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UCI President keen to create Gravel World Championship

UCI President David Lappartient
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

UCI President David Lappartient has said the global governing body for cycle racing is making plans for a gravel racing world championships as it tries to establish formal governance of cycling's new discipline and tap into the massive growth in gravel riding and racing.

In a wide-ranging interview with selected media, including Cyclingnews, during a 48-hour visit to the Tour Down Under, Lappartient talked about a number of subjects, including the likely decision to hand over anti-doping testing in cycling from the in-house but independent Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF) to the new International Testing Agency (ITA), created with the support of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other national federations.

He also predicted e-sport racing such as Zwift "will grow very rapidly", called on the AIGCP teams association to be more cooperative and hit out at the Velon teams for startling a legal challenge in the European courts.

Lappartient dismissed suggestions that he was too close to Tour de France organiser ASO and biased in favour of French cycling, saying that the accusations were "fake news" stirred up by his detractors. Lappartient bumped into Bjarne Riis at the Tour Down Under and swapped business cards with the new NTT Pro Cycling team manager. He made it clear that UCI rules allow Riis to return to a senior role in the WorldTour despite his past admissions of doping, and so the Dane will be treated like any other person in the sport.

Lappartient was at the Tour Down Under for just 48 hours for an Oceania Confederation meeting. He admitted to travelling to 30 different countries in 2019 and was apologetic about the significant carbon emissions all his travel produced, promising the UCI is working with the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations to reduce its carbon footprint.

A Gravel World Championship soon

Gravel riding and racing is booming, especially in the USA, as cyclists avoid the dangers of traffic-filled roads and enjoy the more relaxed and rule-free ambiance of the new cycling genre.

The UCI is the internationally recognised body for road racing under the umbrella of the IOC, the Olympics and many state-controlled and publicly funded national federations. Lappartient would like to bring the world of gravel under the control of UCI governance, but without making enemies with the independent event organisers, who have largely set their own rules.

"I'd suggest gravel is in the DNA of cycling from the very beginning, because the roads were once not like they are today," he said.

"You can see that it is very popular worldwide and it has huge potential for development; you can see the fans of cycling love gravel riding. I will not say too much today, but we are working on this at a UCI level because we believe there is a big future for this. We already have gravel sections in races like the Tour de France, and Strade Bianche has became one of the most important races on the calendar in just 10 years, so gravel can also help bring innovation into the sport.

"We had a meeting with the organiser of the Eroica, Giancarlo Brocci, last week to see what the potential of working together could be. We also had a more global UCI meeting about gravel, about what our strategy should be.

"We live in a 'disrupting mode', which means things won't stay as they always were. International federations are a bit like big ships: they are difficult to steer in a different direction. I'm trying to bring more flexibility to the UCI; we have to adapt and anticipate about the future of our sport. Gravel is part of that."3

The UCI wants to be the recognised international governing body for gravel racing.

"It's always better to be under the umbrella of international sport," Lappartient argued.

"We know that the rules are different in some countries, such as in the USA, compared with other countries where you can't organise a race without the national federation. I think by joining up, all together, we can for sure be stronger. The goal today is not to fight against anyone, but to bring everyone together. That's the job of the UCI."

So could there soon be an official UCI Gravel World Championships and a winner's rainbow jersey, like in other disciplines of the sport?

"I think so," Lappartient admitted. "This is something that is under discussion and that is possible in the future."

Lappartient announced the creation of some UCI e-sports rules in 2018 and the first e-sports World Championships will be held later this year in a deal with the Zwift platform. He can see how e-sports could be a part of the sport and attract new people to the sport.

"We believe there's huge potential for this; it's growing very fast, it's bringing opportunities for people who live in big cities or where it's dark at 4pm, and perhaps raining or snowing, to ride and race," he explained.

"I've been appointed by IOC president Thomas Bach as the chairman of the e-sports and gaming liaison group. With new technology, there are a lot of opportunities, especially for our sport. Zwift is not far from real cycling; you have to sweat."

We have signed a deal with Zwift for the 2020 e-sports World Championships and after that we'll have a tender for the future years. The e-sports World Championships, national championships and racing can enlarge the cycling community.

"I hope some WorldTour riders will be involved in e-sports. At least 50 per cent of WorldTour riders are on Zwift and these types of platforms, which they use to train. The format is a bit shorter than road races but it's still challenging. Of course, we have to make sure that no one will cheat. If there's prize money, we have to have drug testing and so on. We have to make sure that we will develop this at the highest level. We're working with Zwift to deliver this at the highest level."

Fighting with the teams and Velon

Due to the disjointed business model of professional cycling, the teams are often in conflict with the UCI and major race organisers, in a constant power struggle and fierce competition for funding. The teams believe they get a bad deal from the sport, despite their riders "putting on the show", and many of the major teams have come together to form the more aggressive Velon business group. They have funded the development of rider data and on-bike video images, but also taken on the UCI by starting a legal challenge via the European Commission.

Lappartient defends the UCI's central governance role and the teams using the issue of safety to criticise the UCI.

