If you will be my enemy I'll be your enemy too.
Cycling has, since its inception as a sport in the nineteenth century, been riven by disputes between the principal stakeholders involved in it. For most of the sport's history, those stakeholders have been: the teams / sponsors; the media / race organisers; and the riders. If you want to understand how the tussles between these groupings worked, go read Benjo Maso's The Sweat of the Gods. Unfortunately, Maso's book is somewhat out of date in one regard: over the last twenty-five years or so, a fourth major stakeholder has entered the fray: the UCI.
Though originally formed in 1900 - or 1893, if you count its predecessor, the International Cycling Association - until the eighties and the arrival of the man from Mars®, Hein Verbruggen, the UCI was pretty much a toothless tiger. In the last twenty five years though, our Swiss-based rulers have attempted to make themselves a force to be reckoned with.
If a man is defined by his enemies, then the UCI has sought to define itself and achieve power by making enemies of the sport's traditional stakeholders. Looking back over the past quarter of a century, it's remarkable how much of it has been defined by rows between the UCI and the other major stakeholders in this sport.
It is certainly not your fault, but unfortunately it is a fact that since you became president, the most used words in the sport's political debate are: war, battle, fight, threat.
Gianni Bugno, in an open letter to Pat McQuaid
The UCI Versus The Federations - Keeping The Rabble In Line
With more than a hundred seventy affiliated federations spread over five confederations, the UCI - throughout its history - has obviously had to whip it's members into line from time to time. There have been countries like Ireland, the UK, and South Africa, where schisms split the national federations, and the UCI had to force some kind of settlement in order to stop individual countries breaking away. You can look at something like the Spanish federation today, which Pat McQuaid personally seems to have a particular animus for. You can look at its struggle with the French federation, which - in 2008 - saw the threat of secession being tossed on the table. Or perhaps you could look at the current argument with USA Cycling.
The UCI Versus The Manufacturers - What Makes A Bike A Bike
Obviously, someone needs to decide what makes a bike a bike, and when do bicycles stop being bicycles. The UCI first started regulating bike design in, I think, 1914. If they hadn't stepped in, who knows what today's bikes could have looked like - we could all be riding recumbents or bikes with shells around them to improve their aerodynamic efficiency. Since the 1980s bike technology has been advancing in leaps and bounds as the manufacturers find ever newer toys to keep the big boys happy. And this has caused all sorts of headaches for everyone involved in the sport. Today, many would claim that the UCI's regulating of bike design is capricious, short-sighted, or just another way to milk money from the manufacturers. And this last point has left many of the manufacturers very unhappy with the UCI.
The UCI Versus The Riders - Helmets For All (1991 - 2003)
The 1991 Paris-Nice saw the peloton take on the UCI over the helmet rule, when the UCI tried to force riders to wear bone-domes instead of casquettes. It was only when Andreï Kivilev ended up in a casket after a crash in the 2003 Paris-Nice that the peloton finally backed down on helmets and the matter was put to rest.
The UCI Versus The Media - We Love Cyclng More Than You Do (1990 - 1998)
Throughout the nineties, the UCI seemed to be engaged in a low intensity war with the media, particularly those parts of it which expressed concern over the increasing role being played in cycling by EPO. L'Equipe were one of the first here, publishing an article in 1990 which linked a number of deaths to this new drug. Things came to a head in late 1996 and early 1997 when La Gazzetta dello Sport and L'Equipe published a series of articles about doping in the sport. Come the Festina affaire in 1998 and the UCI's attempts to paint the media as the villains of the piece were seen for what they were.
The UCI Versus WADA - The Right To Go Soft On Dopers (1999 - 2004)
After the Festina affaire, the world of sport woke up to the damage being done to it by doping. The IOC, in an admission of their own inability to combat this problem, gave the world WADA. From the outset, the UCI tried to fight the power WADA would wield, wanting to retain for itself the right to choose how / whether to name dopers and what sort of penalty should be imposed on those caught cheating. WADA refused to back down and with the clock-ticking down to the 2004 Athens Olympics - by which time all IOC-accredited sports had to have submitted themselves to WADA's rules or else loose their Olympic accreditation - the UCI, along with FIFA, were eleventh-hour signatories to WADA's code.
The UCI Versus CAS - Have We Met? (2001)
This was a somewhat short-lived little spat, which began with an insulin syringe found in a hotel room recently vacated by Marco Pantani. When CONI over-turned on appeal an eight month ban on their star rider, the UCI demanded that CAS reinstate the ban. CAS refused and the UCI, briefly, threatened to refuse to recognise CAS.
The UCI Versus Dick Pound - Shut The Fuck Up! (2004 - 2006)
Having lost the battle over the role WADA would play, the UCI soon found itself at odds with the new WADA president, the outspoken Canadian, Dick Pound. Faced with a choice between a carrot and stick approach to combating doping, Pound thought putting a bit of stick about was the better choice. He became an outspoken critic of the UCI's failures to toe the new party line on doping. The more he criticised the UCI, the more the UCI tried to bring him down.
