The drugs don’t work

Since being elected president of the Union Cycliste Internationale in 2006, Pat McQuaid has taken on the challenge of restoring credibility to a sport that had seen its reputation all but destroyed.

Since being elected president of the Union Cycliste Internationale in 2006, Pat McQuaid has taken on the challenge of restoring credibility to a sport that had seen its reputation all but destroyed by doping scandals. Winning that fight and turning cycling from a European sport into a global one have become McQuaid’s twin goals.

"A father – I don't mind saying who it was, Johny Schleck – came to me a few years ago, soon after I was elected," recalls Pat McQuaid. "He asked me whether he should he leave his two sons in the sport or get them out now. I knew why he was asking me the question, so I said: 'tell him to leave them in the sport because this fight's going to continue against doping. They will have a fair chance to perform.'"

That Schleck, a former Tour de France and Vuelta a España competitor, felt it necessary to ask the question shows just how far cycling's reputation had fallen. In 2006, the sport's credibility was in tatters. More than 20 professional cyclists, including a former world champion and a four-time Vuelta winner, failed drugs tests in 2005. Even more had done so in 2004. But 2006 was something of a nadir. Both Jan Ulrich and Ivan Basso, the two favourites for the Tour de France, were amongst a number of riders expelled from the Tour as the Operación Puerto doping case made headlines around the world, and a sport that often struggles to get on the back pages of newspapers found itself on the front. In Ulrich and Basso's absence, Floyd Landis was crowned Tour de France champion – before he, too, was disqualified and suspended after failing a drugs test. Cycling was an international joke. The only people not laughing were those watching the sport disintegrate around their ears.

Into this mess stepped McQuaid, the newly elected president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). The Irishman's involvement in the sport stretches back more than four decades, to his own racing days in the 1960s and '70s. McQuaid, who was Irish national road champion in 1974 and Tour of Ireland champion in 1975 and 1976, comes from cycling stock; his father and uncle were competitive cyclists, and his brothers and cousin represented Ireland in world championships and the Olympic Games – indeed, only a suspension served as a result of racing in apartheid South Africa prevented McQuaid from racing in the 1976 Games. He persuaded Schleck to keep his sons, Fränk and Andy, in cycling, and the decision unquestionably paid off; Fränk has since won two stages in the Tour de France, with Andy finishing the 2009 Tour de France in second place – behind only Alberto Contador, and ahead of Lance Armstrong.

But McQuaid, whose CV includes positions as director of the Irish national team, the Tour of China, the Tour of Langkawi and the Tour of the Philippines, as well as three years as the president of the Irish Cycling Federation and eight as the UCI road commission chairman, was by no means unanimously hailed as a white knight on a charger – or even a bicycle – come to save cycling from the evils of doping. Indeed, controversy even reared its head within the UCI, with management committee member Sylvia Schenk making a complaint to the Ethics Commission of the International Olympic Committee, claiming that McQuaid had received payments from the UCI whilst still in his role as president of the Irish federation, contrary to article 52 of the UCI constitution. McQuaid dismissed her concerns, explaining that the allowable expenses he had received whilst working in the UCI offices had been nothing to do with his campaign for the presidency. More importantly, Hein Verbruggen and the rest of the management committee immediately condemned Schenk, insisting 'relations with her will be stopped with immediate effect.' But Schenk was not the last problem McQuaid would face from Germany. In 2007, when the UCI Road World Championships were held in Stuttgart, Susanne Eisenmann, the city's sports commissioner, asked a German court to prevent Italian cyclist Paolo Bettini from riding in the city after he refused to sign an anti-doping pledge. McQuaid believed Eisenmann was using the situation to further her own political career and, more importantly, as a pretext to avoid paying the full fee for hosting the event. Though the UCI rightly pointed out that it had no right to prevent riders from competing merely because they had not signed the pledge, German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung subsequently accused McQuaid of inconsistencies in his approach to doping. To McQuaid, the idea that he might be soft on drugs must have seemed utterly abhorrent.

Pat McQuaid"I was an athlete at a fairly good level," he recounts now. "Not Tour de France level because I decided at a certain time to go to university rather than concentrate full-time on cycling. So I reached a fairly high level, but as an amateur – I only went professional in England for a couple of years – and so therefore I have a certain ethos and a certain philosophy of the sport which is basically an amateur philosophy: sport is about guys competing against each other, and may the best man win. You don't resort to drugs, you don't resort to cheating. There were many times in races when I got very aggressive towards other individuals for this, that and the other; and fists were flying at times. These types of things happen in races, which one accepts. Drugs is a completely different thing. That's a pre-planned, pre-meditated form of cheating which I cannot accept from my background as a cyclist." Not that McQuaid's background as a cyclist was all that shaped his outlook. "As a physical education teacher, when I was in college I studied a lot of the philosophy of sport and the sociology of sport and these types of things, and they gave me certain ideas and certain philosophies toward what sport should be, which I still retain to this day."

