UCI president Brian Cookson remains in cycling's crosshairs
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Perhaps it was fitting the election that delivered Brian Cookson the presidency of cycling's global governing body was embroiled in controversy, considering that's been the hallmark of the sport for decades.
In the nearly two years since he ousted Pat McQuaid, the head of the UCI has done something many had hoped but few thought possible: He has calmed the turmoil.
After that contentious election in which McQuaid had to use loopholes in the process just to run, Cookson released a manifesto that he has adhered to ever since. He's taken steps to restore faith in the drug-tainted sport among fans and sponsors, pushed for more opportunities for women and tried to build consensus within an organization that often has competing interests.
Now, with the road world championships returning to U.S. soil for the first time since 1986, Cookson and the UCI have an opportunity to show Americans just how far the sport has come.
''Hopefully, we can show there's a little life in cycling despite the problems of the past,'' Cookson said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''We're in a new and better era now, and it remains a brilliant sport, something everyone can enjoy.''
That doesn't mean the largely Eurocentric sport isn't without problems.
The specter of doping remains a blight, as evidenced by recent positive tests of American rider Tom Danielson and others. An unstable business model that often leaves teams and riders teetering on the precipice of financial ruin remains a major hurdle. And high-profile crashes at the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana have made safety a significant issue.
Throw in harsh criticism from the previous generation, including Lance Armstrong and former UCI president Hein Verbruggen, and Cookson must feel as if he's in the crosshairs.
''Very tough job, as all international sports are, particularly the ones in the Olympic movement,'' said new USA Cycling chief executive Derek Bouchard-Hall. ''It's an incredible challenge to keep it organized, and it's unrealistic to think any system will be perfectly structured.''
Still, Cookson has made significant headway in a short period of time.
His first major move was to air out cycling's sordid past, creating an independent commission that dived head-first into doping. Their report found teams, riders and cycling officials were complicit in establishing a doping culture that permeated throughout the 1990s and 2000s, a period in which riders such as Armstrong were taking the sport to new, drug-fueled heights.
But changes to drug testing in the past few years, and the introduction of the biological passport program, have helped to clean up the sport. Danielson's positive test may have been a black eye, but it was also proof that testing is working.
''There will always be people who try to cheat,'' Cookson said. ''That's part of our concern, restoring the integrity and reputation of the sport after those years where people cheating gained notoriety, and convincing the world we're among the leaders in that respect.''
While doping remains a high-profile issue, the structure of the sport has dominated much of Cookson's time of late. Not only is the race calendar a disorganized mess, the financial model for elite cycling in which teams rely primarily on sponsorship is tenuous.
Teams fold every year. Sponsors come and go based largely on the global economy. And riders are forced to compete for fewer and fewer jobs, often on minor teams grossly underfunded.
''We're anxious to reform professional cycling, but we want to do it in a way that protects and enhances the heritage of cycling,'' Cookson said. ''It's not football, a stadium sport. There is no gate money. TV audiences have been quite selective and focused around the Tour de France.
''It's not an easy task,'' he said, ''but we hope to make some announcements quite soon.''
Among other significant issues facing cycling:
- Cookson insisted rider safety remains of paramount importance, and the UCI is considering more restrictions on the number of motorcycles and cars involved in races. But he also points out, ''End of the day, it's the rider's profession. They have a responsibility here.''
- The UCI has pushed for gender equity, adding women to its management structure while cultivating more races and a better economic atmosphere. But Cookson acknowledges there is a long way to go. ''We're really trying to establish a base,'' he said.
- With the Rio Olympics approaching in 2016, Cookson hopes cycling can build on momentum gained during the London Games. Nearly a million people watched the road race, and tickets to the velodrome were among the hottest of the entire Olympics. ''This will be a different country and continent,'' Cookson said, ''but I think it will be a huge success.''