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UCI President Brain Cookson Calls 2016 “A Year of Real Progress” for Cycling

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As the end of the year approaches, UCI President Brian Cookson talks about cycling in 2016 as he sees it: the highlights, the challenges, the UCI’s work and what we can look forward to in 2017.

How would you summarise 2016 for the sport of cycling?

It’s been a year of real progress. Quite apart from the fantastic Olympic and Paralympic Games, our sport made great headway in many important areas over the year: women’s cycling was transformed by the incredibly successful launch of the UCI Women’s WorldTour, we also introduced a new Women Under-23 category at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, we announced a raft of changes to track cycling to create more spectator-friendly racing, we saw the inaugural UCI BMX Freestyle Park World Cup and finally, we awarded 15 UCI World Championships across seven disciplines. I’m excited for our sport as we enter 2017.

There were some big challenges ahead of the Rio Olympic Games. Were you happy with how cycling performed?

Preparation ahead of the Rio Games wasn’t easy, particularly with concerns about the velodrome. I was in regular contact with the Mayor of Rio and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and we got there thanks to a huge team effort. In the end, the Games were a wonderful promotion for cycling’s four Olympic disciplines. We had some incredible performances in front of stunning backdrops that were beamed across the world. One of the unique things with cycling is that we can help to showcase the host city and that is certainly what we did in Rio. We also had great crowds: the velodrome and the BMX stadium were sold out, and we had many thousands watch the mountain bike on a fantastic course. The crowds were a clear demonstration of the appeal of our sport. I was able to spend some time with IOC President Bach, and many IOC members and senior officials, and it was clear how much they enjoyed our events.

How did para-cycling measure up at the Paralympic Games and during 2016 overall?

2016 was a truly great year for para-cycling. Our sport has both road and track competitions at the Paralympic Games and the two drew very large crowds in Rio. We witnessed some incredible achievements at the Games with no less than 10 world records and 20 Paralympic records broken. But I cannot speak about the Paralympic Games in Rio without paying tribute to Bahman Golbarnezhad of Iran, who tragically died following a crash in the C4 road race.

Para-cycling in general is on the up. Colin Lynch from Ireland set the first ever officially sanctioned UCI Hour Record for para-cycling, UCI Athletes’ Commission member and para-cyclist Greta Neimanas has been chosen by the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) to enter its Athletes Committee, and the UCI World Cycling Center recently hosted para-cyclists from five countries for a dedicated two-week training camp, the fourth such event organized by the UCI since 2015.

What about the UCI? Could you outline the changes that have been implemented in 2016 and the direction you are taking the organisation?

We have made great progress in terms of governance.

We now have a revised and strengthened UCI Code of Ethics, which applies to a much broader base including all personnel, as well as consultants, race organisers, and more generally speaking to all licence holders within the sport of cycling. It widens the field of competence of the UCI Ethics Commission whose membership is increasingly composed of experienced professionals independent from the sport of cycling. The President is now Bernard Foucher, a member of the Supreme Court for administrative justice in France and an Arbitrator at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

We have made great progress in terms of governance.

I promised to deliver Constitutional reform and I am delighted that we now have a revised UCI Constitution that sets out new democratic processes, including the restriction of the number of terms of office for the President (to three). The constitutional reform marks another important step forward for the governance of the UCI, in line with international best practice, and will help to reinforce the UCI’s credibility within the international sports community, as well as with all our stakeholders.

As we pursue our work towards restoring credibility in the sport of cycling, we have continued to invest significantly in our anti-doping program, which is rightly regarded as one of the leaders of any sport. Indeed, protecting the integrity of our sport remains an absolute priority and that is why we have invested significant resources to test literally thousands of bikes against technological fraud.

I am delighted that we have reinforced a number of existing partnerships, as well as adding new ones.

