By Mike Rowbottom

Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegamesNearly a year on from replacing Pat McQuaid as President of the International Cycling Union (UCI), Brian Cookson maintains that, under his guidance, cycling is now "the leading sport in terms of anti-doping".

The Briton's appointment - by a vote of 24-18 in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence on September 27 - brought an end to the controversial eight-year reign of his 65-year-old opponent, a period that was scarred by doping scandals, most notably involving American seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, and by allegations of corruption.

"I think we've made a lot of progress already," Cookson told insidethegames. "Looking back to this time last year, the UCI had lost the confidence of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and was almost in conflict with them.

"One of the first things we have done is to establish a very good relationship with WADA. We've gone out of our way to rebuild relations with them, and to reshape our anti-doping practices in accordance with their rules.

"We have had an independent audit on our anti-doping programme, which has put forward recommendations we are in the process of fulfilling. And we have completed the process of making the Cycling Anti-doping Foundation operational without any of the UCI Management Committee involved.

"So we have been working very hard towards the things we set out to do. As far as the fight against doping goes, I guess the key phrase is 'eternal vigilance'."

Brian Cookson (right) shakes hands with the man he succeeded as President of the UCI last September, Pat McQuaid ©AFP/Getty ImagesBrian Cookson (right) shakes hands with the man he succeeded as President of the UCI last September, Pat McQuaid ©AFP/Getty Images

Cookson acknowledges that making the anti-doping process increasingly independent has rebounded on him occasionally. "Some people expect the process to be independent, but they also expect me to know everything about it. The only time I get to know about a case is when it's either come to a conclusion or if there is an adverse finding that has to be announced.

"We are now the leading sport in terms of anti-doping.

"I don't know of any other sport that has thrown itself open to this amount of external scrutiny."

Another vital part of that scrutiny is the Independent Committee of three people that was set up in January to investigate what Cookson described at the time as "the allegations made against the UCI which have done so much to hurt the credibility of the UCI and our sport".

The panel, which bears the name of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission, is based in Lausanne. It is chaired by Dick Marty, a Swiss politician and former Swiss state prosecutor. The other members are German anti-doping expert Ulrich Haas and Peter Nicholson, a former Australian military officer and war crimes investigator.

This trio will investigate cycling's doping past, including allegations that the sport's governing body colluded with Armstrong, now stripped of his Tour de France titles and banned from Olympic sports for life after admitting to doping. Its recommendations will be made public at the end of January next year.

"We have set up the Commission - we have had to fund it because no one else would - but we have given them full guarantees of independence and the three people involved have such high standards of integrity that they would not have taken the job without that," said Cookson, now 63, who served as President of British Cycling from 1997 to 2013.

"Every few weeks we have a meeting with them where they give us a broad outline of their progress. But I don't know who they are speaking to. I only knew they had spoken to Lance Armstrong, for instance, when his lawyers made that announcement.

"I do know they are gathering together a lot of very useful information, and that they have made the most of their access to the electronic data which we retrieved from the UCI files on the day I was elected President.

"They will be making their report at the end of January, and we will be very keen to carry out their recommendations. I have no idea what they will come up with, but I'm sure it will be interesting and significant."

Lance Armstrong, pictured during the television interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he first confessed to doping, greeted Brian Cookson's appointment by tweeting a single word: "Hallelujah!" ©Getty ImagesLance Armstrong, pictured during the interview with Oprah Winfrey where he first confessed to doping, greeted Brian Cookson's appointment by tweeting a single word: "Hallelujah!" ©Getty Images

When Cookson won his vote over McQuaid after a bitter and convoluted campaign, Armstrong's first response was to tweet a single word: "Hallelujah". What did the new President make of that?

"I've never met or spoken to Lance Armstrong, so I don't know," Cookson responded. "I guess he was not that fond of my predecessor - but you would have to ask him about that."

As he seeks to instil a "zero tolerance" approach to doping within cycling, perhaps the most profound difficulty Cookson faces is the need to address and change the actual culture of his sport - a challenge which will, implicitly, require huge amounts of trust.