Much of the UCI's tussle with Pound was actually a proxy war, the UCI acting on behalf of Lance Armstrong against whom some of Pound's most wounding barbs were targeted. That was best exemplified at the height of l'Equipe's Mensonge Armstrong story. The UCI were so annoyed by Pound's public pronouncements on that issue that they called on WADA to censure the Canadian for daring to express an opinion. Pound demonstrated that he at least had a sense of humour, saying: "I thought about sanctioning myself and decided against it."
The UCI Versus The Race Organisers - The ProTour Wars (2004 - 2008)
The brouhaha over the ProTour was a bit like cycling's Cold War. Two great power blocs facing off and arguing over whether a state run economy is better than free enterprise. Like the Cold War, for the most part it was just a war of words. But in 2007 cycling had its very own Cuban Missile Crisis.
Tensions were ratcheted up when the Grand Tour organisers pulled out of the ProTour, taking eleven of the twenty-seven races on the calendar with them. It sounds like a playground squabble, two bullies going toe-to-toe and the more spoiled one threatening to take his ball home with him. The UCI's retaliation was to threaten to take the Grand Tour organisers to the European Commission, citing transgressions of competition laws. The word cartel was carelessly lobbed about.
ASO retaliated by banning Unibet.com from competing in any of their races, citing a French law against online betting. This was - to say the least - a bit of a blow for Unibet, who understood that their newly acquired ProTour status guaranteed entry to ASO's races. But Unibet were just collateral damage. ASO needed to prove to the UCI that it was they who decided who rode their races, not the UCI. If Unibet hadn't been such an obvious and soft target, ASO would have had to find a reason to block another ProTour team from their races.
The UCI's response was to threaten to not allow the 2007 Paris-Nice proceed under their aegis (the UCI provided doping control and race commissaires). The UCI didn't seem to grasp who owned the ball here. ASO - and you have to wonder how they managed to keep a straight face when responding to that toothless threat - said they'd just go ahead without the UCI. At which point the UCI climbed down from its high horse and an eleventh-hour peace treaty was cobbled together. The 2007 Paris-Nice went ahead under the auspices of the UCI. Unibet remained uninvited. And the UCI's threat of European Commission intervention faded away.
The UCI Versus ASO - Taking The Tour Down A Peg Or Two (2007 - 2008)
Cycling's Cold War took a turn for the worse in 2008, when ASO decided to pre-empt the UCI threatening to take their commissaires away and organised Paris-Nice under the governance of the French cycling federation, the FFC. Over the previous year, the war of words between the UCI and the Grand Tour organisers hadn't cooled down. ASO felt the UCI had deliberately tried to undermine the prestige of the 2007 Tour de France by withholding information relating to Michael Rasmussen's multiple missed doping tests. Having had a two-speed peloton for most of the previous twenty years, cycling was now faced with the prospect of two different pelotons, one racing under UCI rules and another breaking way to race under a new banner.
This time the UCI retaliated by threatening to sanction any riders and teams who rode Paris-Nice. The peloton staged its own velvet revolution, pooh-poohed the UCI's posturing and rode on regardless. Once again the UCI was shown to be all talk and no trousers. If they'd really cared about the ProTour, they should have just built a great big wall around the ProTour teams, refused to give them travel permits and bigged up the delights of the Tour of Poland and the Tour of Slovakia.
For the last couple of years, temperatures have cooled again. Rapprochement has been the order of the day. ASO signalled the change by replacing the war-war Patrice Clerc with the jaw-jaw Christian Prudhomme. Hein Verbruggen announced he had left the UCI Management Committee (although the two most recent annual reports from the UCI, to the end of 2008 and the end of 2009, still listed him as Honorary President of the Management Committee and a member of the ProTour Council). The UCI eventually took the Windscale / Sellafield approach to the problems of the ProTour and changed it's name to the World Tour. Peace and harmony ruled.
The UCI Versus The AFLD - Don't Take The Piss (2008 - 2010)
Growing out of the UCI's spat with ASO and the FFC, the AFLD's Pierre Bordry decided to make himself a thorn in the side of the UCI. When the AFLD took charge of testing at the 2008 Tour de France, Bordry pointedly referenced how the AFLD's testing regime seemed to be more determined to catch cheats than the UCI's ever had been. Old slights partly spurred Bordry on - the Armstrong retests, the mud thrown at it by Floyd Landis - but in the end Bordry over-played his hand and was taken down from within his own organisation.
The UCI Versus The AIGCP and The CPA - Turn That Radio Off! (2008 - 2011)
And so the story comes up to date. As I can't imagine anyone who doesn't already know what's happening in this one reading as far as this, I won't rehash its details. Knowing all the UCI's previous struggles, the detail becomes unimportant anyway. All that matters is its another power play and once again the threat of secession, split, breakaway - call it what you will - is once again on the table.
