Hein Verbruggen Obituary

Henricus “Hein” Verbruggen, a businessman and the archetypal powerful sports administrator, had died aged 75.

Born in 1941 Verbruggen remembered the likes of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali from visits to with his grandfather to criteriums in the Netherlands. Did these exhibition races with their hidden business practices leave their mark on Verbruggen? It’s tempting to see something but he was probably just a kid enjoying the show.

After graduating with a degree in marketing he started work in Belgium and five years later joined Mars, a US food multinational, and promoted a brand of powdered milk. He persuaded Mars to sponsor a cycling team and the Flandria team bore the Mars logo from 1970-71. The man from Mars found pro cycling an alien place as he told Le Monde in 2008 (translation):

I discovered a feudal world where the riders were victims, the last of the last. During the criteriums the managers decided who took part and who was going to win.

Mars stopped sponsorship but Verbruggen got started. He set up a private consultancy and worked with the Dutch cycling federation. He joined the Fédération Internationale du Cyclisme Professionnel (FICP) in 1979, then pro cycling’s governing body and in 1984 he was elected its president. A powerful role? Not at all, the FICP was a small body outside the Olympic movement and as ex-team manager Roger Legeay recounts, at one point took to meeting in the kitchen of its secretary. Verbruggen impressed others sufficiently for the Amaury family to consider appointing him as directeur of the Tour de France in the late 80s, a role he declined. He got to work on the sports admin and began to make the FICP, and himself, more powerful, establishing a ranking system and then a World Cup in 1989 including new rounds in Britain and Canada in what the French called mondialisation perhaps before the word globalization had become familiar. In no time the FICP points became the currency by which riders were ranked and paid.

By 1991 Verbruggen was elected head of the UCI, then operating out of a small office in a seedy part of Geneva, Switzerland. The following year the amateur racing governing body, the FIAC, merged with the FICP under the UCI umbrella giving Verbruggen and the UCI unified control but only over a thin rulebook. Symbolically the UCI moved to more plush headquarters in Lausanne, home to the Olympic movement. Soon after men’s pro cycling entered the Olympics in 1996, a partial consequence of uniting the governing bodies but also a reflection of the Olympic movement’s embrace of professional sport across many spheres. A decade later and Verbruggen moved to the UCI to its current headquarters in Aigle, a modern complex complete at the foot of the Alps with an in-house velodrome and a budget that had gone from six million Swiss Francs to 75 million and a workforce that went from a mere secretariat into over 100 salaried staff including the developmental World Cycling Center. By then Verbruggen had established himself over the sport and beyond, sitting as a member of the International Olympic Committee.

At the same time a blood-boosting medicine called erythropoietin (EPO) had become a pharmaceutical blockbuster and as well as benefiting chemotherapy patients its use was becoming widespread across aerobic sports. EPO was banned but for years there was no approved test. The only clues to its use were rumours, at least until police raids and border guard made vast seizures, notably the Festina affair. Verbruggen’s UCI started blood testing riders in 1997 and forcing them to rest if their haematocrit exceeded 50%, not proof of doping but a health test. Was this the UCI taking a lead or having to adopt measures to contain a problem that was out of control? Arguably both. The 50% limit was soon gamed, much like motorists slowing to pass a speed camera only to accelerate once past detection zone. But for rider health better the check than none, even if it lead to public scandal with riders and teams not able to dilute their blood quickly enough in the event of the UCI “vampires” appearing for dawn blood tests. Many riders were forced to rest, notably Marco Pantani who was ejected from the 1999 Giro d’Italia while in the race lead and two stages away from winning the race overall. Verbruggen happened to be at the Giro that day and defended the policy which only a handful of other sports dared copy.