"I think it's probably easier than you might imagine once you have a change of leadership," he responded. "It gives you the possibility of new relationships, new behavioural patterns.

"In the cycling world, and in the broader sports world, people have said to me, 'You know what? We knew the UCI had to change its leadership. We knew there had to be a new regime. We are pleased to see that. Perhaps we couldn't say that quite so easily last year. But we will work with you to bring about the changes that you want to bring into effect.'

"That has been very encouraging for me to hear."

Cookson, whose mainstream career until he took up his latest appointment was as executive director of regeneration for Pendle Borough Council, added: "My natural style is being collegiate. It is part of my professional experience, working with people in different sectors, with different points of view.

"We have reformed the UCI Management Committee so that we now have an individual assigned to each different discipline within cycling. We also have three excellent vice-presidents, one of whom is our first woman vice-president, and we have also established a women's commission under her."

Tracey Gaudry, now head of the Oceania Confederation, was one of Cookson's highest profile supporters, along with David Lappartient of France, who is now in charge of the European Confederation. Mohamed Azzam of Egypt heads the African Confederation.

This trio replaced three men who had served under McQuaid - South Korean Hee Wook Cho, Italian Renato Di Rocco and Portugal's Artur Lopes.

And within a month of his appointment Cookson had also dispensed of the services of the UCI's long-time legal counsel, Philippe Verbiest, and appointed Martin Gibbs as his chief-of-staff. Soon afterwards, the UCI's director-general, Christophe Hubschmid, was sacked.

Cookson received criticism, however, when he made changes to the Ethics Commission. Dutchman Peter Zevenbergen insisted he was deliberately removed as the Commission investigated claims that Russian businessman Igor Makarov had promised €1 million (£800,000/$1.5 million) to the European Cycling Union in exchange for a Cookson vote.

It is also thought that fellow member Peter Barth subsequently left his job in April due to a feeling that the independence of the Commission could no longer be guaranteed.

But Cookson denies these claims and insists changes were made only to improve the quality of the Commission.

"I think those who were in the Congress meeting last year would have been disappointed with the performance of the Ethics Committee as it was represented," he said.

"I think that it was quite clear that we had to change."

As the UCI Congress wrangled into its fifth hour in Florence last year, with proceedings being held up over the question of whether McQuaid had the right to stand in defence of his position, Cookson rose dramatically to move the whole process on.

"We've had enough of this," he announced after taking the microphone. "I'm going to propose we go straight to the vote between the two candidates."

Reflecting on that moment now, Cookson added: "Sometimes when you are under a lot of pressure you come out with something unexpected. That was a pivotal moment in the whole Congress. I think it will prove to be a pivotal moment in the history of the UCI.

"I think the phrase summed up my approach - 'There may be wrongs and rights here, but here's the main issue, so let's get on with it.'"

That will be a tall order when the next main issue looms up with the January findings of the Commission.

"I don't like the idea of calling it a process of Truth and Reconciliation because the echoes of what happened in South Africa don't apply in the situation we have in cycling," Cookson said.

"But I am concerned that the Committee should hear as much evidence as possible from as many people as possible within the sport. And particularly those who may have been involved in things in the past they now wish they hadn't been involved in. I'm not just talking about competitors, but people who may wish to remain in the sport in administration or team roles.

"At the end of the day, however, there can be no reconciliation without truth. And so I would urge all those with a story to tell to come forward.

"One of the things which may come out of this process is a new definition of who are fit and proper persons to be involved in cycling in years to come.

"If someone has contributed to the process being carried out by the Independent Commission, that will probably be a very important element in that process of evaluation.

"I'm not saying people who don't come forward are going to get a ban or anything like that - but it is a situation which people should think about very, very carefully.

"Whatever the Commission comes out with, it doesn't mean that all will be well in the world of cycling from January 31 onwards.  We know some problems will continue to exist. But we are prepared to accept that people can change their way of doing things. There is the possibility of redemption."

In the meantime, Cookson has had to answer criticism over a number of other doping-related incidents.

