Opinion: Uncertainty and lingering questions mean a new UCI president is needed

Posted on: June 12th, 2013

While broadly supportive of Pat McQuaid in the past, in recent years leading cycling writer Shane Stokes (above) has questioned if the UCI wants to truly tackle drugs or seek to manage the problem.



Over the past eight years while Pat McQuaid has been at the head of the UCI, the sport of cycling has made progress against doping, but in the past ten months has had to deal with the most difficult facts in the shape of the Lance Armstrong affair. And while the sport is arguably cleaner, it has perhaps not been cleaned up to the extent that some would have us believe. In the past decade and a half, Irish journalist Shane Stokes has become a prominent name in the global cycling media for his insightful reporting of racing and the men who make it, and for his unflinching pursuit of the doping story.

He initially agreed with much of what Pat McQuaid did as UCI president, as highlighted in his writing about advancements such as the ProTour and globalisation, and also the anti-doping initiatives introduced in 2007 and 2008. However Lance Armstrong’s return, the UCI’s handling of that matter plus its actions during the investigation into the American, its tense dealings with USADA and WADA and the scrapping of the Independent Commission have made him increasingly concerned about whether the right direction was being followed. 

In this column ahead of Cycling Ireland’s EGM on Pat McQuaid this weekend, he outlines to us why he now believes clear change is needed in the UCI and, for the good of the sport, why a fresh start is necessary.



Members of Cycling Ireland will, this coming Saturday, meet at an EGM in the Red Cow Inn in west Dublin to decide whether the federation should nominate UCI president Pat McQuaid to contest an election in September for a third term in office.

The Irishman’s quest to secure a nomination has become protracted and complicated. In April the board of Cycling Ireland met and voted to nominate him by five votes to one, with Anto Moran being the sole dissenting voice. However, that meeting was not chaired in accordance with the association’s rules and so the nomination was later ruled void.

By the time the board met again two weeks later, there had been a backlash in some quarters against the nomination, with many clubs and some media outlets putting pressure on the board to put the nomination to an EGM.

That process would thus give the members the chance to vote on the matter. The board succumbed to that pressure, calling the meeting that will be held this Saturday.

However, as a resident of Switzerland where he is based as UCI president, McQuaid felt he was entitled to seek a nomination from Swiss Cycling. Rather than waiting for the outcome of the EGM, he has sought to sidestep that process by requesting the Swiss federation to back him.

That move has also been a complicated one. Several Swiss Cycling board members were reportedly unhappy with a press release stating that he had received unanimous support; indications are that some board members wanted to give Cycling Ireland’s members time to decide their position before considering if they would back McQuaid.

That nomination has now been legally challenged by former Swiss national coach Kurt Buergi and the Skins clothing company.

That case means the outcome of Saturday’s meeting could prove crucial. If the legal challenge to his nomination by Swiss Cycling goes ahead and proves successful, McQuaid will only be able to contest the election if the Irish delegates vote to back him.

It increases the importance and relevance of the EGM, and makes it essential that club members indicate their feelings to delegate and ensure that they vote accordingly.

In the meantime, McQuaid’s path to a third term has become complicated for another reason, with British Cycling president and UCI management committee member Brian Cookson declaring last week that he would run for the same position.

Cookson’s entry into the race and the mooted legal challenge to McQuaid’s nomination by the Swiss has put a sharper focus on the Cycling Ireland EGM. It could help shape his future if he loses the Swiss nomination. And even if he retains that backing, a vote against him by members of his home federation may weaken him as a candidate.

Either way, the outcome of Saturday’s meeting will be important, and could end up having huge influence on the future path of world cycling.


Lingering questions:

The Lance Armstrong situation and other matters have thrown up plenty of questions for the UCI, some of which are outlined below.

While good work has undoubtedly been done by the governing body in introducing the biological passport, in helping the globalisation of the sport, in moving cycling forward and in professionalising the top level via the WorldTour, there are many questions which remain about how the sport was run since 1999, and how it will be handled moving forward.

