article by Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell of The Outer Line
Once the most powerful man in cycling, Pat McQuaid is now living a quiet life in the countryside of southern France. After achieving success as a racer in the 1970s, he became involved with cycling’s governance starting in 1993, when he was elected President of the Irish Cycling Federation. As President of the UCI from 2005 to 2013, he oversaw a transitional period in the organization; the sport was growing rapidly in the wake of Lance Armstrong’s compelling story and seven successive Tour de France wins, and also due to globalization strategies set in motion by the UCI’s first President, the late Hein Verbruggen.
McQuaid has maintained a low profile since his two-term tenure as UCI President ended in 2013, but he still has a finger on the pulse of global cycling. His successor, Brian Cookson, is wrapping up his four year term as President of the UCI, and is facing a strong challenge in the upcoming UCI Presidential election from David Lappartient. The Outer Line is reaching out to various potential future leaders of the sport to assess the last four years and the priorities going forward. We started by connecting with McQuaid – and below we get his take on the state of the sport today, and various insights into sport’s possible future directions.
The Outer Line: Do you believe that the economics of the sport have improved over the last four years?
Pat McQuaid: I don’t really think so. The basic economic model underlying the sport hasn’t really changed. As has been pointed out many times, the teams are still almost completely dependent upon outside sponsors for their existence. This has of course been the case forever in this sport, but we need to find a way to mitigate that dependence. Across all levels of cycling, teams need to do a much better job in selling their sponsorship.
Indeed, if for some reason, a couple of the major teams or sponsors suddenly pulled out of the sport, the whole market could collapse. Rider salaries would go down immediately – the money just wouldn’t be there amongst the remaining teams. There is basically no economic security of tenure for the teams. Despite the fact that they collectively control nearly €250M in financial spending, they still seem unable to work together to try to achieve a common goal.
Teams have to be run more like a business. If managed properly, and supported by the right kind of sponsors, they should be able to build up reserve funds, which would then help them to get through the inevitable leaner times. Currently, something around 85% of the typical team’s budget goes to paying salaries, which is far too much. But, to anticipate the next question, a salary cap is probably not the right answer either; that could create a black market in the sport, where riders might be paid under the table, or in non-cash considerations, and so on. That could lead to even more problems.
If the teams were run more like real businesses, and by business people, they would also have more clout in terms of seeking a portion of the TV revenues. But let’s remember, even if there was more TV revenue available to share amongst the teams, it would not be a large amount – probably about €20 million at most, to split amongst 18 teams. And most likely those additional dollars would just flow through to higher rider salaries anyway.
TOL: Cycling’s pro team structure has become more complicated over the last four years, with Velon and the AIGCP pursuing new and sometimes competing goals, and negotiating directly with the WorldTour and the UCI. How can the UCI get everyone on the same page?
PM: In short, by showing stronger leadership. The UCI needs to gain a greater respect from its stakeholders – as being the one neutral body which is mandated to look after the interests of all stakeholders in the sport. It is my personal opinion that Mr. Cookson doesn’t have the ability to move the sport forward over the next four years. He bills himself as a “consensus” builder, but unfortunately what this often means is that he just doesn’t want to take a decision. He has abdicated too many of his responsibilities to his Director General, Martin Gibbs, who takes care of the political and administrative decisions. And Gibbs doesn’t have the background or experience to do this; I know this, because he worked for me for two years. You have to keep in mind that the role of the UCI President and the UCI Director General are completely different. The President and his Management Board determine Board strategies, while the Director General sees to it that the staff carries out those mandates. The President takes day to day decisions on many important issues, which don’t need Board approval, and looks after the political aspects of the operation. It seems to me that this is not happening currently, and that Gibbs is making most of decisions – both political and administrative.
Mr. Lappartient, I believe, has a greater appreciation and respect for the history and the legacy of the sport. He has been successful with the French riders association, and I think he has a better understanding of the big picture. In my view, it is time for a change at the UCI.
TOL: What can/should the UCI do to make the WorldTour more exciting and relevant to attract new fans?
PM: The reforms of a couple years ago were supposed to do that, but they have largely failed. What we really need is a continuous narrative which begins at the start of the season and goes right through to the end in a cohesive way, with little or no overlap of events, and building to a grand finale. Continuing to add new events (as the UCI did in the WorldTour last year) does nothing to help that and only confuses the fans more.
In fact, I would actually reduce the number of events in the WorldTour calendar, and turn it into a more streamlined, year-long, with few if any concurrent races. I would also try to restrict the number of events on this calendar owned by any single organizer, in order that no single organizer would dominate the calendar or be able to use their influence to abuse the system.
We could also consider a second tier WorldTour Calendar running below this top calendar, which would include lower level European events as well as some of the best events on the other four continents. Below that we would still have the Continental calendars, all of which are working well and growing, and which are establishing some impressive races.
