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Cycling's new boss: UCI president David Lappartient profile

Jeremy Whittle
6 Mar 2018

Last September, Frenchman David Lappartient took the helm of cycling’s governing body. He tells Cyclist about his plans

Photography Pete Goding

It’s nearing dusk on a bitter winter afternoon in Aigle, the Alpine base of the International Cycling Union (UCI). An icy wind blows along the vast valley from Lake Geneva and, as the sun sinks behind the peaks, funnels down with fresh intensity from the summit of the snowy Col des Mosses high above.

None of this bothers David Lappartient as the recently elected UCI president, with chattering teeth, poses gamely for portraits in front of his federation’s headquarters.

After five minutes watching his new president shiver and grit his teeth, the press officer calls time and we scurry back into the warm and upstairs to the president’s spacious office. Lappartient has a big desk, a big mandate and a big job.

Cycling expects great things of a man who has the energy and youth to match his nation’s own president, Emmanuel Macron, and the goodwill of cycling’s biggest promoter, ASO, owner of the Tour de France, Vuelta a España and a host of other WorldTour races.

His predecessor Brian Cookson was left shell-shocked by the Frenchman’s win last autumn. It was a landslide success that few had predicted, even if Lappartient now says he always knew he would win.

‘I wasn’t surprised,’ he says. ‘I knew delegates were ready for change. I knew I had more than 35 votes. I worked very hard but I didn’t want to make big statements before the election. The day before the vote, I told my wife, “I will get around 37, 38 votes.” I was relaxed.

‘I know it was a big shock for Brian. He still thought he could win,’ he adds. ‘Afterwards we talked about it. He expected at least 30 votes. But I didn’t spend much money on communications. I preferred to meet the delegates face to face.’ In the end, Lappartient won 37-8.

After what some viewed as an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ takeover of cycling – Cookson as UCI president, Team Sky dominating the Tour, the prominence of the Tour de Yorkshire, the 2019 World Championships going to Yorkshire – Lappartient’s demolition of Cookson had an element of payback.

Now of course, in the context of Chris Froome’s ‘adverse analytical finding’ (AAF), the circumstances surrounding it becoming public knowledge and the blasé statement of support that Cookson gave to Sky, when he would have known of Froome’s AAF when making it, his downfall seems no surprise.

Thirteen days elapsed between Froome’s AAF for salbutamol during September’s Vuelta a España and him being notified of the finding. Those were also the final 13 days of Cookson’s presidency of the UCI, the final 13 days before his dramatic capitulation to Lappartient.

Maybe it was just coincidence, but for some it feels as if it was the moment when the tide definitively turned.

David Lappartient’s ready smile and calm manner hides his political strength. He has risen steadily through local and sports politics and, it is whispered, may even have ambitions within the highest reaches of French politics.

He’s an active cyclist and cut his teeth first as a race official and then within the French Cycling Federation, where he held the presidency between 2009 and 2017.

He is a former president too of the European Cycling Union and also the mayor of Sarzeau in Brittany, so he commutes between the French Atlantic coast and Geneva, the closest airport to the UCI’s headquarters.

Taking control

Expectations of Lappartient are high. His supporters want him to quash the spectre of technological fraud – hidden motors – that stalks the sport.

They want him to advance women’s cycling, to avoid farces such as last year’s Sagan-Cavendish crash controversy through greater professionalism of UCI commissaires, and they want him to show strong leadership and not govern by delegation as Cookson did.

‘People were optimistic about Brian at first,’ Lappartient says. ‘But look, I think the nationality of the president doesn’t matter. OK, he’s British and I’m French but that doesn’t matter. The vote wasn’t based on nationality.’

Rather, he says, the vote was a reflection of a growing weariness with Cookson’s leadership of the sport.

‘Brian made two or three mistakes. He didn’t listen to the UCI management committee when we warned him about the situation inside the UCI. We elected him as president but the feeling was that he wasn’t leading the UCI.’

Lappartient suggests Cookson’s right-hand man Martin Gibbs had become the organisation’s de facto president.