There was media discontent at the fact that the high profile Russian rider Denis Menchov's positive doping finding, which led to him being stripped of his 2009, 2010 and 2012 Tour de France results, was posted on the UCI site, but was far from clear.

Criticism also arrived following the decision not to ban Australia's Michael Rogers despite his testing positive for clenbuterol - the former Team Sky rider claimed he had ingested the banned substance in contaminated meat.

And yet more dissatisfaction was voiced when the reigning Tour de France champion Chris Froome was controversially granted a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for a steroid-based drug so that he could ride in the Tour de Romandie while carrying a chest infection.

Despite regulations stating that "the UCI shall appoint a committee of at least three physicians to consider requests for TUEs", only the UCI doctor Mario Zorzoli was involved, after the Commission had delegated responsibility solely to him.

Brian Cookson and the UCI were criticised for granting Britain's 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome a steroid-based drug for a chest infection as a Therapeutic Use Exemption during the Tour de Romandie on the authority of just one doctor ©Getty ImagesBrian Cookson and the UCI were criticised for granting Britain's 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome a steroid-based drug for a chest infection as a Therapeutic Use Exemption during the Tour de Romandie on the authority of just one doctor ©Getty Images

On the criticisms, Cookson responded thus: "In the case of Michael Rogers, the disciplinary panel that heard the case decided there was a good chance that his defence was acceptable. The UCI has to accept the verdict whether it likes it or not.

"The case with Menchov was something which happened before my time as President, last July, but the rider accepted his sanction, and it was published on our website that he had accepted it.

"The schedule where the details of his case were published on our site was a little bit obscure. We have made specific changes now so that elite level cases will be announced separately in future. But we will not be making a song and dance about every case.

"As far as Froome is concerned, the TUE was allowable with the WADA rules. Many of the pieces published in the media were quite malicious about it. There are clear reasons why TUEs are allowed within the sport. Whether I think it's right and proper to have them is neither here nor there.

"Until we change the WADA Code that is the way things stand. Froome was fully entitled to take the action he did within the WADA Code.

"The panel at the time agreed to delegate non-controversial matters to the UCI doctor. We realise that this is something we need to change going forward, and so now all TUEs will have to be given by the panel of three."

After meeting Brian Cookson in June, the IOC President Thomas Bach said the measures introduced within the UCI were "very impressive" ©Getty ImagesAfter meeting Brian Cookson in June, the IOC President Thomas Bach said the measures introduced within the UCI were "very impressive" ©Getty Images

There were smoother conditions under wheel for Cookson in June when Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, described himself as "very impressed" with the measures the new UCI President had introduced.

"I think President Bach was very pleased with the advances we had made in our anti-doping processes within the UCI, particularly in making them independent of the UCI," Cookson said.

"He also said we had taken a very radical step in appointing the Independent Commission. He was very pleased with that, and was good enough to say so publicly - for which I thank him.

"Our main intention as far as future Olympics go is to make sure we defend cycling's position with the programme.

"We have had huge successes at the last two summer Olympics in terms of showing what the sport is all about, not just on the track but on the road, and in the BMX and mountain biking. We have shown what we can do.

"The job now is to replicate all that in Rio 2016, Tokyo 2020 and beyond. Going forward, we want to defend what we have already got at the Olympics, and to see if we can adapt or expand cycling events on the programme, perhaps bringing in new disciplines such as downhill mountain biking and cyclo-cross.

"After Athens 2004 we lost some track events as part of getting BMX on the Olympic Programme for Beijing 2008. After Beijing we lost some more track events, this time in order to have gender equality at the London 2012 Olympics.

"Of course we approve of the idea of gender equality - but we would rather have had more women's events rather than less men's events in order to accommodate the balance.

"So this is one of the main issues we have to keep working at. We certainly don't want to go backwards. If we are successful in introducing new events, we don't want to lose any more to make up for them."

Asked if he wasn't working against the tide here given the pressure which is now on the Olympics not to grow too big, he responded: "Who knows? Anything is possible. But that is why this year as a reaction I suggested, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that we could alter the balance between the summer and winter Olympic Games in terms of some events. It didn't go down well with some people..."

