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On Election Eve...

Is the curtain about to drop on the Pat McQuaid Era?

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Tomorrow the UCI will convene its Congress to determine whether sitting UCI president Pat McQuaid will be allowed to stand for reelection. Regardless of the answer, the Congress will likely then turn to the election itself, either between McQuaid and Brian Cookson, or regarding the Englishman running unopposed.

According to Cookson, all signs point to a change in the leadership of Cycling's governing body. He says he's got the votes locked up -- a nice reflection of the UCI's clubby system, where the 42 voting members are probably being wined and dined feverishly by one or both candidates as I type. In McQuaid's case, one shouldn't doubt his ability to make his pitch, though part of me thinks that while he's buying another round of drinks, he's contemplating slipping something nasty into the cup of anyone he thinks is ultimately a Cookson vote.

From the pages of the Podium Cafe to the inner sanctum of the actual pro peloton, people have been calling for McQuaid's ouster for years. In fact, if someone has been standing up in public and saying, in effect, "McQuaid is awesome!," I've missed it. Nobody likes the guy. We ran a poll recently and he got 2% (with a 2% margin of error). Not that the riders or the Directeurs or the PdC Editors or the winners of the FSA Directeur Sportif get a vote in the election itself; it's all in the hands of the UCI's cloistered club of delegates, modeled after the College of the Cardinals, only somewhat less transparent. So really, betting on the outcome even in the face of completely one-sided public sentiment is like betting on the outcome of a classic.

The running theme of the campaign has been change -- Cookson is for it, McQuaid seems to be for it as long as he gets to oversee it, and anyway he doesn't think Cookson can pull it off. Or something. Really, I can't represent what the candidates' campaigns have been about very well, because I refuse to listen to anything coming from Pat or his associates. I can tell you Cookson has been calling for a "truth and reconciliation" process which, if done correctly, is probably not a bad idea. Whether or not Cookson has the ability to drive the UCI train, I have no idea, and that's a real issue.

Ultimately, though, I think the reason to get rid of McQuaid is that there remains no reason to keep him around. His negatives are well documented -- the guy is a study in the art of alientating double-speak, and his connection to the doping regime is so total that you half expect him to get up on stage and pull off his mask, revealing that he is in fact Hein Verbruggen. The UCI can only do so much to stop doping, but its best role (apart from testing) is to send a clear message of rejecting PEDs. Asking McQuaid to bear that standard is like putting Goldman Sachs in charge of stabilizing our economy (d'oh!). This is, after all, the guy who spent the last two weeks of his presidential campaign squelching a dossier of sworn testimony to a pattern of extortion and doping cover-ups among UCI leadership. Really, the only reason for wanting him to be the guy to give a keynote speech against cheating is to see if anyone in the audience can keep a straight face. [Answer: no.]

But even his positives don't do much for me anymore. Did he work well with corporations? Yeah, I guess. Did he internationalize the sport? Sure, but I think we've had enough of that to hold us over for a while. For me, the sport is healthier than it's been in years,* despite McQuaid's connection to the dopers and the sharp whiff of corruption around him, and also in part because of what he does behind the scenes to bring in sponsors -- but I just really don't see him being the only guy who can play that role.

[* Except compared to virtually every other sport. But hey, what would the NFL's ledger look like if they had to build a new stadium 200 times a year?]

With no rationale, and no public support, that leaves Pat's total network of support as somewhere between 0 and 42 UCI delegates. Actually, we know it's more than zero, because Thailand and Morocco are propping up his nomination to begin with, and he's rumored to have plenty of support among African and Asian countries. Not included in that sentence is the word "Europe" or anything connected to it, which you'd think is kind of a big deal, given that "cycling" and "European cycling" are virtually interchangeable. But the logic counts for little at the UCI, and in the end McQuaid might ride a wave of corrupt cronyism back into power. Should that happen, the sport will get what it deserves. Good and hard.

More likely, Cookson will be the new president, which leads to another bifurcation of possibilities. Either he is a fine UCI president, or he proves unable to manage the job. History is littered with people who are faulted for not cleaning up someone else's mess well enough, when in reality they should probably be viewed more kindly. Perhaps Cookson suffers the same fate. But that's merely the worst case scenario, and even then he will have done cycling a great service. His election and the deposing of McQuaid sends the signal to anyone else who'd like to have a role in reshaping the sport that they are welcomed. All of those silent reformers out there who sat out this election rather than bang their heads against the ugly McQuaid-Verbruggen machine can throw off their invisibility cloaks and join in the effort to make a better day. Remember, this is the worst case.

The best case is that Cookson himself, molder of the British Cycling into that island's latest empire, can effectively lead the transformation of cycling into what pretty much everyone wants it to be -- a sport of integrity. That's it. Because cycling with integrity is utterly irresistibly great. The spectacle, the drama, the incredible feats of strength and will, all of this sells itself, particularly in the new millennium where the costs of beaming live video across the globe to a ready-made audience simply aren't that high anymore. Obviously I know nothing of race finances, but I do know that the audience has grown, that compared to ten or even five years ago, people know how and when to find a bike race to watch, and more and more of them actually want to do just that. Only the cynical stink of doping (and the consequent dulling of race tactics) can drive them away. Solve that and pretty much everything else should fall into place.

Cycling will always be a mess, of course. Teams will come and go in ugly ways. Races will get fouled up or canceled on short notice. Folks will lose their jobs from time to time, in regrettable fashion. People like us will argue about who should be doing more of what, or less of something else. Increasing use of VIP areas will spoil more and more of the fun for regular fans. Money will creep in to "save" the sport, only to reshape it in ways we don't care for. And none of this will really matter, any more than how, if you think about it, my leaky sink or broken bike cable or deteriorating knees really matter in the big picture. Fix doping in a big way, fix the big picture, and the rest of the sport will be essentially fine.