Authors: Rio Sports
“A political machine,” wrote the respected French journalist Jean-François Quénet of his fellow countryman David Lappartient, a man who, it seems, has never lost an election, rising seamlessly through French local and two-wheeled politics to simultaneously hold positions of power in the Morbihan region of Brittany and world cycling. His victory over the incumbent Brian Cookson in the UCI presidential election on Thursday is, just the latest in a long list of political triumphs.
However, the scale by which he drubbed the Lancastrian – 37 votes to eight – points to a massive backlash against the former British Cycling head, who was elected in 2013 on a wave of disgust against the previous administration amid hopes of renewal. At the time Cookson came across as the technocrat who was needed to restore calm, order and integrity, but he has come under pressure from many sides over issues as diverse as the World Tour calendar, the UCI’s campaign against technological fraud and women’s racing. All of these were buttons Lappartient could press.
Speaking immediately after the vote, one insider put Cookson’s defeat down to an anti-British backlash based on European gut feeling: too much Team Sky dominance, too many British Tour wins, too much UK influence. That is a simplistic view. However, the run of scandals involving Team Sky and British Cycling seemed to have knocked the guts out of the Cookson presidency in the last 18 months, with Cookson’s supervisory role at the head of the British governing body under question.
Certain elements of the Cookson record stand up. Intriguingly, this was pointed out on the morning of the election by the French sports daily l’Equipe, which might have been expected to throw its patriotic might behind its home candidate. Anti-doping has been strengthened – night doping controls, the rule that two anti-doping cases in 12 months leads to a team being suspended – and made more independent, while the rules on therapeutic use exemptions have been tightened.
Olympic track cycling has – against the trend of the Pat McQuaid years – been rebalanced with the return of the Madison, this time for both men and women. The president’s salary is now made public. There are new, high-profile events on the women’s calendar – Amstel Gold, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Ovo Women’s Tour. The UCI’s financial position has improved. The Cycling Independent Reform Commission report looks, with hindsight, like an honest, forensic attempt to grapple with the problems of cycling’s past and the UCI’s role.
Against a less-skilled political operator, Cookson might well have won on a record of “more of the same” but a continuity message does not make for an inspiring campaign, which in turn is a sign of an administration running out of energy. Critically, Lappartient won over the Russian power-broker Igor Makarov; he worked on the all-important European delegates at the European Cycling Union conference earlier this year. In contrast, there has been a bizarre lack of interest within British Cycling concerning the European road championships, considering they are being run in Glasgow next year.
The UCI will always attract criticism, much of it merited. There were obvious issues around rider safety, the chaotic introduction of disc brakes, the way in which the Astana team were placed in special measures and then taken out of them. The World Tour still looks far from coherent and its rapid expansion seems to lack rhyme or reason. But some criticism is not merited: the lacklustre world championship in Qatar last year was a product of the previous administration – McQuaid’s legacy, if you will – and this year’s title series in Bergen, the first to be awarded under Cookson, looks set to be a humdinger. Innsbruck next year is more than appetising.
Cookson’s administration did not move far enough and it did not move fast enough, and the president frequently seemed defensive and bogged down in detail. Whether he could have moved further or faster is open to debate; he would argue he was constrained in certain areas – anti-doping, women’s cycling – by his desire to keep in step with the bodies he felt he had to take along with him.
Hence, his UCI made solid noises about TUEs, tramadol and cortisone, and the inception of a minimum wage for women professional cyclists, but it found reasons not to do these things. The inertia might have had a rational basis but sometimes radical measures are the only answer. Lappartient wants a tramadol ban and a tightening up on cortisone along MPCC guidelines; delivering them will be the issue.
The final blow for Cookson probably came with a report on French television into technological fraud at the start of September. There has still been only one case of technological fraud and very little hard evidence it is widespread but the report did more than enough to suggest the UCI is not coming to grips with a threatening issue, questioning the UCI’s reliance on its current system for testing. The UCI denied the allegations but they remain hanging nonetheless.
The delegates in Norway responded to a candidate with more overt passion, greater behind-the-scenes political skills, relative youth and the ability to touch the necessary buttons. There is something of Emmanuel Macron about Lappartient, not least in his ability to leap seamlessly forward from a previous administration’s travails to forge his own path. But as Cookson has found in the last four years, it is one thing to promise much, another to make it happen in the face of the myriad vested interests that interweave cycling. That is the issue that now faces cycling’s fresh-faced new president.
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