Along came Lance Armstrong, marketing manna thanks to his nationality and the backstory of “fighting” cancer. Verbruggen helped out when Armstrong tested positive for cortisone in 1999 on his way to his first Tour de France win (since stripped by the UCI). Procedure was waived as the UCI broke its own anti-doping rules. Easier said than done to stop the yellow jersey over a procedural point in the wake of the Festina scandal that almost stopped the Tour the previous year. Verbruggen kept the show on the road and personally took to the media to defend Armstrong, clouding the topic with mentions of dosages and prescriptions rather than sticking to the dull matter of the UCI’s rulebook. The proximity between Armstrong and Verbruggen led to claims of corruption when the Texan donated money to the UCI so that the governing body could purchase a blood analysis device. Corrupt? Not proven but it looked terrible and embarrassed the UCI for years and there were more claims of overlap, for example Verbruggen had a portfolio of assets under management with Thomas Weisel Partners, a bank but also the sponsor and supporter of the US Postal team.

Verbruggen admitted in an interview in 2015 that taking the Armstrong donation was a mistake. This admission was a rarity for someone who seemed to avoid nuance or grey, at least in public. In 2001 he penned a report titled “UCI – 40 Years of Fighting Against Doping” which illustrated his certainty and defiance – complete with his hallmark use of repeated exclamation marks – but by then pro cycling had become sport’s scapegoat. The arrival of EPO and subsequent blood doping didn’t put the cheats a step ahead of the testers it put them a hop, skip and jump ahead. There was simply no way to catch them via the usual toxicology tests for banned substances. Instead criminology caught more, such as in Operation Puerto.

Verbruggen worked closely with fellow Dutch-speakers Lon Schattenberg (pictured) and lawyer Philippe Verbiest. The UCI’s Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) published its report in 2015 and painted a picture of Schattenberg working to prevent doping scandals… by ensuring nobody got caught. When Armstrong’s samples were suspicious in 2002, the CIRC writes Schattenberg questioned the test rather than the rider. He wrote to teams in 2002 to tip them off over the EPO test:

…even though it was announced that the urine test could only detect EPO in the 3-4 days after it was first taken, the laboratories have noted that in certain cases, it can even be detected one week later!!

The World Anti-Doping Agency had its genesis in the wake of the Festina scandal and Verbruggen’s was a key IOC insider but far from leading the fight the UCI was dragging its heels as one of the last sports to adopt the WADA Code, signing in 2004 just in time to avoid cycling’s exclusion from the Athens Olympics. Verbruggen continued to be at loggerheads with WADA and its President Dick Pound, for example over the Vrijman Report which cleared Armstrong of suspicion of EPO use during the 1999 Tour de France.

In 2004 the UCI Pro Tour was launched, the forerunner to the World Tour today. Building on the World Cup Verbruggen had promoted at the end of the 1980s, the Pro Tour offered guaranteed starts to member teams in the big races in return for their commitment to participate in every event in the UCI’s Pro Tour. Comparisons were drawn to Formula 1 which were surely excessive, albeit illustrative of a single premium calendar with defined participant; it certainly reflected the efforts of a President with a business and marketing background and a future in power-broking. The plan created a more coherent calendar but also gave the UCI more power because it could determine who rode the Tour de France rather than ASO, the Tour’s owners. The UCI and ASO went into a cold war and ASO won, just. Things came to a head in 2008 when the UCI tried to forbid teams from riding ASO’s Paris-Nice event but teams did not not want displease ASO for fear of not being invited to the Tour so the UCI’s authority cracked, resulting in the stand-off that persists today between the UCI, the teams and ASO. By this time Verbruggen had handed over the Presidency to his desired successor Pat McQuaid in 2005 but did not relinquish his role, keeping a title of Vice-President and his own office in Aigle. The CIRC report even stated emails sent to McQuaid could receive a reply from Verbruggen.

Verbruggen worked more on his role within the IOC and the Olympic movement stipulated he give up his job at the UCI. He did and forged close links with the Chinese government ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and this led to the ill-fated Tour of Beijing race. There was even talk he helped sink Paris’s chances of hosting the Olympics that year, in part after a battle to stop French law applying to the Olympics, the subtext being that the Olympics could face its Festina moment if it wasn’t in charge of the anti-doping rules. A true story or sour grapes from a French minister on a losing bid? In some ways it doesn’t matter, the mere possibility that Verbruggen could do this made enhanced the image of a power-broker who could pull strings. He’d come a long way from those kitchen meetings of the FICP.


