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Brian Cookson's plans to revamp cycling

Brian Cookson Interview
Mark Bailey
1 Aug 2016

The head of the UCI, Brian Cookson, talks to Cyclist about the disc brake ban, motor doping and his plans to reform the pro calendar.

Cyclist: The UCI suspended testing of disc brakes on safety grounds after Movistar’s Fran Ventoso was badly injured at Paris-Roubaix. Will they be making a return?

Brian Cookson: I don’t think we have seen the end of disc brakes by any means. We took the cautious decision. The equipment commission looked at the whole issue over the past year or two and agreed to allow limited testing. With the Ventoso incident some serious concerns were raised and while there are alternative interpretations as to what may have happened, the equipment commission erred on the side of safety. So it is a temporary halt. There may well be requirements to modify them – maybe a cover or something – but it was right to err on the side of caution.

Cyc: You recently had to take action against a rider for ‘technological doping’. Is this a new area of focus for the UCI?

BC: Technological fraud you mean! [Laughs]. That’s the phrase we use. Yes, we will be testing about 10,000 bikes a year at the current rate. We have already done well over 2,000 at road events, track events and cyclocross events and we will keep doing that. We were aware that the technology existed and we were aware of the rumours and allegations that arose from time to time about things that may or may not have happened in the past. And it was our obligation to do something about it. Our job is to protect the integrity of the sport and to make sure that people who want to cheat don’t win. We are determined to clamp down on any form of cheating now, in the past or in the future.

Cyc: What does the bike testing for internal motors actually involve?

BC: We do invasive testing by taking bikes apart but we also have a new methodology that is quicker and more convenient and allows for more bikes to be checked. We looked at different systems and possibilities, such as x-rays, thermal imaging and ultrasonic devices, and the solution our partners came up with is a fairly cunning bit of software based on magnetic resistance fields that works using a camera attached to an iPad. It’s a quick and portable system that allows us to check lots of bikes for anything suspicious. 

It is not just concerned with motors in the down tube or magnets in the back wheel. It’s quite a future-proof system and, put simply, it analyses anything that is inexplicable within a bike frame: wheels, everything. It can test a bike within a minute and does clever things like take photos of the bike and analyse anything that shouldn’t be there. It then comes up with a score from 1-10. If there’s nothing unusual it will be 0. If it comes across a battery for a Di2 it will register a number but explain it as normal. But if it finds something slightly puzzling, there is a warning and that is when we take the bike to pieces. We then insert endoscopic cameras, and on the very first occasion we used it we caught somebody.

Cyc: Despite the years of rumours, were you surprised to discover the use of a motor on a bike?

BC: Nobody else had been caught with any other system, despite lots of speculation. Were we expecting to catch someone at the Under-23 Women’s Cyclocross World Championships? No, we were not. But all races are equally important and it is vital we do tests at them all. It was quite interesting seeing the press conference afterwards. There were 80 to 100 journalists and they didn’t want to talk about the exciting racing – the first ever Under-23 Women’s World Championships. All they wanted to talk about was the concealed motor. I think some journalists thought, ‘You’ve used this young girl as a scapegoat. Why not keep the news secret and then do tests at an elite event and catch someone big and famous so we have a huge scandal!’ My answer is that this was a World Championships and they are all important. If we had kept the news hidden [to try to catch someone else] then the same journalists would be asking why we were hiding it. Sometimes you can’t win with the media. Your dear colleagues!

Cyc: Are you keen to encourage new developments such as on-bike cameras and live data streams?

BC: Absolutely. We want to embrace new technology and exploit all of its benefits for our sport. I’ve said many times that you can’t uninvent things. We always want to be embracing new ideas and moving forward with the times. I’m a big fan of the cameras and data and all that stuff [at professional races]. And I think some of the software and apps available [for recreational cyclists] are great too, as long as you use them to enhance cycling instead of as an alternative to actually cycling.

Cyc: What do you think of the suggestion that the best riders should compete at all the biggest races throughout the year?

BC: The big Grand Tours will always be the big Grand Tours and the Classics will always be the Classics. But around those we can build a more international element to our sport and ensure we have a genuinely season-long narrative. However, there will always be a natural ebb and flow. The idea that the best riders will be at the best events week after week is a flawed concept because the best riders at Paris-Roubaix are not the same guys who will excel at the Tour de France – or even the Tour of Flanders. And neither will teams want to put their best riders in all the same events. Teams will always choose riders according to their goals and ambitions.

Cyc: All 17 races in the new Women’s WorldTour are being screened on TV or showcased via live streaming. Have you been pleased with the changes?

BC: We have had a few glitches with the broadcasting but we are investing a lot into that with race organisers to ensure good packages are available to the viewers in different territories. There were some issues around the geoblocking of signals and so on, but ultimately if anyone is investing in something to do with broadcasting, they will want something in return. They are not doing it out of charity. We have all got used to enjoying sport for free but if we want riders to be remunerated and events to be run on a sound financial basis, we might have to be willing to pay to watch the racing – whether it’s at the event itself or on television or over the internet.

Cyc: Do you like to make yourself available to professional riders if they have issues to discuss?

BC: I do like to discuss things with riders. In the formal sense we have introduced a revitalised UCI Athletes’ Commission with representatives from all disciplines, both male and female, and they have elected Bobbie Traksel [the Dutch ex-pro who won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2010] as their president [Australian track cyclist Anna Meares and Dutch road and cyclocross rider Marianne Vos are also on the commission]. So he is now a member of the management committee and is doing a good job. But I do try to go to events. I try not to make myself a nuisance but I am always happy to speak to riders. Of course, there has to be a balance as well. I can’t go and pretend I am their best friend. But I will listen to what they have got to say.

Cyc: Are you keen to make cycling a more global sport?

BC: One of the whole points of the UCI World Cycling Centre here in Switzerland is to bring people from developing nations and smaller cycling nations to our facilities here so they can develop their skills and abilities and become better performers on the world stage. What we can’t do is bring every promising athlete from around the world here to Switzerland so we want to develop satellite training centres and to disseminate knowledge through good coaches, mechanics and officials so we can better internationalise our sport. As a world governing body we are owned by our 185 federations and we have a responsibility to spread cycling worldwide.

Cyc: You had a pretty full inbox when you arrived in your role at the UCI. Have you now been able to sit back and plan future projects?

BC: Any job like this is a balance between firefighting and developing longer-term strategies. My main job is to restore the integrity and reputation of the sport after the damaging years of the past. The world isn’t a perfect place and probably never will be. There will always be people who try to cheat from time to time but we have ways of making it more difficult for them and we have put in place procedures and processes that allow us to do just that. 

Cyc: Do you think cycling can learn from other sports such as football and Formula One?

BC: We are always keen to learn from others’ experiences but we have a very diverse and complex ecosystem in cycling. If you look at the mistakes other sports have made I think it would be an error to view cycling simply in terms of a business. In any ecosystem you need to have balances. It may be stretching the analogy a bit, but if you introduce too many drastic changes to an ecosystem too quickly, you risk throwing it out of balance and destroying the whole thing. Any ecosystem needs big beasts, small beasts, big trees, small trees, herd animals and predators and so on. If you suddenly change all that you risk damaging the whole system.

Cyc: Are the journalists the predators?

BC: I wouldn’t want to try to make a suggestion as to what terminology to use for journalists! I’m sorry, I’ve just realised I have some muffin crumbs on my table. Very unprofessional. I am trying to lose a couple of kilos and was planning to have a fruit lunch but I failed and had a muffin. Never mind.

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