‘Martin is a strong guy with a strong personality and he was leading the UCI.

‘We had a meeting with Brian about this in June 2015 and asked him to think about it but he wanted to keep it that way. Brian’s an honest guy and it wasn’t personal between us but he wasn’t strong enough to lead the organisation so there was a divorce between him and his high-level staff.

‘He was warned about it but it was hard for him to hear it. I said to him, “If you don’t want to listen, maybe in the end this will affect your presidency.” And that was the case.’

Politics aside, there are some practical and logistical priorities that Lappartient has been attending to. First up is the ongoing dispute between the world governing body and its own World Champion, Peter Sagan, over his disqualification from the 2017 Tour de France.

Sagan and his Bora-Hansgrohe team have now dropped any threat of pursuing damages over the controversial disqualification that followed Sagan’s collision with Mark Cavendish at the end of Stage 4 of last year’s Tour.

‘We made no financial agreement with Sagan,’ the president insists. ‘There were no damages. He is World Champion, an ambassador for the sport. Can you imagine the UCI going to court against its own World Champion?

‘He just needed it to be understood that the crash with Cavendish wasn’t intentional, that it was a race incident. He and his team complained about his disqualification but we didn’t want to go to court with him.

‘We all agreed it was better to resolve it together, but there was no financial deal. He wanted us to recognise publicly that it was just the kind of crash that could happen and that he wasn’t responsible.’

In the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the crash, Lappartient says the UCI will be committing greater resource to its race refereeing process in 2018.

‘All sports are discussing video technology and we’re doing it too. For 2018, all WorldTour events will have a specific video commissaire who can warn the jury of any incidents that they need to rule on.

‘We have a pool of 41 commissaires; the video judge will be one of them but it won’t always be the same commissaire. He will have access to as many cameras as the TV production companies. But it’s not possible to have a camera on every rider.

‘And we can’t base our judgment on Twitter or Facebook, but we can’t ignore them either. If we see something after the race then we should be open to use it.

‘For example, if we see genuine film of a rider holding onto a car window for the whole of a climb, then we can take a decision. On the other hand we can’t modify all the standings and results every night just because of something on social media. I don’t think we will use it automatically.’

Burning issue

In Philippe Brunel’s new book, Rouler Plus Vite Que La Mort – or Go Faster Than Death – is a quote from Hungarian engineer Istvan Varjas: ‘If tomorrow you heard that I had an accident, or that I killed myself, don’t believe it.’

Brunel is one of France’s most celebrated sports writers and Varjas the enigmatic inventor, the supposed keeper of secrets, at the heart of the motorised doping debate.

The notion – that for a decade or perhaps even longer, leading riders have been using hidden motors – is cycling’s top conspiracy theory.

While Brunel’s book doesn’t contain any smoking guns, beyond again suggesting that Lance Armstrong may have been a Varjas client (something the American flatly denies) it will do enough to fan the flames further and to accelerate the need for Lappartient to act.

The UCI’s new president acknowledges this: ‘I worry that motors have been used. I have no proof but it’s not impossible. Now I want to be sure that we deliver a sport without doping and without motors. That’s the job of the UCI, to guarantee credibility.’

During the Cookson era, UCI investigators ran random tests at WorldTour events using iPads to scan for magnets or heat signatures that would suggest the presence of a motor. But detection methods were widely seen as inadequate and easily sidestepped. Lappartient plans to do more.

‘At the end of January 2018 we will set out the strategy that we will implement. The tablets are useful but I’m not 100% sure that we will find all of the cases with them. We need more than that, and we’re working on some new technologies for the future.’

One of the options being mooted is the introduction of  giant x-ray controls, in tightly controlled environments such as a paddock or even in-race, that would test every frame and wheel, with all results being made public. Lappartient doesn’t blink when the idea is suggested.

‘The bike will be checked. We’ll be able to look at every changed wheel, which we will tag, and we may do random testing during the stage.’

Lappartient accepts that after years of doping scandals, a case of motor doping at the highest level would be ‘a disaster. I have to be sure that this will never happen.’