47 thoughts on “Hein Verbruggen Obituary”

      • An excellent and balanced summary. Did you have a draft of this up your sleeve or is this entirely off the cuff?

        Minor typos: second para, first line has a hanging ‘to’; sixth para ‘moved the UCI to its’; seventh para maybe….’Verbruggen had the UCI start testing’ ? ; penultimate para ‘did not want to displease ASO’ ; final para ‘the mere possibility’

        Do you really want notification of minor stuff like this? It does seem churlish in light of your timely and extensive product. Long time reader only recent poster……..THANKYOU (many times over).

  1. “He got to work on the sports admin and began to the FICP, and himself, more powerful…..”

    Should read “He got to work on the sports admin and began to make the FICP, and himself, more powerful….”

  2. Fascinating piece as ever.

    At one point you write: “resulting in the stand-off that persists today between the UCI, the teams and ASO. ”
    How does it persist today, could you elaborate? Genuinely curious.

    • See how Brian Cookson tried to make further UCI World Tour reforms only for this to fall flat; or how ASO and RCS issued the joint press release to reduce team sizes only to back down on this etc. Or Velon. In each case one side wants to do something but struggles and collectively nobody can do much.

      • I remember the ASO stating last year they would register the Tour as a 2.Hc race so they could invite anyone they like and killing the UWT in the process. I guess it never came this far?

        I don’t really understand why organisers would oppose slightly reducing team sizes. It means less hotel beds to pay at equal sponsor exposure…

        @Inrmg what do you think would allow the standoff to be broken in order to achieve some reforms? I really hope we don’t have to wait until a rider is run over and killer by an ASO moto in front of live Tour de France cameras…

        • As you say that idea didn’t happen, the UCI backed down on most of its reforms.

          The UCI has recently passed reforms for the race convoy, tightening the regulations with the support of the race organiser’s group which is headed by Tour director Christian Prudhomme. ASO surely supported this, they send their moto drivers on special courses so it would not be a problem for them.

        • It’s simple, the UCI needs to stop competing with race organisers. So either the UCI needs to get out of organising races, or ASO, RCS need to disappear. As ASO/RCS are more powerful than the UCI, seems unlikely UCI could displace them somehow. Also, not ethically great for the body meant to police a sport to be involved in promoting events and have a very direct financial interest in burying any scandals around rule-breaking (see: Hein).

          Hein “laat me het geld zien” Verbruggen. (To borrow from a Tom Cruise movie).

  3. Thanks, interesting. I cannot see how the UCI wins this, ever. Unless the Amaury folks sell ASO somwhere down the road… and even then, it would depend on the id of the eventual buyer…

  4. Thanks Inrng for this very balanced piece. Other cycling sites focused almost exclusively on the Lance Armstrong/doping cover-up side of his past, without ever discussing his affect on cycling’s growth over the past 4 decades. Clearly, Verbruggen’s not blameless, but he’s hardly the reason why athletes started using EPO, plus thank you for mentioning that cycling was ahead (albeit slightly) of many other sports on this front.

    • Please take into account that an obituary isn’t the place to show all the worst: just the unavoidable. The most balanced piece (and inrng’s is *really* good) will always be magnanimous, to say the least – and rightly so.

      There’s a couple (or three, of four) of rather big affairs which have been – deliberately, I’d say – left out.
      Armstrong and EPO are just significant *details* among others within a (gloomy) picture, but maybe they were the only ones which couldn’t be left out without looking too biased or disingenous, given their impact on commonplace knowledge.

      But I’d happily agree that the rest might as well rest in peace, for now, and be entrusted to historical reflection, not to an obituary.

      However, I must acknowledge that inrng made me focus more than ever on the positive sides of Verburgge’s work, and that’s probably the best an obituary can and should achieve.

      • Exactly my point haha…. obit’s aren’t places to drag the deceased through the mud!

        As well, I agree on the historical reflection – both the good and the bad.

