Bouchard-Hall taking reins of USA Cycling at pivotal time
Derek Bouchard-Hall could not have chosen a more interesting time to take over USA Cycling. Or a more stressful one.
The organization tasked with nurturing the sport in the U.S. will be in the spotlight when the road world championships begin this weekend in Richmond, Virginia.
Throw in the Rio Olympics less than a year away, and the myriad of responsibilities the USA Cycling's new chief executive has involving corporate sponsors, volunteers and amateur riders, and the bespectacled former businessman is almost certainly suffering from a case of whiplash.
''It's quite a challenge,'' Bouchard-Hall said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''There's a lot of pieces, and a lot of significant challenges.''
Among them? Streamlining governance, creating new opportunities for women, cracking down on doping, getting young riders involved in the sport and ensuring the U.S. remains relevant on the world scene in a sport that is largely Eurocentric.
''People love the sport,'' Bouchard-Hall said, ''but some of that passion leads to frustration if they feel that it isn't moving the sport in the direction they want.''
Bouchard-Hall has replaced Steve Johnson, who decided to retire after nine often-tumultuous years running the organization. Under his leadership, USA Cycling grew its membership while weathering the doping scandals of Lance Armstrong and others. But it was also criticized for focusing on elite athletes, even as they underperformed on the world stage.
The U.S. managed one gold, two silvers and one bronze medal at the London Olympics, all of them delivered by the women's teams. It has similarly struggled at world championships and other major events, particularly in track cycling and mountain biking.
Part of the problem has been funding. Unlike competing nations that receive financial support from their government, USA Cycling relies primarily on sponsorships and donations, which aren't always easy to secure for a sport that has been dragged through countless scandals.
That is a big reason why Bouchard-Hall was hired over other candidates.
The former road and track cycling professional earned his MBA at Harvard and spent time with consulting firm McKinsey and Company. For the past four years, he has helped build online bike retailer Wiggle into one of the world's leaders.
He also comes from outside the sport's political morass, a man with fresh ideas and a clear vision who is unlikely to be swayed by the many competing interests he must serve.
''Derek's come from a very strong business background,'' said Brian Cookson, the president of the UCI, cycling's world governing body. ''I'm sure that commercial expertise will be brought to bear on making USA Cycling even stronger for the future.''
The immediate future involves hosting the road world championships this weekend.
For the first time since 1986, one of the sport's premier events will take place on U.S. soil. The nine-day celebration of cycling will crown 12 world champs, all while offering Bouchard-Hall an opportunity to jumpstart his ambitious agenda with a global audience.
''A lot of people will see what's going on,'' he said. ''The axis of cycling will probably always be Europe, but being able to pull it away a bit to North America, and by having athletes perform well, it's great for the credibility of American cycling.''
Here are some of Bouchard-Hall's thoughts on other issues facing USA Cycling:
- On USA Cycling's structure, which has been criticized as rigid and unwieldy: ''There is no doubt we can do a better job of governing,'' he said. ''We're reaching a scale where we need better ways of dealing with volunteers and members and scheduling events.''
- On doping, and the recent positive test of American rider Tom Danielson: ''It's immensely frustrating, of course, and heartbreaking,'' he said. ''But I think that is the nature of athletics in the modern era, where doping is part of the landscape. Tremendous strides have been made, really significant strides. But no doubt challenges remain.''
Bouchard-Hall is calling for more testing, more severe penalties and more education, which he believes will offer more clarity about what is unacceptable.
- On the growth of women's cycling: ''We're making progress,'' he said, pointing to new and expanded races at the Tour of California and elsewhere. ''The only way we can continue to tackle those challenges is great investment, and it's a real challenge to find the resources.''
Bouchard-Hall has a personal stake in the success of USA Cycling.
He began racing in college, then spent years riding domestically, before finally racing in Europe. But if it wasn't for his early years riding under the umbrella of USA Cycling, Bouchard-Hall wouldn't be in his current role.
''For all its challenges, to be back in the sport of cycling is really fun,'' he said. ''To be part of the races again and see people I know, it's a real thrill.''