Cookson’s Challenge

It’s been all over the newspapers on Monday and it is expected to be confirmed on Tuesday that British Cycling’s Brian Cookson will stand for President of the UCI, challenging the current President Pat McQuaid.

Whilst we wait to hear what Cookson’s got to say, there are a few things to look out for. For all the talk of a challenge, Cookson is a senior UCI insider. But this is how the system works.

A reminder there will be elections this September. The mechanism has been set out in an earlier piece but in summary the voters are delegates backed by national federations grouped by region but remember if you’re a licence holder you can ask your federation what their view is.

It’s good news even if you’re Pat McQuaid. Because the last thing the UCI needs is a win by default for McQuaid, an election without a challenge. It’s the equivalent of winning a bike race with one starter, a ride rather than race and McQuaid needs a strong endorsement rather than a slow handclap.

But this seems to have taken Pat McQuaid by surprise, indeed Cookson professed support for McQuaid earlier this year but that’s politics for you. Cookson is a UCI insider who has sat on the UCI’s Management Committee since 2009. Perhaps he was a critic or an alternative voice during this time? Indeed I understand he was with others trying a move to force Hein Verbruggen out of the UCI for good when it met to discuss the USADA/Armstrong case fallout but this was vetoed. But still, he’s been onboard the ship for all the years when it was fighting with USADA, scrapping its own Independent Commission and using UCI funds to sue Paul Kimmage, and those are just some lowlights from the past 12 months.

The British Problem
The fact that we’ve had one man from an island in the north Atlantic for the last two terms means having another from a different island in the north Atlantic might frustrate some. Even Europeans wanting “one of their own” could see Cookson as a continuation of the “anglo-saxon” trend launched by McQuaid. There’s also the conflict-of-interest aspect where unpicking British Cycling from Team Sky has been so difficult in the past that outside consultants had to be hired to give advice.  I gather the recommendations were adopted but I suspect some greater degree of independence from the team could be needed.

But even if these issues are taken care of Cookson has a mountain to climb. If you’ve visited the UCI’s website in recent times you’ll have noted the sudden parade of national cycling bosses around the world (here, here, here etc etc) who have all been flown into Aigle giving McQuaid a unique opportunity to chat, discuss any of their particular concerns and look them in the eye. In other words the incumbent President has been having one-to-one meetings with the people who will vote for him at the UCI Congress in September.

It makes you wonder:

  • is Cookson standing against Pat McQuaid in a fierce challenge or is thus just simply offering a sparring contest to ensure we don’t get an uncontested vote and thereby provide McQuaid’s third term with some legitimacy?
  • if he’s serious and has real ambitions, will he find a way to remove McQuaid given the incumbency bias illustrated above? He could start with the “Pat McQuaid File” produced by some members of Irish Cycling as they attempt to stop McQuaid’s nomination in their home country but will need more to gain momentum

“He would be trusted by the Olympic Movement”
Another thing to remember is the International Olympic Committee is watching. In January we got hints the IOC might be a force behind Cookson, promoting him in order to get an Olympic sport out of troubled waters. Indeed it’s unlikely Cookson will make his stand by himself, it’ll be interesting to know who is behind him. Crucially is the European Cycling Union (UEC) group going to back him?

If he wants to defend a record, from the outside British Cycling seems to be thriving like no other. Whether at the top of the pyramid with the success of Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, Team Sky and the track cycling team all the down to the base with a record number of licence holders at the bottom. Cookson will need to show how he played a part of in this.

Makarov Out
This blog’s preferred oligarch Igor Makarov has declared he won’t run, telling of his frustrations with the UCI earlier this year. He’s on the brink of selling his Itera company for around $3 billion to Rosneft and so presumably has bigger things to do.

Perhaps the sport needs an outsider, someone with administrative experience who hasn’t been caught up the scandals and politicking of he UCI? The problem is that if you agree the mechanism of getting this mythical candidate selected is near possible. As we see with McQuaid trying to get selection in Switzerland instead of debating and winning the Irish vote, the candidate has to have the backing of a national federation. So they have to come from the “cycling family” and Cookson’s probably bid has to be seen in the context of this narrow gene pool.

A quick test for the UCI?
Will news of Cookson’s stand be relayed by the UCI website? It should be given they’ve been trumpeting McQuaid’s Swiss moves to get elected for a third time on their newswires. This is a quick test to see how the UCI will approach the challenge.

Plenty of questions yet that’s the point, a candidate will have to put their case and address arguments. Whilst he’s a challenger Cookson is a UCI insider but that’s the way the system works. Is Cookson a serious challenger or merely standing to provide a contest as opposed to a Soviet-style assembly where there’s a vote but only one candidate?

If it’s real ten Cookson’s got an enviable track record in Britain but this will now be subject to scrutiny. But even if his record is flawless he’s not been sounding out delegates from around the world so he’s got his work cut out in order to woo the electorate.

