| Your old road is rapidly agin', Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand, For the times they are a-changin'. - Bob Dylan|
It hasn't been an easy few years for the UCI, cycling's international governing body. A couple of years ago it looked as if it was all going to spiral out of control amidst allegations of corruption and industrial-scale doping in road cycling. At the peak of that storm Brian Cookson ran an aggressive campaign for the presidency of the UCI based on promises to clean house and change the way the UCI did things, to try and wrestle the organization back away from the brink of disaster. Since he took the top job a little more than a year ago the media attention has focused on that struggle, but what about mountain bikes? We sat down with Brian Cookson to find out how he sees mountain biking's role in the UCI, the direction of the World Cup series and how the UCI is looking to handle the rapidly growing discipline of enduro.
The UCI is a relatively small organization, stretched in quite a number of directions. What do you see as your balance between road and MTB?
It is not that small of an organization! We have about 100 people working for us in various capacities and we do have a dedicated off-road department with a manager. I want to say that mountain biking is an important, valid and valuable product for international cycling. Our role is to work with national federations, not just for road or Olympic disciplines but also downhill, 4X and whatever else we can support. One other thing this administration is trying to do since I took over is promote cycling as a pastime. Not necessarily elite cycling but also advocacy, pursuing investment to work with national federations trying to make cycling accessible for all age groups in all of the disciplines, and they are all equally valid. In the media, we see more of your work on the road because of the issues you have been dealing with recently. From the outside, the perception is there is a stronger road focus.
Historically that was the case, road cycling has been around a long time and it is the highest profile certainly, but I want to believe that mountain biking in any of its disciplines, any of its branches, is no less important. It is different and can attract a different group of participants. There is a lot of crossover as well. I’ve been involved a little bit in mountain biking, not a huge amount, but I’ve organized mountain biking races back in my British Cycling days from the very birth of mountain biking during the late '80s, early '90s. I felt it was a valid discipline. At the end of the day, it is about people; we are not all about business at the UCI, we are an international federation, our job is to promote cycling in all its glory, in all its wonderful forms. I do not feel mountain biking is any less valid than road cycling or track or anything. One of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen was the downhill World Cup at Fort William. I admire their skills - it is cycling and we love all the disciplines. There are some big changes coming in the World Cup structure – can you talk about that at all?
We are reviewing what is most effective in all of the branches of the sport. What I can say is that we have a MTB commission composed of people that are directly involved in all the branches of mountain biking and we are willing and interested in looking at what those people recommend. We have gone out of our way to find the right people to contribute to those commissions. I also need to say as well that there is at least one woman in each of those commissions because that is one of my manifesto commitments. As an organization, we are not top-down driven. We are listening to what is coming through from the people who are directly involved in mountain biking, using their advice and trying to build on it and help them succeed in their goals. What do you see as the UCI's on-going role in the WC? In road cycling the UCI is the governing body but the promotion and management of events is passed to ASO and companies like that, while mountain biking is handled in-house by the UCI.
It is sub-contracted to national federations and so on, like the World Cup track events. I think it is something we should be proud of and pleased about. If you look at downhill, outside the UCI World Cups, there are not many major, serious competitions as far as I’m aware. We have been quite successfully pro-active and effective in helping downhilling get to the state that it is in now. With the downhill World Cup and World Champs, those are quite clearly the highest level that is out there. That is not achieved by people sitting in this office alone, that is done by a setting of standard working with promoters, working with national federations, mountain bike associations, etc. Like Rare Management in Fort William, sorry for mentioning a British one to begin but they are the ones I know from my own background. There are people out there that we can facilitate and who we are facilitating. I see people saying, "The UCI doesn't care about mountain biking," I think actually the UCI has been really successfully pro-active in helping mountain biking, downhilling, cross-country, etc, to get to the state that it is in now. There is an argument that the World Cup downhill is under-sold at the moment. It is “presented by Shimano”, but there is no title sponsor, the feeling is that it has not reached its full commercial potential, for instance there is no sponsorship external to the sport. What do you see as the way forwards for that?
