___Feature Cover Story

 
November 2004
   
   
 

 

In this article we look at the disturbing facts surrounding the UCI’s handling of major issues and the management of our sport in general. As examples the Pro-Tour and the Tyler Hamilton case are used to illustrate the UCI’s unsavory management style.

Aah the Pro Tour – is it just another botched job the UCI can lay claim to, or will it in fact become something good for cycling? Based on what we’ve seen so far, and tainted by the UCI’s history of dictatorial-style leadership, I’ll be betting on the former… here’s why.

For years the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), and in particular the UCI president Hein Verbruggen, have created an image of indifferent arrogance. The overriding impression to the everyday cyclist and cycling fan is that as far as the UCI is concerned it is “my way or the highway”.

But they’re obviously in place to serve a purpose, so what is the purpose of the UCI? The official ‘mission statement’ starts off like this:

Mission of the International Cycling Union (UCI) is to develop and promote all aspects of cycling without discrimination of any kind, in close cooperation with National Federations and major associates.

The UCI constitution statement goes on to clarify:

The UCI represents the interests of more than 170 National Federations, 5 Continental Confederations, 1200 professional riders, 600,000 licensed riders, millions of cycling athletes who train regularly and more than a billion users.

So the UCI claims to be working for all aspects of the sport and representing more ‘than a billion users’. Reflecting back on recent times and in particular looking at the UCI’s handling of the introduction of the Pro-Tour and the Tyler Hamilton case one gets a very different picture. We see an organization that rides rough shod over everybody. They appear to work in a vacuum with little or no regard to the democratic process or to the weight of facts that appear to dispute their standpoint. As for representing us all, that, from my point of view, is new. The UCI’s focus appears to be firmly set exclusively on the elite level of our sport.

The Corporate Blight
Taking a charitable view one would hope that the UCI is genuinely working in the overall best interests of the sport. At the professional level of the sport it is obvious that commercial interests will drive many decisions. Many of these decisions will be designed to benefit sponsors and others with vested financial interests. This is as it should be because at this level it is all about business. To ensure that the sport and its participants are represented fairly the UCI should be providing the checks and balances necessary to promote both an attractive business environment as well as a genuine sporting environment.

For many years as a specialist in international sales and marketing I was always amazed at how quickly and easily we became detached from those that we served – our customers. We would have our corporate meetings, set goals and objectives, do market research, analyze data and make heady decisions. Yet every time we went out into the real world we would discover that our customers were not happy or had expectations not addressed in our plans.

Upon returning to our plush corporate offices the real world soon faded away again. To modify or even completely redesign our programs was simply too much work. In particular, convincing colleagues and upper management on the credibility of data gathered on customer visits was a very difficult (if not impossible) uphill challenge. Force feeding the customer was by far the easiest way to proceed.

From what we see now the UCI is trapped inside its own corporate cocoon. Even worse it displays a level of sheer arrogance that is truly disturbing. Granted it is dealing with some extremely complex and disturbing issues but this does not condone isolating itself from those it represents - its customers.

The Pro-Tour
The proposed Pro-Tour has tremendous forward-looking implications that if implemented appropriately will benefit the sport in very many ways. One of these is to deflect the increasing commercial focus on the Tour de France. Sponsors, advertisers and the media (i.e. OLN’s cycling coverage this year) prefer the Tour as their promotional vehicle of choice. One objective of the Pro-Tour is to ‘spread the wealth’ across the many great races that fill the racing calendar. A noble objective if successful.

Unfortunately the UCI appears to be creating the program in a vacuum. For most of this year we have had rumblings from many teams and individuals concerned about the practical application of the new rules. The primary focus appears to be at the elite level (limited to 20 Div I teams) with very little consideration for anyone else. In fact the media and others talk of the new ‘super league’. Where does everyone else (the ‘billion users’) fit into this new scheme?

Furthermore, the program only appears to integrate the great European races. Are the rest of the world’s races excluded? As the UCI describes the Pro-Tour today, it poses considerably more questions than it answers.

In reality the UCI is looking at the entire sport with a global view and encompassing everyone from Div I pro teams down to club level riders. The UCI have simply failed to communicate this effectively (or maybe even at all). What we should be seeing is a clear statement describing in simple terms the overall concepts together with a plan that presents a phased-in introduction together with the benefits to the cycling community at large.

Instead of this we see the three Grand Tour organizers delivering a letter to the UCI withdrawing from the Pro-Tour in its current form. Considering that between them these organizers are also behind many of cycling’s most prestigious races (i.e. the classics), this withdrawal would seem to kill the Pro-Tour even before it is launched. In response the UCI has angrily responded by saying that “with or without you the Pro-Tour will be launched”.

