UCI president Brian Cookson: Continuing to restore cycling’s reputation

Ahead of this month’s International Cycling Union presidential election, its incumbent chief discusses the sport's reputation, what he did right in his first term, his election manifesto, Wanda, and the battle with doping.

UCI president Brian Cookson: Continuing to restore cycling’s reputation

A bad reputation is rarely easy to erase - especially when one’s own ethics are called into question - but that has been the task at hand for professional cycling for much of this decade.

The dark side of the sport's history is full of tawdry tales of drugs, betrayal and excess, some of which would not be out of place in a rock star’s memoir. However, for all the corruption and deceit that has sometimes plagued it, this is a sport that has teamwork, drama and selflessness at its very core, and is built on an activity that can promote good environmental and public health in wider society.     

Brian Cookson, president of the International Cycling Union (UCI), whose first term as president has seen a period of great reform, is nearing the end of canvassing for his re-election and hopes to continue restoring cycling’s reputation.

Cookson became head of the UCI in 2013 when he beat Pat McQuaid by 24 to 18 votes at the UCI Congress in Florence, Italy. The Briton’s tenure coincided with the exposure of the once-revered American cyclist Lance Armstrong’s history of systematic doping past and apparent decade-long collusion with the UCI to cover it up.

Cookson, for his part, formed the Independent Commission for Reform in Cycling (CIRC) in 2014, which delved into historic doping in the sport, specifically the UCI’s relationship with Armstrong. A 227-page dossier, commissioned at a cost of UK£2.3million (US$3.1million), concluded that doping had been endemic and recommended a number of changes to the existing system for catching cheats.

The uncovering by Cookson and the CIRC of an underworld - one that was previously kept under a code of omertà by the peloton - has helped foster a period of improved transparency in cycling and the UCI, but greater challenges lie ahead. 

The upcoming election will take place at the UCI Congress in Bergen, Norway, on 21st September. Cookson will face one challenger, David Lappartient, a vice president of the UCI and an ardent supporter of the incumbent during his previous election campaign.  

SportsPro: The vote on your re-election is only weeks away. How do you feel you campaign has gone so far?

Brian Cookson: I think that it is going quite well. I am standing on the fact that over the past four years the UCI and cycling have repaired all of the damage of all the previous years.

We have got a very strong relationship with the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA], the Olympic movement, we have invested heavily into women’s cycling, increased the funding into international development and we have revitalised the World Tour [the annual men’s elite road cycling tour].     

We have reformed our governance, instructed a new ethics code, put in place a new term-limit for the president. The UCI is now managed, well governed and has a decent financial basis: we met our target of having CHF 20 million (US$20.8 million) in our reserves, three years ahead of schedule.   

My manifesto focuses on six key elements [investment in satellite centres; encouraging growth across all disciplines; pursuing equal opportunities for women in cycling; using elite sport to promote transport and leisure; improving governance and management; reinforcing anti-doping processes] that are about keeping cycling growing globally.

All of those things need constant attention and are what I am committed to over the next four years.                     


Your only opponent is a former supporter - UCI vice president David Lappartient - who in a recent interview with the BBC claimed that you were “out of touch”, “lacked a clear vision” and were uninformed “about some of the key points of the institution”. What do you say to these accusations?

Well they are nonsense, of course.

If David doesn’t understand the difference between running a huge multi-faceted international organisation and running a small town in Brittany, which is what his day job is, then he is perhaps not as suitable a candidate for the president of the UCI as I believe that I am.

I have nothing against David, he has done a good job in some of things that he has done but frankly he is an ambitious man who perhaps, as a politician, is letting his ambitions get the better of him on this occasion.

I think that there is work to be done in my leadership. I made it absolutely clear when I was a candidate four years ago that one of the problems that had dragged the UCI down to where it was at the time was the very poor governance and poor leadership and management.

There needs to be a difference between the role of the chairman of the board - the president in our case - and the chief executive, which the director general in our case. Governance is different from management and if you don’t understand that then you don’t understand the checks and balances that are needed in running an international organisation.

Maybe that is part of the reason why that emperor or oligarch model of leadership has been in such trouble over the last few years. We have a much better model that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.                  


The UCI and Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) - the organiser of the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España - are arguably cycling’s two most important and powerful organisations but they have at times had a fractured relationship. How are relations with ASO at the moment? How closely do you work with them?

As far as I am concerned, we have a good relationship. They are represented on the Professional Cycling Council and they are, of course, involved in our decision-making processes, as are other race organisers as well.

Whilst they are a very large and profitable company, nobody wants to damage their successful events like the Tour de France. They are very good at what they do. I think that we can do more with them - and with other stakeholders - to make sure that things are better, bigger, more profitable and more sustainable for everyone. But not just for one company - one element - and that is what I am committed to.

One analogy that I have used before is: at the moment ASO have a big slice of the cake of professional cycling. I don’t want to reduce the amount of cake that they have but I do want to have a bigger cake so that other event organisers can have a slice of it, not least the teams.