We have got some good partners involved. Red Bull Media House are involved as a production partner, Shimano are one of the biggest manufacturer of sporting goods in the world. They are serious people. We can always do better. One of the things we have been doing in the last few months is re-organising our marketing department to have a more professional approach to sponsorship securing, and venue securing and all that sort of stuff. At the end of the day, professional sports are in a very brutal market place. It is driven by viewing numbers on TV, by spectator numbers and so on. It is not as easy as saying what should be done. We are in a marketplace and we have to, between all of us, try and get better results. I accept that criticism but the world is not a simple place when it comes to professional sports. The TV is a good point. It is one of the questions seems to come up regularly. Surely there is a strong argument that downhill is one of the disciplines that has the most potential for a mass media audience: there is the drama, the short format, it is easily understandable. The question is about securing mainstream TV coverage. In many sports, in the first instance someone needs to pay to place it with the TV channels and later companies start to pay for the TV rights. Is that an investment the UCI can make? How would you look to address that?
I do not want to sound defensive on that. We are really interested with working with colleagues to look at ideas and so on. The UCI has invested a lot in TV coverage of DH over the years - on our own YouTube channel, working with Red Bull Media House. I think there is more that can be done; I think we had good TV coverage when we had world championships and so on. World Cup TV coverage is a bit more difficult. Getting into that mainstream TV with dedicated sport channels is definitely more expensive and very much driven by viewing numbers. We will continue to look at opportunities to invest more if we can, especially if there is a return. Again I do not want people to feel like we only want to make money out of it, because we are not; we are driven by helping all the disciplines develop. As I keep saying, professional sport in TV and media coverage is a brutal marketplace, very much driven by viewing numbers, by sales of newspapers, by clicks on internet sites. I’m happy to be a pioneer about what we can do better, that’s why we have a mountain bike commission, that’s why those people are working together. I’m sure we can do better.
Who sits on the MTB commission at present?
We have people from the different branches of the sport. We have people from the industry, riders’ representatives - downhill is represented by Greg Minnaar, for instance, Georgine Gould represents cross country, then there are people like Brian Jolly from Canada who has been involved in promotion for many, many years. There is a whole list, it is not a huge commission but it is a great network of abilities, they are people who know what they are doing, but we can always do better. If you look at Moto GP or Formula 1, high-end racing series, they are covering 18 to 20 stops a year, while the World Cup downhill is only seven this year. Why is the World Cup downhill such a short series?
There is a discussion to be had about what the optimal number is. We have to find venues and promoters that are capable and suitable to organize events at the required standards, courses that are to the appropriate standard and so on. There are a number of venues that are well-tried and tested and they are the ones that are in the seven rounds at the moment. We are very keen to expand that number if we can. What is the optimal number? How many rounds can the teams manage for instance? It is really similar to a number of other situations, like, for instance, women's road racing, you can not just click your fingers and go from position A to position B, you have to go through a series of progressive steps. We are doing that now, we have more rounds, and we are looking at some format changes for the future. I’m optimistic that we can go on. I’ll be surprised if we get to 20 DH rounds in a year for instance, but we could get to eight or ten. What sort of format changes are you looking at, at the moment? What are you considering?
We are looking whether we can do more combined rounds of downhill and cross-country in the same venue. We are looking at enduro events, maybe bringing that into the UCI a bit more. The mountain bike commission met earlier this week, I was not there and I do not have my fingers in every pie in that level of detail. We will make some announcements when we think the situation is ready. It has been noticeable in downhill this winter that some women have been struggling to find rides. What do you see the key to expanding women’s racing?
The position I’m taking on women's competition in all branches of cycling is that what is important is to listen to women’s voices, to involve them in the decision making process. I see great things happening, like Rachel Atherton sponsoring downhill rounds for youth women in the British mountain biking. Those kinds of things can really help. When you start to grow the participation then it makes more sense for an organizer to include more events, to make more opportunities, then the teams start to show more interest and maybe they will want a woman downhiller on the team. We have been given women as much equality as we can, we gave equality in the prize money, same race length (time), both race on the same day and on the same course, same TV coverage for both, god growth of U23 women category. We’ve got the mixed team relay as well that shows women and men can compete and interact in that sort of format together. We will take any opportunity we can to further women’s role in mountain biking but we are proud to have had this for 25 years since the first World Cup Championships and World Cup. Would you consider, for instance, incentivizing in the team rankings? Or does that get a bit complicated?