I am delighted that we have reinforced a number of existing partnerships, as well as adding new ones such as Telenet. It is a clear sign of confidence in the UCI and the changes we’ve made that we welcome Tissot, UCI’s historical timekeeper, as UCI’s first World Cycling Partner. Our partners are great supporters and allow us to continue our mission to expand cycling across around the world. And in another landmark move, we’ve signed an 8-year agreement with the EBU and IMG for worldwide TV rights that will bring our main events to the broadest possible audience across the world.

We are also becoming more active as a voice to promote cycling in communities. This year we awarded our UCI Bike City label to cities and regions in Norway and the Netherlands to reflect some of the great work that is happening on the ground. This is something that you will see more of in the future as we take a higher profile position in promoting cycling not just as a sport, but as a means of transport and a healthy daily activity.

So all in all, I’m very pleased with the progress we have made and the direction we are heading.

What was the main challenge the UCI had to face this year?

I would say that the biggest threat in 2016 was to the credibility of our sport. I am talking about technological fraud, which was in the spotlight very early in the season when we discovered an engine concealed in a bike at the 2016 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Heusden-Zolder (Belgium) in January. The UCI Disciplinary Commission imposed a six-year ban and a significant fine on the concerned rider, Femke Van den Driessche.

We were very quick and efficient in dealing with this case which, I must underline, remains the only case of technological fraud to date.

Our fight against technological fraud has been ongoing since my election in 2013, targeting both men and women from different cycling disciplines. For example, this year we tested 274 bikes at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in London, 117 at the Aviva Women’s Tour, 3773 at the Tour de France, and 1372 at the UCI Road World Championships in Doha.

After considering different testing methods, we have found one that is flexible, reliable, effective, fast and easy to deploy. We will of course continue to take the possibility of technological fraud seriously in 2017.

We continue to review what threats may arise in this area and assess any new information on testing methods or potential forms of fraud.

Tell us about the Wanda Sports investment in cycling which was recently announced. Could this be a model for other major territories?

Wanda Sports are promoting the Tour of Guangxi, a new UCI WorldTour race, taking the peloton to one of China’s most popular tourism destinations, in the southern part of the country, over 6 days in October. Starting from 2017, it will run alongside a new women’s elite race which has applied for UCI Women’s WorldTour status as of 2018.

To ensure the long-term development of cycling in China, Wanda Sports will build a cycling center that will serve as a satellite to the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle. The opening of a satellite center in China, where promising athletes will be supported and funded by Wanda Sports, represents an enormous boost to our sport. The center will include an international competition 250m indoor track, a BMX track and a road circuit, with the most talented young riders being selected to spend time at the UCI World Cycling Centre. This is a massive step forward for cycling in the region.

Wanda Sports will also organize the first three editions (2017, 2018, 2019) of the brand-new UCI Urban Cycling World Championships at the end of October. This exciting event brings together Mountain Bike Cross-Country Eliminator, Trials and BMX Freestyle Park, inspiring a whole new generation of urban cycling fans.

After the first two successful editions of the UCI Cycling Gala hosted by Abu Dhabi, this celebration of cycling will move to China in 2017, taking place in the mountain city of Guilin, venue of the Tour of Guangxi’s final stage finish.

This deal shows what is possible and how we like to work with our partners in a broad, creative way. And that is why, when we award our major events, we also want to see clear legacy plans linked to those events. So yes, I would like to see this type of partnership mirrored elsewhere in other territories.

What’s your reaction to questions that have been raised over the granting of Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUEs)? Do you think the system that we now have in place is robust enough?

The first thing to say is that the UCI strengthened its TUE assessment process in June 2014 during the first year of my Presidency. This change put in place a more robust, independent three-person TUE Committee made up of independent experts that requires unanimity before sanctioning any TUE request. This is a higher standard than required by international norms. The number of TUEs the UCI has sanctioned in recent years is declining – from 31 in 2013 to 13 last year. We always share the details of TUEs granted with WADA, which adds another level of scrutiny.

I am delighted that after many years we found a way to make the UCI WorldTour truly global.

What is the latest situation with regards to changes being made to men’s professional road cycling?

