Monday 20 November 2017

President's campaign trail faces bitter twist

Pat McQuaid's effort to hold onto his position as UCI president is under threat this week on a number of fronts, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

Cillian Kelly received an email last week from a cycling official based with a club in the south of Ireland. Kelly hosts a cycling website, Irishpeloton.com, and is one of five co-authors of The Pat McQuaid File, a stinging 30-page document setting out the reasons why Irish cycling should not support the incumbent UCI president in his bid for a third term, one of the "activists" McQuaid criticised in a letter he circulated to the national federations last week.

The official was scouting for information about the EGM taking place in the Red Cow Inn next Saturday to vote on McQuaid's nomination. As he surveyed the list of queries, Kelly sensed an unspoken but clear endorsement of McQuaid's credentials. He might be a controversial figure with a questionable track record as UCI president, but he is an Irishman too. A born and bred Dubliner. One of our own. Why should we abandon him now?

For those desperate for change, fighting the apathy and the old-school mentality that still regards McQuaid as 'one of our own' has been the toughest challenge. There are 252 registered cycling clubs in the country, yet Kelly estimates a turnout as low as 50 next week. "The hardest part will be getting bums on seats," he says. "Convincing people it really matters. That their voice can actually make a difference."

It didn't help that the prevailing view was that whatever happened in Ireland was of little consequence to McQuaid's ultimate fate. The EGM would provide a forum for a few so-called "activists" to blow off steam, but not a platform for change. For McQuaid, opposition on his native turf was unwelcome, embarrassing even, but little more than a nuisance. If Ireland rejected him, didn't he have his adopted Switzerland as a fall-back?

The truth is nobody knows. On Monday a scheduled meeting of the board of Swiss Cycling to discuss its decision to nominate McQuaid last month failed to take place, casting an air of doubt over the process. Towards the end of the week news emerged that an anticipated legal challenge to that decision will be lodged in a Swiss court by Wednesday. Suddenly, the Red Cow gathering had assumed fresh significance.

"I think people are slowly beginning to realise just how important this meeting is," said Conor McGrane on Thursday. McGrane is Cycling Ireland's chief medical officer and co-author of The Pat McQuaid File. "Everybody was asking, 'well what's the point? He's going to be nominated anyway.' But that's not clear and we need to get that message across."

In his eight years as UCI president, and before that as a race promoter and former competitor, McQuaid has always been known for his battling qualities and his willingness to tackle every crisis head on. Now he faces the biggest battle of his life. His future in cycling is on the line.

* * * * *

After Cycling Ireland's AGM in Clonmel last October, McGrane sat down with Anto Moran, then a board member, and other like-minded individuals and talked about the future. McQuaid had yet to signal his intention to ask the federation for its blessing to run for a third term as UCI president, but they knew it was just a matter of time before he did. And something worried them about it.

"Our concern was that the ordinary membership of Cycling Ireland wouldn't have their voice heard," says McGrane. "We felt there was a chance the nomination would be put through by the board without consulting the members. We wanted to try and make sure that didn't happen."

Their fears were well-grounded. At a meeting in April, the seven-man board voted to endorse McQuaid's candidacy with Moran the only dissenting voice. During the meeting Moran had identified a possible breach of the rules when Rory Wyley, Cycling Ireland president, vacated the chair to participate in the debate and this cast a question mark over McQuaid's nomination. To make certain of McQuaid's nomination, the Board would have to reconvene and vote it through again.

Instead, the plot took a different twist. In the wake of the meeting, Kelly began contacting club secretaries across the country, canvassing enough support for the membership to call an EGM. Moran, having resigned as vice-president, then spoke to a member of the board and informed him they had the support of "up to 35 clubs" willing to call an EGM. Faced with this knowledge, the Board, while reiterating its support for McQuaid, agreed to call the EGM to decide the issue.

With the potential stumbling block of an EGM in his path, McQuaid resorted to Plan B. At a meeting of the Swiss Cycling Board last month, a motion was passed declaring McQuaid's request to be nominated "just, democratic and in perfect harmony with the philosophy of the Swiss federation". McQuaid welcomed the "unanimous" decision while claiming his nomination in Ireland "had been politicised by a small group of people".