Cookson aims to build a more productive relationship with ASO, owner and operator of the blue-riband Tour de France

The teams deserve to be on a more sustainable economic footing and this is something that I want to see happen.

The UCI is essentially a regulator and regulators don’t generally like to see monopolies in any industry. ASO don’t quite have a monopoly but they do have a very strong position. What I would like to see is others in these positions, whether or not they are event organisers; we have Wanda Group involved in China for instance.

As far as I am concerned we can work and develop with them to see cycling develop and become even stronger in future.                    

I think that there is work to be done in my leadership. I made it absolutely clear when I was a candidate four years ago that one of the problems that had dragged the UCI down to where it was at the time was the very poor governance and poor leadership and management.

The now retired Alberto Contador has called for team salary caps to even up the playing field. However, Tour and Vuelta winner Chris Froome has voiced his opposition to that proposition, calling it an “unfair” way of levelling the playing field. Where do you stand on this issue?  

I think that a budget or salary cap is an interesting idea. I think they work in some sports where there is a closed league system but they are much more difficult to police when you have an open system. There will always be teams that are better funded than others.

What I want to do is spend some time thinking about this. I have been speaking to Yves Leterme - the former Belgian prime minister, who is heading up Uefa’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) unit - about whether there are lessons that we can learn from football in that respect.

After the election I will be working even closer with him discuss the possibility of this. I am open to this and I would be interested to see if a system could be made to work. Men’s professional cycling is still a long way behind sports like football in terms of the budgets of the team and the remunerations levels. So I am not entirely convinced.

I am also not entirely convinced that teams couldn’t find their way around the caps. At the moment we have a very intensive system of scrutinising each the teams’ budgets and ethics and we pay Ernst & Young to look at that every year. Maybe it is something that we can look more at.

In my opinion, there are lots of companies out there that are interested in the sport. I don’t think that the situation is as drastic as some people would like to make imply. What cycling needs to do is to keep building on its reputation and integrity, and then we will see more of the highest level companies wanting to come into the sport as sponsors.

That has been one of the problems of the past: the doping scandal scared a lot of people away from us. The fact we have improved this reputation has meant that we are seeing more companies support cycling than ever before.        

Brian Cookson was first elected UCI president in 2013

For some, professional cycling’s reputation is forever tarnished by its past record of systematic doping and, with the recent high profile failed test of Samuel Sánchez, do you believe that there will ever be a clean peloton? How closely are you working with WADA to achieve this?

There will always be people that try to cheat in any walk of life or profession. The job of any global sports body is to make sure that we keep that to an absolute minimum.  

To compare where we are now to where we were a couple of years ago is such a vast improvement. I have implemented a complete process to ensure that cycling’s anti-doping systems are genuinely independent, so that we get away from any conflicts of interest.

The Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF) now handles all of the operational aspects. There is no board member or management teams in common between the two organisations, it is entirely separate from the UCI. The case management is made by a legal service that is separate from the UCI and under the scrutiny of an external lawyer.

There is no possibility now of the kind of interests between the role of disciplining the sport and the role of developing and promoting the sport, which I think is a great thing. When I look back at the conflicts that we used to have with WADA it is all changed. We now have [International Olympic Committee president] Thomas Bach asking for my help on how to set up a testing agency for all sports.

If people still think that our sport is still full of dopers, then I am sorry for them and they should remember this: there are sports that have a doping problem and are doing something about it - I believe that we are one of the leaders in this now - and then there are sports that have a doping problem but are in denial about it.


What can you tell us about the UCI’s partnership with Wanda and its expansion into China?

This is a really exciting development and it is one the most substantial partnerships that the UCI has ever become involved in. Together we will organise the Tour of Guangxi next year. They are committed to building a satellite of our World Cycling Centre in China and they are committed to organising our so-called World Urban Cycling Championships for the next three years, which includes the Olympic discipline of freestyle BMX plus trials and eliminators.

They are committed to investing in Chinese cycling in general. We will be doing a women’s event too this year that will be in the Women’s World Tour next year. They are committed to substantial investment to all forms of cycling in China - they also have number of global subsidiaries - and we are working with them to try to get most out the investment and for our sport.              


What are your plans to continue the development of women’s cycling? Are you taking any practices from other sports, such as cricket, whose female stars are being given a more prominent stage and are now beginning to be seen on more even footing with their male counterparts?

Sure, this is something that I have been trying to promote and UCI has been investing in substantially for the past four years. We can do more. We will be doing more.

We have established a Women’s World Tour, which is hugely more successful that the Women’s World Cup that it replaced. We have made all of the women’s prize money at our world championship equal, we have established a women’s commission, a female vice president for the first time, have at least one woman on all of our specialist discipline commissions and we are making sure that we are hearing women’s voices and involving them in our governance.

We will ensure that we keep progressing with this over the next four years.