There is a parallel here with the road scene: there are a lot of people saying that we should have all the top teams have a women’s team or we should have all the top road events have a women’s event as well. I think it is not necessarily the way to go, because I think it means treating women a second grade. There are sponsors out there that I’m sure are more interested in having a women’s team rather than a men’s team. To force a men’s team to have a second or third team, that’s not good, women do not want to be second grade. Women should be there in their own right. I’m not much for rules that compel someone to do something that is desirable in that sense. It is much better if they do it because they want to do it, not because they have their arms twisted, and if they've got their arm twisted they won't do it in a satisfactory way. One thing you mentioned in your manifesto is DH as an Olympic sport.
I think this is a long-term possibility. Since my manifesto, the IOC president, Thomas Barch, has had his 2020 review, they have ruled out certain things, particularly bringing many new disciplines into the games, so I have to say in all honesty it is a pretty long shot. So there is no roadmap at this stage. What sort of obstacles are there for inclusion?
The obstacles are around the IOC’s wish to control the number of events, number of medals, the number of participants. To look at venues, downhilling, for instance, requires mountainous terrain, or at least sufficient downhill length. You'd obviously have to have another venue. All of those things are problematic. But I think the problem is that there are more and more different sports that are pushing to try and get into the Olympics, so it is really difficult to say, "We want another discipline altogether in the Olympics." We have already got XC in the games and it has been quite successful. We will keep pushing where and when we can for those things. It is not just downhill; it is cyclocross as well, and so on. For the foreseeable future it is going to be very, very difficult to get downhilling on the program though. To come on to enduro, which is probably a big question for you. The international enduro series was intended to be originally a UCI project. Do you see that as a missed opportunity?
I do, absolutely. I think what has been done on enduro is very valuable; it is great part of the sport. It is growing in popularity, I can see the advantages and benefit of it. And in many ways, it is something I’d happier if we were more proactively supportive of it. The door is open. Since that project shifted outside the UCI and the EWS was established it is fair to say that it is going from strength to strength. What is your approach toward that series? How would you like to see the future of the UCI and EWS?
I’d like to have a closer relationship with them. I think it is regrettable that relationship broke down in the past. discussions are taking place between our two organisations. I think we can offer them some benefits. Enduro is growing and increasing in popularity as a discipline and series of events. Our business is about encouraging people to ride bikes, so if someone is doing that well, let’s see if we can get an association and help them do it even better. I’m not trying to close them down or compete with them. Our job is to try and work with people who are doing a good job and they obviously are.
There are some technical questions about enduro at the moment. I do not know if you followed the British Cycling ruling where they removed enduro from their event race calendar. This seems to be largely an decision driven by their insurers, as they do not differentiate between enduro and downhill at present. Is this sort of situation something the you feel the UCI could help the federation deal with?
Let me try to make more a general comment rather than a specific one, as I do not know the specifics of this particular situation. First of all, the number one priority has to be the safety of the participants. Part of that are insurance requirements, risks assessment as well. My understanding of enduro is that timed sections are predominantly downhill sections, I can understand why an insurer might scratch their beard and say, “It is a downhill race, separated by some easy bits of cross-country.” I can see why they might require a certain level of safety and a certain risk assessment and so on. If there is a way we can assist in that in term of expertise, I’m sure we will be willing to do that if we can. It is not our job to interfere in the day to day running of the sport in a national federation that is their territory. I respect the decision-making structures that they have and we need to be careful not to counteract or to overrule local and national instances. If you look in Europe and in the US there is quite a variety of different approaches to enduro. In France, enduro is a federation cup. In the UK, they are actually taking that step backwards. In Germany it is not recognized, in the US it is not recognized. It seems to be a prime place for the UCI to support federations.
