Brian Cookson interview – part 04
At the end of September, there is meant to be a vote for who the next president of the UCI is going to be. Well before the ballot is cast, there has been plenty of confusion about the whole voting procedure. Apparently there are two candidates, the incumbent Pat McQuaid – who continues to battle to be endorsed – and Brian Cookson who has been endorsed by British cycling.
In part four of RIDE’s interview with Cookson, he talks about topics like broadcasting, the use of technology and the potential scourge of gambling on cycling.
You can find the interview as a Soundcloud file, or the transcript of the discussion with Rob Arnold below…
RIDE: Apart from doping, what’s the biggest problem with cycling?
Brian Cookson: “Well, the biggest problem is that the economics of cycling are very weak and so, if we’re talking about pro road cycling in particular, then teams are very unstable and events are difficult – they’re growing in some areas but we’re losing some elsewhere. But the basic problem is that the cake is not big enough and so we’re arguing about who gets the biggest slice of a cake that’s getting smaller and smaller. A lot of that, again, is kind of tied up with doping because the biggest economy in Europe is Germany and there isn’t a single [WorldTour-level] pro team based in Germany. There are very few events in Germany and there’s very little commercial activity – very little sponsorship – and that’s because of the doping thing…
“I think that getting cycling on a stronger economic basis is a key issue because everything else is going well for us in the sport and pastime at the moment. Everybody loves cycling, everybody wants to be part of it – it’s an activity whose time has come, as it were, in the developed nations for reasons of transport and health and the environment and so on. Even the developing nations are beginning to see that actually there’s a better way of running towns and cities than having them just chock-a-block with cars once everybody can afford cars…
“There has never been a better time to be involved in the sport and pastime of cycling. I don’t know whether you see it here in Australia, but certainly I’ve never seen as many people riding bikes and I’ve been a bike rider all my life.”
RIDE: It’s unprecedented. It’s great. It’s encouraging.
Cookson: “So, that’s good. But that’s not translating itself into strength and viability at the top end of pro road cycling. Part of that is we’re missing an opportunity with women’s cycling as well – we’re not promoting that effectively enough – but secondly, and again it’s that credibility issue with men’s pro cycling, we’re arguing about a cake that’s getting smaller and smaller.
“What we should be doing is thinking, ‘Well, how are we going to make this cake bigger?’
“The UCI’s reaction to that in the past has been, ‘Well, let’s try and impose the European pro cycling model in faraway places like Beijing and so on…’
“Now, okay, those events have been successful to a degree in themselves but they don’t really develop cycling in those regions. To me, in places like Africa, South America, Asia there is still massive potential to develop the sport and interest sponsors from those areas… But [it must be done] in a much more effectively managed way so that the calendar can develop in a way that isn’t conflicted all the time, [and] doesn’t try and extend the season all the time.
“Every sport has got to have an off-season.
“We’re almost at the limits – well, we are at the limits of what’s an acceptable season now – but then down here [in Australia] the seasons are different. Again, what you can do is make much greater efforts to develop the sport in the countries – the continents – in a way that suits those countries and continents more than just trying to impose a European pro cycling model on them.”
RIDE: What about, for example, if we’re talking about road cycling… when there is the opportunity technologically to improve and enhance the broadcast – insofar that you could put cameras on the bikes or in helmets or in seatposts – and [yet] the UCI has more-or-less made a blanket ban: that’s not to be the case.
Would you be open to that? It would free up broadcast rights.
You’re talking about having a cake that is so small, but if you make the cake bigger by saying to the teams, ‘Okay, you need to put three riders in every race with a camera…’ [and therefore they get a stake in the broadcast rights]. You impose some rules and regulate it so that it’s that way.
Even if it can’t be obtained live, you could at least have fantastic highlights footage and you could make a fantastic clip after every race. That, for me, is how you could develop women’s cycling for example. Okay, you don’t have live coverage but at the moment you have nothing – so a delayed broadcast is absolutely an improvement.
Is that in your thinking?
Cookson: “I think investing in broadcasting, certainly in women’s cycling, is something that we should do more of.
