After announcing his candidacy for the UCI presidency Brian Cookson spoke exclusively to Cyclingnews. The 61-year-old discussed anti-doping, why he publicly backed Pat McQuaid earlier this year, women’s cycling and Hein Verbruggen.
Cyclingnews: What was the tipping point, because earlier in the year when we spoke you said that you backed President Pat McQuaid?
Brian Cookson: When you’re a member of a board or a management committee you are bound by rules of collective responsibility. You express your view as coherently and as forcefully as you can in those meeting and then you decide and agree on what’s going to be the public announcement. I did that at the time. I thought that at the time it was essential to give Pat McQuaid and the UCI some time to resolve some of the issues and clarify things going forward. Things have not improved in the way that I would have hoped. We’re still suffering the same old problems and now we’re in the situation where the deadline is fast approaching for nominations of the presidency and I thought the right thing to do was to say that I am prepared to put my head above the parapet and be a candidate and that’s why I’ve changed my mind.
CN: Who is backing your bid, other than obviously British Cycling, in terms of international favour - who do you have to support you?
Cookson: You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been talking to a number of people around the world and Europe and other continents to make sure that there is a groundswell of support for me. I’m confident that I can rely on that support. I don’t want to name names as of yet because all those people have to go through the protocols and their own democratic elections to decide who they are going to support but I’m very confident that I’ll have sufficient support to at least mount a coherent campaign and I’m optimistic that I can win that campaign.
CN: What about UCI Honorary President Hein Verbruggen? Have you had any contact with him?
Cookson: Not for many months. I don’t know Hein Verbruggen very well, you might be surprised to hear. I’ve met him a few times when he was the President of the UCI and I was President of British Cycling but I’ve not met him during the management committee. He never attended a management committee when I’ve been there, so I’ve not spoken with him for several months.
CN: Is that a good thing or a bad thing for your presidential bid?
Cookson: [Laughter] Well, I’ll leave that for others to decide. I don’t really want to get into personality clashes and personality issues. I think too much of that has gone on with the UCI in disputes and I want to really concentrate on what I can bring to the UCI, which is a more collegiate approach. The work I’ve done with British Cycling over the last 15-16 years I think shows a successful approach to running a governing body and I’m not anxious to get into personality conflicts.
CN: But with Verbruggen he’s still the Honorary President. If you were elected would you still want to see him carry on in that position?
Cookson: Well, the Honorary President role is what it says. It doesn’t have a vote and as I’ve said Hein Verbruggen has not attended any of the management committee meetings in the time that I’ve been a member of it and I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly change his role. I guess Honorary President is confirmed by the Congress and I’m not 100 percent certain but I guess that could only be withdrawn by the Congress. As far as I’m concerned it’s not really an issue.
CN: In the last few years, although Pat McQuaid has distanced himself from Verbruggen’s role in some ways, he still casts a shadow over the UCI in some regards and one could say he still pulls the strings in Aigle. Would you agree with that sentiment?
Cookson: I know that there is still quite a close relationship between Pat and Hein and I’ll leave it for others to judge whether that’s a good thing or not. I’m not in anybody’s camp, I’m an independent candidate and I’ve got the support of my colleagues in British Cycling. I’m not going to make any promises to anybody that I can’t deliver, or do any deals to get elected. I’m going to try to remain an open, honest and transparent candidate.
CN: Since the Reasoned Decision from USADA in the Lance Armstrong, US Postal affair what were the main failings from the UCI and what would you have done differently?
Cookson: Well, I think we went a long way down the route of an independent commission which turned out not to be a viable and workable solution. I think that was probably a regrettable activity and course of action. What I am concerned about now is that several months after that was abandoned we’ve not got a workable solution. We’ve not got the support of WADA and the other stakeholders in producing an alternative to that. That’s absolutely vital in my mind, to get something underway that has got the support of those other chief stakeholders. I’ve got some ideas on that which I’ll go into when I announce my manifesto but clearly we need to put all that to bed quickly and we need to have an independent enquiry into the allegations against the UCI, and we need to make sure that’s transparent, quick and happens within the space of a few months. We need to restore confidence and integrity in the UCI. I’m not sure that we can do that without radical changes within the UCI.
CN: How much does it cost to mount a campaign for the UCI presidency?
Cookson: It doesn’t cost very much really. I’m supported by British Cycling and I have a small international relations budget which I’m able to tap into and I’ve the support of my colleagues from British Cycling. With the internet these days you can do wonderful things at relatively modest costs and that’s what I hope to do.
CN: Can you say what costs are?
Cookson: Not off the top of my head because we’ve not really done a lot of analysis of the budget. We’ve only really decided to go with this in the last few days and what we’ve put together is what you see on the website and what you’ve read elsewhere.
CN: Do you have an outside PR agency that you’ve brought in?
Cookson: Yes. We’ve been working with a company called Vero. They’re very experienced and they’re working with us at a very good discounted rate because they believe in what I’m trying to achieve. They’re very experienced and very knowledgeable.
CN: Can you say what that discounted rate is?
Cookson: No. I think that’s a matter of commercial confidentiality.
CN: We spoke to Pat McQuaid very briefly yesterday and he said he hadn’t started his campaign yet. Do you believe that to be the case?
Cookson: Well I’m surprised to hear that. There seems to have been a lot of activity relating to international visits and people going in both directions. I’m sure that’s all entirely legitimate. I don’t want to get into a mud slinging match with Pat. I think we can have a civilised conversation and discussion. My view is that democratic organisations are made stronger by some competition for the leadership in elections and that’s what we’re going to have.
CN: The battle grounds have obviously been drawn in terms of anti-doping and the globalization of the sport but one other issue that’s talked about a lot is women’s cycling. I think the public would like to know where you stand on that element of the sport.
Cookson: I want to try and do a lot more to help develop women’s cycling. Previously I’ve said that it wasn’t the right time to introduce a minimum wage but I’ve looked at that again and I think the situation has developed and what we probably need now is a two tier system where we do set a minimum wage for the highest level of pro teams for women. That may not bring in immediate extra investment in women’s cycling but it will set a baseline by which an aspirational level can be set. I think the time is right to do that. More importantly than that I’d like to increase levels of participation in women’s cycling. We’ve got an ambition in cycling to get a million more people cycling over the next few years. I’m confident we can do that, not just for the elite level but also the grass roots. The other thing that I’d like to do is, if I’m elected, is make sure that at least one of the UCI Commission Presidents is a woman and that we implement the agreement that we made at the management committee to have at least one woman on every commission. That doesn’t seem to have been implemented so far.
CN: If you were to beat Pat McQuaid in an election would you still want him to be part of the UCI or would that be an untenable proposition?
Cookson: Good question. I think that would be a matter for Pat himself. Let’s meet that one as and when the situation arises. I don’t believe that Pat or anyone else should be driven out of the sport. I think that Pat has done lots of good things, as Hein his predecessor did. I’ve not always agreed with everything they’ve done and that’s why I’m standing now. Let’s investigate the continuing allegations, let’s put them to bed once and for all in an independent way that’s transparent and I’ll certainly guarantee to publish those results. We’ve got to be absolutely clear that the UCI has to be cleaner than cleaner and if it hasn’t been in the past then we have to do something about it. I’ve not evidence at this moment in time, and I hope there’s nothing there but if there is we’ll bring it out into the open.