publish that report as soon as I can. Hopefully within six months. That will be open and transparent and that will be published.
What’s the potential that this dossier is nothing but more than thin air and that it’s no more than a tool just to harm Pat McQuaid’s presidential bid?
I believe that there are some allegations in it which are being investigated and I can’t say more than that. I don’t think I’m the right person to be asking to be honest because all I know is what I’ve told you and it’s not appropriate for me to say anymore because I don’t want to make this a prime element in my campaign.
One final question on this element, knowing what you do know about the alleged allegations in the dossier: if you were the candidate who was facing them would you stand for election?
I think that’s a question you should ask Pat.
Have you had any interaction with WADA, and do they support your bid?
I don’t think WADA want to get involved in the politics of another international body. I’ve talked to a number of people within the anti-doping world, including Andy Parkinson at UKAD and I’ve briefly spoken with Travis Tygart and I know a number of people within WADA. I’m confident that if I’m elected I’ll be able to have a good working relationship with them and that’s a prime element of the manifesto. One of the first things I want to do is stop the stupid feuding that we’ve had with the very bodies that should be helping us. The UCI seems to have spent all this time arguing and debating issues with them, and feuding with them, and we’ve got to move away from that.
Is it true that you don’t know who the 42 voters will be for the election?
We know some of them. We know the European ones but some of the others still need to decide on their voting delegates. One of the things that I’ll be doing between now and the Congress is seeing as many federations as possible. I’ve been to Africa already and I’ve met with the President of the African confederation. I had a very good reaction and response and I’m confident that votes will start swinging my way there and hopefully the rest of the world.
If the election took place tomorrow, where do you think the votes would lie?
Good question. I think that the current president still has some strength and support in Asia, maybe in South America but I think it’s quite evenly balanced at the moment but I think that I’ve got growing support. Culturally, once people realise that there’s a movement for change more people will come to my side and I’m confident that I’ll have a majority by the time of the Congress.
Do you therefore have the backing of the majority within Europe?
I’m fairly confident of that but I won’t take anything for granted.
McQuaid recently gave a comment about potentially stripping the late Marco Pantani of his 1998 Tour win if the Italian’s name was listed among the positives from that year’s race. Where do you stand on that?
It’s a nightmare really. I don’t want to give a knee jerk response but where is it all going to stop? Let’s wait and see what all the revelations are from that year’s Tour before making any comments. Everyone is clear that EPO use in particular was widespread in that era and I wouldn’t want to single out any one individual, whether it’s Marco Pantani or anyone else at this stage.
How do you assess Armstrong’s legacy in terms of the history of the sport? Did you agree with the decision to strip him of his Tour titles and what do think when you look down the list of Tour winners from the 80s, from the 90s, from the 2000s and see a big gap?
It’s incredibly depressing, isn’t it? Yes I think it was the right decision but again it’s a question over where do you stop. I think it was the right decision not to award [Armstrong’s Tours] to someone else, frankly. I think it’s very difficult to start reallocating victories from that era. The guys I feel sorry for are the ones who chose not to go down the road of any form of doping and then probably lost their careers altogether. They had their careers stolen. Equally I can see that there was pressure on riders at the time, as we read with Udo Bolts. I can understand that but equally they were adults. What I think is important is that we investigate the allegations of cover ups, let’s do an independent review. My view is that is should be similar to the Mitchell review that was carried in out baseball and was very well, and let’s try and draw a line under it that way. Then we can have a fresh start in the way we handle these things and who is involved in the sport, not just the riders.
With the Mitchell report, that was a one-man show. WADA at the time didn’t want to back the UCI Independent Commission because they thought that was too narrow. That was a three-person panel. Is there a worry that WADA will reject a possible Mitchell-style report?
I think there is a real worry and I’m the first to admit that I need to firm up what I’m going to propose, but I don’t think it should be the proposal of any one man. What’s important is that we get this on the table, discuss it with WADA and USADA and all the other national federations that are relevant.
With a form of truth and reconciliation, are you just opening up Pandora’s box?
For me the critical period is between the Festina Affair of 1998 and say the introduction of the biological passport. That has changed the game considerably but I still think we’re still seeing too many positives and too many people trying to fly under the radar. In terms of how far back you’re going, I think 1998 is a good enough place to stop. Unless you don’t, then you go back through the Merckx era, Coppi, right back to the start of competitive cycling. But my view is once EPO and blood transfusions were widely used, that was a whole new level of doping activity. That wasn’t just a few guys taking a few pills or a few guys being injected, that was organised supply, quasi-medical procedures with funding, layer upon layer of corruption and organised cheating.
We had systematic doping in the early 90s, for sure. There were teams in Italy and regimes and teams in Spain and other countries...
The attitude of the UCI at the time was that there was just a few people cheating and that it’s just a few individuals. It’s clear that it wasn’t the case so the reality is that the UCI didn’t deal with the problem adequately at the time. I know people around at the time will protest about that but the proof in the pudding is there and clear to see. There was an opportunity with the Festina Affair to draw a line under it and stop that level of organised cheating. Some teams and riders tried to do that, some national federations too. Some teams decided to go the other way and raise the game of cheating to another level and the end result was what we saw between Festina and the introduction of the passport.
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Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at Cyclingnews.com between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.