“I think the technological potential now for on-bike cameras and so on is absolutely amazing.
“What could be more exciting, like someone else said the other day, than a handlebar camera on Cav’s bike in a bunch sprint. I think I’d be watching it from behind the sofa with my hands over my eyes to be honest.”
RIDE: Exactly – it would be compelling. But we don’t have that.
Cookson: “I don’t see why that can’t happen. I think it should be allowed to happen. I think wasting time arguing about radio bans and so on… okay, let’s have the young riders at the lower levels riding on their eyes and ears and instinct and so on, but the idea of imposing that now on the top pro teams, I think, is nonsense.
“It’s impossible to ‘uninvent’ technology. If you stop riders at the top level using radios, then the next thing is that they’ll have Garmins – or whatever – and they’ll be receiving text messages… so what’s safer: reading a text message while you’re hurtling along at 50km an hour, or getting a message in your ear? I think I know the answer. I’ve been a commissaire enough times in the old days, seeing team managers driving alongside the bunch scattering pedestrians and all the rest of it as they try to get a message to their riders. I actually think it’s better to have the radios.”
RIDE: Do you think that the whole radio debate was picked up by [Pat] McQuaid and the UCI and turned into the fiasco that it became – it became a joke, even to the point where one of the two radio-free days at the Tour de France [in 2011] was boycotted and they only managed one… was it all introduced as a way of skittling the concepts of what’s really the next big problem for cycling – or professional sport… and that’s gambling.
Betting is surely going to make doping look like small fry when you consider the sums involved…
Cookson: “I think that’s an issue that we haven’t really put a lot of time and effort into as a sport. And it may well come along and bite us in the leg if we’re not too careful.”
RIDE: What’s your policy on that? How do you manage it? If you have a GC rider doing a deal with a stage winner – ‘Let’s work to get to the finish line…’ like we saw with Rodriguez and Froome and Quintana at Annecy-Semnoz?
Cookson: “This issue there is, what is the difference between legitimate collaboration and illegitimate collusion? That’s what makes our sport – road racing – fascinating, isn’t it? That tactics revolve around the fact that there are more than two teams, there are several teams with different objectives within a race. And several riders with different objective within a race.
“I think, if people start gambling on some of those aspects that’s going be… well, they could be throwing their money away, frankly, and that’s a choice they’re going to make themselves…”
RIDE: But you could do a bet on who is the first attack of the season, or the first attack of a stage race…
Cookson: “Who is going to be the first to fall off…”
RIDE: And the whole peloton could be in cahoots on that…
“Well I would say, first of all, gambling in sport is not illegal so… but it’s something that individuals enter into at their peril. It means that really what we need to do, I think… [interruption because of ‘dramatic light’ and a photo opportunity] it’s something that we’ve not really addressed effectively and I think we need to spend more time thinking it through.
“I don’t want it to be a knee-jerk response but it is going to be an issue that we are going to have to deal with more effectively than we’ve dealt with it in the past.
“Other sports are seeing it as a problem – and it is problem. Our sport, we haven’t really seen it as a problem and frankly I think there are a lot more issues around the general acceptability of what I call ‘low level cheating’ and misbehaviour – hanging onto cars and all this kind of stuff, there are times when those things matter and times when they don’t. If you’re a commissaire you get to recognise those sorts of things.
“But it’s a kind of insidious thing that starts to build into the sport.
“If you’ve read the book by Willy Voet, ‘Breaking the chain’… that kind of cultural thing that it’s okay if you get away with it – whatever ‘it’ is, whether it’s hanging on to a door handle or whatever… [that] the sport is so hard that every little advantage you can get is okay – providing the commissaires didn’t see it, or whatever.
“I hate seeing little things like riders taking a gel and throwing [the packaging] on the ground. You wouldn’t expect a seven-year-old kid to do that, you know? And yet that’s come to be accepted practice. We shouldn’t accept it, we need to do something about all of those sorts of issues I think.”
– By Rob Arnold
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RIDE Media publishes both the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian Edition) as well as RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
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