McGee interview (part 04) – role of the directeur sportif
This is the fourth part of an extended interview with former pro cyclist and directeur sportif for the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team (née CSC and Saxo Bank), Brad McGee. The discussion took place in the RIDE Cycling Review office on the afternoon of 29 October 2012.
(In part one, we explain how and why this interview came about. In part two, McGee talks about the manager of his final team as a rider, Bjarne Riis. And in part three McGee remembers what it was like racing against one of the genuine stars of the pro peloton Jens Voigt.)
In this instalment, we discuss what the role of a directeur sportif is in the modern world and discuss comments that have arisen since the release of the USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” document, something that has heralded an upheaval in the world of professional cycling.
On the morning of the interview, Sean Yates had just announced that he was retiring from cycling; he would no longer be a directeur sportif at Sky. The announcement from the team was minimal in its wording but many jumped to the conclusion that it was because he was implicated in the cleansing that’s occurring because of the USADA report. Some were scathing in their appraisal of the situation but would also admit that they’d never spoken to the person involved, some believed that it was because of an incident in 1989 or others just assume that it was because he’d been involved as a DS with teams like Discovery Channel in 2005, when Lance Armstrong was still racing.
Some critics were particularly vocal in their disdain for Yates and how they believed it was clear that his association with CSC and, later, Discovery Channel and Astana meant that he was aware of what was happening inside the rooms of the riders. Plenty of commentators have viewed similar opinions but few wanted to mention some life-changing things that Yates has had to endure in recent years. He had suffered strokes and, during the course of medical examinations because of those incidents, he’d been instructed to undergo heart surgery and get a pacemaker fitted. He’s done that. He continued to drive a car in races around the world, he’s been part of the winning team at the Tour de France – and the wealth of other races that Sky contested this year, and Yates was the man in the drivers seat for most of Bradley Wiggins’ main conquests in 2012.
But he slurs when he speaks some times and it irks him enormously. It’s because of the health issues he’s suffered, but he was able to do his job nonetheless. Still, none of the critics seemed to take into account anything other than the watershed of cycling staff that has happened since the ‘Reasoned Decision’ was released.
So, when discussing the ramifications of what had happened in recent months, Brad McGee was asked to explain exactly what the role of a DS is in the modern peloton.
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RIDE: Sean Yates has retired and everyone seems to want to say that he was pushed, that it was inevitable… that he was must have been involved in the things that surrounded Armstrong. You know Sean well enough, so can you paint a picture of what a directeur sportif does at a bike race? Does every DS go into the room? Does every DS hang out with the riders?
McGee: “Sean is known in the bunch to be more of just a ‘race director’. I believe he doesn’t even get involved in programming or anything, he just has his race calendar, he prepares for those races, and completes the races – tactics are his priority.”
RIDE: Perhaps the question really is: do you imagine that Yates would have seen Armstrong doping?
McGee: “I can’t talk for what he would have been like in any other place. I can only talk of what his perceived perception is of his role at Sky. You get a pretty good idea of who does what. For instance, for me in my role it’s more programming and staff – that’s something I’m heavily involved in [at Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank]. Then I have my race calendar, of course, and when I’m at the race – if I’m number-one director, then it is my race and I’m responsible for everything. The priority being tactics and the race itself. From yelling at the UCI to dealing with the media, stuff like that. That’s my role. And there’s a lot of components.
“I was brought up in a French system post-‘Festina’, that was only just after I started doing the big races [for the la Française des Jeux team of Marc Madiot]. After the Festina it was: ‘closed shop’. The directeurs didn’t want anything to do with the riders whenever a doctor was involved: we’d walk out of rooms, some would leave hotels. It was an obvious change because some really try to animate how much they are not in the room with a doctor. You know what I mean? That’s how I can tell there’s a difference. And I think that has just stuck.
“Now it’s just like when you go to a private clinic to see a GP you don’t have the next waiting guest or a friend in on the consultation: it’s you and the doctor and whatever you have to talk about.
