Brian Cookson took over the UCI Presidency in late 2013, heralding a new direction in pro cycling, and proposing sweeping changes in the way that the sport was managed and overseen. It was widely hoped that his election would signal the beginning of a new and cleaner era in pro cycling. One of the key initiatives in Cookson’s early agenda was to create the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) – a panel of independent experts to look at the history of cycling, and to make recommendations for cleaning up and better managing the sport in the future. The Commission was funded to the tune of €3 million, was led by three independent experts and was supported by a small internal staff. It spent a year assessing the current situation in pro cycling. It interviewed some 174 individuals, including past and present riders, team managers, doctors, scientists, owners, sponsors, event organizers, and representatives from various national federations, anti-doping agencies, and WADA.
In February of 2015 the CIRC issued a 227-page report, which dealt primarily with a historical review and analysis of doping practices in the sport. After the report was released, we pointed out some deficiencies and oversights in the process, including the Commission’s lack of authority to compel appearances or sanction riders, and its focus on the just the period of 1998-2013. More critically, one of the three key objectives of the CIRC process — and the stated “main purpose” of the report — was “to provide recommendations for the future” and to “make targeted recommendations.” In terms of this task, where the Commission had the greatest opportunity for positive impact, the report was unfortunately somewhat light. The recommendations cover a mere 11 pages at the end of the report, and while some of them raised new and specific ideas, many were either self-evident, had already been proposed in far more detail elsewhere, or were overly broad and generalized. Nonetheless, it is important to dig into these recommendations in more detail, and to gauge where the sport is today – in reference to what was suggested almost a year and half ago.
The CIRC Report Recommendations: There were 34 different individual recommendations in all, which are summarized in Table 1. Some of these were very broad and sweeping, while some were quite narrow and specific. Some of the recommendations were immediate in nature, while others were much more generalized ideas that could only be gradually put in place over a number of years.
To assess the longer-term impact and value of these recommendations, as well as the progress that has been made to date in implementation, we broke these 34 recommendations down into four key categories:
(1) Overly Broad or Undefined Recommendations: Six of the recommendations were actually focused towards other broader entities like WADA (not within the UCI’s control) or were so general and subjective that we judged there is really no effective means by which to measure progress. For example, the recommendation noted as 3.4.5 suggests that the UCI should “seek to improve the financial stability of cycling.” While clearly an important and fundamental goal, it is virtually impossible to effectively measure or quantify that recommendations like this are or are not being accomplished. These are highlighted by the color “red” in Table 1.
(2) Partially or Subjectively Measurable Recommendations: Eleven of the recommendations can be at least partially or subjectively evaluated in terms of progress. However, these are also very broad – for example, recommendation 3.3.3 regarding the creation of a stronger riders union, or recommendation 188.8.131.52 involving the standardization of testing capabilities. These subjectively measurable recommendations are shown in “orange.”
(3) Objectively Measurable Recommendations: Nine recommendations are more clear-cut, where progress can be objectively evaluated – for example, recommendation 3.4.2, the granting of TUEs. These are shown as “yellow.”
(4) Simple Yes/No Recommendations: Finally, eight of the 34 recommendations are quite direct and straightforward, and progress should be essentially answerable with a simple yes or no response; for example, recommendation 3.2.2 regarding the initiation of an independent whistleblower mechanism. These are shown in “green.”
Table 1: The CIRC Report Recommendations
Assessment of Progress: To simplify this initial assessment of implementation progress, we focused primarily on the “Yes/No” and “Objectively Measurable” categories – recommendations which are relatively straight-forward and unambiguous. We also looked at recommendations 3.3.3 and 3.3.4, regarding the rider union issue and the elimination of other types of cheating. We tracked all available public information and statements over the past three years, and the UCI also provided detailed responses to questions regarding the status of individual recommendations.
In summary, we believe the UCI has made significant progress in terms of addressing several critical and more straightforward recommendations proposed by the CIRC. Our assessment and description of the progress to date on these twelve specific recommendations is summarized in Table 2, and certain highlights are discussed in more detail below.