Regardless of motivation, means or result, any challenge and debate here has to be good for that reason it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

52 thoughts on “Cookson’s Challenge”

  1. Astute, if (deservedly) cynical, observation that Cookson could simply be a shell candidate to give McQuaid someone to beat. What’s known of the relationship between these two insiders? Without a public campaign, there’s really no way to know if this development is something to applaud or rue, as someone that wishes to see big changes at the top of the UCI.

  2. Those who know him more closely than I do, describe Cookson as his own man. I very much doubt this is some kind of set-up between Cookson and McQuaid. Let’s see what his election mandate looks like, his proposals for change and reform, and how he would go about the critical issue of restoring the UCI’s credibility

  3. Does the UCI have a “CEO” or “Managing Director” as well as a board president?

    Most of the bigger Australian sports organizations have switched to a governance structure where, while the President is still a very important person within the organization, much of the work is done by a professional (and well-paid) CEO.

  4. I don’t get why the UCI would want another McQuaid term… Gotta be tempting to try sweep him under the rug with the last few years doping revelations and PR misshaps.

  5. Why do licenced members of each federation not have access to a popular vote? They all have online accounts and could cast a ballot through their log in.

    • Good idea but I’m not sure all Feds globally have the ability to conduct this just now.

      McQuaid sounds genuinely surprised and I would imagine quite nervous, Cookson is a very credible candidate. I for one hope Cycling Aus, my national fed, get behind him.

      • I agree that McQuaid sounds genuinely surprised, and that’s why I think Cookson is a genuine contender (not a shell candidate).
        McQuaid’s PR efforts in the past give absolutely no indication that he’d be capable of cooking up a conspiracy with Cookson (or anyone) and then be competent to sell any form of ‘surprise’ to the press in order to give the plan an air of legitimacy.
        So – it’s either genuine surprise and Cookson is a bone fide challenger, or Cookson has planned this in order to benefit the UCI (or himself) without any involvement from McQuaid.
        I also hope CA (and the other federations) gets behind Cookson, because Cookson doesn’t appear to be a complete buffoon.

        • Perhaps there are “handlers” at the UCI and other organizations that “guide” the UCI that prefer having a buffoon in the ceremonial position of head of affairs.. such as McQuaid. There was a two-term U.S. president in a similar circumstance recently. It can assist in pushing various agendas without drawing undue attention to the core motivations of those with the control.. This does implicitly give the “guy behind the guy” handlers perhaps more credit than due with regard to emotional and psychological intelligence (i.e., to know what one’s motivations really are). Cookson may be too much of his own man for the union collective to remain comfortable.

    • The technology might be there for readers of this site but members around the world might not be online. But regardless of the means the delegation system is used. Remember if you can’t vote, you can still ask your federation what they’re doing.

  6. According to Velonews, the Telegraph reported that Cookson has been quietly sounding the potential for support among different federations. If that is the case and Cookson does announce tomorrow or sometime his candidacy, it would seem to follow that he wanted to be sure he had enough support to mount a serious challenge before announcing his candidacy. I understand there are a lot of “ifs” in what I just said.

    As a UCI insider, Cookson should have a sense where the UCI actually stands with respect to McQuaid and who–federations or UCI-crats–is willing or even biting at the proverbial bit to drop support for McQuaid. It has to be pretty obvious to all the higher ups in cycling and the federations what an albatross McQuaid is hanging from cycling’s neck.

  7. As there is no way to challenge the present system that the UCI has in place, the move of Cookson should be welcomed as the best possible chance to see some change, and get rid of the present incumbent, who has bought so much trouble to our sport.
    Cookson has a reputation as strongly opposed (as well as an excellent track record) to doping, good at management and leadership. These qualities could lead to important changes in the UCI in the long run. Against is the fact, as INRNG points out, that he has been a member of the ‘inner circle’ for many years.
    On the basis that any change can only be better than the present leadership, lets hope he gets the support needed. Best remember though we are dealing with a Mafia type system where nothing is certain.

  8. Up here in Norway NCF president Harald Tiedemann Hansen is being quoted on getting the European Cycling Union in on the “Norwegian” model, and it would seem like the UEC would back a serious alternative to McQuaid too. Tiedemann Hansen has said he has been asked, but my feeling from reading between the lines is that they (and he) want someone more heavyweight. Cookson could be UEC’s man.

  9. I wonder if Bob Stapleton (formerly of HTC-High Road) would be interested in the position or if he has enough allies inside the business/political cycling sphere to ever be considered?

  10. I’ve shaken Brian Cookson’s hand after my fourth place finish in the 1997 Lakeland and Lancashire Divisional Road Race on the Scorton circuit, near Garstang. He’d just become president of the British Cycling Federation, as it was then, but was still secretary of the “Lakes n’ Lancs Div” and he was handing out the prizes. So there you go.

  11. I’m struggling to get excited about Brian C’s challenge – if elected I can only hope he’ll do the right thing and resign most of his current positions across British Cycling and Team SKY? Hopefully we also won’t continue to see his son start to take on new allied roles within the UCI, unless he gets there by his own merit….