“For that reason, I know the doctors have become more ‘sports psychs’ than doctor because the confidentiality they’ve got has become really important in the teams. I’ve maintained that. I will say that there have been moments in my time when the doctor has come and said, ‘Listen, ‘X’ rider is probably not the sort of person you’d be keeping in the team…’ for at least questioning the doctor about doping – what [the rider] might be looking for and ‘no, we’re not about to supply it…’ and it’s crossed the line between that doctor/rider relationship but I think in the broad scheme of things it’s important that this can be happening. That’s fighting doping in the real world.
“I can’t talk for what Yates might been like been like at Discovery but there has been a culture shift in that in my time and I believe that’s the way it is now across the board. That’s it.
“Surely, I don’t know if – as with Bjarne – he has a lot of trust in his doctor group. I know I do. We set the bar at the start of the year: ‘This is what we expect from you guys…’ for instance, we’re in the midst of making them more proactive in the general health of the athletes even off the bike: testing for allergies, going deeper into their injuries… things like that that can pop up during the year – because of racing and training. For too long it’s been: ‘Problem at a race? We’ll deal with it.’ But you get a rider in April who has an outbreak with pollen and you lose him for a month so now it’s like, ‘Okay, you guys have got to take care of that.’ There’s a lot to be done and there’s definitely a big place for sports doctors but the interaction between the director and the doctor, that’s absolute minimal. And there’s definitely no place for a director to be in a room with a rider and a doctor. Absolutely no way. And I think that’s what view the majority of teams would be holding these days.”
RIDE: So even you’ve got this great Saxo-Tinkoff family, you say: ‘Okay Alberto, good ride today. I’ll see you later…’?
McGee: “Definitely. I go through the rooms and talk with the boys; you always have time with the riders. If a doctor is in the room, you just go to the next guy until he’s available. That’s just the way to do things, that’s the practice.”
RIDE: When we talked about Alberto, talking about the Vuelta, I asked about coming out after a rest day… [in a separate interview talking about the final Grand Tour of 2012]. Now that you’ve had time to go over the USADA document do you feel different?
McGee: “Nothing has changed there. The way he did what he did at the Vuelta… it’s like, he wasn’t a good bike rider – he wasn’t a physically good bike rider on that day – it was tactical and sheer drive and want that got him through that day. If he had of won by five minutes and had three team-mates around him? Different story. But that was a battle.”
RIDE: Now it seems people are more interested in reading USADA documents than watching racing but people are keen to consider now, what they’ve learned, and apply it to performances in recent times. That’s what’s become of the sport, isn’t it?
McGee: “Yeah. It’s an unfortunate symptom of the times but I’ve got no comment on that: if that’s people’s interest. It’s unfortunate.”
RIDE: We’ve already talked about not being surprised by any of what we’re learning but it’s about how to manage it all and I guess that’s why you did your piece [in the Fairfax Media]. What was the reaction you got? Did any fellow DSs respond?
McGee: “Ah, no. I heard from my former team coach, Pino ‘Toni’ – I don’t even know his last name. He’s a Lucca-based coach and we’ve got have the team living there now. He’s a lovely guy and he sent: ‘Bravo Bradley, well written.’ He’s an emotional man.”
RIDE: Did you hear from John Fahey?
McGee: “No I didn’t.”
RIDE: What would you say if John Fahey walked in the door right now?
McGee: “Uhm, maybe: ‘Let’s go and have a coffee and a bit of a chit-chat.’
“When I was in at Fairfax, I got to meet the sports writers and the editors and it was interesting for me just to hear the line of questioning – the actual questions that are out there – from someone who had a real interest in knowing the answers. People are actually looking to see if there is any reason to believe there’s been change.”
RIDE: And I guess that’s the Holy Grail in this instance isn’t it: when someone can define that the peloton is now clean. You can talk about how you observe differences in the way that the races are unfolding but apart from making a judgement call on how physical things are, from the car seat or the television, how can you say that it is cleaner?
McGee: “I’m a bit more wary myself after this. And I have my reasons…
“I’ve been advocate and have been saying that it’s changing – or that it’s changed – but I was always on the fence about Lance: I’d have liked to believe like everyone else, but it just didn’t add up. My gut feeling was that he was on something extraordinary and maybe something that was undetectable or something completely new. He was quite believable when he stood up and said, ‘I am not taking performance-enhancing drugs.’”