However, McQuaid's Swiss endorsement is open to challenge on two fronts. While it was accepted that McQuaid, having lived in Switzerland since 2005, was entitled to seek the Swiss nomination, it is the playing of cards on two fronts that has raised eyebrows. It has been pointed out that under UCI rules, a person must be a licence-holder of the federation providing the nomination. As a lifetime Cycling Ireland licence-holder, therefore, McQuaid could only seek the Irish nomination.

It's unlikely, though, that this will derail McQuaid's bid for nomination. The UCI's regulations are framed around French law which is a lot less prescriptive than English law, its rules much more open to interpretation. "There's no clear delineation between the use of the word 'member' and the term 'licence-holder'," explains Jaimie Fuller, a vocal McQuaid critic. "Frankly, it introduces doubt on all sides. But it should at least make Pat McQuaid sit there and scratch his head a little bit, before he thinks, 'hey, this is a done deal'."

Far more potentially damaging for McQuaid is the uncertain status of the Swiss Board meeting endorsing his nomination. A significant difference of opinion has emerged as to what exactly took place at that meeting on May 13: did the Board pass a motion endorsing McQuaid's nomination to stand for a third term as UCI as president or one merely acknowledging his right to seek that endorsement?

According to one source, there was an understanding among several of the nine-member board that no formal decision would be announced about McQuaid's nomination until after the Irish EGM had taken place. It is also contrary to UCI rules for one federation to actively interfere with a process ongoing in another. In apparently endorsing McQuaid's candidacy in advance of the EGM, the Swiss federation left itself open to claims it had flouted UCI rules.

The opinion was expressed at the meeting that they should hold off making a statement to see if any rival candidates to McQuaid would emerge, with Brian Cookson subsequently joining the race. The feeling was they would almost certainly endorse McQuaid in the event of the EGM voting against him, but the release of the statement three days later alarmed several Board members who called for an extraordinary Board meeting to clarify the situation.

That meeting last Monday was cancelled when the necessary five Board members needed to form a quorum failed to show up. Why that happened isn't clear. When contacted, Selina Kuepfer, Swiss Cycling press officer, directed queries to president Richard Chassot, a long-standing ally of McQuaid and a witness to the defamation case McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen served on Paul Kimmage last year. Chassot did not respond to queries.

But Fuller, a determined Australian businessman and the brains behind Change Cycling Now, is set on getting answers. Fuller flew to Zurich on Wednesday and met a Swiss cycling member who is due to serve a court order against the Swiss board this week, challenging the decision it reached in support of McQuaid. Under Swiss law, Fuller has a month from the date of the meeting to take action and that deadline expires in three days.

"I've written to every Board member seeking clarification, but got little response," Fuller says. "So our objective with the court action is to get those board members into the witness stand under oath and testify as to what exactly happened at that Board meeting."

For McQuaid it is another unwelcome distraction. It raises the scenario of a re-election campaign proceeding against the backdrop of an ongoing legal case which, if successful, could pull the rug entirely from under him. Should McQuaid gain a third term on the back of a Swiss nomination and Fuller subsequently wins his case, the UCI could find itself in an acutely embarrassing position.

Right now McQuaid's best chance of avoiding such a grisly scenario is by winning the vote at next week's EGM and rescuing the Swiss board from a possibly sticky situation. The odds seem stacked against him. "The only results I've seen have been very anti-McQuaid," says Fuller. "My information as of now is that it's looking very ugly for Pat."

And yet, knowing what a doughty campaigner McQuaid can be, how resolute a fighter he is, nobody will underestimate his ability to pluck something from the hat between now and next Saturday. By the end of the week reports were circulating of clubs backing him, some without having consulted their members. There have been enough such stories to give even the most optimistic of McQuaid's opponents the shivers.

But there are good stories too. During the week McGrane's club, Swords, had a meeting at which all 32 members present were unanimous in their opposition to McQuaid. Lucan met on Wednesday and voted overwhelmingly to oppose McQuaid's nomination. From the feedback he has received, Kelly estimated it stood at around four to one against the UCI president. Enough, he figures, for cautious optimism. "The thing is, though, people contacting me are much more likely to be anti-McQuaid," he says. "The real figure could be closer to 50 per cent. It's hard to call."

We can only say that McQuaid's cycling life is hanging by the flimsiest of threads. Beyond that, nobody knows.

Irish Independent

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