Our starting point has to be your manifesto from last year. I was a little bit worried what was going to happen with mountain biking, as there were maybe only three or four mentions of mountain biking in the whole manifesto. So naturally, that left me a little nervous about what your presidency would bring.
Let me explain. The manifesto was about what we want to change
in cycling. We recognize what has been done in mountain biking [over recent years] was not so bad. Of course, we have new disciplines, and we have new formats to implement, but this manifesto wasn't the place to go into all the details. It was the big picture and for mountain biking, it's not [in need of] the same scale as the reform of professional road cycling.
We have to renew completely, professional [road] cycling. We have to make some evolutions in mountain bike, but not a revolution, I would say. That's why we have less key points than some other disciplines, I would say, key points like governance, proportion of women in the governance, gender parity, all these kind of subjects. That's why we had more pages on these topics that we need to change.
What does a career that leads to the UCI presidency look like?
I come from a cycling family. My father has been a rider on the road, my mother also rode bicycles, she took part in a few races. My father was the president of a local club, so I've been involved since I was very young in a club and in the cycling family, always as a volunteer. I've always been a rider myself on the road, a little bit in cyclo-cross, also on the track, but more on the road. At the time it was really the beginning of mountain biking. So I rode these three disciplines. When I stopped competing in 1993 I became a commissaire, then president of the local club.
After, I was elected to the board of my national federation, the French Cycling Federation in 1997. I was then elected to the UCI Management Committee in 2005. I've also been the president of the Mountain Bike Commission at the UCI from 2009 to 2013.
How much time do you spend on your mountain bike?
I have always ridden mountain bikes for leisure and where I live it's not so hilly, so it is nice for me to ride but more specifically in winter. In summer I am usually on my road bike, but in winter, I like to go with my mountain bike.
I think I have a good knowledge about mountain bikes, and also because I was the president of the French Cycling Federation and mountain biking is a key discipline in France. We had more than 25,000 license holders and there are a lot of competitions, so I was really involved in these years.
Just to give some context of scale from mountain bike to road, what is the split for license holders between the different disciplines in cycling?
Worldwide, road and MTB count for 40% and 20% of license holders, followed by BMX (10%) and others (30%).
One of the things that has impressed me about cycling in France is how integrated it all is for kids. When they start riding, the U23 system makes them ride XC, DH, and trials, not just one discipline in isolation - which I think, makes for more rounded riders. Will we see the U23 category come to more global prominence?
When we integrated the licenses for mountain bikes into the FFC, some regional committees were very focused on road cycling. And so there were these guys coming from mountain biking, more connected, younger, punchy... What was strange is that it was at the national level with the federation, where it was better than at the regional level. The regional level was more conservative and we had to push and to show an example from the top. And so we spent a lot of money on this.
Sometimes the riders would come to me and say, "Okay, what do you do with the money for my license? I want to have my money back like Mrs. Thatcher." But I said, "Look, guys, if you have a look at where we are today, I don't want to divide the revenues and expenses by discipline, because you will see that most of the revenues are coming from the road. And the money we spend to send you to the World Championships, most of the money's coming from the road. So if I do this, the road will want their money back and is that what you really want?"
Take the World Championships in Canberra. In Australia, we spent something like €280,000 on our mountain bike team. It was a lot of money. It's not just coming from the mountain bike family, it's coming from all of us. I think the model is going well and finally it's not a confederation of different disciplines. It really is a federation where each family takes care of the other members.
Looking at the crop of French riders currently dominating the World Cup DH, that must be a pretty good legacy from your time at the FFC, as all of those riders will have come up through the system.
It's working very well, we had a strong season and we are taking care of all the disciplines, including downhill. I remember we had something like 2,500 licenses just for downhill. For enduro, it was maybe more.
During your time in the French Federation, you were the first national federation to recognize enduro as a legitimate discipline of mountain bike racing, back in 2011.
And, were you sitting on the UCI's Mountain Bike Commission at the same time?
How did this come around? For instance, in the UK, enduro is still not an officially recognized discipline by BC, so how do you reach this point where you decide that this is something that you should be supporting?
Because I was a strong supporter of enduro inside the UCI. Unfortunately at the time, for I would say, economic reasons due to the budget, the General Director decided that we had to cut some things and the money that was supposed to be invested in developing the discipline was held back.
We had to postpone the decision to welcome this discipline into the UCI. We were working with Chris Ball at the time, he was the coordinator of gravity disciplines. I was really pushing for this too, but the UCI said no, so he left UCI and he launched his own series. But, in the meantime, I was still leading the French Federation, I had the power to say "Okay" for the French Federation, I could make these decisions, so we will welcome this discipline." I think it was a mistake from the UCI at the time.
How is the UCI involved in the Adverse Analytical Finding returned by two EWS racers last May in Olargues, France?
