Apr 8, 2013

UCI lends a hand to USAC in fight against grassroots cycling

When I began riding my bike, as a kid around Chicago, it had set me free. All of a sudden, I was no longer confined to my neighborhood, but could go see friends who lived several miles away. I’d regularly ride all over Rogers Park, and from there to nearby Lincolnwood and Skokie to visit friends and sometimes just to explore; on my Huffy, in my sneakers and of course without a helmet (something for which I would reprimand my younger self  now).

Over the years, I’ve met numerous cyclists who’ve expressed the freedom they felt when they first got on a bike and how that moved them to pursue the sport in a more serious way. However, as the cycling world recently learned, if you are so good on a bicycle that you get the privilege of holding an international UCI license, freedom should be the last thing on your mind when it comes to how and where you race your bike.

By now, the news of USA Cycling’s aggressive stance toward UCI licensed riders participating in non-USAC events has spread like wildfire, with several misinterpretations, clarifications and even a letter to USAC from the UCI president Pat McQuaid. While USAC is claiming that it is merely trying to conform with the UCI rule 1.2.019, its past relationships and financial ties to the UCI cast substantial doubt over those claims.

Background

UCI and USAC have long been tied in an interesting financial and personal relationship. The lynchpin of which is one person, Thom Weisel.

In 2000, USAC was in financial distress and on the brink of insolvency. That’s when Weisel stepped in and single-handedly bailed USAC out with a $1.5 million check. In return he got to put his people at the helm, like Steve Johnson (a long time Lance Armstrong supporter), and later Jim Ochowicz, who sat on USAC’s board of directors from 2002 until 2006.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. As reported bythe Wall Street Journal, from 2001 until 2004, Weisel’s firm managed the finances of then-UCI president Hein Verbruggen. The broker at Weisel’s firm handling Verbruggen’s money was non other than Ochowicz. So from 2002 until 2004, an active member of USAC’s board was in charge of at least a part of the personal wealth of the acting president of the UCI. Who, as it happens, is still the honorary president, likely not without some lingering influence over UCI policies.

As best I could determine, rule 1.2.019 predates McQuaid’s ascension to UCI presidency in 2005. However, given the length of time that Verbruggen has been involved with the UCI, the rules were undoubtedly drafted on his watch.*

Current enforcement

Fast forward to 2013, and UCI licensed riders in the U.S. start to receive emails and letters stating they are no longer allowed to compete in unsanctioned events and may face fines and suspension if they do. The rule has been on the books for quite some time, and states:

No license holder may participate in an event that has not been included on a national, continental or world calendar or that has not been recognised by a national federation, a continental confederation or the UCI.

A national federation may grant special exceptions for races or particular events run in its own country.

USAC has not enforced the rule until now, and I’d like to focus on the last sentence of the rule, which, plainly read, gives USAC discretion to permit riders to participate in certain unsanctioned events.

Is this new enforcement implemented to hurt riders? In all likelihood it is not. This all has to do with the ongoing battle between USAC and grassroots cycling organizations like ABR and OBRA. The grassroots cycling association in Colorado caved and in 2013 folded into USAC, but there are many holdouts. Most of them will likely never fold into USAC unless they are financially pressured to do so. What better way to flex some muscle than prohibit the top cyclists from competing in these grassroots events? The promoter will either suffer from not being able to attract top talent, which then draws participation from amateur participants, or fold into USAC like in CO.

What’s in it for USAC? That’s simple: more money. As promoters are forced to get permits from USAC, they have to pay fees, and USAC’s bank account swells. Additionally, as more events are sanctioned by USAC, more racers have to buy USAC licenses, which would also be a financial windfall for USAC.

My theory

I’d like to postulate a theory, which in light of the above, to me appears to be the most likely one.

If I’m the president of USAC and I see that member enrollment has been holding steady at around 60,000, I know approximately how much money USAC will be taking in yearly from memberships. What better way to increase membership than to force promoters to permit their events under USAC, which in turn will not only increase the flow of dollars from promoters to the USAC, but also from new riders who may have never otherwise purchased a USAC license because they were more than happy to race within their grassroots organization.

The only problem with implementing this plan is the amount of backlash USAC would receive in light of the last sentence of rule 1.2.019, which gives it discretion not to enforce this rule. What better way to deal with such backlash locally than to have some high-ranking UCI official provide an overly complicated explanation as to what those 17 words really mean?

Is it so unlikely that Steve Johnson  (hand-picked by Weisel, who took care of UCI’s president’s money) picked up the phone and asked good old Pat to help him out with a stern letter of admonishment explaining what “exceptions for races or particular events” really means? I don’t think it is, and here’s why.

Here’s how McQuaid explains the exception:

For example, an event may be organised by an association that does not have a link to the National Federation, such as a race specifically for members of the armed forces, fire fighters or students or perhaps as part of a national multisport event.

With the exception of these special cases, the National Federation is not permitted to grant an exemption to a cycle event which is held, deliberately or not, outside the federative movement. For example, in no case should an exception be granted to a cycling event that is organised by a person or entity who regularly organises cycling events.

In light of the above, the exception is virtually unworkable and completely superfluous, and had that been the intent of the UCI, the last sentence of 1.2.019 would have never been drafted.

If the event is specifically for members of the armed forces, fire fighters or students, then a UCI holder cannot participate unless he fits into one of those categories. Moreover, reading the two paragraphs in tandem, if the race is created specifically for a certain group, but is created annually, or by a person who organizes other cycling events, UCI holders still cannot participate. According to McQuaid’s interpretation of the rule, the only event for which USAC can give a permission to a UCI license-holder to take part in would have to be a once in a lifetime event, organized for a specific group of individuals by someone who doesn’t organize bike races. Am I the only one who finds that absurd?

This, in essence, narrows the exception to such an extreme as to make it pointless. This fact is what leads me to believe that McQuaid’s interpretation is completely fabricated to aid USAC in its war with grassroots promoters. This could not have possibly been what was envisioned when this rule was drafted, and McQuaid cannot, ex post facto, change the meaning of UCI rules, without an official amendment, in a letter to Steve Johnson. That is simply not how rules are made or enforced in any organization, even one far smaller and less far-reaching that the International Cycling Union.


* Member of the Board of the Fédération Internationale du Cyclisme Professionnnel [UCI’s prior incarnation] (1979-1982), Vice-President (1982-1984) then President (1984-1991); President of the International Cycling Union (UCI) (1991-2005).

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