Although Mark Barfield, the Cookson-appointed investigator into tech fraud, said last summer that some riders had been targeted for testing, Lappartient claims to have ‘no information on individuals’.

Barfield, like Gibbs, is long gone from the UCI and instead it is the recently retired Jean-Christophe Peraud, who was second overall in the 2014 Tour de France, who will lead the detection of technological fraud. Peraud is a qualified process engineer and has been working in thermal hydraulics since retiring in 2016.

‘I want to end rumours of people looking at videos of Froome and others and saying they’re using a motor,’ Lappartient says. ‘We need to also protect the riders.’

Money, money, money

As the 2018 season gets going, salary caps continue to be another source of debate, with the growing inequality between the big-budget haves and lower-budget have-nots an increasing cause for concern for some.

‘I can’t blame Sky for being the best,’ Lappartient says. ‘They have more money, they have the best riders, they’re very professional so you have to say, “OK, well done.”

‘But it has happened before. You know there was the La Vie Claire team in 1986, I think they had five of the first 10 in the Tour. [In fact, it was five of the top 12 riders.]

‘But if you have a salary cap for WorldTour teams – I’m against individual salary caps – that could be a way to avoid having the best riders all in one team. That would be one way to try to create more exciting racing.’

A capping of team budgets would also align with the move towards smaller teams in WorldTour races. ‘The agreement is eight riders for Grand Tours and seven riders for WorldTour races, and I’m not going to touch that. But sometimes for attractive racing, smaller teams are better. The bigger the team, the easier it is to block the race.’

Lappartient knows capping budgets is an idea that will likely meet with resistance from the most powerful teams, particularly those who’ve grown accustomed to harvesting the best young talents from lesser outfits.

‘It wouldn’t be easy and I would need to share the idea with the teams, but every subject should be on the table,’ he says. ‘Then after that you have to look at all the regulatory implications.

‘I don’t know that it will be possible, and it would take two, maybe three years to put it in place. We don’t want the gap between teams to get any bigger – the range of budget is from €12 million to €34 million.’

By contrast women’s racing, despite growing in prestige and popularity, remains impoverished. ‘It’s one of the big issues for my mandate,’ Lappartient says. ‘We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not moving fast enough because 67% of the elite riders in women’s cycling earn less than €10,000 a year. That’s totally unacceptable.

‘But there is a bright future – you can see the passion around the women’s Tour of Britain, for example, which is now one of the world’s top races for women, and the interest in La Course.’

However, Lappartient expects ASO to deliver more than just a token one-day race bolted onto the men’s Tour de France. ‘I want to see a women’s Tour de France within the term of my presidency. La Course is nice, but ASO can do more and I have put pressure on them to achieve this.

‘I think right now it’s too unfocused, too widespread. We have a lot of women’s teams but they are not able to fulfil all the events. The base needs to be stronger and we are discussing with the teams how to improve things. I think cycling can be one of the top three women’s sports.’

 

Lappartient on...

…The fallout from Gianni Moscon’s admission of racial abuse

‘The UCI needs to be strong on this. The Moscon affair is a serious one. What [Sky rider] Moscon said to [FDJ rider] Kevin Reza was unacceptable and goes completely against what the UCI stands for.

‘I am watching the Moscon affair very carefully. If, after racially abusing one rider, he then pushed one of his teammates off his bike, then he has nothing to do with cycling.’

…The bogus use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions

‘It’s clear that you can use TUEs to avoid the normal rules. I saw what Shane Sutton said and I wasn’t very comfortable with it. If you have a TUE, it’s not to boost your performance.

‘So I want to have an independent medical review in time for 2019, and maybe in some disciplines you can add some other products – Tramadol, for example – to the banned list.’

…Former dopers now working in cycling

‘We can’t change the past. Some people have paid their debt to cycling society. But I don’t think I will be consulting Lance Armstrong on strategy.

‘He was the one who took money from other riders. There were riders who stayed within the rules. They lost part of their career because of him. He took the other guys for nothing – he had no humility.

‘I’m very clear on what Lance’s story is.’

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