RIDE: You thought that he might have been gene doping or…
McGee: “Something like that. But to read the report tells us that he was as dirty as they come.”
RIDE: You’ve had your chats with Lance; it might just be during a photo opportunity as you’re riding out of Paris while wearing the yellow jersey [at the start of the Tour in 2003]. Did the cult of personality affect you?
McGee: “Nah. It’s funny: Lance has always had the reputation that you’re either with him or against him. But when it came to us Aussies he was quick to be friendly but he never really formed any relationship. I lived in Nice when he was there and every now and then I’d find him out on the road and he always had his posse of riders training with him – he always had his group. And everyone else knew that the was no way you’d enter in to a training ride, but us Aussies were different. There was no way that Bobby [Julich] would turn around and jump in with his group – it was just absolutely out of the question – but for me or the other Aussies, it was no problem.
“That attitude was repeated in the racing. I remember that day rolling out of Paris and he was happy to have a good chat and he talked quite openly about how nervous he was going into the prologue of the 2003 Tour. I thought I was maybe giving him a different scope on things by telling him how I spent half the afternoon [of the prologue] on the toilet because I was so anxious. And he was like, ‘Me too!’ And he was open and friendly and human to me and the other Aussies.”
RIDE: Is that perhaps how Zabriskie and Vande Velde – and other guys who you wouldn’t expect would delve into doping – got reeled in?
McGee: “Possibly. I don’t know. Do you think that was part of his grooming? I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it like that.
“There was definitely never any steps for me to be brought into that regime at all. There was nothing beyond general friendliness when we crossed paths.”
RIDE: Some in their confessions have said that the team forced them to do it. You’re not ‘forced’. Not unless they have strapped you down and stuck a needle in you.
McGee: “Exactly. And if that happened, we’re talking about a whole different swag of problems.
“You can always walk away. It would have been tough, definitely, but you always had that right to say ‘no’ and walk away.”
RIDE: Did you hear from Paul Kimmage?
RIDE: Were there phone calls from other journalists?
McGee: “I had a few requests which I have delayed taking. That isn’t my point: it’s not about me. I think I’ve said enough for people to take enough out of it. I’m happy to sit here with you and talk openly about it because it helps me fill in a few blanks as well and to try and realise what the next steps are before I take it again to the wider media. It keeps coming out: we’re trying to find answers to questions that are really unanswerable. I’d like that to be put to the wider public, the institutions, the federations… I think we need to get some answers fast.”
RIDE: Let’s put it this way – if you’re saying how the ‘dopers stole the best years of your career’ and some of those dopers are now losing their jobs as administrators and team staff and the like… is that the solution?
McGee: “Personally, selfishly, I think it’s fantastic. It makes me more valuable. But I just don’t think that doing that is going to achieve what’s required. Definitely, in the short-term, it’s going to cause issues and problems and maybe put us more backwards than we think at a time when we’re looking to take the sport forward with a culture change that we’ve enjoyed only recently… but it started back after the Festina Affair.
“I’ve seen first-hand with guys like Bjarne… he’s actually been able to change.
“Madiot was one of the first who was able to change.
“These are people we need in the sport.”
RIDE: Okay, let’s play devil’s advocate: you’re saying about one of your best friends in the peloton – certainly your mentor – ‘Madiot was able to change’. Does that mean, well, that the sentiment is that he doped during his riding days?
McGee: “Obviously, I’m not going to talk about that. I’ve got no idea. It would only be speculation on my part but I can talk about his parole during my first contact with him. I met him in late-1997 and, through to the Festina Affair, we’re talking about a completely different dialogue in the ‘before’ and ‘after’.
“It wasn’t like he was saying, ‘You’ve got to do this, this and this…’ but it was explaining what was happening on a wider basis.
“He brought me in and put me under his wing. It was all about explaining to me what the system is – or was. Then, after that, he is as he is now: as white as white. And he’s better for the sport like that.