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It is no secret that over the last years our sport has been susceptible to wide criticism, and this attitude, which has unfortunately become almost chronic - to the point that we can almost wonder what will set off the next conflict after that of the earpieces - has always been extremely detrimental to cycling's image.
Pat McQuaid, in an open letter to the riders
From the helmet dispute in 1991, through to the current radio dispute, it's hard to find a single year in the last two decades when the UCI didn't act like it was under siege. My own view of why the UCI engages in these disputes is quite simple: the UCI, like most sporting organisations, is riddled with factions, each with a different agenda, and the only way to keep those factions aligned is for them to have a common enemy to unite against.
Look at the UCI as being an aging super-power. It needs an external enemy in order to keep internal disputes under control. As soon as one enemy is defeated, a new enemy is needed and quickly found. Perpetual war for perpetual peace seems to be the common doctrine by which those at the top of the UCI - first Hein Verbruggen and now Pat McQuaid - have attempted to hold their organisation together over the past two decades.
The remarkable thing is how well this policy has succeeded in papering over the cracks within the UCI itself. Rarely do we hear of the real struggle for power in this sport.
The UCI Versus The UCI - The Enemy Within
Rarely, yes. But we caught a glimpse of those cracks in 2005, when Hein Verbruggen's reign finally came to an end and his hand-picked successor, Pat McQuaid, was about to seize power. Back then, Sylvia Schenk seemed to lead the anti-McQuaid faction. She made a move against the Irishman, claiming that the UCI's provision of a Swiss home for McQuaid was in breech of fundamental ethics principles.
McQuaid at the time spoke openly about this tussle with Schenk, telling the Irish Examiner: "Things are fairly hot and heavy at the moment but it will work out okay. The woman concerned [Schenk] is causing some trouble but she finishes in September. She had designs on the job herself but she did not get the required support."
Schenk was not alone in attempting to stop McQuaid succeeding Verbruggen. There was also the Spaniard, Gregorio Moreno, who stood against the Irishman in that election. The Spanish cycling federation disagreed with the choice of Verbruggen to chair the meeting at which McQuaid's election would take place. Part of that was them wanting to protect their own candidate. But they were also annoyed that sixteen of the UCI's seventeen-strong management committee had refused to take part in the opening of the World Championships, which took place in Madrid in 2005. At the time, the UCI had justified their snubbing of their own race by claiming to be "profoundly indignant at the hostility manifested for several months toward the UCI by the Spanish federation. [...] With this attitude, this national federation seems clearly to have as a sole goal to destabilise UCI on the eve of its annual congress."
L'Equipe added to the mud bath by reporting that a trip by McQuaid to Egypt earlier in 2005 was an attempt to secure African votes - seven out of forty-two - in the election. The paper reported claims by Amada Diallo of Burkina Faso that bribes were paid to ensure that the African confederation elections went in favour of the Egyptian candidate. According to Diallo, "With Azzam [the Egyptian candidate] he [Verbruuggen] could pick the delegates to help him at the vote." L'Equipe also questioned why the African confederation's annual meeting had been moved to Rome, with all expenses paid by the UCI.
McQuaid, when finally elected, was quick to put the struggle behind him, promising a new approach to problem solving within the UCI: "Maybe we'll have an Irish approach. We have a certain way of doing things. Maybe we'll do the negotiations in the bar instead of in the office. That might help."
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There is a way of looking at this potted history of the UCI's various wars that is comforting for those bothered by the thought of a breakaway league lead by Johan Bruyneel. It is that, ultimately, all of these wars have ended with the UCI still in charge. Sure, few of them the UCI actually won, most were some form of stalemate or negotiated peace. But the UCI endured. Those today throwing their weight around ought learn from that.
But there is another view that could be taken. One less comforting to those who worry about what Bruyneel could do to this sport. This one involves a little bit of mythology, but bear with me. One of the Irish legends - most cultures have a version of this tale, but I'll give you the Irish version - tells the story of how one of Ireland's greatest heroes, Cú Chulainn, was ultimately brought low by his own successes. His enemies and the kin of his enemies united against him, bound together by all the ways he had slighted them down through the years, and slew him in a fierce and bloody conflict.
Today, all of the UCI's enemies from all of it's previous conflicts still exist. They haven't gone away. Publicly, they may have forgiven the UCI the slights done to them during their battles, but privately they haven't forgotten. They never forget. McQuaid ought heed the lesson of Cú Chulainn - one day all those the UCI has previously warred with will put aside their differences and unite against their common enemy. One day hubris will be the weakness that finally brings the UCI to its knees.
And, when that day comes, the unity of those aligned against the UCI will be shattered and the cycle will begin again.