UCI president Brian Cookson visited the Tour of Qatar on Tuesday to run the rule over the finishing circuit of October’s World Road Race Championships in Doha in the company of Eddy Merckx. However the fall-out from the discovery of mechanical doping at the recent Cyclo-cross World Championships was one of the points of discussion when he met with reporters before the start of stage 2 –along with the possible suspension of the Katusha team, and the on-going impasse with ASO over the planned WorldTour reforms.
Belgian rider Femke Van Den Driessche faces charges of technological fraud after a motor was found in one of her bikes in the pits during the under-23 women’s race at the Zolder Worlds, but Cookson was unable to discuss the specifics of the case, or a possible timeline for its resolution.
“We’re referring this matter to the disciplinary commission and the case is being prepared at the moment. Obviously I don’t want to say anything that might prejudice the case which is in fact sub-judice. But this is a very serious development and we are handling it with the utmost care,” Cookson told Cyclingnews and a small group of reporters at the Tour of Qatar.
While the motor in Van Den Driessche’s bike was reportedly discovered in the bottom bracket, media reports emanating from Italy and France over the past year have suggested that the technology of mechanical doping has already advanced, and that illegal aids were now to be found in wheels. Yet when Corriere della Sera succeeded in filming bike checks during last year’s Giro d’Italia, their footage showed that the UCI testers were searching for motors in the bottom bracket and seat tube, but not examining wheels. Speaking in Qatar on Tuesday, however, Cookson dismissed the notion that the testers have been looking in the wrong place.
“They’ve been looking everywhere. Please don’t delude yourself that we haven’t been taking this seriously,” Cookson said. “A number of bikes were taken to pieces at the finish of Milan-San Remo last year, for instance.”
“What we’ve been trying to do is to trial and develop equipment that will be easier to use and will allow us to scan more bikes, more quickly and at more races. The World Cyclo-cross Championships was a good example of that: we did 50 or 60 bikes on the first day and we found one that was suspicious when they took it apart. As you know, they found a motor, hence the case that is continuing now.”
The swiftness of the UCI’s announcement that a suspect bike had been discovered at the under-23 women’s race at the Cyclo-cross Worlds was queried by some, given that it might have served to tip off any riders who had been planning to perform technological fraud in the following day’s elite men’s race.
“If we didn’t announce it quickly, then you would say ‘why are you covering something up?’” Cookson said. “It’s the World Championships, every category is important. Did we expect to find someone in that category [under-23 women] with an electric motor? No, of course we didn’t. But we test all the categories, men and women, elite and junior, they were all tested. On that day we did around 60 bikes.”
Cookson added that the UCI was prepared to expand its current testing programme and floated the possibility of introducing pre-race tests for all bikes at road races, rather than the current system, which sees occasional testing of selected bikes at the finish line.
“If we need to go to a situation where every bike has to be pre-examined before a race, including the bikes on the team cars, then maybe this is something that we have to look at. We have much better technology now to check whether there are any suspicious signs and then we can do the more invasive tests to prove it one way or another,” Cookson said.
The power struggle with ASO
While Cookson’s visit to Qatar was ostensibly to assess the finishing circuit and view preparations for October’s World Championships in Doha, there was speculation, too, that he would avail of his time on the Tour of Qatar, to speak to representatives from ASO, given the French company’s organising involvement in the race.
Cookson confirmed on Tuesday that he has not spoken with any ASO representatives since the organiser of the Tour de France announced in December that it would withdraw its events from the 2017 WorldTour calendar. A planned meeting at the Tour Down Under between Cookson and Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme never took place.
“No, I don’t think any of the senior ASO people are present,” Cookson said at Qatar University on Tuesday. “We will be talking with ASO in due course. There’s no urgency. Our position is very clear. Their position is clear. We’re going through the application process now for events that want to be part of the WorldTour and I’m very, very encouraged by the huge amount of interest that there is.”
“There is huge enthusiasm for the UCI WorldTour as a concept, and we want to try to make it a success and we’d love ASO to come in and be part of that, and we’ll be talking to them in the future, I’m sure.”
The deadline for events to apply for WorldTour status in 2017 was in January 15 but Cookson confirmed that the door remained open for ASO to reverse its decision, later acknowledging that the Tour de France “is the biggest and best bike race in the world and probably always will be.”
“I’m sure we can come to some kind of agreement,” Cookson said. “Nobody wants to have another war in the sport of cycling, and I’m sure we can all be adult and have a good negotiation and discussion in the next few weeks and months.”
Asked if there was still a place for the Tour de France and ASO’s races in the WorldTour even if it meant torpedoing the majority of the UCI’s planned reforms of the structures of cycling, due to be rolled out from 2017, Cookson said: “I’m not going to negotiate through the media. The UCI’s Management Committee and myself, and all of the other stakeholders, are clear that we want to go through with these reforms.”