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Sunday 22 April 2018

Cycling: Still covering the big breaks

UCI president Pat McQuaid has not been afraid to tread on toes to get his way, writes John O'Brien

IN the spring of 1976, a group of Irish and Scottish cyclists arrived in Cape Town to compete in a two-week bike race called the Rapport Toer. At the time, South Africa was the pariah of the sporting world due to apartheid and, if caught, the racers knew they faced censure and possible suspension by their federations. So they assumed false names and determined to maintain as low a profile as they could.

For the three Irish cyclists the race had its undoubted attractions. In a few months two of them, Seán Kelly and Pat McQuaid, expected to compete at the Montreal Olympics and the Rapport Toer offered competitive cycling at a time when the season at home was in hibernation. If there were risks involved, the benefits made them seem worth taking.

As it happened, they were unmasked by a curious Daily Mail journalist who happened upon them by chance and the Irish federation handed them a six-month ban. Worse, the International Olympic Committee banned them from the Games and, though it hastened Kelly towards a lucrative move to the pro ranks, missing out on the Olympics would always remain one of the biggest regrets of his career.

And McQuaid? Well, he worked in different ways. In his eyes there had been nothing morally dubious about the trip. He was six years older than Kelly, a university student and more politically aware. The trip, he claimed, gave him the opportunity to see what apartheid was like from the inside. He could talk to people, learn about the country and its dark history. Anyway, other riders had gone there and raced before them. The only difference was they didn't get caught or sanctioned.

And maybe he truly believes all those things but it wouldn't have mattered if he didn't. McQuaid would have travelled and competed and felt no lingering sense of shame or wrong-doing. Thirty-four years on, there is no appreciable shift in his position. "You make the decision and you go with it," he says. "No point in being regretful."

He can even smile at the deep irony. The rider suspended by his own federation and banned by the IOC would, in time, become head of the former and a member of the latter. He didn't get there by having regrets or ever backing down. To understand Pat McQuaid and where he is coming from, there is no better starting point.

* * * * *

HE sits and sips a cappuccino in the bar of his hotel in Leicester Square. He has just flown in after two weeks at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, a guest of the IOC of which he is now one of 115 members, alongside his compatriot Pat Hickey. He has a conference to attend in London before heading back to his adopted home in Aigle, a pretty town in the Swiss Alps, where he heads a staff of 90 at the headquarters of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

Pat McQuaid never saw it coming. A Dub, the son of a Dungannon cyclist, ending up president of a body controlling 273 national federations? It was too implausible for dreams. He followed a path that took him from teaching to coaching and administration. Ultimately, it brought him to Switzerland and a life lived in the molten furnace that is modern professional cycling.

As a young cyclist, McQuaid came from a famous family and competed in politically divisive times. The McQuaids raced under the 26-county banner of the CRE which was the sworn enemy of the NCA which remained resolutely a 32-county organisation. The 1980s saw moves to unite the two bodies and McQuaid's brother, Kieron, was central to the process. McQuaid himself wasn't an active figure in the healing process.

His future always lay in cycling, though. He tried his luck as a professional in England for a couple of seasons, but he saw no fortune in the saddle. He knew he wasn't a Tour de France cyclist. He wasn't Kelly. Instead he became a coach and a race promoter. In 1985, he brought the Nissan Classic to Ireland and established races in far-flung destinations like Malaysia and the Philippines, establishing a network of contacts for the years ahead.

Through the Nissan Classic he would get to know Hein Verbruggen, a Dutch marketing man who, like McQuaid, was making his way in the game. Later, Verbruggen would become president of the UCI and, when McQuaid was proposed as a board member in 1997, his Dutch friend supported him and immediately made him president of the roads commission, a vitally important role. By the time Verbruggen stepped down in 2004, McQuaid was seen as a natural successor.

His closeness to his predecessor is both blessing and curse. For every ace it has given him, his enemies -- and they are legion -- have always played the joker card against him. To attack McQuaid, they simply mention his friendship with Verbruggen, as if he is little more than the ex-president's stool pigeon, glad-handled into his current position and forever in his former colleague's debt.

"That relationship is overplayed," McQuaid insists. "People just use it as a tool in the fight against the UCI. I'm supposed to be a puppet of Verbruggen. It's true that during the early years I did confide in him. Why wouldn't I? He's spent 20 years in cycling. But in the past five years he might have set foot in the UCI offices six or seven times. From the day he stepped down, I've made all the decisions."

For McQuaid, the timing of his ascension could have been more propitious. It wasn't just that the drugs stories, following a relatively quiet spell, were set to explode again. Even worse than that, the UCI would soon be embroiled in a poisonous scuffle with the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), controller of the Tour de France and several other major races. Their bitter stand-off lasted three years. At stake was the soul of the Tour -- of cycling itself.

The conflict had its roots in McQuaid's desire to revolutionise the cycling calendar by establishing the Pro Tour, a concept devised by Verbruggen in which up to 20 teams would compete in a series of road races, accumulating ranking points along the way. The ASO did not like the idea as it weakened their grip on their own races. At the height of the affair, the ASO excluded the UCI from the 2008 Tour and threatened to establish a rival Professional League.

McQuaid remembers the anxiety and stress of those years. "They were tough years for sure. Some days were very stressful. People I knew would have a lot of sympathy for me back then. Because some days we'd get a letter from the ASO at five o'clock on a Friday and it would just blow our world apart. Like, where do we go from here?"