For this writer, the following points – which are not exhaustive – explain why I believe widespread changes are needed within the UCI in order to restore confidence and to help the sport shake off the baggage of the past.

These points show why substantial reforms and restructuring need to be carried out, and why it may take a new president to give cycling the fresh start it needs.

In my belief, the major hurdle for Pat McQuaid was caused by the dissolution of the Independent Commission earlier this year. That commission was promised by the UCI last autumn as a body which would examine its role in dealing with Lance Armstrong and the findings of the US Anti Doping Agency which investigated the American.

The UCI itself accepted that such a commission was needed to be able to restore confidence and to prove that it had nothing to hide about its actions during the Armstrong era.

Effectively, the commission was necessary for the cycling to draw a line under the past and to determine if Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid had acted in the best interests of clean sport. With that Commission shelved and no immediate plan to investigate what happened before, many questions linger and much baggage remains.

Here are some areas of concern:




a) Backdated prescriptions and the Vrijman report:

This is a key issue when examining McQuaid’s record, given that the UCI faced major scrutiny during the Armstrong/US Postal Service investigation and also in the aftermath of USADA’s charges against Armstrong and his decision not to contest the same.

There are several examples of the UCI’s close dealing with Armstrong over the years. In 1999 the Texan tested positive for cortisone at the Tour de France and, under the rules, should have been expelled from the race as he had not declared medical use of the product beforehand.

Instead, the UCI accepted a prescription which had been back-dated, something which was against its own regulations.

Article 43 from the UCI’s 1999 rulebook stated:

‘The rider must indicate on the form any drugs listed on the list of classes of doping substances and methods which he has taken but which may not be taken into consideration under the medical conditions specified in the same list. If he has not and any such substance is found by the laboratory, the test result shall be considered as positive and the rider shall be sanctioned, even when he produces a medical certificate after the test.”

Armstrong verified during his Oprah Winfrey confession in January of this year that the prescription had indeed been backdated as a means of getting around the problem. However the UCI didn’t follow Article 43 and he was allowed to continue in the race.

Former UCI president Hein Verbruggen – who is currently the honorary president and is thought to have a strong ongoing influence – has spoken in the past of a friendship with the Texan. In a book published to mark Verbruggen’s standing down from the UCI president’s role in 2005, the Dutchman was described by Armstrong as “a great friend” and a “defender of cyclists’ rights.”

That year, Armstrong had faced accusations by L’Equipe that several of his 1999 Tour de France samples were found positive for EPO when retroactive testing was applied to them. Verbruggen and the UCI commissioned what it presented as a fully independent Vrijman report, which cleared Armstrong of all doping allegations and blasted the LNDD lab in question, as well as L’Equipe, WADA and others.

The report was subsequently described by WADA as being ‘fallacious in many aspects and misleading’. Asked by the Danish paper Politiken how he was allocated his role in writing the report, Vrijman answered that he was ‘a very good acquaintance of Hein Verbruggen’s.’

This raised obvious questions about the UCI’s willingness to investigate itself, and also its ability to maintain a necessary distance from its top rider.


b) Verbruggen’s defence of Armstrong and 2001/2002 suspicious test results:

When Floyd Landis made his accusations against Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service team, Verbruggen responded two years ago by asserting that the Texan ‘never, never, never doped’. He stated this to despite the fact that the Texan was under federal investigation by the US authorities at the time of his speaking.

However, the UCI later confirmed that the rider had in fact displayed suspicious test readings during the 2001 Tour de Suisse and also again in 2002. According to the head of the lab who analysed the 2001 result, Martial Saugy, the UCI told him that it had warned the rider in question.

“That was their approach to prevention,” he told AFP last October.

“The UCI said to me at the end of June 2002: ‘we warned the rider for whom you had a suspect result in 2001, he gave another suspect return at another lab and he would like to know by which method it was tested’.”

“The rider was Armstrong. It was then that I learned about it.”

Armstrong’s former team-mates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton have both said under oath that he told them that he had tested positive but that the UCI would look after the matter, meaning that it would not be an issue.