“Again, I look at [Matt] White and Stephen Hodge or Bobby [Julich] – I know them all – and they were doing great jobs. They are good at what they’ve been doing and they’re assets to the sport but now we know how they got there, what does it change? Should we just throw ’em out and start again? Because it’s fair enough to say they would never have been in those positions if it wasn’t for bad decisions, bad practices, and bad behaviour. It would have been someone else… But, they had also been doing a good job. But they got it through bad means. That’s the issue, isn’t it? It’s a tough one.”
RIDE: We’re coming to you for answers that no one has been able to offer but it’s a conversation to shine a light on aspects of cycling that people might no know about. And we can continue but we might find we’re just talking in circles…
McGee: “That’s true, but I think that just by asking the questions – opening the floor on this issue – we’ll move forward.”
RIDE: Let’s go to something that might have an answer… if people are looking for a solution to the presidency of the UCI; it would seem that Pat McQuaid is going to have troubles holding down that role but I don’t see who the alternative could be.
McGee: “It’s not about the role. It’s about the structure of the UCI and how it is run, how it is in cooperation with the teams… the basics are all wrong because they at least had the ability to actually play with our balls and say, ‘We are going to implement and independent commission into this whole… blah, blah, blah.’ And they are going decide who is going to look under their beds; they’ll decide who it is.
“It was the same thing as how they’ve manage other issues. It’s how it was with the issue of radio use in the peloton. I was over there in the meetings when that topic was raised with the teams and everyone was agreeing… but it was never about the radios, it was more about the teams having a voice and a vote in the decision making practices that were going on, and going forward. But they kept turning it back to the issue of radios. In the media, that’s all you’d hear about: but it was not about radios, it was to realise that in every decision after we want to have a voice and a vote.
“A lot of the money that’s going to the UCI is coming from the teams. They freely admit that. And then it’s like, ‘Thank you for the cheque but you can walk away and we’ll run it from here.’ And that’s just not good enough.
“When push came to shove they said, ‘Okay, we’ll look again at the radio issue. We will put together an independent commission and they’ll have a review. Even at the time we knew it was just ridiculous! They’d select Uncle Bob and Uncle Dick and Uncle Harry and they’ll come up with exactly what they wanted all along. Now they’re doing it all over again… and they’re allowed to. As ridiculous as it is, and as big an outcry that there is in the media, they can.
“It’s not about who is going to be the president, it’s about who is actually going to change the structure.”
RIDE: About six weeks ago [20 September 2012] the UCI announced that all commercial operations would now be handled by Philippe Blatter [Sep Blatter’s nephew] and his company ‘In Front Sports and Media’.
[From the release: “Marking a strategic shift in worldwide coverage after cycling’s unprecedented success at the 2012 Olympic Games in London in all disciplines, Infront Sports & Media will become the UCI’s exclusive agency to distribute the federation’s media rights globally, with the exception of the USA and Japan.”]
And there was no hint that it was put out to tender, it was just an accord. The way I see it is that it absolutely reeks of corruption…
McGee: “Look at the voting system itself; it’s very IOC. I don’t know the numbers, but if you look at how much weight countries like Spain, France and Italy have compared to ‘exotic’ regions in South America and the Asian countries, it’s ridiculous. We all know that cycling is a European sport. I think everyone agrees that it’s great to see the globalisation – the UCI has done a good job there – but you’ve got to understand what was the real agenda behind all that?
“By globalising the sport, they always spread the votes around the world when it comes to electing the president. So, suddenly the vote of these leaders of the ‘exotic’ areas becomes just as important – if not more important – than traditional countries like France, Italy and Spain. And it’s fair to say they might have a bit more of an idea of what what’s important for the sport going forward.”
RIDE: It brings those other countries into the picture and gives them a good dose of power.
McGee: “Exactly, and that’s an easy sell from the UCI to bring them in. I think that needs to be seriously looked at. Sure, we can have complaints against the UCI but it’s not about any one individual, it’s about the structure. And that’s not going to change until you change how the voting system is to bring people in to power. That just falls into the ‘too hard’ basket for just about everybody on the planet.”
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In part five (coming soon), McGee answers questions from RIDE readers about the state of pro cycling…
A big thanks to all who contributed to the discussion.
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