Greg Lemond Wants to Take Over International Cycling?

Greg Lemond Wants to Take Over International Cycling?
Greg LeMond calling for resignation of Pat McQuaid, courtesy of BBC

Legendary US cyclist and three-time Tour de France winner Greg Lemond has joined the newly formed group Change Cycling Now and is ready to take back cycling.

Or maybe they want to take cycling back.  The “from whom” and “to where” part is a little fuzzy right now.  More about that later...

CCN’s “charter of the willing”, as they call it, was written by the group’s founder Jamie Fuller, CEO of sportswear marketer Skins, currently suing the UCI for ruining the reputation of cycling and diminishing the value of his brand.  Perhaps this is his idea of a leveraged takeover?

“Fuller's charter comprises of four main principles. The first surrounds the much vaunted concept of truth and reconciliation … calling for riders and staff to come forward and admit to any links and guilt of doping in a set of hearings in order to allow recognition of the past and Fuller adds that the UCI President, presumably LeMond at this point, should instruct teams and riders to come forward. The second principle is for another independent commission to investigate the UCI and its senior management. Thirdly, CCN requests that anti-doping measures and testing should be controlled away from the UCI and authority granted to an independent body to decide on testing. Finally, CCN calls for a cultural change in the UCI” - Cycling News, December 4, 2012

At first glance, it all seems pretty straightforward; there was an ongoing doping scandal, UCI’s management allowed it to taint an entire era of competition, testing was laughable, and the guys in charge need to be tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail (or the European equivalent – peasants with pitchforks storming the castle, I presume).  The time has come for a new group – the “we told you but you wouldn’t listen to us” guys – to take the reins and crack down on cheating riders.  The group even contains a couple of these cheating riders, so presumably, they’re hip to all the tricks.

I sincerely applaud these men for coming together and offering a solution to a corrupt system that has basically brought shame on all that hold it dearly.  The group holds a sentimental, nostalgic view of the sport and feels that true, clean, wholesome competition can be restored if the inherent conflict between promoting the sport and policing the sport can be separated and made more transparent.  This sounds absolutely reasonable – in theory.

In reality, the group’s charter has left out a solution for the sport’s biggest problem; greed.

One looking for the cure to what ails cycling need only follow the money to see where the heart of the problem really lies.  Racers don’t make much money unless they win.  The top step of the Tour de France’s podium is piled high with cash and prizes - endorsements, pop singers, celebrity sycophants, supermodels, and cameo appearances in Ben Stiller movies.  The second step offers a date with the third runner up from America’s Next Top Model, a Pontiac Aztek, and a year’s supply of Turtle Wax.  The shortest step comes with a pre-printed certificate of achievement with your name written in Sharpie while the rest of the contestants receive a coupon for a free Dairy Queen Blizzard.

Meanwhile, the race organizers make a fortune from international broadcast rights, licensing, merchandising, and expos.  Sponsorships and rider entrance fees cover their direct costs and pay out prize money.  It’s good to be the king.

No matter how tough the UCI makes the drug testing, the winner-take-all compensation model will continue to serve as an incentive for cheating.  The reward is perceived as much greater than the risk.  Competing cleanly only guarantees a front row seat to watch some other sweaty, exhausted guy get a peck on the cheek and a bouquet of flowers from a local beauty pageant winner.

There will always be team directors who will publicly profess to intolerance for doping, yet secretly and methodically include it in their programs.  There will always be racers who will be enticed to “get with the program”.  Fans and sponsors will always be drawn in because they love the sport, thrive on the action, and truly want to believe that it’s the competition that brings out the very best in their favorite riders.  And the governing officials – just like politicians – will be seduced by the privilege and power afforded them by their elite benefactors.

It’s very telling that the sport has a rider’s association, but not a rider’s union.  There are no protections for the health and future well-being of these young men who sacrifice their bodies for a shot at fame and fortune.  There is no job security either.  Their team could disband overnight, leaving them scrambling for a new job next season.  It’s a bit ironic that recommendations being made thus far have not included rider input.

Without world class athletes to compete in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a Espana, the race organizers have no product to sell.

Minus the threat of a strike, riders have no leverage to secure a greater share of the revenue from the select few who control the race venues.  When every aspect of the sport is every man for himself, we get competitors like Lance Armstrong and coaches like Johan Bruyneel.  As long as one man is willing to win at all costs, all the pledges and promises of the other riders serve no real purpose other than increasing the odds that anyone willing to cheat can and will win - repeatedly.

CCN’s utopian UCI fails miserably in addressing even the basic needs of the riders.

The riders are the sport.  If you expect them to submit to testing on a moment’s notice and pledge away their livelihood if caught cheating, they should receive contracts comparable to athletes in the NBA, NFL, and Major League Baseball in return.

The only way riders can be granted security is by stabilizing the teams.  Teams can be stabilized by issuing licenses that are effectively valuable, exclusive, and transferable franchises.  Teams will remain viable by creating a sustainable financial model that shares broadcast, licensing, and merchandising revenues.  Relying on sponsorship revenue is no way for a for-profit business to survive, as witnessed by the longevity of the average cycling team.

It’s a lot easier to enforce a zero-tolerance doping policy when the risk-reward model has been rendered obsolete.  Put simply, there would be more to lose and less to gain by cheating if revenues were shared more equally in professional bicycle racing.

All of this leads us to the question; should Greg Lemond take over the UCI?  Is the “charter of the willing” the blueprint for a successful and competitive worldwide professional sport?

While Lemond has vindicated himself in regard to Lance Armstrong’s doping conspiracy, his willingness to align himself with USADA’s Travis Tygart and label UCI’s Pat McQuaid as not only inept, but as a co-conspirator, does not bode well for a role where unbiased judgment, fairness, and adherence to procedure are required.  I can’t help but feel that too many in this group have an axe to grind and both public vindication and a desire for personal retribution would preoccupy their agenda.

Thus far, CCN has only demonstrated who they want to take cycling back from - Verbruggen  and McQuaid - and where they want to take cycling back to - an era when there wasn't EPO.  But the heavy hand over cycling isn't the UCI, it belongs to the race organizers.  Cycling doesn't need to go back, it needs to go forward.

Like the US financial crisis, the problems of the UCI didn’t happen overnight.  Doping is a symptom of many problems within the sport, but it’s not the cause.  The sport needs experienced administrators like those found in other successful professional sports to promote it properly and police it appropriately.

Cycling needs people to govern that know how to govern, like to govern, and are good at governing – not simply people who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  We Americans saw how well that worked out when we elected Tea Partiers…

Cycling has the potential to be one of the greatest sports in the world.  It’s definitely time for change.  It’s time to go from Little League to the Big Leagues.  Let’s find some visionaries with the experience to move us past our 19th Century roots and into the 21st Century and beyond.

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