  5. minor typo

    Verbruggen’s was a key IOC insider but far from leading the fight the UCI was dragging its heals as one of the last sports to adopt the

    heels not heals

  6. Was going to leave an unpleasant comment but since our host chose to lead his interesting article with a pic of Verbruggen and Lance Armstrong I consider my work here is done. Safe to say I will miss neither.

  7. Thank you for this.

    You start by calling Hein “the archetypal powerful sports administrator” and you’re absolutely right.

    Looking beyond cycling, we see all sports have this guy – and it’s coming to light more and more.

    So one thing we could say is that the chaos of controversy that cycling suffered under Hein has resulted in the corruption being weeded out. The exposure was ugly, embarrassing, but it’s done. (Of course it’s not perfect yet! There will always be cheats etc) but look at the state that athletics is in, or tennis. Formula 1 is pretty ugly too. And one day, hopefully, football (both US and UK soccer) will be exposed too. But I believe cycling’s now way ahead.

    • The tragedy in Verbruggen and many like him is that they are probably good business leaders (wouldn’t put great in their, as great business leader should have integrity as well), but because of their background in business become terrible political/administrative leaders.

      Arguably, business and political leaders has many conflict of interests and require very different qualities out of a person. Yet sport Administration often mix the two role together on the same person. A terrible idea but hard to work around.

      And again, whilst many have repeated this, thanks to Mr Inner Ring for a well balanced piece.

  8. Excellent and balanced as ever, it must be hard to write an obituary for someone so widely disliked. It’s important to know the good he did because nothing is black and white. Especially for relative newbies like me, the context of what happened before I was interested is fascinating.

    I do think it’s missing something about the controversy of suing Kimmage, even if only to explain why he rubbed so many people up the wrong way.

  9. All competitive sport is shit. I make a point of discouraging my children from any involvement in anything beyond fitness activity. And yet again my insistence that they study business strategies rather than waste time running or swimming or kicking a ball for fun is proved right. This post is only slightly sarcastic.

  10. Pro cycling’s governance, centered around it’s own sense of importance and not for the good of the sport. An embarrassment set to continue with the incumbent Mancunian?

  11. Being the UCI President is a thank-less job, indeed. It’s far easier to curse and vilify the man in the hot seat than it is to solve the problems within the governing system. And being from a different era of cycling that was transitioning from the old ways into the modern age, we should not be so quick to judge Verbruggen–as Mr. Inrng eloquently explains above. Even today, Cookson is getting it from both ends of the whipping stick.

    • The President should be replaced by a panel of six of the nest keyboard warriors from various cycling related forums. Problems will simply vanish and everything will be fantastic!

      • HAHA… exactly! People make it seem like Verbruggen could have stopped all doping in it’s tracks… And that because he didn’t, doping was his fault.

        Let’s play this out – how could Verbruggen have stopped doping when he took power in mid-1990’s?

        • well, nailing Armstrong and sending out a clear msg that no one is safe from the testing labs would have been a good start and signing up with WADA not fighting them would be another… embracing the investigative journalists rather than ridiculing them would have helped also, that’s 3 off the top of my head…

          • Take yourself back to early 2000’s and cycling had toughest testing of any major sport. It still wasn’t enough to prohibit doping.

            Besides, in 1999 sports didn’t nail their most commercialised athletes, they still don’t really, so it would be foolish to expect Hein (who was selected for his perceived ability to market and build the sport) to blow the sport up. Agree, if the Pope, or you, were the head of UCI at that point, Lance would be toast and we wouldn’t be cycling fans, but I still think this is a very grey area.

            As I’ve said before, without Lance’s rise, most of us wouldn’t be cycling fans and Hein was a part of that, whether we like it or not.

          • CA, as I suspected above, you’re going way beyond respect for the departed and entering a happy fancy world. And doing that here, you can’t be answered properly with facts or anecdotes because it would imply stirring the mud. I’ll make a soft attempt trying to be delicate and then avoid going any further.

