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Brian Cookson's plans to revamp cycling

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.

Brian Cookson Interview
Mark Bailey
1 Aug 2016

The UCI headquarters is an impressive building. Nestled in a valley on the far eastern shores of Lake Geneva, in the otherwise anonymous Swiss town of Aigle, the offices-cum-velodrome of cycling’s world governing body rise up in a gracious amalgam of concrete faces and sweeping metallic curves. Surrounded on all sides by green-grey 2,000m peaks, it has an air of tranquility amid the haze and sun of the mid-September morning on which Cyclist arrives.

But tranquility has been notoriously absent within UCI walls in recent years, with allegations and scandals concerning the sport’s governance drawing worldwide media attention with alarming frequency. Such widespread frustration and distrust eventually warranted change, and in September 2013 the congress voted for the former president of British Cycling, Brian Cookson, to replace Irishman Pat McQuaid as UCI president. Now, a little over a year on from that election, Cyclist sits opposite the new man in charge.

Calm and collective

‘My style is one of partnerships and consensus building,’ Cookson, now 65, says from behind his office desk; a computer to his right, a landline and notepad in front, and a series of folders and paperwork amassed to his left, with a prospectus of Jens Voigt’s impending Hour record attempt topping the pile. ‘Strong leadership isn’t about banging your fist on the table and saying, “This is how we’re going to do it; my way or the highway.” Strong leadership for me is about listening to experts; people who are committed to what they’re involved in, and setting up processes to hear those views, and hear alternative points of view as well, then making a decision based on consensus.’

Brian Cookson UCI headquarters

It’s a succinct description that perhaps reflects how he sees governance at the UCI evolving in years to come – where there will be a designated principal (a role he humbly yet happily accepts as his own) but with the agenda being set at a lower, constituent level. The concept of federalism – the UCI is a federation after all – is being taken back to basics by Cookson, and key to this has been the setting up of 19 UCI committees, known as commissions, which range from specific ‘Road’ and ‘Mountain bike’ panels, to those of ‘Advocacy’ and ‘Ethics’. Each commission is made up of salaried UCI staff members together with non-UCI representatives such as pro riders, industry figures and national federation members.

‘All international governing bodies have got a fairly complex governance structure,’ Cookson says, ‘but the point of the commissions is because the 14 members of the management committee [the eventual decision-making authority, headed by Cookson] can’t have direct experience of every branch of the sport. The commissions [each of which is chaired by a member of the management committee] look at any given issues with the professional members of staff here at the UCI, then those commissions make recommendations, upon which the management committee acts.’ The buck ultimately stops with Cookson, and he recognises that, but it will be a well-discussed, filtered buck before arriving on the president’s table for a decision.

Path to the top

Despite confessing, ‘I often have to pinch myself. If you’d told me 40 years ago that I’d be president of the UCI…’, Cookson’s career path to the top job had an air of inevitability about it. The highlight of his own racing career was being crowned Lakeland Division champion back in 1971. ‘I thought I was going to be World Champion,’ he confesses with a chuckle. But even before the racing wheels were hung up, his administrative career had begun.

‘The first race I organised was in 1969 when I was 17 or 18, and I’ve organised races most years since then, from club level to national championships. I got involved as a regional official at British Cycling back in 1981 or ’82 as a road race secretary, liaising between organisers and police. Then I became a commissaire. In ’86 I became a UCI international commissaire and worked on a whole range of international events.’

Brian Cookson on the track

But the day job for Cookson, until taking up UCI presidency, was originally as a landscape architect, and more recently as executive director of regeneration at Pendle Borough Council (perhaps an apt position and job title considering his subsequent task at the UCI). ‘My presidency at British Cycling was an honorary position,’ he says of his 16 years in the role, which eventually led to his appointment to the UCI’s management committee in 2009. That position came to an end with the announcement of his running for UCI President in June 2013.

‘I was working full time for the entirety, apart from the last two years when I took partial retirement and did two days a week at BC. I had never worked professionally in cycling until I came here.’ With the real-world expertise of regenerative work, and 16 years of experience at the head of a national federation that has taken its sport from niche hobbyists at home and sporting outcasts abroad to world-beating status, many presumed Cookson’s progression to leadership of the UCI was preordained. And maybe Cookson, despite his outward modesty, was quietly confidently of victory too. The fact that an information security company was on hand to move quickly into the UCI headquarters to back up and secure the computer systems upon news of Cookson’s appointment, would certainly suggest so.

Digging for dirt

‘Coffee,’ announces the UCI’s tray-wielding press officer, Louis Chenaille, as he enters the room, breaking the conversation and giving Cyclist a chance to glance around the peripheries of Cookson’s inherited office. A window overlooking the velodrome below reveals a track session in full flow. Token trophies in various cabinets, including one from FIFA, bear witness to relationships with other – some similarly scandal-ridden – sporting governing bodies. The shelves contain books on the Irish legends Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly, a possible legacy from the room’s previous occupant, as well as ominous titles on ‘New Mythology’ and ‘Managing Sports Organisations’.

Brian Cookson portrait

While his office may still contain the relics of those who went before him, Cookson’s first point on his original manifesto, to rebuild trust in the UCI, requires that in order to move forward, the past must first be excavated. It was with this task in mind that Cookson set up CIRC (the Cycling Independent Reform Commission) as his chief vehicle of change.