Table 2: Current Status on Key CIRC Recommendations
In response to several of the recommendations raised by the CIRC Report, the creation of a new “intelligence officer” and desk function within the ostensibly independent Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF) is reportedly beginning to help in terms of the collection, analysis and coordination of anti-doping information from different sources. New sharing and collective agreements have been signed with twelve different NADOs, including the UK, France, Denmark, South Africa and Switzerland. The CADF also coordinated with USADA for specific testing at the World Championships last fall and at the recent Tour of California. In addition, the UCI recently announced a longer-term partnership with USADA for collaborative testing and results management efforts. Finally, the UCI has generally ended its conflicts with WADA and certain NADOs that simmered under Pat McQuaid’s reign.
The CADF also established a “whistleblower hotline” email address in June of 2015, although how the system works and how confidentiality is insured has not been publicly described. Exactly how the CADF intelligence desk functions – who mans it, how the information is actually shared and used, how many athletes have utilized the hotline, etc. – is also not clear, but the UCI has asserted that progress is being made in terms of soliciting and managing new doping information. Night-time testing of suspected dopers has also been made more universal now.
The UCI has made improvements in the way it manages and executes the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) program. The process and paperwork have been streamlined, and staff has been added to speed up the administrative aspects of the program. The CADF’s newly-hired intelligence officer is also actively coordinating with the ABP program to investigate and corroborate evidence in individual cases. To insure consistency and uniformity in the evaluation of individual cases, the UCI also put in place an Anti-Doping Tribunal (ADT) in early 2015, to take on some of the anti-doping tasks that were previously delegated down to the National Federations. This in turn has significantly reduced the number of cases that have had to be referred on to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). This is a significant improvement in the ABP process.
There have reportedly been significant transparency improvements in the UCI’s electoral process, and the adoption of term limits for the President. A few weeks ago, the UCI announced significant revisions to and ratification of its Code of Ethics. A much larger number of individuals, including UCI staff, consultants and event organizers will reportedly be covered by the terms of this new set of guidelines. In addition, the UCI suggests that the Ethics Commission will increasingly be staffed by expert professionals from outside of the sport. However, exactly how cycling’s key stakeholders will be educated about or bound by these new ethical guidelines is not yet clear. Will it just provide basic behavioral expectations, or will there be explicit mechanisms – such as a legally-binding signature of agreement – by which cycling’s stakeholders will be held accountable?
Significant progress has also been made in the controversial area of therapeutic usage exemptions (TUE). The process of applying for and receiving a TUE has been tightened up, and now exceeds the criteria set by WADA. All applications must now be approved by three different and independent expert members of the UCI’s TUE committee, and the decision must be unanimous. The evidence supports the assertion that this stricter process is helping to cut down on unwarranted TUE applications – the UCI reports that TUEs actually granted have fallen from 239 in 2009 to just 24 in 2014 and only 13 in 2015.
Another CIRC recommendation was that other forms of cheating within the sport should also be more strongly policed, and the UCI has definitely cranked up its focus on so-called “motorized doping” during the past six months. There has been considerable recent attention regarding new methods for identifying hidden motors, additional field testing, and the possible institution of a lifetime ban for anyone caught with a motor in their bike. The case of the cyclocross racer Femke Van den Driessche (and subsequent investigative reporting by such sources as the French news station, Stade 2) generated considerable mass media coverage earlier this year, but it also begged the question of whether the UCI is using the right technology to uncover the presence of motors, and if investigations and sanctions should reach beyond the rider into the team’s mechanic and management ranks as well.
Progress is less certain in other key areas. For example, the Report recommended that the UCI should strive to help facilitate the creation of a stronger riders union. In this regard, the UCI mentions that it has “reconstituted” the largely dormant UCI Athletes’ Commission. Representatives for all eight cycling disciplines were elected to this Commission in late 2015, and the new President of the Commission attends UCI Management Committee meetings. However, the role carries no voting rights or real authority at the Management Committee level, and hence the specific longer-term role and potential impact of the Commission is unclear. The UCI has taken no additional steps to strengthen or further support the CPA (the rider’s association) although it continues to make an annual contribution to the CPA’s operating budget. Indeed, some have argued that the UCI Athletes Commission might actually dilute the impact of the CPA. A stronger rider’s union is a critical issue – and one which will help shape the future of the sport.