            Let’s speak of power-brokers in general, in any sport. It’s not rethorics, I really mean it’s like this more or less anywhere if whoever manages the sport decides to go down that path (we see it happen constantly).
            *Handling* antidoping is a source of power way more relevant than *executing* it (and also more relevant than outright *suspending* it); but antidoping is an effective source of power if people, big people, are indeed doping (deciding if you’re going to kick or not Pirazzi’s ### won’t grant you much power over anyone but Pirazzi and few others); it’s even more so if doping is so endemic that you’ll struggle even to be part of the sport if you don’t consent to such practices.

            This is not about if something was possible, or if somebody did or didn’t enough to stop anything. It’s a whole different concept… which isn’t what we need to discuss now and here.

            * * *

            A side note about Lance: I don’t know about cycling “fans”, I just know about people who watch cycling races on TV. No idea of what your “us” refers to, but in the world the effect of Lance’s presence in the sport evaporated a long time ago – and it backfired quite spectacularly, too. The present world impact of Lance in terms of spectators isn’t worth half of the loss it caused in key cycling countries.
            And now something which isn’t as much about figures: Lance wasn’t especially interesting for a lot of countries with a well-established cycling culture, mainly but not exclusively in Europe. It worked the other way around more often than not. Surely it generated a huge bubble of new fans (in traditional countries, too!) but most of them were gone for good in less than ten years, while a lot of long term fans were disgusted a very, very long time before the USADA did their job. And, no, feel assured, it wasn’t because they didn’t expect doping to be rampant in sport, nor because the doper was a yankee.
            The perception you may get within your social context represents a very tiny part of cycling’s public. Elsewhere, it didn’t work like that, and cycling’s grassroots were even harmed in the three key countries (the “lost generation” between 1985 and 1989): which, frankly, was *very* partially compensed by global development, which essentially worked little and only in a few countries. What I like most in what I see is about Africa, but that was made in Pat, I think.

          • ‘As I’ve said before, without Lance’s rise, most of us wouldn’t be cycling fans’ – simply not the case for me and, I suspect, many many more.
            Even if it was true, the idea that cycling is better off because there is now more money involved is wrongheadedly seeing it from only a financial perspective. Is the racing better because of this money?
            Besides which, many more fans will have been lost by the ongoing perception that cyclists are all cheats than were ‘gained’ by the Armstrong factor – not to mention sponsors: so many companies avoid the relatively cheap marketing that cycling provides because of what else it provides.
            He built up the UCI for his own benefit, but some people see profit and ‘how big a sport it is’ as being worth anything.
            This man protected the dopers for money. He fought anti-doping at every step that he could. ‘Others have done the same’ doesn’t excuse or alter the reality.

        • Verbruggen deliberately and calculatingly legitimised doping – especially protecting his biggest cash cow – solely to increase his own power and financial well-being.
          The UCI he created is dysfunctional as is the WorldTour.
          Some of the posts here show a complete lack of knowledge of this man’s career.
          He was not a man powerless to stop doping, he was a major part in keeping it going.

  12. The fact that in the Obree biopic ‘The Flying Scotsman’, they got Steven Berkoff to play Verbruggen is a one-liner description of him

  13. Thanks for the detailed piece Inrng, fascinating look at the history of the UCI and the power plays that exist today. Until now I only had negative associations of Hein given the Armstrong saga but have a new appreciation for the man, he deserves a lot of credit and it’s a shame his reputation is sullied by a few errors of judgement.

    I suppose you can see how he made those errors having put so much of his life into being cycling to the world stage – he was too close to it and invested to see clearly, a shame.

  14. Verbruggen’s was a key IOC insider but far from leading the fight the UCI was dragging its heels as one of the last sports to adopt the WADA Code,

    Characters like Blatter, Verbruggen, and Diack were all founding members of WADA. No surprise, doping controversy and corruption has continued to dribble out of various sports.

    Verbruggen’s legacy includes regular doping scandals including demands to suspend France’s anti-doping laws in exchange for hosting the Olympics, having Italian doctors as UCI medical directors while also running national doping programs. His status in the Olympics organization was quite high as he was both a leader in what became the Beijing games, and director at the Olympic Broadcast Company. Both fertile opportunities for accepting bribes.

    As much as the guy legitimately grew the UCI from weak, poor sports federation to weak, rich sports federation, he was the definition of IOC corruption.

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