While the UCI is adamant that a cover up did not take place, stating that Armstrong’s levels were not high enough to lead to a sanction, the two warnings are difficult to reconcile with Verbruggen’s repeated denials that there were any suspicions about Armstrong.

Now, speaking after the rider confessed to long term doping, Verbruggen’s position has changed, saying that he and the UCI were indeed suspicious about possible doping since 2001.

On those grounds, it beggars belief that ten years later the Dutchman insisted Armstrong had never doped and had publically defended him. This shows an utterly perplexing lack of distance and objectivity on his part.


c) Donations:

The UCI has stated that it accepted two donations from Lance Armstrong. The rider gave a total of over $125,000 in two payments, the first coming in 2002 and the second in early 2007. UCI president Pat McQuaid has said on several occasions that accepting this money was, in hindsight, an error.]

However during the press conference he gave last October when the UCI confirmed that it would not appeal Lance Armstrong’s lifetime ban, he said that the governing body would still accept donations from riders in the future, but ‘it would be done in a different way.’

Anti-doping scientist Michael Ashenden has said that he feels it is highly inappropriate for the UCI to accept money from any athlete it has to police. WADA director general David Howman responded by saying that while the WADA code didn’t outlaw accepting donations from athletes, that he felt it was inappropriate.

“Why a signatory would accept any donation from a current athlete is really the question, particularly if it is not disclosed to the world. Such acceptance has the potential to seriously compromise the integrity of the signatory and obviously lead to suggestions of a lack of impartiality with regards to the athlete concerned,” he told The Telegraph.

“WADA certainly does not recommend donations of this sort. However if they are to be made and accepted then they ought immediately to be globally disclosed so that all other athletes and the world at large are aware.”


d) Armstrong’s return:

In September 2008, just over three years after he retired, Lance Armstrong announced his plans to return to the sport of cycling. The UCI said that it had no objections to that, providing the rider complied with the anti-doping regulations. Those regulations included the stipulation that riders should be in the testing pool for a full six months prior to starting racing.

Armstrong’s first event back was the Santos Tour Down Under, but the start date for that race fell just short of the mandatory six month window. The UCI waived its rules on this, saying that because he had been tested regularly, that it didn’t consider it necessary to comply with the full six month requirement.

At the time waiving the requirement led to some claims of favouritism towards the rider, who was generating a lot of publicity for cycling.

In April of that year this writer and Pat McQuaid spoke by phone about Lance Armstrong and the regularity of his testing. He had samples taken from him on average once a week after he announced his comeback, listing those tests on his Twitter account and also in the table of doping control results he later published on the Livestrong website.

However, following his poor Milan-Sanremo performance and the broken collarbone he sustained two days later in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, Armstrong’s data appeared to show he had not been tested for six weeks and two days.

As this was the period of time leading up to his participation in the Giro d’Italia, a time when riders could potentially extract blood for later reinfusion, this writer queried the gap in testing with Pat McQuaid. He denied that there was anything untoward in that gap, saying that enough samples had been taken beforehand to build a profile.

During that conversation the question about the long-running suspicions about Lance Armstrong was raised; this writer told McQuaid that the president had often spoken about the need for change in the sport, for the younger generation to come through, and that there were lingering questions about Armstrong. It was pointed out to McQuaid that despite that, that the president and the UCI had welcomed his return.

McQuaid answered by saying that nothing had ever been proven against Armstrong, that he was ‘a great sportsman’ and that his return ‘was very good for cycling.’ Four years later, Armstrong’s legacy is in ruins and the sport has suffered a major blow to its credibility.

The subsequent admission by the UCI that it had suspicions about Armstrong dating back to 2001 make this support for his return a confusing one to understand.

If a rider has question marks over him, why does the president of the governing body regard his return as such a positive aspect for cycling? Does this not highlight the difficulty between simultaneously promoting and policing the sport?


e) Biological passport testing:

According to the USADA reasoned decision, there was a ‘one in a million’ chance that Armstrong competed clean in 2009 and 2010. Professor Christopher J Gore, Head of Physiology at the Australian Institute of Sport, concluded that it was virtually impossible that the rider had done so during the 2009 and 2010 Tours.