We do support the federations, but as you said there are different circumstances in different countries. That is one of the interesting challenges about MTB, isn’t it? It is quite an evolving group of disciplines. When I think of the downhill community, if I can call it that, and the cross-country one, they are quite different groups of individuals. Those things are evolving all the time, you had the 4X, now you have relays, you have enduro and if you are more traditional, you have cross-country. And all of those things make mountain biking quite dynamic and an interesting branch of the sport. But that is also why it is problematic to come up with one-stop solutions for all the various problems that arise. There are some fantastic events that have evolved in their own sweet way, like the Cape Epic, as it is different again from the traditional cross-country and it is not an enduro event either and there are a few that are like that. For governing bodies to try and get their heads around that rapidly evolving set of circumstances is tough, just when they think they have got a fix on it all, the mountain biking community says, "We don't actually like that any more, we want to do it this way now." It is quite difficult for a governing body to get its head round, but let’s try and work together, try and be sympathetic, take the advice from the people who are involved in the sports from the different branches, from the different interest groups. They won't always agree, in fact they will disagree quite a lot of the time, but let’s try and get a consensus on what is the best for the different, dynamically expanding branches of the sport of mountain biking. For you, would that include technical development as well? I was talking to a bike designer recently and he was asking if we could get rid of the technical regulation to build weird, wonderful machines that are the pinnacle of the sport?
What we are not trying to do with the technical regulations is stifle innovation, quite the contrary. What we have is an equipment commission - we have the industry involved in that, we have some teams involved too. It is quite focused on changes on road bikes at the moment, with disc brakes being talked about and so on. But we are looking at other innovation as well. Specifically with mountain bike-related stuff, that has been left to the mountain bike commission. If there are issues coming through there, it is something we should look at. What we are trying to do is get a level playing field. What is part of the excitement of cycling are the technological advancements and the innovations that this brings. But, you have seen this on the road and on the track, we do want to make sure people are competing on something that looks like a bike and the person on it looks like a bike rider. That is different in downhilling than in cross-country, in track and in road and so on. A road and track equivalent might be a full fairing, I wouldn't like to see that. The downhill equivalent might be a bizarre, ultra-long wheelbase thing with huge amounts of suspension. I don’t know, you know more about that than I do. We always have to make sure there is a balance between rider and machine in term of the end result, it should not just be about who has the best machine, it is about the person who has the best machine and has the best skills and the best athletic abilities. Those are things that need talking about and they are worth thinking through and that is why we have technical regulations.
On the participation side, one of the main things coming through Europe at the moment is e-bikes. It looks like a big shift in the participation, especially in mountain biking in terms of getting people who would not have considered it before onto bikes. Is that something on your radar?
From a leisure point of view, we have no problem with that. People who want to add an electric motor to a system that’s fine. If it helps them get to the countryside that’s great. In competition terms, we always want cycling to be a sport that is not assisted by motors of any sort. You could say we have electric gears, but it's not the same, the propulsion of the bike, the handling of the bike, has to always be the result of human effort not from any motorized propulsion. They are in effect mopeds, it should fall on the FIM... If it makes people happy, if they enjoy it, there is nothing wrong with it, but we are about bikes. They are driven by the human body not by an electric motor or a diesel motor, a 2-stroke or whatever. If we ever lose that, I do not think that is cycling anymore. On a topical note, there was a note from the UCI at the Lourdes DH WC, with a safety ruling banning on-board camera from WC as things stand.
This is a safety argument, pure and simple. There is nothing about rights or any of that, this is purely about safety. It is pretty obvious that putting a camera on top of a helmet that is not designed to hold the camera is going to compromise the safety and integrity of that helmet. What we have said, and I think it's quite sensible, is that if a manufacturer says it is ok to do this and shows us the certificate that it is ok to do it with this or that camera, then that’s fine. In one way we are giving a nudge to the helmet and camera manufacturers, if they want to do this kind of stuff it needs to be better integrated into the equipment. I’ve read some crazy things on the internet saying the UCI is only interested in filming rights, it is not about that, it is about safety. We have all heard rumours about individuals who have been brain damaged in skiing because of such cameras and if there is a possibility of that happening we need to do something about it. I've seen commuters on their bikes with these things on their heads and I just think, "That's crazy, if your head hits the deck with one of those between the floor and the polystyrene... That's not something I'd choose to do myself." Our job is to make sure a potentially hazardous activity has its danger minimized, the safety of the competitor is something we always give great priority to.These were our questions for the UCI, but coming very soon we will have an Ask Us Anything with them, which will be your chance to ask the questions you want to see answered.