    Kind of looks to me like you get to chose which family runs cycling – the McQuaid dynasty, or the Cookson’s. Take your pick…

    • He’d have to re-sign them. The elected President would have to resign from his/her nat fed role anyway, and his position on the board of TRL who oversee Team Sky is directly driven by his BC role.

  12. I haven’t met Brian in a few years but he always struck me as a quiet, competent and likeable bloke who wasn’t afraid to take on difficult jobs (as he did when the BCF was a shambles). Working on races with him was a pleasure and he still rides his bike, for me always a good sign.

    I just noticed this (I did a web-search for ‘Brian Cookson’):

    Not complete but still…

  13. well, I guess a Lemond/Kimmage type figure was never going to happen anyway, so this is probably as good as a credible candidate gets. Maybe he’ll act as a stalking horse and we get a few more coming out of the woodwork also, and at least we get a proper debate about governance which is the real issue.
    Two terms max, more open decision making, seperate the promoting/policing.
    oh, and get Verbruggen out of the building once and for all.

    • I hope not too many candidates come out or we may face a situation whereby all the other candidates get a selection of the vote, none of which is big enough to get McQuaid ousted from his friends at the UCI.

  14. He talks the talk with his candidacy statement. I agree he needs to resolve the BC/Sky issue but I’m pretty pleased he has come forward.

  15. Forget ‘anlo-saxon/celt’ Pat is Irish (like myself) and Ireland is more similar to the ‘catholic’ countries like Spain, France, Italy etc whilst England is more like the protestant counties in attitude.

  16. Whatever happens in the end, you can be sure it’s all being negotiated in back rooms as we speak…..
    Too much power/money at stake for it not to be taken care of like this, just like everything else the IOC touches.

  17. The enormous successes of British cycling seem to me to be a big argument pro-Cookson. He clearly knows a thing or two about organisation and promotion. Under Verhoeven and McQuaid the UCI seemed always to be in financial trouble and quarrelling with ASO and the likes.

  18. McQuaid’s already trying to smear Cookson in an email sent around all of the nat federation presidents yday claiming that Cookson’s being set up by Makarov as pawn for ‘revenge’ on McQuaid for the Katusha WT licence business. McQuaid really is a piece of work. Remember that any candidate like Cookson who stands up to be counted, is going to be put through all of this shoot by McQuaid. Nice prospect.

        • Interesting read…if you’re into 3rd rate diplomacy!
          Monty Python or Ricky Gervais could do a sketch on him
          sitting in his office writing the letter that attempts to address two
          issues; namely, upcoming elections and governance issues…although
          it can be seen that his ‘governance issues’ are really an attempt to
          influence the ‘upcoming elections’, which is worrying me for the sport!
          Aah to be sure, life would be only half the fun without all these shenanigans!

          • The Ricky Gervais comparison is excellent. They should do an The Office II: UCI. I wonder if McQuaid has musical ambitions too? After all he is Irish.

          • ‘Governance issues’ to state the least. Quite unseemly to start a smear campaign which it self reflects the lack of ethical governance currently in the UCI . But not everyone can put their ego in check, walk away from a powerful position with dignity, a la Pep Guardiola. What would McQuaid do? Seems the Cycling Ireland embers has closed the door.

        • It is astonishing.

          McQuaid needs a campaign manager. Why raise the issue about Makarov’s sponsorship of the UEC now when it’s been know for over two years (this blog’s covered it multiple times)? That’s just one concern and there are many more.

          McQuaid could well win the election but the worst result would be a dirty contest where we end up with a winner but division and dispute.

  19. Be careful and use diplomacy, ” a Soviet-style assembly where there’s a vote but only one candidate?”
    Not sure if Putin has competition today in elections? Russia is the new soviet system as the UCI is the old UCI. No real change on the horizon “power and $$”

  20. Has there been anything published about Verbruggen’s views on the election?

    It was a while ago now, but I recall Hein essentially funding Pat’s election with UCI money. I could be wrong though..

  21. I was a British Cycling Federation member when Brian Cookson took over from a tired and discredited regime, lack of funding, close links between members of the federation and suppliers to the GB team, strange electoral shenanigans relating to Tony Doyle when he tried to reform things


    Obviously I am a Brit and probably biased but Brian does have a track record in clearing out the stables…………

  22. Does Brian Cooksons son not work for Team Sky as a “Performance Assistant”? see links:,27290,24869,00.html,27290,25247,00.html

    Is this not a conflict of interest also….??!

    I don’t think I like Cookson, only as his PR statement is riding on the coat-tails of performances like Bradley Wiggins, Lizzie Armistead and BSkyB’s promotion of cycling and claiming credit for what is simply put a cleaner sport where British are competitive, knock on effect is people cycling….. and taking part!

    Brits are now top-flight because the sport is cleaner not because of his influence……. bigger irony is it’s more the UCI’s doing with bio passport etc regards GB cyclings current status and heyday/hayday?? I think we underestimate the influence our top flight athletes have regards signing up for a SkyRide etc and I think it’s too easy for a president at the time to say “Hey this was me, my doing” ……

    Employing VERO is an interesting tact.


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