This event wasn’t registered on the UCI Mountain Bike International Calendar and the tests were conducted under the jurisdiction of France’s AFLD, which is currently dealing with the results management. For this reason, the UCI is not implicated in the event anti-doping testing activities nor in its results management. But from the 2019 season, the EWS will join the UCI, and the participants will be tested, as are mountain bike athletes and cyclists from all UCI disciplines, by the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF), the independent organization mandated by our International Federation to define and implement cycling’s anti-doping strategy.
The UCI/EWS deal is something of a controversial one for some people within mountain biking. They worry about the UCI competing or taking over the EWS. Do you see that risk, or how do you see that relationship? Would you prefer the UCI took a stronger leadership role, as with the World Cup?
What I would say is that first of all, due to the fact that we disappeared on this subject, they took that place. We have to recognize that. They have done a good job. They are supporting enduro and our idea is not to push out a stakeholder that has been good at developing the discipline.
We need to work together and that's why we have an agreement for this. It's not new for us to work like this - on the road, we work closely with ASO, for example, in BMX we also have strong stakeholders, so I think this will be good for enduro.
The qualifying changes to the DH World Cup this year seem to be a step towards the sport becoming more of a made-for-TV spectacle and moving away from a participation sport. If you look at, say, Supercross in the US, you get to race day and it's about 20 guys in the final race, whereas at the moment it's still 60 in World Cup. Is that the sort of direction you see DH taking?
I don't think we can reduce the numbers too much because if you look at the nationalities of the top 20, you have some countries with a lot of riders, Great Britain, France for example, so we have to ensure that we have a wide universality in our sport. And if you reduce the numbers too much that could be a problem. So we have to find a good balance in this.
The season-long qualifying protection for the top ten seems to be a very positive move for the sport. What was the thinking behind this?
You need to have top athletes and ensure that they will be there.
Which then comes to the other question of World Cup rounds. Why only seven races? Why not 20 like Formula One or MotoGP?
You know, I've heard there is more money in Formula One or MotoGP than in downhill [laughs]! We spoke with the teams and if you want to ensure a good level of participation, too many rounds could be a problem, because some teams are maybe not strong enough to cover the costs of traveling all over the world. So, we have to find a good balance. Maybe it used to be ten races in cross-country, it's not anymore.
Of course, we can maybe have more candidates applying to hold races, but we have to ensure that it's not too many because the economics of the sport maybe aren't strong enough to match how many rounds we could hold.
Is that a decision made by the UCI or is that made in consultation with the teams?
We have the mountain bike commission where our stakeholders discuss this kind of matter. That means, of course, representatives of the national federations. Greg Minnaar is a member of the commission. We have organizers, teams, and they all meet to discuss this together.
Sometimes, some of them want to increase, some of them want to decrease. So it's something we decide, but in consultation, and I have not received any bad feedback about the number of rounds. Maybe some of them want to increase a little bit and we will have eight rounds in 2019.
One comment we always get on Pinkbike is that a lot of North Americans would like to see two or three races on that side of the Atlantic. Is there a particular reason why there aren't more races in America? One impression that comes from the comments is a feeling that it is very expensive, maybe too expensive, to hold a WC round.
I don't think we are too expensive. We try to be realistic with the economics of our sport and each time I speak with Peter Van Abeele [UCI Off-road Commissioner - ie. head of mountain bikes] we always try to be at the right level and not to be too expensive for an organizer.
We are an international federation, not the European federation, so we need to cover all the areas in the world, but for this, we need to have candidates who want to hold these races. We cannot have completely different prices depending on where you are. If we did that I would get complaints from some organizers, saying, "Okay, if it's 50% less in the US for a race..." and that would be a problem.
Presumably, with venues like Mont St Anne, Fort William and Leogang calling on you to come back year after year, it must be a viable business opportunity for them.
Yes, because these cities want to develop a bike strategy. Others, sometimes as a ski mountain or area like this, it's also important for them to be recognized, not only as the winter destination, but as a summer destination, and for this, cycling is a very good opportunity. Mountain biking is a very good opportunity with cross-country, but also with downhill, if they have ski lifts for it. So when I speak with some of them, it's part of their global strategy to be seen as a cycling destination or a mountain bike destination.
Of course, they are completely aware that they will not reach the same market as in winter, but they can't sleep for six months or eight months, so they need to have something else in summer and cycling, and mountain biking more specifically, is a good opportunity for this.
One thing that really interested me in the manifesto is your idea about the Festival of Cycling for World Championships bringing together all the disciplines. I find myself torn with this, coming from a downhill perspective at least. A Festival of Cycling sounds fantastic, but when you look where the 2016 Road Worlds were in Qatar, it would be a disaster for mountain biking and I worry about mountain biking being dragged somewhere unsuitable.