I am delighted that after many years we found a way to make the UCI WorldTour truly global. For 2017, we can look forward to a season that will bring us to more continents and countries than ever before, from California to China via the Middle East.

Do you think enough is being done to protect riders?

Rider safety is hugely important to us all, and we experienced some tragic incidents at the beginning of the year. We are working hard with all stakeholders – race organisers, teams and riders – to do all we can to prevent such incidents in the future.

In 2016, we introduced tougher regulations governing the conduct of all vehicle drivers and motorbike riders in a road race, with breaches being referred to the UCI Disciplinary Commission. To ensure there is absolutely no doubt or grey areas, we will shortly publish a Race Caravan guide detailing all the relevant safety and security regulations, including the position of vehicles during a race.

Riders also have their part to play in their own safety, and we have introduced new regulations clarifying exactly when athletes must stop at level crossings. This rule was strictly enforced in 2016, resulting in the disqualification of some riders.

The remaining safety issue that was addressed in 2016 was that of extreme weather conditions, with the introduction of a new Extreme Weather Protocol.

There are also new regulations to track cycling?

These are very exciting changes, which we are already seeing in the current Tissot UCI Track Cycling World Cup and will also feature at the UCI World Championships in April.

One of the significant changes, which are the result of an extensive consultation, is the reduction of the number of races in the Omnium from six to four, with the event now being raced over one day instead of two. The introduction of the women’s Madison is another major step forward, bringing perfect parity between men’s and women’s track cycling events.

The regulation changes are making track cycling even more spectator friendly, and I am very excited about the future of this Olympic discipline, which will be back in the spotlight with the next two rounds of the Tissot UCI Track Cycling World Cup in Cali and Los Angeles.

Women’s cycling has been a big focus under your Presidency. How much more is there to do to in order to get it to a level you are happy with?

2016 was a breakthrough year with the introduction of the UCI Women’s WorldTour, live television broadcast of over half the races and increased exposure on social media: the Twitter account @UCIWomensCycling now has more than 20,000 followers, while the UCI Women’s Cycling Instagram account has tripled its fan base, to close to 35,000, in just six months.

There is good news for 2017, with women’s Elite racing going to new cities and regions across Europe, China and the USA. The 2017 UCI Women’s WorldTour will see the addition of two stage races and two one-day races, increasing the total number of competition days by over 30%.

There is good news for 2017, with women’s Elite racing going to new cities and regions across Europe, China and the USA. The 2017 UCI Women’s WorldTour will see the addition of two stage races and two one-day races, increasing the total number of competition days by over 30%. The extended calendar reflects the significant progress being made to boost the profile and professionalism of women’s cycling and establish its status within mainstream sport. I am determined to keep pushing forward with the professionalism of women’s cycling.

What about 2017? What will be your priorities for the UCI and for the sport; what can we look forward to?

I’m very excited about the future, and 2017 in particular. Both the Men’s and Women’s WorldTours will take the pelotons to new races and territories. We will see new events in China, and the UCI Track Cycling World Championships will take place in Hong Kong next April, only the second time in track cycling’s history that Asia hosts this event. The first was in Maebashi, Japan, in 1990. We also have the UCI Road World Championships, which will be held in the beautiful city of Bergen in Norway, and will feature 12 races over 9 days, several mass participation events and a major cultural programme.

I’m looking forward to reaching out to more and more people as we expand our cycling family. The growth in our fan base has been exceptional, and we now have a social media reach of 1.6 million people, compared to almost nothing three years ago. In 2017 we’ll grow that much further.

I look forward to a year during which we will continue to build on the UCI’s already greatly improved image, reach more and more people around the world and grow our cycling family. Cycling is booming and will continue to do so in 2017. At the UCI, we have a duty to do all we can to promote that growth and do so in a transparent and fair fashion, dealing honestly and fairly with all stakeholders involved. And you have my absolute commitment that that is exactly what we’ll continue to do.

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