McQuaid points to the lack of doping scandals at the Tour de France in 2009 as evidence of the success of his tactics in the war on drugs. Those methods include the use of biological passports – individual electronic records for each rider in which the results of all doping tests over a period of time are collated. The passports, which contain the results of individual urine and blood tests as well as a haematological profile, consisting of the combined results of haematological parameters analysed in a series of blood samples, and a steroid profile, consisting of the combined results of steroid levels in a series of urine samples, are unique to the sport; and McQuaid is passionate about their success.

"We had no doping scandals on the Tour de France, largely because of the introduction of the biological passport – we're the only international federation so far that has introduced it," he enthuses. "We find that our specialist people, our doctors and so forth, our anti-doping people, tell us that it definitely has worked in terms of reducing the amount of doping in the sport on two fronts: one, it's acting as a deterrent because there are so many controls being done; and two, the athletes don't know what we're testing for. You know, it's not as if we're testing for a specific subject, specific products. It's based on the parameters and on the movement of the parameters of your blood and so forth, so it's become very difficult for them to cheat anymore." Study of the passports, McQuaid explains, allows the UCI to target-test riders. "Even though we have had doping cases this year, through classic controls, the controls were the results of targeted testing as a result of biological passports; it's given us opportunity to target-test and also given us opportunity to evaluate athletes over long periods of time," he says. "So from that point of view, it has worked. And I would hope that in 2010 we will continue to see an improvement in the fight against doping – in other words, a drop in the doping cases in our sport – and that we can, to some extent, get the credibility back in the sport that we've needed over the past couple of years."

Credibility is the key word in a sport so reliant on sponsorship. Some might think that a man with McQuaid's amateur background and decades of experience in the sport would be wary of welcoming the recent influx of money and people from a business background into cycling, as the sponsors spending millions on teams become more involved. McQuaid namechecks Garmin-Transitions, Team HTC-Columbia and the newly formed Team Sky as three teams leading the sport's development and, crucially, three teams which he is confident will not seek to use drugs to drive their success. "The coming of teams like Sky are bringing a new dimension to professional cycling," he says, pointing to the involvement of Dave Brailsford, the performance director of British Cycling who has, following delivery of a host of Olympic medals by his Great Britain team, agreed to manage Sky's attempt to produce a competitive team and, within four years, the first ever British winner of the Tour de France. "I know Dave Brailsford well, and I know his philosophy. I've followed closely the whole development of British track cycling since 1998, the Sydney Games, the Athens Games and the Beijing Games, and so I know all the background to it and I know the background to the philosophy of it. The philosophy of the support services they provide the cyclists ensures they can get the optimum performance using purely correct means. And he will now bring this philosophy into the professional team, the road team, and that's good for the sport because the more we get – we need more teams with that type of philosophy, with his philosophy which is the same as Columbia, which is the same as Garmin – the more of these teams we have with the correct philosophy at the top level of our sport, the less we're going to have problems with doping."

That, insists McQuaid, is because the men in charge of those teams are not only honest but also commercially astute. Put simply, they understand that the sport must be clean if they are to pull in millions of dollars of sponsorship each year. "How people come in from, say, an entrepreneurial background, or from a business background, brings a philosophy in. Because people like Bob Stapleton [the owner of Team HTC-Columbia] understand the damage a lack of credibility can do to sponsorship. They understand that damage can be done. They understand that they can't afford to have that in the team and they must therefore work very hard within the team to create the anti-doping philosophy. And you have to go out of your way to create that philosophy. It doesn't just happen on its own – you have to actually work at it. And Bob Stapleton's succeeded in doing it and [Jonathan] Vaughters has done it with Garmin."

The impressive sums commanded by top teams would seem to support McQuaid's viewpoint. HTC, for example, is expected to pay well over US$25million over the course of its three-year contract with Stapleton's High Road Sports. Those fees have stayed high, says McQuaid, even throughout the global economic crisis. Though Stapleton and others have estimated the hit to sponsorship fees as being as high as 30 per cent, McQuaid believes the numbers actually indicate the growth potential of the sport. "It's been a tough time for everybody: it's a tough time for companies; it's a tough time for governments; it's a tough time for business; and that's all evident, particularly with the banking crisis," he says. "But interestingly enough, cycling, despite the negative image which it has had, hasn't lost a huge amount of money. Teams seem to be able to find sponsors. Sponsors are there, teams are there, and they seem to be able to find them, so there is an element which indicates to me there is huge untapped potential once the economies improve."