TOL: What strategies can the UCI employ to get organizers like ASO, RCS and Flanders to collaborate for the best interests of the entire sport, and not just their own race portfolios?
PM: In theory, I would say that the UCI should present a business model where everybody wins. I believe that race organizers like RCS, Flanders and other smaller races will come to the table and listen. The difficulty, as always, is ASO who, despite being presented with an economic model which could enhance their business, still seem to want to go it alone. I think that their longer-term strategy is to gradually take over everyone else, and build an empire and try to control the entire sport. The ASO is a very critical part of the sport of cycling, and the rest of the sport’s stakeholders must find a way to better work together with them. I believe that to allow a single company to control the sport is very dangerous.
Clearly, the ASO has a very dominant position in the sport today, but I believe that the UCI and other key stakeholders should continue to push and work for a more balanced and equitable sport – one where all parties can benefit, one where the overall size of the sport’s economics can grow – benefiting everyone. This can only be done by presenting ASO with a very well thought-out and detailed business plan, which clearly demonstrates that it would be advantageous to their individual financial benefit. A strong argument must be made to convince them that the sport is bigger than just ASO, and that the sport can prosper more if they cooperate with all of the other players. I strongly suggest that the UCI should engage with some of the other major global media partners in sport to study and examine how this might be done. Pro cycling’s future could hinge on it.
TOL: There have been rumors that ASO might be sold, that Chinese investors were interested in acquiring the Tour de France, and so on. Do you think that there will ever be significant change in direction at the ASO?
PM: Well, there have always been some rumors, but I don’t think that will ever happen. Why? Because ASO and the Tour de France are – through and through – so French! If ASO was ever sold, it could only be sold to another French entity. Look at the last few weeks – French Air Force fighter jets spreading red, blue and white streaks in the air on Bastille Day, or over Paris just the other day. The Tour is the pride of France. The roads, the police, the support from the towns and villages and fans – all of that is an expression of what it is to be French, but it is also a hidden subsidy to the event. So no, I can’t see the company moving into foreign hands. The Amaury family would have to be exiled out of France! We always hear about how the Amaury family will not change anything, but in a way, their hands are tied – it would be very difficult for them to sell their business to anyone else.
TOL: Shifting gears, do you believe that a stronger rider’s union would be good for the sport? From your perspective, why has the current rider’s union not been a very successful or powerful organization?
PM: I do think that a strong riders union would be good for the sport, because they it would allow the athletes to take stands on particular issues, when their interests are not being adequately addressed. Rider safety issues are a good example. The existing CPA organization has not been very successful, mostly because it was originally set up when the sport was still largely European-based – when most of the riders and teams came from just five or six European countries. The CPA was originally an organization comprised of individual rider associations from this handful of countries, whose job it was to look after the labor rights of the cyclists as workers, in each country, and obviously with slightly different labor laws. I believe the CPA did a reasonably good job looking after things like rider contracts, salary levels, pensions and so on. However, with the rapid expansion of the sport, with growing participation of riders from many new countries around the world, and with the increased demands placed upon today’s riders, the CPA as it is structured today is no longer fit for the purpose.
Currently, most of the national riders’ organizations and the CPA management and board are made up of ex-cyclists. Nothing against ex-cyclists, but the reality is that most of these individuals don’t have the expertise to run a union. The board of CPA should include people from the business world, or perhaps from trade unions outside of cycling. I think that there would be many people outside our sport, who have a big interest in cycling, and who would willingly give some of their time to assist in building a stronger union. The union’s Director and General Secretary should be competitively-paid positions, and their salaries, as well as the operating budget of the organization, should ultimately come from fees paid by the riders – just like in most other athlete unions. I don’t think the riders would have any problem paying, say, 1% or so of their salaries towards the union – if it was professionally run and if it was meeting all of their needs. In addition, I believe the union should have equal status on all of the advisory and relevant UCI Commissions, just like the organizers and the teams have. The athletes should be equal partners in the sport.
Let me give you an example involving the ASO, where a stronger riders union could have helped resolve a problem in the sport. In 2008 at Paris-Nice, there was an episode of brinksmanship between ASO and the UCI, over the direction we were trying to take the ProTour. (At the time, ASO was challenging the UCI’s ProTour reforms by holding Paris-Nice outside of the UCI’s jurisdiction, with the assistance of the French Cycling Federation, the FFC – Eds.) The pro teams’ association, AIGCP, was allied with the UCI and supportive of our proposed changes and reforms for the sport, and they were obliged not to take part in races which were not overseen by the UCI. But the ASO sent a deputy who went from team to team, and threatened them each with exclusion from important ASO races – if they didn’t come to race Paris-Nice, and go against the new UCI proposals. Which they all did in the end, and raced Paris-Nice. If there had been a strong union that could have stood up against the teams, the teams would have stood up to ASO, and the outcome would have been different. A strong riders union would basically help to create a greater balance of power in the sport.
