Tuesday 12 November 2019

Cycling's men on a mission

Stretching the sport's tentacles into every corner of the globe, bringing cycling to the masses. McQuaid would have talked with almost a missionary zeal
Stretching the sport's tentacles into every corner of the globe, bringing cycling to the masses. McQuaid would have talked with almost a missionary zeal

John O'Brien

So maybe it's time to redress the balance a little. Haven't we heard enough already about Paul Kimmage and his noble battle against the two-headed hydra known as HeinPat or McBruggen, the joined-at-the-hip duo of Irishman Pat McQuaid and his mentor Hein Verbruggen, the supposed forces of darkness greedily devouring all whistleblowers that dare cross their path? Maybe it's time to cut them some slack.

In all, HeinPat McBruggen has steered the Union Cycliste Internationale ship for the past 22 years and navigated it through some seriously choppy waters. It's a rum old business to be fair. Even without the monster that is doping -- a culture which HeinPat didn't help create remember -- global cycling is rather an unwieldy beast that takes some taming at the best of times. And, hey, it's not as if the feds and the border guards have all that much else to be doing anyway.

So it's eminently understandable if HeinPat had other things on his mind to want to be a dope stalking dopers around the planet. There are contracts to be signed, new markets to be cultivated, invitations to be dispatched to old friends to come visit them in Switzerland. And this, you would have to admit, sets them firmly apart from the late Colonel Gaddafi who seemed to prefer to make old friends disappear and never see them again.

So we thought it might be a useful exercise to look beyond the doping and courtroom stories and see what else might be lurking in the underbelly of professional cycling. Stuff that might hopefully cast McBruggen in a more favourable light. Because there's always two sides to every story, right? And they might call them a lot of things, but nobody would ever label them fools, yeah?

Anyway, there were two stories in particular that caught the eye in recent weeks. The first broke last week when the Japanese professional cycling team, Argos-Shimano, announced its withdrawal from the Tour of Beijing, which begins on Tuesday, after coming under pressure from the event's local organising committee and its controlling body, Global Cycling Promotion (GCP) to do so.

Now, it goes without saying that HeinPat had no hand or part in the hostilities that erupted between China and Japan last month over a few lumps of turf in the sea a few miles above Taiwan. The long-running feud escalated when two activists landed on one of the disputed territories but, as far as we can ascertain, neither of them were identified as McBruggen.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, sport has taken a battering. First when the Chinese badminton team promptly exited the Japan Open tournament and then when another Japanese cycling team was unceremoniously ejected from the Tour of China. All unnecessarily heavy-handed, it seemed, and all the more reason why the UCI might have shown some backbone when it came to Argos-Shimano's participation in Beijing this week.

It's easy to see why they were so expendable, however. If you had asked McQuaid about his mission statement when he succeeded his doppelganger in 2005, he would most likely have talked a bit about tackling the scourge of doping, but his eyes would have positively lit up when it came to the subject of globalisation. Stretching the sport's tentacles into every corner of the globe, bringing cycling to the masses. He would have talked with almost a missionary zeal.

But let's not fool ourselves. Globalisation doesn't come shrouded in the cloak of Christianity. What actual business the UCI has in trying to spread cycling in China is anyone's guess. If the Chinese, with all their millions of bicycles and their vibrant economy, wish to boost the sport's popularity, then surely they can do so on their own terms, without the need for external assistance.

China means power, though. China means money. In two years China has gone from having no events on the UCI's prestigious World Tour calendar to, from next year, having two, both controlled by GCP -- neatly described by one commentator as "a profit-making subsidiary of the not-for-profit UCI" -- and only the UCI, it seems, fails to see any conflict of interest in becoming race organiser on top of its traditional role as overseer. All in the noble cause of globalisation, you understand.

Then, last week, came the news that Qatar would stage the 2016 World Road Championships. No surprise there. There's no more attractive sporting market on earth right now: cash-rich Qatar has been buying up football clubs around the world like holiday homes as well as a World Cup here, a world swimming championships there. So, under the banner of globalisation, cyclists will be asked to compete in temperatures of 100F and more. Ludicrous, surely, particularly since they don't dabble in PEDs anymore. Or so HeinPat assures us.

At the same time the UCI went all heavy on the organisers of the 2014 World Championships in the Spanish town of Ponferrada, giving them a deadline of 30 days to stump up the €5.5m hosting fee or else the race would be snatched back from them. Fair enough in certain respects, it's business after all, but the UCI's aggressive tone betrayed its lack of appetite for dealing with cycling's traditional European powers these days. Its yearning now is for the Far East markets and beyond.

Just as tellingly, earlier this year the future of two World Tour events -- both in Spain as it happens -- came under threat because the organisers faced a funding shortfall of €150,000. The UCI stood by and did nothing to intervene while organisers battled desperately to save the races, which were only rescued, for two years anyway, by the late intervention of a Spanish bank which put up the cash.

The two races in question -- the Tour of the Basque Country and the Clasica de San Sebastian -- have something that the Chinese races don't, and might never, have: history and tradition. The Basque tour, for example, has been around since 1924 and, in the UCI's apparent casual disregard for that history, there are many who fear that whatever is left of cycling's soul after the epidemic of drugs will be gobbled up by the spread of rampant commercialism. Unlike Fifa, the UCI has never been known to refer to itself as a family, but it sure as hell acts like one. Recently, it announced a broadcasting deal with Infront Sports & Media, a Swiss-based company whose CEO and president

happens to be Philippe Blatter, a nephew of the Fifa overlord, who was also the recipient of a huge hospitality contract for the 2010 World Cup. There's no suggestion of impropriety in the awarding of the cycling contract, it must be stated, but the cosy nature of it would raise the eyebrows of even the mildest cynic.

Just like Blatter, McQuaid has occasionally had to fend off allegations of nepotism in his role as UCI president, most recently when the town of Richmond, Virginia, was awarded the right to host the 2015 World Road Championships and it transpired that his brother, Darach, had been employed as an adviser on the bid. Both brothers vigorously denied that there was any conflict of interest involved.

You wonder what the world makes of all this: the story of a humble Dubliner who rose to the highest position in world cycling, suing a fellow northsider he once managed as part of an Irish cycling team. A man who moves comfortably in the higher echelons of sporting politics, just like yet another northsider, his friend Pat Hickey. You could lob in John Delaney too, of less global renown perhaps, but who surely has rivals around the world looking on enviously at how a man who runs a national football association could earn a salary greater than the US president.

They might ask us our views of these men and how far they've climbed up the sporting ladder. We've no wish to visit Switzerland any time soon, though. We're pleading the fifth.


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