But, says McQuaid, one part of the sport has been hit hard. "Where we are suffering," he admits, "is the events – events throughout Europe in particular; not so much the rest of the world because there are new events. The calendar's very small outside Europe anyway and there was always big potential to grow, and it's still growing, but in Europe the smaller organisers are having difficulty because there's not the same amount of commercial money there for them. And also cycling does depend a lot on local authorities. Local authorities are pushed for money at the moment and so therefore they have cut back; so the ones who are suffering most are medium, smaller organisers. Big organisers are doing okay but medium and small organisers are suffering."
Dealing with the biggest of the big organisers, Tour de France owners Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), has perhaps been McQuaid's toughest challenge since taking the reins at the UCI. The two bodies have clashed over a number of issues, including admission to the Tour de France, with the UCI adamant that all 18 Pro Tour teams should automatically be invited. In 2008, ASO banned Team Astana – which counted 2007 champion Contador amongst its riders. The decision not to let the champion defend his crown was, said ASO, linked to the team's well-documented doping controversies in 2007; the UCI, meanwhile, saw it as a direct challenge to its authority. The feud, which had been simmering for a number of years, reached boiling point when Christian Prudhomme, general director of the Tour de France, called for McQuaid's resignation. "Cycling does not belong to the Tour de France, it belongs to the cycling family," McQuaid responded scathingly.

Now, McQuaid says, the dispute is a thing of the past. "The problem was there before I became president," he explains, "and for the first couple of years I had a very difficult time with the organisers. We said there's no way we're going to allow you to threaten the independence of the international federation to control and regulate the sport. And eventually they saw that they were going down the wrong path so steps were taken to bring them back into the fold and, you know, we now have a good working relationship. We're working together on the development of the calendar of the events and so forth – but all under the auspices; the knowledge that the UCI is the controlling body and controls the calendar and the regulation of the sport." Still, the Irishman insists the body he heads is in no way dictatorial. "Where we want to change regulations, we would discuss with them – certainly if it pertains to their events, we would discuss with them – and agree a strategy in advance of doing it," he says. "It's not as if we're going to impose regulations on them, we don't work like that. We work in a very democratic way."

Schleck and Contador battleA key challenge of McQuaid's relationship with the Grand Tours – the Vuelta a España and the Giro d'Italia as well as the Tour de France – is reconciling their established place at the top of the sport with his plans to develop the world's other tours and events. Fittingly, as a man who has headed tours in China, Langkawi and the Philippines, the globalisation of the sport is McQuaid's great passion. "Events that I organised in places like the Philippines and Malaysia have given me a very broad perspective on the sport and the potential for the sport outside Europe. And that drives me a lot to continue to develop it outside Europe because I've always known there's big potential. In the '90s when I was organising the Tour of the Philippines, I saw young kids there that if they were given the right opportunities could be major world stars if the pathway was laid out for them correctly. I know the talent is there, and when you see the likes of the two Japanese riders completing the Tour de France last year and, you know, when you see a kid from Eritrea finishing sixth in the Tour de l'Avenir, you realise that there is enormous potential for our sport to develop globally, and so that experience has actually helped to motivate me at work." When, last November, McQuaid was invited to speak at the Peace and Sport forum to discuss cycling's development work, particularly in Africa, he used the example of Adrien Niyonshuti, a Rwandan cyclist who raced against his icon Lance Armstrong in 2009's Tour of Ireland, having secured a professional contract for 2009 after winning the 2008 Tour of Rwanda. Niyonshuti, who lost six of his brothers in the 1994 genocide, was the first African to race in the event. That is no surprise when it is considered that, up until four or five years ago, only two per cent of the UCI's activity was within Africa, with Europe commanding some 86 per cent. That, says McQuaid, was something he was determined to change.

To that end, he has led the movement to introduce the five continental championships. "By developing a continental qualification calendar we would look at each continent, look at the standard of the sport in the continent and start working on how we develop it. When most of your activity is on one continent – and 86 per cent of our activity was in Europe," he reiterates, "– then it's only natural that the people working on it will concentrate on where all the activity is. And because of that, they ignore the other continents and don't look at it. Once we divide it into five continents and say, 'look you've got to concentrate on each continent, we need to develop each continent', then suddenly they look to Africa and say, 'well okay, there are only a couple of international races in Africa – now what do we have to do?'" Africa has moved from having four national tours in 2005, says McQuaid, to 14 or 15 in 2010, while the 16 events in Asia have increased to more than 30. Alongside that, the UCI has introduced a new programme of seminars and conferences with national federations and developed a full-time continental centre in South Africa, which counts Niyonshuti amongst its graduates.

"I would like that 86 per cent in Europe to go down to maybe 60 per cent, with 40 per cent coming from the other continents," McQuaid says. "And that doesn't mean that the work has to diminish in Europe, it just means the other continents have to do more." Such is McQuaid's zeal for the globalisation of the sport that he names it as one of two things he would like to be remembered for at the end of his time as UCI president. "One thing would be that I would like to be seen as someone who was really concentrated on globalising the sport, and has achieved a certain something to that effect," he says. "The other would be that I have brought back and maintained – not that I want to step down, it will be in some years' time – but that I have brought back and maintained the credibility of the sport for those who come up to us; so that parents can quite readily allow their sons to come into the sport." Johny Schleck will stand testament to that.