In terms of better rider education about doping, and the potential use of sanctioned riders to help improve understanding of the incentives and impacts of doping, the UCI says that “education is an important component of its anti-doping strategy,” but supporting details are scant. One has to wonder about the current and future role of the numerous convicted ex-dopers still active in various ownership, management and coaching roles within the elite levels of the sport, and whether the UCI has any plan to try to control that more closely – indeed whether that is even a realistic goal.
Looking Forward: Thus it appears that progress is being made on many of the more specific CIRC recommendations. Although this brief review covers only about a third of the total recommendations, we believe that the UCI is trying to work diligently to address many of the ethical problems and governance deficiencies of the past – and one must commend Brian Cookson and his leadership team for the accomplishments to date. Indeed, compared to the current status and problems being experienced by various other international sports like soccer, track and field, and tennis, an argument can be made that cycling is ahead of the curve, and setting an example for how a troubled international sport can act to get its house in better order.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that there is a long road ahead. While almost all of the CIRC recommendations were well-intended, many of them were, as mentioned, maddeningly vague or simplistic – such as the calls for the UCI to “become more accountable” or to “improve the financial stability of the sport.” We all want to see progress towards those objectives, but until these broad generalizations can be broken down into more specific, bite-size and actionable steps, it will be difficult to either make or to verify actual progress.
In terms of elevating pro cycling to the desired level of economic sustainability, improving the proper competitive structure and promoting future financial growth, there is a broad consensus that these fundamental concerns must still be better addressed. Recent adoption of the UCI’s reforms package may be a step in the right direction. However, the exclusion of the riders’ union from the decision process, and the fact that many of these reforms were largely driven by ASO’s specific demands, means that this package could potentially exacerbate economic disparities in the long-term.
And there are numerous other challenges, above and beyond the specific CIRC recommendations, which are also crying out for more attention and focus from the UCI. Rider safety issues, particularly given the tragic death of Antoine Demoitié earlier this season, and suddenly numerous other cyclist/motorcycle accidents, are currently at the forefront of concern. The number of WorldTour teams is contracting, key sponsors are leaving the sport without replacement, races are falling off the calendar, and unresolved disagreements over how the sport should be run between the UCI and ASO will continue to impede change. Even with the procedural and protocol improvements, many people fear that anti-doping efforts will not be truly independent as long as the CADF is housed within the UCI’s executive offices. Despite vague UCI proclamations about economic improvement and sponsorship health, progress remains frustratingly slow in these broader and harder-to-define, but absolutely critical challenges.
We sympathize with the enormity of the challenges faced by the UCI, and acknowledge the complexity of initiating and implementing solutions for all these issues in road racing, while simultaneously overseeing seven other different cycling disciplines. We also acknowledge the overwhelming power and control exerted over pro cycling by ASO – and the consequent constraints which this also places on the UCI’s ability to institute real change or embark upon new directions which may be optimal for the overall sport in the long-term. However, as we have discussed in detail elsewhere, this is a topic deserving of its own separate analysis because of the pervasive shadow it casts across all of cycling. All of these facts reiterate the concern that the UCI’s current oversight and management responsibilities are perhaps too diverse and wide-ranging to accomplish all of these objectives. Given its existing staff and resources, the UCI simply has too much to do. Perhaps it is time to consider spinning off a stand-alone division to focus exclusively on the challenges of pro road racing.
Our summary perspective at this point – as Brian Cookson approaches the end of his third year in power, and some fifteen months after the conclusion of the CIRC – is that the sport is in a better place and that progress is being made, but the UCI must be very diligent to not gloss over those broader and more difficult-to-define CIRC recommendations. It is easier and sometimes tempting to talk in generalities and platitudes – and to employ the now well-worn “evolution, not revolution” stance, but the UCI must now break down these broader challenges into truly measurable and therefore achievable goals. (Several actionable ideas for these types of more specific steps have been discussed here and here.) The development of more concrete tactical steps and the use of more effective metrics by which to measure progress, will allow the UCI to continue stabilizing pro cycling and successfully moving the sport forward.
Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris, July 1, 2016; Updated July 2, 2016