“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Il Gattopardo, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
It’s open season on the UCI. I’ve been following the sport for some time and frustration from all sides with the performance of cycling’s governing body is common. Riders see their jobs and health at stake, team owners have assets on the line. Cycling is a passion for the fans, their dreams are confronted with the nightmare of endless scandal, conflicts of interest and a blundering President.
But the UCI is needed more than ever. It’s tasked with overseeing the sport and acting as the guardian of its rules, from commissaires to contracts, anti-doping to the World Championships.
The UCI is currently caught in a fight with its main teams. It insists it consulted before banning race radios but all the evidence suggests the very opposite. If the teams are trying to overturn the rules on radios it’s also because they want to muscle the UCI. I’m all in favour of teams having a say, they’re fundamental to the pro sport but I’m wary of a Trojan Horse agenda. But the rules should be about safety first and a spectacle second.
Similarly the drift into compulsory bike regulation is daft. A governing body has no business telling amateurs what bike they can buy. Yes it can set out rules on design but the creation of licencing scheme isn’t just a step too far, it’s a running jump. If you polled competition licence holders around the world, they’d surely reject this.
President McQuaid has an excavator-like ability to dig the UCI into a hole. Sadly there are examples of almost every week of confusing statements. In his most recent interview on cyclingnews.com McQuaid starts with caution, saying “I can’t give a personal opinion until the whole affair is finished” but two paragraphs later he adds, “I would hope and be fairly confident that it could all be sorted out before the Tour de France, that we can go to CAS and that CAS will understand that we need this one relatively quickly“. I don’t know about you but he just gave a personal comment that the case should go for an appeal to the CAS and even that the Lausanne arbitration service will help to expedite the case.
This isn’t just about a veneer of respectability. Having a consistent message is important to get the word out. Editors and headline writers don’t have time for confusion and infighting, this just brings negative headlines. The good news is that this can be fixed. Companies around the world offer courses for executives and politicians to improve their media skills, to avoid walking straight into traps and above all, to protect their organisations.
If the UCI didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. The alternatives are a professional league run by private interests. You can see examples of success in the US but I don’t see this translating to cycling. Riders and fans already get shut out, the alternative could be worse. For example ex-UCI President Hein Verbruggen reportedly has plans to work with some financial backers in a bid to effectively buy the sport, a model not unlike Bernie Ecclestone and Formula 1. Yes, that was a shiver going down your spine.
Or take the debate in Spain right now. The UCI can have leverage with the Spanish government because it’s supported by WADA and the IOC. A private company just couldn’t have the same reach.
If the UCI isn’t perfect, the alternatives could be worse. Frustration from many prompts calls to overturn the UCI. In fact it wouldn’t take much for ASO, RCS and the big teams to organise a breakaway of the World Tour but if chaos appears, don’t be surprised if something worse fills the vacuum. We should be wary about gifting the sport to those with financial backers looking to cash in on TV rights.
For me the solution has to come via the UCI. That is a big ask but consultation, dialogue, planning and a more sure-footed President would go a long way to harmonising things. Nobody will ever be happy but there are several easy improvements within reach. At least we can start here before calling for drastic change?