"Of course, there are some troubles between the UCI and Velon but we're working with the AIGCP to deliver what is best for cycling," Lappartient said.

"I told them: security is a common goal, for riders, organisers, teams and the UCI. If you believe that to send letters to demonstrate that there's a problem and claim it's the fault of only one of stakeholder, that's not the way to solve the problem.

"Next week, I have a meeting with the teams and the AIGCP. I want the best for the teams, the best environment, security for the riders, to have more revenues. I don't think we can disagree on safety matters. We also have to be realistic about what is possible, what is not possible, and what we have to do together.

"The reality is that we are doing the best for the teams. Some of them want another [business] model to the open system we provide. But I will also fight to defend an open system, and this a red line for the UCI.

"My goal is provide a system where there is a good balance for all the stakeholders. We are not working just for organisers or just for one stakeholder against one or another. My goal, for me, is to bring everyone together. As I said at the WorldTour seminar in December, we need unity. We can only bring cycling to the highest level with unity. We are the only sport where all the families are fighting each other. There is a huge potential for cycling, but instead of bringing cycling to the next stage, we are always fighting. I said that’s crazy. I hope that the trust can come back in the cycling family and we can do our best."

Lappartient does not appear ready to offer a similar olive branch to the Velon teams.

"We are in front of the European Commission with Velon. We disagree with what they said and we will demonstrate this, and have proof and evidence of behaviour that is probably in conflict with European law," he said, choosing his word carefully to make his point.

"I am not sure this is the right way to resolve problems. We will both spend a lot of money and, if I remember correctly, Velon was made to create more revenue, yet we are spending more revenue even if it could take around six or seven years to reach the end of the case.

"As UCI president, I will always try to bring stability, revenue and visibility for the sport, and we will defend the teams. But there are some red lines: that the sport is open and that doesn't mean a lifetime licence. The teams requested a lot of things, and I think I gave 34 points that we proposed to the teams since I was elected. We continue to do this, but if there are points we don't agree on, we won't move.

"I know the teams talk behind my back, that they say I'm biased towards the ASO; I've heard all that. It's not true that if you say, 'Fake news, fake news, fake news,' then something becomes true news. It still remains fake news.

Riis is welcome back; the fight against doping goes on

Lappartient made it clear that Bjarne Riis was allowed to return to the WorldTour as a team manager and team owner of NTT Pro Cycling. Riis has been given a UCI licence.

"I can understand people's opinions but, as UCI President, I can only say that he has the right to come back into the sport. I'm sure he's learned some lessons from the past so that he is stronger in the future," Lappartient said.

"Now if someone commits an anti-doping violation, they can't come back into cycling because of the ethical rule created in July 2011, but that can't apply to events from before July 2011.

"If you take the Tour de France winner between 1996 and 2010, only two riders were not caught up in doping. It was a difficult time for our sport, but I think we are now off the front when it comes to doping. We invest a lot of money in the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation [CADF]; the total is around 10 million Swiss francs a year. We have to do it because credibility can be lost in five minutes, and it takes you 20 years to get it back," he said.

"I think we are the sport of anti-doping. We were the first sport to ban Tramadol, we're working on banning corticoids, we had the first biological passport and EPO test. However, we need to keep pushing because the number of doping cases actually increased worldwide. Seventy-five per cent of doping cases come from South America and specifically from five countries. That's a concern for the UCI. I spoke to some of the national anti-doping organisations and federations, to put them under pressure to fight doping. We went to one country, did 12 tests and 12 were positive. That's terrible, and we will continue to put pressure on them."

Despite the hard work of the CADF, the UCI is considering passing its anti-doping testing over to the nascent International Testing Agency (ITA). Experts in anti-doping, and even those within the CADF, have raised concerns about this, suggesting that the ITA is not ready or as skilled as the CADF, meaning the UCI fight against doping could be weakened.

"We'll have a vote next week on this. If we move, it's not to have something of a lower standard than we have now," Lappartient said, defensively.

"We can see that most doping cases now come from doping investigations like Aderlass, so we have to ask if the CADF is the right size to do this. For sure, if we move to the ITA, the UCI will put down some red lines because of the expertise the CADF has. All the employees must have an offer to keep the expertise. The Management Committee will probably vote via a secret ballot so they can vote what they want."

Lappartient denied he was keen to move cycling's anti-doping testing across to the ITA to favour the IOC and help him secure a coveted IOC Member place.

"I saw that, and it was a kind of fake news by the CADF chief, and not very fair from him. I've never, never talked about an IOC seat with President Bach. What I'm doing is always in the interest of cycling. We know where we are going and what we want to do for our sport. The decision we will take is on principal, and the final decision will only be taken in June."

Lappartient has filled his agenda since being elected in Bergen, Norway, in 2017, moving the track World Cup back to the summer and shaking up the cyclo-cross World Cup.

He denies that he has too many irons in the fire.

"There are a lot, I agree, but it was time to make these changes. We're in a disruptive world and the reality of today is not the reality of tomorrow. We can't wait months and months, and years and years, to make the changes," he concluded.