UCI Presidential Candidate Cookson talks mountain biking, Part 1

UCI Presidential candidate Brian Cookson

UCI Presidential candidate Brian Cookson (Image credit: briancookson.org)

As the UCI Presidential election nears, there has been plenty of talk about men's and women's road cycling by both candidates, but what about mountain biking? Cyclingnews sat down at the recent UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and talked with UCI Presidential candidate Brian Cookson about his vision for mountain biking.

In part 1 of the interview with Cookson, he fills us in on his mountain biking background and his general view of the sport, and he considers the idea of adding downhill to the Olympic Games and how to deal with controversial UCI Rule 1.2.019.

Cyclingnews: Have you ever been to mountain bike Worlds or any mountain bike World Cups before?

Brian Cookson: Of course. The last one I went to was in Fort William [in 2007]. I've been there every year for the downhill mountain bike World Cup ever since. I went to a few cross country World Cups at Dalby Forest, and I was at the Olympic mountain bike race in London.

CN: Tell us about your mountain biking background.

BC: I've got a mountain bike, and when my son was younger, we did a lot of mountain biking together. This was in the early 1990s when mountain biking was really taking off in the UK. I have fun mountain biking, but I tend to do more road biking these days. I have a mountain bike and try to ride it whenever I can.

CN: What's your sense of direction for mountain biking if you win the election?

BC: My view is that mountain biking is an extremely vibrant and healthy part of the sport that we need to support more on the international level. It's certainly a good entry level into the sport for all sorts of its branches. It's several disciplines.

It's interesting to me how the downhill has kind of almost separated off culturally from the cross country elements during the last 10 or 15 years. There is also more marathon-type cycling, which has become very popular in Great Britain.

One of the things that I'd like to do is strengthen the position of mountain biking in the Olympics. I'd absolutely love to have downhilling in the Olympics Games, but I think that's a long term project to be honest.

From the point of view of a Briton, we've got some fantastic downhill athletes and have done all along. I very much enjoy that part of the sport. It provides a brilliant television spectacle, so it should fit into the Olympics quite well, but the Olympics is a difficult arena to get new events into.

To me, we should be pushing as the UCI more along those lines rather than worrying about skateboarding and so on. We are about bikes in one form or another.

It's interesting to see the way mountain biking has developed with the four cross as well. Trials is very strong.

Mountain biking is a whole range of disciplines, a panoply of aspects of things you can do on a bike and the fun you can have on the bike. I never think of any one discipline as being any better than the others. Different people like different things and enjoy watching different things. To me, in the last 20 years, mountain biking has found its way into the heritage of the sport and long may it continue.

CN: What do you think about the controversial UCI Rule 1.2.019 and what should be done about it, given that the moratorium on enforcement ends on January 1, 2014? [Rule 1.2.019 and its related rules prohibit riders from competing in events not sanctioned by the UCI and its member federations.]

BC: I think it's incredibly difficult in western democratic societies to force people to not compete or not become members of organization when they are already members of a different organization. I think it's actually a very difficult rule to enforce.

I can see a lot of sense in it applying to genuinely top level pro riders, who have a certain category of team, but trying to apply it to a broader cross section of people who want to ride mountain bikes or road bikes or whatever is very difficult. We can't stop people from riding cyclo-sportives, which are not organized under UCI rules, so it's quite difficult to tell mountain bikers or anybody else that they can't compete in non-UCI events.

At the top level, with registered professionals, that's a little bit different and you do want to ensure the integrity of the sport and the management of the sport. You want the governance of the sport to be going in the right direction. Ultimately, I think in democratic developed societies, you have to do things by consent, not by enforcement.

I think that rule is always going to be difficult to enforce in huge numbers. Are we going to suspend thousands of riders? That's not going to work.

You have to make people want to join your organization, not force them to join by threatening them with sanctions of some sort.

CN: Is there any possibility of changing Rule 1.2.019 or at least clarifying to whom it should and shouldn't apply?

BC: I think it's a rule that needs looking at again. I can't encourage people to break a rule because I'm a member of the governing body that put the rule in the book as it were, but I think it's something that needs some major review. The overarching principle should be that people want to join your organization and want to participate in your events rather than trying to force people into that, which will always be problematic.

CN: Part of the issue seems to be the prevalence of big-money events, especially in the US mountain bike community, which do not fall under UCI sanctioning. How do you propose to deal with the fact that many mountain bike pros wish to continue to do such races?

BC: It'd be better for the UCI to try to work with those promoters to bring them into the UCI system rather than to try to outlaw them and punish riders who find them to be an attractive proposition. I know it's not as simple as that because some of the promoters are very possessive of their property as they see it, and they don't necessarily want to share it with the UCI. Ultimately, it's in everybody's benefit, I think, if there is a consistent management and consistent standards and a consistent calendar synchronization.

So what the UCI really needs to do is do a better job of convincing the promoters that they should come under the umbrella of the UCI. I think probably the UCI has presented itself in the past in more of a way that implied control rather than governance of that development. I think there is a lot more to be done to work together with promoters in harmony and hopefully bring them into the system.

It's not easy. By definition - I've organized many races myself so I know - you own your event, heart and soul, and when you are promoting, it's totally due to you, you've put your commitment into. I doubt many are making much money. They are doing it because they love doing it. It's almost like the race and the people working on it become part of your family.

Organizers of events are pretty stubborn and determined individuals and channeling that can be difficult. That's the same on the road as well as it is on the mountain biking side. It's an ongoing issue. There isn't a kind of switch you can flip, as on any issue, that will bring the whole thing together. We need to work in partnership with people and build consensus and coordination and good standards of governance so people want to be part of the organization, not resist being part of the organization.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Cyclingnews' interview with Brian Cookson, covering the topics of enduro racing and what's been learned in Britain that might be applied to the UCI if Cookson gets elected.

Read part 2 of this interview.

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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews.  She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.