TOL: What are your general thoughts about the women’s side of the sport? What can the UCI do to strengthen women’s cycling, and get more women involved at the top level of the sport’s decision-making?
PM: Women’s cycling is extremely important for our sport, in this age of gender equity, women’s rights and the advancement of women across the corporate and political sector. However, at the same time, we must accept that it will be a long time before we can build women’s racing to something like Wimbledon – where the women’s and men’s sport have a practically equal status. I do believe the last ten years has seen significant progress, and women’s racing needs to continue to be an important focus of the UCI, independent of changes in the men’s calendar or competitive structure. Women’s racing is still a long way behind, when you look at comparative salaries, team budgets, television coverage, and the like. I do think the UCI has made great strides in the area of gender balance with the Olympic Games and World Championships. In terms of placing more women at the top level of decision making, this can only come about if and when the national federations start to bring more women onto their executive boards, allowing eventual participation at the regional and international level. UCI could assist this with a more clearly defined strategy.
I strongly believe that the UCI must take a more proactive role with all national Federations to stamp out any signs of sexism, harassment or abuse, as soon as they come to the surface. This should be done by installing checks and balances throughout each national Federation, and its various constituent parts. The recent UK Cycling enquiry showed clearly that the President and his Board were well adrift of what was going on in the sport, in particular at the elite level.
TOL: From the point of view of public perception, can the sport ever escape its damaging association with the doping era and the whole Armstrong affair? What has pro cycling done right, or wrong, to change its image?
PM: Yes, I do believe that the sport can escape its poor public image and the memories of the doping era. However, this perception is kind of a generational thing, and it will only really fade as time passes – assuming we don’t have another era of widespread doping. On the other hand, and what is not widely recognized, is that cycling is and always has been the one of the key leaders in anti-doping – mainly because it simply had to be. Recent scandals in other areas like Russian Olympic fiasco and the sport of athletics have helped to balance things a bit and shown that doping and cheating are not exclusive to cycling, as some would have us believe. What the UCI has to do is continue to fight the good fight and stay innovative – in terms of new ways to anticipate, monitor, police and punish doping using all new technologies and systems as they become available.
From the larger perspective, I do believe that the sport is a lot cleaner now than it has been at probably any time in its history. And I think the Biological Passport has been the main driver in helping to bring this about. In the past, the UCI had a paltry budget to deal with anti-doping. In the 1990’s it was in the region of €500k per annum. The introduction of the Biological Passport, where all the ProTour (now the WorldTour – Eds.) and Pro Continental teams contributed towards the anti-doping costs, brought this up to more like €5 million – originally €4m from the teams and €1m from UCI. This has allowed for a much more intensive anti-doping program which, I believe, is very difficult to circumnavigate. This has really helped to clean up the sport.
TOL: From your broader perspective, why does it seem to be so hard to make professional cycling as successful as other global team sports?
PM: There are obviously many reasons, but perhaps the most critical challenge is that cycling has always had a rich history in Europe and great difficulty in extending that tradition and legacy more globally. Second, most other sports are team sports, whereas cycling is perhaps best described as a team sport practiced by individuals; this also complicates matters. In addition, most team sports have a regional political foundation, with a fan base which pays weekly to see their team compete, whereas few cycling teams have long-term regional roots, and the sport has virtually no gate income. When you get all the main stakeholders in a room together to discuss the sport’s agenda, you quickly realize that each stakeholder is primarily focused on defending their own narrow sphere of interest, rather than the collective strength and growth of the overall sport. Believe me, I have seen this many times – it is very frustrating and it discourages progress.
TOL: Your tenure at the UCI was not without controversy; looking back now, what things would you have done differently? On what issues do you feel you were most misunderstood or misrepresented by the public or the media? And what do you think were your greatest accomplishments as President?
PM: I was UCI President during a very difficult time for our sport. Of course with the privilege of hindsight I can say I might have done some things differently but I would say this – any decision I took was taken in what I perceived to be the best interests of the sport at that time. One example I might cite would be the decision I made to allow Armstrong to ride the Tour Down Under. Armstrong was coming back from a short retirement, he entered the Biological Passport system and had several tests which were normal and so UCI shortened the regulation six-month waiting period by ten days – allowing him to race in Australia. I felt like his participation would be great for the sport in Australia, as he had never raced there before. And in retrospect, I think I was right – the Tour Down Under had never seen anything like it. There was no other underlying reason for my decision, but for years people have put all sorts of spins on that decision, mostly just to stick a knife in my back.
