Cycling supremo returns to roots

Brian Cookson, President of the UCI. Pic: Jon Buckle/PA Wire

Brian Cookson, President of the UCI. Pic: Jon Buckle/PA Wire

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Amid the clunking of gear changes and repeated windrush as the peloton whizzed past at an ever-increasing pace, the enduring sound from Colne Grand Prix last Tuesday night was the warm Lancastrian welcome given to the President of the International Cycling Union, Brian Cookson.

Mr Cookson was in town to watch an entertaining evening of racing and he was greeted like a long lost friend as British Cycling staff, council officials, dignitaries, business owners and members of the public almost queued for a catch up with him on a rare visit to the borough where he had worked for almost a decade.

It’s just over three years since he retired from the role of Executive Director for Regeneration at Pendle Council, turning his concentration to becoming elected as President of the UCI in September, 2013, where he ousted Pat McQuaid at a congress in Florence.

From day one, he had a challenging agenda. Clean up cycling’s tarnished image, unify the complex web of organisations within world cycling and develop the sport were just three of the main objectives.

But, despite the relatively short period of time, he feels positive steps have been taken.

Mr Cookson said: “It takes a lot of time to change an existing structure; it’s the old oil tanker analogy. It takes a long time to change the direction something’s been going in for a long period of time.

“We’ve got 185 national federations in the UCI, we’ve got five continental confederations and in that you’ve got all sorts of different cultures, different political systems, different objectives, cycling developed in some parts and not in other parts.

“So trying to respect the heritage of cycling while bringing it on and developing it in new parts of the world, developing women’s cycling which has traditionally lagged behind mens; those are all important things which take a lot of work and a lot of time.

“I think we have made some good steps to take things forward and I think another four years will take us forward further steps, still.”

In his time as President, the sport has seen the creation of a UCI Women’s World Tour, new in 2016, while race organisers have developed races for women professionals such as the one day La Course, held in Paris prior to the final stage of the men’s Tour de France, and the women’s Tour of Britain, both of which were launched in 2014.

The men’s side of the sport has also seen developments, with the emergence of riders from underprivileged countries such as Eritrea and Ethiopia competing at the very highest level at events such as the Tour de France.

But the biggest challenge has been addressing cycling’s doping problems, something which Mr Cookson believes he has met head on.

He said: “We have put a lot of time and effort in to restoring the integrity of our sport and we have faced a lot of challenges that other sports seem to be facing at the moment.

“I’ve said this on many occasions, for me, that there have always been two categories of sports in terms of doping for instance.

“There are those that have a doping problem and are trying to do something about it, and I believe that we are one of the leaders in that area and there are those that have a doping problem and are in denial about it.

“Now, they are facing that problem and they are going to have to do many of the things that we have already done.

“We threw ourselves open to scrutiny, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission looked at what had happened, analysed the reasons, looked at some of the allegations from what you might call the Lance Armstrong era.

“But the most important bit was that there were 30-odd recommendations for what we should do to avoid those problems from happening again.

“We’ve delivered all of those recommendations, we’ve changed our rules, we’ve brought new procedures and processes in, we’ve made our disciplinary process (and) our anti-doping process genuinely independent so there is no conflict of interest between my role as the guy who is trying to promote cycling and the job of policing cycling.

“Those are the kind of issues that are at the front of the international sports agendas for many of my other colleagues in other sports now and while I’m not at all complacent about it, I’m very happy that we faced those challenge sand we are doing the right thing.”

Mr Cookson was in Colne fresh off the back of the Tour de France where there was more British success for Team Sky and Chris Froome.

As former President of British Cycling, he will no doubt be secretly hoping for more British success at the Olympics in Rio, one of several high profile engagements still to come in 2016, before the final Grand Tour of the year, the Vuelta a España, and then the Cycling Road World Championships in Qatar, emphasising the truly global nature of his role.

It is a job he loves, so much so that he is thinking about standing again, to carry on the work he has started.

Mr Cookson said: “I’m in the third year of my first four year term and I’ve said to my colleagues, so that we can plan ahead, I’d be willing to carry on for another four years if they want me to and if I’m elected.

“I’ve got another year or so before that process kicks in and we’ll see if anyone else wants the job.

“I think one more year of this first term and then four more years, that would be enough for any man.”