In the end, sanity prevailed. McQuaid took a call one day from Nicolas Sarkozy. The president is a cycling fan and wanted to know why cycling was tearing itself apart. Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, was appointed as a mediator. The cycling world was rescued from the brink. McQuaid had weathered the storm.

More than that, he had shown what he was made of. As a new man, he sensed they had underestimated him, seen him as a soft touch. "They saw this Irishman, reputed to be easy-going, easy to get on with. Thought they could dictate things to me. Well, they found a different type of Irishman. I am easy to get on with. But at the same time I've a stubborn streak. If I know I'm right on something, nothing will change me."

It is not surprising that he is this way because, without those fighting qualities, how would he survive? The ASO wanted a dirty fight and that's exactly what McQuaid gave them. The majority of cycling fans supported the ASO and that hurt -- but not a lot. The blogs and cycling forums were full of bile against him. They still are. McQuaid knows he isn't engaged in a popularity contest, however. His board and the national federations are behind him. That is enough.

He betrays an air of triumphalism when he talks about his battle. They backed down. He won. The non-profit UCI held sway over the commercially-minded ASO. "People said to me we can't allow [cycling] to be taken over by a commercial organisation. They wanted to dictate to us and tell us what to do. We couldn't allow that. It would be like the G14 telling FIFA what to do because they wanted to take over FIFA."

It cut to the heart, too, of McQuaid's vision. Since his inception as president, the globalisation of the sport has been his most ardent mission statement. All the great races and most of the great riders had come from the same small knot of countries on the Mediterranean or in middle Europe: France, Spain, Italy, Belgium. McQuaid wanted change and, in threatening this hegemony, he knew he was treading on some powerful toes.

No surprise that the French have been his greatest adversaries. At the moment, McQuaid is engaged in a row with the French doping agency, AFLD, over the right to test at the Tour and other major French races. McQuaid is adamant he will win this one too. Under WADA rules, the international federation -- in this case the UCI -- is authorised to handle doping at internationally sanctioned events. The AFLD can make noise, but it will fall on deaf ears.

"The French?" McQuaid muses, carefully choosing his words. "They're an unusual race let's say. When it comes to cycling, they think they own the sport. They have this thing that France is cycling, cycling is French."

He is encouraged to believe that cycling may be spreading its wings now, that the old eurocentric monopoly might be slowly disintegrating. "I was at the Tour Down Under a few weeks ago and that's a huge event now. We'll have two races in Canada this year. The sport is expanding. The ASO realise that now. If you look at cycling magazines now, you'll read articles talking about the new order. Teams like Radio Shack and Sky and riders from Scandinavia and Japan. It's taking time but we're getting there."

Not surprisingly, the pages are full of doping stories too and, though McQuaid argues cycling has never been cleaner, its credibility still has a chain of Alpe d'Huez's to climb before there is widespread belief again. Historically, the UCI's reputation on doping has been poor. The 1998 Festina Affair resulted from a French police probe. Operation Puerto in 2006, which implicated more than 50 cyclists in blood doping practices, followed an investigation by the Spanish police. For many, the UCI has had to be too vigorously coerced to take a strong line on drugs.

McQuaid concedes there is a culture of doping in the sport. Although Kelly failed two drug tests in the 1980s, McQuaid has never questioned his former colleague's integrity. "He was the last of the really hard men of cycling," he says. Lance Armstrong, too. Though the weight of circumstantial evidence against the seven-time Tour winner is considerable and controversy stalks the Texan rider every step of his career, McQuaid believes in him and the value he brings to the sport.

"The only papers that were negative were the French," he said of Armstrong's return to race riding last year, "because they don't like him anyway."

McQuaid spends more time than he'd like talking about doping issues, but he doesn't shirk the responsibility. There are those who will always seek to undermine him and the blogosphere will continue to heap scorn -- "water off a duck's back" -- but McQuaid can at least point to a number of developments that hint at hopeful progress.

The UCI spends €5m annually on testing and the centrepoint of their strategy is the biological passport system introduced in 2008. Under the system, an electronic record is kept of the entire test history of every rider on the pro circuit, a data base of more than 850 cyclists. To date, 21 riders have been charged with doping offences through their biological passport.

Back in 2006, the UCI conducted a total of 5,570 tests of which 152 were out of competition. Given those figures the UCI was only a small threat to the riders. Last year, however, they conducted 15,122 tests, 9,080 of them out of competition. The numbers alone, McQuaid insists, act as a significant deterrent. Two weeks ago a British rugby league player became the first sportsman to test positive for human growth hormone (HGH), offering further encouragement for doping authorities.

McQuaid sees the soul being cleansed now. Sponsors and fans need to believe and so he needs to sell. He remembers Johnny Schlek, a former racer, approaching him in Madrid in 2005 and talking about his two sons, both promising riders. "'Pat', he said. 'Will I leave them in or take them out?' I said 'Johnny, leave them in. I'm going to clean it up'. He believed me. And maybe in time others who are looking on will do likewise."

For the first time in years, last year's Tour de France unfolded without scandal: not a single positive test. McQuaid is encouraged by that in a way his detractors will be suspicious of and, between those dissenting, mutually antagonistic poles, the sport will proceed tentatively, encased in a strange kind of limbo. So McQuaid fights on. There is the 2012 Olympics, more cycling worlds to conquer, addled Frenchmen to argue with, another election to fight in 2013.

Tough times but he's winning at least. And nobody will tell Pat McQuaid any differently.

Sunday Independent

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