It's difficult to have downhill in Qatar, to be honest [laughs]. First of all, this festival would be once every four years, not every year, the year before the Olympic Games. It will be all the world championships together, except cyclocross because it is a winter discipline, but we will have all the disciplines including downhill.
So downhill will be part of the festival and of course, also urban trials, cross-country, eliminator, short track. All these disciplines will be part of the program. In fact, it's 14 world championships together. That's huge, and downhill is an important part of the program.
One thing many people outside the UCI maybe don't realize is the timescale an organization like yours works on. Because of its very nature. it tends to be slower to react than the private sector. For instance, although you have been in charge for a year, the Lenzerheide World Championships were already in place before you took office.
First of all, for such a huge organization, I think we work fast. It was an idea I had and I put the festival in my manifesto. I hope we'll have good support from this, and I spoke with the European Broadcasting Union and they are fully behind this. To bring all the disciplines together is not so easy. To find the place and time on the calendar is not so easy, especially with the UCI World Tour calendar on the road. We have been able to find a period when you can have everything.
Of course, you will not be able to have the individual time trial, the downhill, and the indoor cycling all on the same day, but you will have the opportunity one day after another, and if you are watching this on TV, then you will move from the time trial to the downhill and to, for example, indoor cycling.
I believe that for downhill, it will be a great opportunity to promote the discipline. In many countries, it's impossible to have the discipline on public channels, so I think this really provides a great opportunity for some disciplines. Look, for example, at what happened with the European Championship this year.
They were in Glasgow, weren't they?
Yes. You had seven sports together and the TV coverage and the audience was very good, especially for the smaller disciplines. If you take the BMX as an example, we had BMX on live TV on public channels everywhere in Europe for the European Championships. The World Championships did not have the same level of coverage as the one we had for the European Championship, because we aggregated all seven disciplines.
I was president of the European Cycling Union when we decided to do this. We will not put ourselves in with other sports, but have the different disciplines of cycling together. I think for the athletes and for the fans, it will be wonderful. People from the road will have the opportunity to go to see downhill and vice versa. It's a big, big step.
Which brings us into the Olympics. As I understand it there are only a set number of cycling events the IOC will allow into the Olympics and currently, cycling is at its limit for them. Do you see downhill as a potential Olympic discipline or do you think that's the wrong direction for the sport?
First of all, I would be happy to support new disciplines from cycling to enter the Olympic program. The only points we have to have in mind are that the IOC doesn't want to increase the number of athletes - 10,500 athletes. So if you enter with a new discipline you have to cut other disciplines. It will also be the same with the number of medals. They took some medals from the track to have BMX and mountain bike.
So that's why we lost, for example, the Madison, even if the Madison is now coming back. We lost the points race, we lost the pursuit. All these disciplines were lost to make room for new disciplines. I think we are at the minimum on these current disciplines, so if it's the same athletes, it's easier. Take for an example short track in cross-country, it is less difficult to get that in, because you can do this with the same athletes.
What does that do for the medal count? Does that complicate things?
It's part of the decision. If you have new discipline, you have a new venue, you have new cost and they want to manage the size of the Olympic Games, as you saw recently that Japan withdrew its candidature for 2026. In fact, I don't know if they will find an organizer for the winter games in 2026. So that's something the IOC has in mind.
The other point for downhill is that they want to be connected with young generations. So, downhill is probably more connected than some other disciplines because it's something that the young generation wants to see. So, of course we will have a meeting tomorrow with the IOC about the 2020 and 2024 programs. Of course, we are requesting to have more disciplines, but we have to be realistic. You can also lose disciplines. We have just to keep in mind that, just because there are five cycling disciplines today, that we can maintain that five in the future.
So yes, I would be happy to support downhill as an Olympic discipline, but for this, the discipline has to have stronger universality. They are always looking at how many continental championships we have. How many national championships do we have? How many riders took part in the last world championships? Yes, it's getting bigger, but it's not so big in comparison with other disciplines. So, maybe the universality of downhill is not so strong for the moment, but on the other hand, we will have BMX Freestyle arriving for the first time at the Olympic Games in 2020 and that was a request from the IOC to be connected with the young generation...
Okay, that's interesting. It didn't come from you?
No, at the beginning it was not expected. Of course, we were happy to support this, but it was... We were not expecting to have this discipline included as fast as this.
If I had to boil down what you have said, it seems that your big passion is to try to bring cycling together. Is that a fair assessment of what you want to do?
Yes, I like this. I want mountain bikers to consider themselves part of the same family, and that they are part of the global cycling family. I think we have such a big opportunity with all the disciplines, while in some sports they have only one discipline. You take archery. It's only one discipline, even if you can do it alone or in a team.
We have so many disciplines for the 2023 festival to mix together. It was a series of nice discussions to implement this. And the athletes say themselves that they like to be together. They like to be with the road riders or to be with the track cyclists. They like to be together.