With such a presumably radical development as the Pro-Tour, why is it that the UCI has not used a working committee comprised of all the various constituents of cycling’s community? Perhaps they have but then did “the Congress” (the UCI’s ‘supreme controlling body’), acting in true corporate ivory tower fashion, take the working committee results and fashion them to their liking. Whatever the process it would seem that at this point, and with a little over two months to go until the 2005 launch, that the Pro-Tour has very limited support, is severely flawed and requires considerably more work to bring it to maturity. Regardless of this, the UCI in splendid and arrogant isolation is going to proceed just as it wishes.

Drugs, Blood and Cheating
The UCI’s methods in handling the Pro-Tour are again very much in evidence with the Tyler Hamilton case. Issues of drugs and other forms of cheating have plagued our sport since its very inception. The very first Tours were rampant with such scandals. In 1967 we reached a dramatic point when Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux pursuing his Tour dream with the aid of drugs. The infamous Festina affair in 1998 almost finished the Tour (and much of cycle racing) for good. Even as I write we get news of doping at the Para-Olympics. Unfortunately wherever sport is practiced cheating will lurk in the background.
Combating this evil is not a task to be envied and in this respect the UCI must be commended for sticking with the issue and maybe in many respects leading the sporting world in its attempts to eliminate drug use.

That being said it is also the responsibility of the UCI to employ testing procedures that have developed credibility for accuracy through exhaustive research and use. To accuse individuals based on questionable test results is as heinous an act as the crime itself. I do not pretend to understand the scientific theory and application of the tests that have driven Tyler Hamilton into his current horrific situation.

From all that I, like so many of us, have read recently I can only interpret that measuring certain aspects of human blood is a very difficult process that stretches beyond the latest known scientific capabilities. Amongst the huge outpouring of support for Tyler there are many letters on his web site (the guestbook) from people involved in scientific testing and from others that have had very bad experiences as a result of erroneous test results.

It would seem that the science of blood testing is far from perfect. In some cases people have been diagnosed with life ending results. Many years later those same people are more than happy to report that they are still living a very healthy life. More than one of Tyler’s letter writers pointed out that numerous innocent people have been sent to jail based on incorrect DNA evaluations.

The test used on Tyler is “based on probability and interpretation” which means in effect that there is no definitive ‘yes/no’ result. In effect a group of experts make an interpretation of the available data. With respect to the IOC tests and the now well known issue with Tyler’s B-sample, we get a picture of sloppy laboratory procedures and unprofessional management. So far the UCI has refused to admit these and other negative facts concerning the efficacy of the test processes.

From the vantage point of a distant observer one can only take the facts as presented. The method used to test Tyler’s blood samples would seem to be very far from perfect and scientifically unproven. At the human level we are seeing an almost unprecedented level of support from around the world for Tyler. His reputation for honesty and impeccable integrity has fueled a community conclusion “based on probability and interpretation”. The verdict – not guilty.

Even Tyler’s employer, Phonak, have taken a unique stand. We have become accustomed to seeing riders declared ‘positive’ after UCI drug/blood tests being immediately released from their contracts and expelled from their team. So far Phonak has done the opposite. Even though they have suspended him from racing for the team, they are supporting Tyler until such time conclusive evidence against him can be presented. Perhaps one of the most dramatic statements was made by the Phonak team owner Andy Rihs, “I have the suspicion that an example must be made of Hamilton in order to show that the test functions”. This of course is a direct challenge to the UCI and speaks volumes for the faith and trust that Rihs has in Tyler.

So in the highly charged Hamilton case the UCI is again demonstrating an arrogant stand based on flimsy scientific evidence. Before condemning Tyler, or any other athlete, it is the duty of the UCI to demonstrate to us all that the tests that they employ are based on scientific fact and can be proven to deliver credible results. Based on past UCI performance this probably will not happen and as a result we will have to live with serious doubt and half-truths.

Perception and Reality
For years the UCI has guided our sport along a path that has been intended to improve and grow it to everyone’s benefit. Unfortunately the impression of authoritative arrogance and severely flawed management practices has been growing rapidly in recent times. Their management of the Pro-Tour proposal and now their approach to the handling of the Tyler Hamilton case indicates a heavy handed attitude that precludes open and honest discussion. Maybe behind the scenes this is not the case but the UCI would do well to start communicating openly and honestly with all those it claims to represent.

A common expression states that “perception is reality”. And the perception right now is that the Pro-Tour could inflict severe damage to our sport. For Tyler the reality is that he is in a living hell with his reputation and career on the verge of collapse. The UCI needs to think long and hard before it takes another step.

 
       
         
         
   


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“Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.”
Fausto Coppi, Italian
"Champion of Champions"