Save the UCI

“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.

Mission creep
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.

Pat McQuaid
I can't comment. But...

Stop digging
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 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.

Bleak alternatives
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.

Hein Verbruggen Google
A tangled web

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?

19 thoughts on “Save the UCI”

  1. I agree with most of what you’re saying apart from the “safety first” comment. People get way to wrapped up in safety that it’s suffocating and ends up killing the spectacle. You’re mentioning F1 and it’s boring now because it’s just a procession. It was far more exciting back in the day and F1 constantly adds new things to try and improve the spectacle. When someone gets on a bike and descends a mountain pass at 100+kph with nothing but some Lycra and polystyrene as protection they’ve made a personal choice to put themselves at risk. I’m a bit sick of hearing pro’s complain, if they don’t like it there’s a hundred guys waiting in the wings to take their place. There’s a million ways to make a living and they’re lucky enough to be blessed with genetics that allow them to ride a bike for a living.

    Has anyone actually compiled statistics of crashes and serious injuries in the few last years and compared the races with and without radios? I want hard proof instead of a bunch of Directeur Sportifs saying that it does and the UCI saying that it doesn’t. Surely that would end the argument if there was tangible evidence one way or the other.

  2. Neil: with you and I don’t want the topic to be about safety and radios, just illustrating a point where the UCI is trying to fix something that’s not necessarily broken. Certainly there are more urgent repairs all around. Why antagonise the teams, why use up negotiating capital on this stand-off?

  3. I think you’ve hit it exactly. The UCI is over-reaching, and hence is over governing. They exist to administer the sport, not to profit from it. They need to set policies and implement programs that develop the sport at all levels, not just professional. Some of their programs have potential, if they would just get out of their own way.

    Whether you agreed with his politics or not, the UCI might take heed of Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

  4. I almost spat out my coffee when I read the headline but reading it, I agree. it’s certainly a good point to make. i like the “If the UCI didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it” idea.

  5. The UCI does seem like a bit of a car crash recently. No one likes being dictated to which seems exactly what the UCI has been doing. Maybe there should be an annual democratic summit to agree the new rules for the following season? That at least would be transparent and relatively fair. New rules can be proposed and then voted on by the teams, riders, organisers and officials.

  6. DK: I didn’t want to present that as the only choice. Just to say that all change isn’t for the better.

    Touriste-Routier: thanks. I think a while spent focussing on the basics would be good.

    ant1: du calme!

    Martin: glad you didn’t damage the computer, thanks for the kind words.

    Neil: the trouble is rules keep changing annually. I’d say frequent meetings and any proposed rule changes – unless agreed by all – come in much further down the line. For example any World Tour team selection criteria changes should hit in 2014 or 2015, not tomorrow.

  7. It seems to me the UCI constitution needs a drastic overhaul.

    – Remove constitutionally-mandated control of UCI by European cycling federations
    – Establish Active Pro Riders Commission and Women’s Commission
    – Enumerate powers of president
    – Rule changes affecting teams, riders, and competition require approval of Active Pro Riders Commission and one year delay after approval before enactment


  8. TdF Lanterne Rouge:

    Essentially your change #4 would destroy any chance for cleaning up this sport. Really, the major change right now is to get the UCI out of doping controls and agree to comply with all WADA rulings, including applying proper and consistence sanctioning.

  9. McQuaid is a buffoon. No vision, no leadership, no ability to build consensus, no sense that Rome is burning. A man with any ethics and love for the sport would have fallen on his sword and resigned.

  10. As far as I can tell now, the only official role for the pro riders is one seat on one committee – which seems to reinforce their position in the political process as amusing trained monkeys. I think they’re going to continue to have serious and endless management and racing issues unless they take on a major role as active professionals in the governance process.

  11. Great piece. The fish rots from the head and the main issues with the UCI are also problems with many National Federations. As pointed out, McQuaid needs to go NOW. But the UCI needs to set itself up as a professional sporting administration. It needs to appoint a talented executive leader, not rely on wrinkled up old riders, commissaires and volunteers who have trod the path within their own federation and ended up at the UCI (as if by right). Then, and only then, will the UCI wake the sport from its slumber to reach its potential.

  12. race radios are a distraction. we all know why pro cycling lacks credibility. i don’t understand why the UCI tolerates dopers – they gave a proteam license to Vaconsoleil, whose credibility was obviously very, very low. why does the UCI think we need guys like Ricco? even before his latest disgrace.

    i’m not talking about a lifetime ban necessarily, but denying other teams with riders you can only assume are clean a license sends a message that the UCI is willing to tolerate doping.

    after his ban is over, the UCI will welcome Valverde back into the proteam peloton just as readily as it did Vino. this is what’s wrong.

  13. Like many other peak sporting bodies it just doesn’t get good governance. I don’t know why, but I imagine to get to the top of a national federation is a Machiavellian sort of process, and so the step from there to international is the same, writ large. But just having someone establish and put in place real governance would be good. (For example, as you note, don’t make personal comments on a case, which McQuaid has done from day one in relation to Contador. If your son is going to be a rider manager, um, McQuaid again, make sure there are visible, transparent procedures to ensure no conflicts of interest and no abuse of knowledge. or just don’t allow it.) In relation to the UCI, ASO, etc, don’t forget the IOC. You want a private bike organisation via the ASO, fine, but there go the Olympics. Might not matter to the pros, but it matters, a lot, to every national federation in terms of state support, funding, and sponsorship. The sports that successfully are private are those outside of the IOC. Oh, and the whole criteria for a protour team, governance. What are the rules, how are they applied? Why on earth can’t we, teams, sponsors, know this?

  14. We NEED a strong UCI, with that I’m in complete agreement but there are too many accusations of corruption and nepotism for it to survice in it’s current format, we can only hope the Armstrong investigation can remove the biggest bit of the problem in McQuaid.

    All anti doping measures need to be taken away from the UCI and in turn the Federations, WADA are there to govern and have oversight but I think a totally independant organisation should pick up the reins of this and make the system fair and undisputable. At it’s fundamental level what is fair about a system where if your samples go to Cologne you can be burned for an infinitismal trace of something yet if they go to any other you can get off scot free.

    All sports management needs simple, transparent guidelines and clarity in it’s operations and funding, that shouldn’t be impossible to achieve, should it??

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