I think I was probably misunderstood in terms of my strong resolve to fight doping and clean up the sport. The teams know this, because in regular meetings between UCI and the teams I hit them very, very hard. There were even accusations that we were in collusion with the dopers, but all of that was rubbish, and it was eventually disproven in the courts. However, this didn’t get almost any coverage in media. (A libel suit brought by former UCI President Verbruggen against journalist Paul Kimmage over these accusations was ruled in Verbruggen’s favor in May of 2016, and was made final by Swiss law on June 10, 2017, days prior to Verbruggen’s death – Eds.) I would have to say that I think too many journalists write stories about doping and accuse UCI of failing to do this, that, or the other thing without ever actually coming to Aigle and sitting down with UCI to see our side of the story as well.
I read just a few days ago where Andrei Greipel was quoted as saying doping in cycling finished 2007 or 2008. I played a large part in that and I am proud of that. Things like the Biological Passport program, the “no needles” policy and so on still represent the cornerstone of the UCI anti-doping strategy, and I introduced many of these initiatives.
TOL: Looking back in retrospect, have you modified or softened your position with respect to the whole doping era in the 1990s and early 2000s?
PM: Well, I would say this. There is a lot of hypocrisy in this sport. Armstrong was run out of the sport entirely. But at the same time there are many French personalities – on TV, on radio, at the race starts, and so on – who were just as guilty as Armstrong, but the public continues to love them, and they don’t suffer any scrutiny of their past. The blame or the punishment has certainly been distributed unfairly. There is no such love for Armstrong, Riis, or Rasmussen.
At the time of Armstrong’s downfall, I was widely quoted as saying that I felt he had no place in the sport. But, in looking back, and to be fair, the same must be said of many other racers in the same breath. Perhaps Armstrong was the most aggressive, perhaps he gained the most, and so maybe it is only fair that he took the biggest fall. But at the end of the day, he was no different from the rest. We now know virtually everyone was using drugs, and so everyone’s performance went up.
One other thing I will say about Armstrong. When he was preparing to return, he called me and said, “Listen, I see that things have changed, that the sport is cleaner. I want to come back and prove that I can still kick some ass.” Although at that time I didn’t know about his past doping history, I do believe that he competed clean in 2009 and 2010. He was clearly the most physically talented and capable rider of his generation, and probably would still have won all of those Tours if the whole peloton had been clean.
I have some concerns with all the whistleblowers that we have in pro cycling today. I think whistleblowers are fine – in sports, in industry, in government; they should give their information to the proper authorities and then go away. But there are too many would-be whistleblowers in cycling today who just want to settle old grudges, and continue to act without really changing or making things any better. I won’t mention any names here, but there are clearly some prominent ex-riders who sit squarely in this camp.
TOL: What would be your top three priorities if you were running for President this year?
PM: Very simple: To put UCI back in a stronger leadership role, to really sort out the calendar and structure of the WorldTour, and to initiate a major strategy for stronger ethics in pro cycling. Yes, there would be a lot of details to be worked out in all of that, but those would be the three overriding strategic goals.
We also need to improve the overall ethics of the sport – something which has not always been a very high priority. There are still too many people who come from the “old” school of cycling. There are still some teams representing countries and entities where I don’t think ethical values are a very highly-valued quality – for example, some of the eastern European and Middle East sponsored teams. The UCI needs to set a stronger example in this regard, and install a much more rigorous set of ethical standards for its own organization first. That isn’t apparent yet. One of the UCI’s most important roles should be to preach ethics, and to ensure that ethical standards are at the forefront at every level of the sport.
TOL: What other advice or commentary would you have for pro cycling today?
PM: Well, I could obviously speak for a long time on that! But I think the single most important thing for the survival and growth of cycling is to find a new financial model, and a new form of economic support. Teams need to be run more like businesses or private companies. We need a new business model and we need more experienced business people in the sport.
TOL: So, what are you up to today, and what are your future plans, with respect to competitive cycling or other sports, and beyond?
I am living in Correns, in the Provence area of France, and enjoying the Mediterranean lifestyle – and the ability to ride my bike on a regular basis. I have been involved in cycling one way or another almost all of my life and that won’t change. I have other family actively involved in the sport too, and indeed I am always interested in staying involved and taking on interesting projects to help further develop our sport, in any part of the world.
I have a lot of experience and a great interest in the global aspect of our sport and I would really like to see a future in which the other continents can also provide high-level competitive racers, like we have recently seen from Africa. Asia has the talent to do likewise on a large scale.
Here in Provence I have a great venue with wonderful cycling terrain – and great wine! I enjoy having small groups to visit me here – either club, sportive or corporate – where they can ride their bike daily and enjoy good food, wine, and talk cycling late into the night. Out of some of those discussions hopefully will come some new ideas and innovations for the future of cycling!
The Outer Line
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