These concerns were echoed by Dr Michael Ashenden, who was on the UCI’s biological passport expert panel at the time. He too concluded that the test results were highly suspect and that there were serious grounds to conclude that Armstrong had been blood doping.

Despite that, and despite the UCI’s current position that it did have suspicions about Armstrong dating back to 2001, the UCI confirmed in recent months that the biological passport panel were never given his passport values for assessment for all samples post-March 2009.

Defending that position, it said that the software which did the initial screening didn’t throw up red flags. However, given that the rider had been on their radar, was long suspected by others of using doping and was the highest-profile rider in the world at the time, it is hard to understand why those experts were not able to perform their own evaluations.

Ashenden has suggested that if he had been given the opportunity to screen the results, that he would have red-flagged them. Instead, Armstrong continued to race uninterrupted until his retirement in January 2011.

The UCI continues to maintain that he raced clean between 2009 and 2011, as does Armstrong.

Again, a question bears asking: why were the biological passport panel – who were appointed to police the sport and to try to eliminate doping – not able to do their jobs in relation to a rider who had serious question marks over him?

Also, if the computer software didn’t catch Armstrong in 2009 and 2010, how can we know that other riders with a similarly suspicious blood profile didn’t also slip through the net?


f) The USADA report:

The UCI came under scrutiny last year when it questioned USADA’s jurisdiction in relation to the investigation into Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service team. In two letters dated July 13th, McQuaid told USADA that the UCI wanted to take over the case. It suggested that because Floyd Landis had made first allegations to it and USA Cycling about Lance Armstrong and the team, that under its rules it was the results management authority in the case.

Given that the UCI was itself facing allegations of improper conduct over the alleged cover-up of Lance Armstrong’s test results during the 2001 Tour de Suisse, USADA said that it would be inappropriate for the UCI to rule on a case where it was itself under question. In addition, it pointed out that it had had talks with Landis prior to his disclosure of allegations against Armstrong and others, thus making it the relevant results management authority.

WADA also backed USADA in the matter.

Finally, after a series of emails back and forth on the matter, the UCI finally conceded the point when a Texas judge ruled on the matter, saying that he accepted that USADA should rule on the case. At the time the UCI faced considerable media criticism around the world, with suggestions that it was trying to impede the investigation. It denied this was the case.

As these points show, there are lingering questions about the UCI’s dealings with Lance Armstrong, starting with the acceptance of a backdated prescription in 1999 and extending to the handling of USADA’s investigation of the rider in 2012.

However, as the next section illustrates, the mechanism put in place to examine those questions did not reach a conclusion.



Responding to the USADA report, known as the Reasoned Decision, the UCI said that it was important for it to underline its credibility and to prove it had not acted inappropriately in relation to Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service team. In order to do that, McQuaid said in a press conference on Friday October 26th that the UCI would establish a fully Independent Commission to analyse its role and to perform an objective and thorough assessment of how the governing body behaved.

He said that he was confident that the UCI would be fully vindicated by the commission.

“As I said on Monday, UCI is determined to turn around this painful episode in the history of our sport,” he stated then. “We will take whatever actions are deemed necessary by the independent Commission and we will put cycling back on track.”

“Today, cycling is a completely different sport from what it was in the period 1998-2005. Riders are now subject to the most innovative and effective anti-doping procedures and regulations in sport. Nevertheless, we have listened to the world’s reaction to the Lance Armstrong affair and have taken these additional decisive steps in response to the grave concerns raised.”

That Independent Commission was appointed and named on November 30th, with the three-member panel comprising the former Court of Appeal judge Sir Philip Otton, the UK House of Lords Peer and Paralympic Champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and the Australian lawyer Malcolm Holmes QC.

It set about gathering evidence but found that there was a major reluctance for witnesses to come forward. WADA and USADA subsequently called for a Truth and Reconciliation amnesty for all who gave evidence to the commission, saying that otherwise there was effectively a deterrent in place to people speaking of their experiences.