‘It’s composed of three members who were not previously involved in cycling – three people with integrity,’ he says. They comprise a public prosecutor, an anti-doping expert and an ex-military investigator. ‘We provide the funding,’ he says with a knowing expression, aware that such a situation will inevitably raise eyebrows among cycling’s plentiful sceptics, ‘because nobody else will. We gave them a brief, and part of that was that neither I, nor anybody else from the UCI, would interfere, and we would cooperate and give them full access to files and electronic data.’ Hence the election night lock-down.

‘They’ve been talking to some very significant people I understand,’ says Cookson. Indeed, Lance Armstrong is reported to have undergone an initial seven-hour questioning. ‘But I’m anxious that when they do complete their report by the end of January, it is seen to be genuinely independent and impartial, and that it does a proper job in investigating the allegations made against the UCI and former officials of the UCI. It’s important that we are able to draw a line under this.’


Of course, while the CIRC initiative and the disclosure of the president’s wage (£235,000pa, as it happens) go some way to reestablishing trust and transparency, the UCI still needs to convince the world that it is serious about eradicating doping. ‘Virtually the very first call I made when I arrived here in Aigle was to the president of WADA [World Anti Doping Agency] at the time,’ Cookson says. ‘This time last year WADA gave the UCI no credibility at all. It was virtually war. But now we have a very good working level of cooperation.’

In line with the devolutionary ethos, there’s a belief that distancing central government from its anti-doping authority is imperative, and Cookson has removed himself from the board of CADF (Cycling Anti Doping Foundation, the anti-doping arm of the UCI) to that effect, ‘so I don’t interfere with who gets tested and who we take disciplinary action against’. Although that hasn’t stopped him passing comment on ex-Astana rider Roman Kreuziger’s anomalous blood values, saying they were ‘very serious’.

Brian Cookson Interview

In another step to counter doping, the UCI is taking responsibility for investigating and ruling on all doping offences, rather than accepting (or occasionally appealing against) the decisions of national cycling federations. For example, the Czech Cycling Federation recently cleared Kreuziger of any wrongdoing despite the UCI calling for a four-year ban. The new system means the decision-making for banning riders will be more centralised, but Cookson is quick to point out that the ultimate authority lies with an independent tribunal. Along with the decision to formally review Astana’s World Tour license in light of multiple doping positives within the team, these actions have been met with praise.

‘I also wanted to see we went through with reforming professional cycling,’ he says, with a nod to plans initiated by his predecessors regarding the sport’s structure, due to filter through from 2015. ‘We need a better narrative to the season; we need to be in developing nations where there are strong economic benefits, but we also need to respect the heritage of cycling in northern Europe. Most people agree there are too many days racing, events are too long, there’s too many overlaps in the calendar. But when you get down to the detail everybody says, “Yeah we have to have changes, but do I want to change my bit? Well, I don’t know actually.”’

While men’s professional road racing undergoes major structural changes, the women’s side is yet to even become fully professional. But Cookson’s first year has overseen what many regard as landmark progress, with races such as the Women’s Tour and La Course. ‘The women’s World Cup has also been a big success,’ Cookson adds of the UCI-funded series won by Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead.

‘Compelling women’s road cycling to always be the poor sister to men’s road cycling is not the way forward,’ he says. ‘There are times when it’s appropriate, but there are other times when women’s cycling can stand on its own.’ Cookson plainly believes that the women’s racing calendar needs to develop naturally, rather than being forcibly bolted on to the men’s calendar. He maintains similar views on the subject of the disparity in pay between male and female pros.

‘It’s not just about passing a rule that says, “All women have to be paid a minimum salary,” and so on. I’m quite happy to pass that, but would it bring more money into the sport? The view of the UCI Women’s Commission [newly established, and headed by UCI vice-president Tracey Gaudry] is that it’s too early, so we won’t pass it yet.’

Time to ride

Brian Cookson riding

Given Cookson’s reserved persona, it’s easy to believe he never dreamt he could be UCI president. Yet behind the diplomatic language and strategic approach that are the legacy of his 16 years at British Cycling, Cookson clearly displays an appreciation of the size and complexity of the job at hand, and emanates a cool confidence that he is the man for the job.

‘My feeling with any quasi-democratic partnership structure is that if you have to have a vote then you must have kind of lost the plot,’ he says in explanation of the commission-based, consensual system that will likely come to define his time at the helm. ‘If you can’t evolve through discussion and consensus building then you probably need to start again. So while we do have votes, and I’m here because of a vote at the congress last year, I think that the emperor style of sports leadership is well past its sell-by date. I think people who operate on that basis – you can probably name them – are from a different era. I don’t want to be like those people.

‘What we are doing here is a much better way of working in sport, particularly one that has multiple disciplines and stakeholders, and is trying to do something that is very complex in an increasingly complicated world. But at the moment I’m invigorated and enthused by the task ahead, and anxious to keep going.’ Our allotted time has long since passed and the president of the UCI is keen to get out for a ride. With all that he has to preside over, it’s no wonder he needs some time to clear his head. ‘Just for a sneaky hour or two,’ he says with a smile, ‘then I’ll come back here for the late shift.’

By Josh Cunningham

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