One of those people was the International Judo Federation President Marius Vizer, who clearly didn't appreciate the suggestion that his sport could become a Winter rather than Summer Olympic sport.

Brian Cookson upset Marius Vizer, President of the International Judo Federation, over suggestions the sport should be moved to the Winter Olympics before later apologising to him at SportAccord ©SportAccordBrian Cookson upset Marius Vizer, President of the International Judo Federation, over suggestions the sport should be moved to the Winter Olympics before later apologising to him at SportAccord ©SportAccord

While Cookson's new remit is international, he retains some precious memories of his time at the head of British Cycling.

"In Britain the profile of cycling has risen dramatically within the last 20 years, and Olympic success has been a major reason for this," he said. "Britain used to be a small nation in the world of cycling.  But since Jason Queally won gold in the kilo at the 2000 Sydney Games, the level of performance has risen dramatically, with two golds in Athens, and eight at the last two Olympics in Beijing and London.

"I think there is a lesson there to other nations which is that if you invest in the right way and develop things in the right way you will have success.

"That success spreads from the elite level, it inspires people to take up cycling themselves, which has profoundly positive consequences for health and also the environment. But it starts with the Olympics."

Jason Queally's unexpected Olympic gold in the kilo at Sydney 2000 was the start of Britain's cycling success which Brian Cookson believes can inspire other nations  ©Allsport/Getty ImagesJason Queally's unexpected Olympic gold in the kilo at Sydney 2000 was the start of Britain's cycling success which Brian Cookson believes can inspire other nations
©Allsport/Getty Images

Looking further into the future, Cookson enumerated his key ambitions.

"I would certainly want cycling to have a good reputation that it deserves for the actions it has taken," he said.

"I would like it to be even more popular in terms of general participation, and of people using bicycles for transport.  It's not just about elite level sport - we want to promote the fun and sense of sporting achievement that people can get from cycling in their everyday life.

"We want a good strong presence in the Olympic Games, involving more diversity but still respecting the heritage and integrity of our sport.  And as far as road racing is concerned, we want to put an end to teams appearing and disappearing with such rapidity by making team racing into a more economically sustainable business, so that teams have a guaranteed future.

"And we also want to have greater numbers of women involved in cycling both in terms of competition and administration."

Finally, and a tad reluctantly, he addressed the issue of the kit worn by the Colombian women's cycling team IDRD-Bogota Humana-San Mateo-Solgar, which creates the impression that they are wearing nothing between their midriff and their upper thighs, with pictures trending on Twitter in the past week, provoking considerable adverse reaction.

"I think this is a case history of social media," he said. "It is a small thing at first, and then it suddenly starts to go bananas. I think it's possibly true to say that there has been a massive over-reaction all round."

But he added that he had been asked by a number of women, including Britain's now retired Olympic road race champion from 2008, Nicole Cooke, to intervene.

"As a result, I have asked the national federation to look at this case. It's really a matter for the Colombian Federation, not the UCI."

Brian Cookson, with chief-of-staff Martin Gibbs, is committed to restoring his sport's reputation after a series of high-profile scandals, including in the Tour de France  ©Getty ImagesBrian Cookson, with chief-of-staff Martin Gibbs, is committed to restoring his sport's reputation after a series of high-profile scandals, including in the Tour de France
©Getty Images

His key task now, however, is to restore the integrity of his sport.

"That's what we are trying to do here," he said. "It is always my intention to make clear the moral and ethical case against doping. And while we are talking about that, there is also an economic driver here.

"Media, sponsors, fans and the public don't want to be involved in a sport where doping is a big problem. We saw a clear example of this in 2008 when the German media pulled out of covering cycling at professional level. At one time there were three top pro teams in Germany - at the moment there are none.

"We are determined to do everything we can to stop some of the practices which have harmed our sport in recent years."

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, The Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. His latest book Foul Play - the Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport (Bloomsbury £8.99) is available at the shop. To follow him on Twitter click here.