Steve Johnson will step down as CEO of USA Cycling following the World Championships in Richmond next year, the organisation announced today.
A statement released by USA Cycling on Tuesday afternoon said that Johnson had decided “to pursue new challenges and opportunities.” Johnson has held the position of CEO and president since 2006, having first joined USA Cycling as high performance consultant in 1999.
“The organization has never been in a better place,” Johnson said of his impending departure. “We have a solid financial foundation, an amazing and professional staff, an outstanding board of directors and tremendous leadership in Bob Stapleton as Chairman of the Board.
“While I will certainly miss working with the wonderful staff of USA Cycling and the many friends and acquaintances I have made over the years, after devoting the past 15 years of my life to the growth and development of USA Cycling, I think the time is right to pass the reins to a new chief executive.”
Stapleton, the former manager of the Highroad team, spoke with Cyclingnews today and said the decision to change leadership came after he was appointed as chairman of the board of USA Cycling in June. "When I came on board in June we sat down and looked at what we need to do long term, and how long it makes sense for Steve to stay in his current role," Stapleton said. "We all felt it made sense to begin a transition. Steve will remain as CEO until we bring in a new CEO, and he will advise us through Richmond."
Stapleton emphasized that finding a replacement and making a smooth transition was of the utmost importance for the coming year.
"We want to start to grow the sport in fundamentally healthy ways, but we need to continue to perform athletically, and have the organisation operate at a high level while we evolve to a more customer-centric organisation. This decision was the product of seeing the need for changes, but we recognize that we need a smooth, sound transition especially with Richmond and Rio [Olympic Games] coming up."
High seas while steering the ship
Johnson served as Chief Operating Officer of USA Cycling and as executive director of the USA Cycling Development Foundation before his elevation to the role of CEO in 2006. Johnson's role was criticized as a conflict of interest, since his former boss on the foundation, Thom Weisel, was also the owner of the US Postal Service team of Lance Armstrong.
Weisel was named as a defendant in the False Claims Act or "whistleblower" lawsuit initiated by Floyd Landis, a suit which stated that the overlap between the Foundation and USA Cycling allowed the US Postal Service Team "to carry on the extensive program of systematically doping team athletes during the period relevant to this complaint.”
USA Cycling issued a statement denying that Weisel's presence on the Foundation had any bearing on the organisation's anti-doping policies, and today Stapleton would only reiterate that USA Cycling and the Foundation are distinct entities.
"The USA Cycling Development Foundation has its own board, its own governance. They're strong supporters of USA Cycling's development efforts, but they make their own independent decisions and make their own independent actions."
The link with Weisel is not the only contentious aspect to Johnson's time as CEO. The latter part of his tenure coincided with a spate of doping confessions from high-profile American cycling figures, culminating with that of Armstrong, and Johnson drew criticism for his handling of the affair, notably when USA Cycling sided with the UCI in its battle with USADA for jurisdiction over the case.
In Cycle of Lies, the account of the Armstrong case written by New York Times journalist Juliet Macur and published this year, former US Postal rider Dave Zabriskie stated that he had informed Johnson of the widespread doping culture within the team on several occasions, but nothing was done. Johnson denied that the conversations with Zabriskie had taken place.
Stapleton would not speak to the role of the events of the past several years in the decision to change leadership, but gave credit to Johnson for creating a federation that is vastly improved from what it was 15 years ago.
“When he started this was a broken organisation. It was nearly bankrupt, there was in-fighting. It was a shadow of what it is now. We're financially sound, have an engaged foundation, we have a strong relationship with the USOC and a membership base we think we can do a lot more with in the future. We're entering into a very progressive period."
Smooth transition and changes for the future
Stapleton expressed optimism about the transition and the future for USA Cycling. "We're going to get this done, it is under intense focus. We're going to move as quickly as we can, but the main thing is that we want to find the right person. We have the right amount of time to commit to change, run a good process, get a good transition and come out the other end of this with a renewed focus on our key objectives and how to get there," he said.
USA Cycling will engage an outside firm to help run the search for Johnson's replacement, and Stapleton thinks they will have no shortage of talented, passionate candidates. "I'm optimistic about the interest we'll have. I think we will be pleasantly surprised about the number of capable people who are really interested in the sport. This could be a significant process and I'm optimistic it's going to produce results."
"This is one of the most progressive opportunities that organisations have. If you do it right, it's a watershed event, and that's what we'd like to craft here. We're going to do everything to ensure this goes well and we progress as an organisation during this period, and come out even stronger. I'm enthusiastic and laser focused on this being a big step forward and a big success for everyone."
Stapleton said that some of the goals for the future are to become a more outward-facing business, with the membership and race organisers at the core of the focus.
"We want to deepen and strengthen our ability to communicate effectively, improve our products and services, and work with the core racing community to grow the sport," he said.
USA Cycling has been looking at other federations, in particular British Cycling, for ways to engage with the cycling community, and in particular the "enthusiasts" and supporters who aren't necessarily racers.
"We are looking to do more to engage supporters of cycling around our Team USA property - the Olympic athletes. It's a compelling way to engage with cycling.
Just what would compel a cycling fan to become a member of USA Cycling, Stapleton said, "is a work in progress." "We know there is a strong affinity with Team USA, but we are looking at making a compelling package around that. That's over and above our aspirations to grow our racing membership and do a good job of retaining and growing our core customer base."