Both agencies said that unless the UCI would agree to what they felt was a necessary step, that they would no longer cooperate with the enquiry.

On January 16th the Independent Commission echoed their calls, making it clear that it also felt an amnesty to be necessary.

“The Commission is of the view that a Truth and Reconciliation process is desirable for the purposes of this Inquiry, and that such a process would ensure that the most complete evidence is available to the Commission at its hearing in April 2013,” it said then in a statement.

“The Commission is of the view that such a process would be in the interests not only of the Inquiry, but also of professional cycling as a whole. The Commission, via the Solicitors to the Inquiry, has written to the UCI’s solicitors, urging the UCI to reconsider its position.”

However twelve days later the UCI announced that it had decided to disband the Independent Commission, and that it would consider instead holding a Truth and Reconciliation Commission at a later point. This jars with the UCI’s initial promise to fully cooperate with an enquiry and, since then, there have been few specifics about a new commission being established.

While the UCI has said it does intend doing something along these lines, the delay caused by the dissolution of the original commission means – some might say conveniently – that the results would not be known until long after the UCI presidential election.

Intentionally or not, the difficult questions have been kicked further down the road, and won’t be answered until well into what would be Pat McQuaid’s third term. Uncertainty remains about how Armstrong and his team were able to get away with widespread doping for so long, and if they were indeed shielded. 



Introduced at the start of the 2008 racing season, the biological passport was a breakthrough in policing sport. The UCI responded to scandals such as the Floyd Landis and Michael Rasmussen affairs by introducing a longitudinal study of riders’ blood values and test results, saying that it would enable it to more accurately determine if riders had doped.

While the biological passport has undoubtedly been effective at reducing the extent of doping being carried out, anti-doping experts such as Dr. Michael Ashenden plus testimony from riders have shown that over time, riders had realised it is possible to evade detection through microdosing, namely the use of small but regular injections of EPO, and blood transfusions.

The UCI itself states that while the passport has undoubtedly reduced the extent of the doping problem, that it is impossible to say that it is completely clean.

However, interviewed earlier this year at the Asian cycling championships, Pat McQuaid told reporters there that the problem was effectively solved.

“First of all, doping is not confined to cycling only. See, the Armstrong issue is a thing of ten to fifteen years back,” he said, according to the Daily Pioneer.

“The products that were used fifteen years ago were undetectable. It was a difficult time for all of us.”

“Now, we have upgraded our process and we are advancing day by day in that point. UCI is the only sporting federation in the world which has a foolproof bio-passport programme. So, our doping controlling programme is currently equipped to control the menace.”

In contrast, a number of Dutch professionals recently spoke out about what they felt was a lack in biological passport testing, saying that they had concerns that samples were taken so infrequently as to make doping possible for unethical riders.



What this and other examples above seem to highlight is the UCI’s constant attempts to ‘manage’ a situation rather than effectively deal with it. Whether approving a backdated prescription against its own rules in 1999, giving Armstrong warnings in 2001 and 2002 while defending him publicly, welcoming his return in 2008 and 2009, discrediting whistleblowers in 2010 and 2011, contesting USADA’s jurisdiction in 2012 and, since the reasoned decision was announced last autumn, launching an independent commission which was later shelved, the UCI’s actions have raised continuous questions about its true willingness to tackle the doping issue in the sport.

There seems a clear disconnect between promoting and policing cycling, with one of those roles involving the presentation of the best possible message, and the other involving confronting difficult aspects head on.

For this reason there is a real uncertainty in the governing of the sport, and a growing appetite for a fresh start. The decision of management committee member Brian Cookson to step forward shows that even within the UCI itself, some are convinced that new governance is needed in order for cycling to make a proper break with the past.

Given all that has taken place in the fifteen years since the Festina Affair, it is hard to argue with that point. Personalities aside, sometimes the reset button needs to be pushed for a major organisation to be able to restore its credibility and to shake off the lingering doubts.