With one week to go before the deadline for nominations for the International Cycling Union (UCI) Presidency in June, incumbent Brian Cookson mused about the "happy possibility" he could be unopposed for a second and final term.
Enter David Lappartient, the former President of the French Cycling Federation (FFC). The Brittany native threw his hat into the ring on the eve of the deadline and launched a social media campaign, website and video. It means it will be a contest rather than a coronation. A Briton versus a Breton.
A Presidential bid from Lappartient had been rumoured for several months prior to the deadline, following his decision not to seek a third term at the FFC. He also criticised Cookson’s leadership of the organisation in a letter last year.
Despite having raised the idea of being unopposed, it would have been a surprise if Cookson had not seen the challenge coming. The 66-year-old confirmed his intention to stand for a second term at the European Cycling Union (UEC) Congress in 2016, while he had previously suggested Lappartient, 22 years his junior, should wait four years to potentially have a free run at the top job.
He may have been trying to talk a potential dangerous French rival out of opposing him. Or could it be that Cookson was exuding confidence to suggest he would secure a second term if opposed or not? Was he almost daring Lappartient to bring it on?
We will ultimately discover the outcome at the UCI Congress this week in Bergen, which takes place during to the Road World Championships in the Norwegian city.
A total of 45 delegates, representing cycling Federations from across the world, will decide the victor. Nine each will vote from Africa, the Americas and Asia, with three more from Oceania. Europe has the largest bloc with 15 delegates.
The UCI will want to avoid the chaotic scenes from the last election in Florence in 2013, when doubts over then President Pat McQuaid’s nomination led to farce. The Irishman eventually saw a controversial reign come to an end, Cookson prevailing by 24 votes to 18.
Having inherited a sport still reeling from Lance Armstrong’s doping admission, and allegations surrounding McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen, there was clearly a lot to do to restore the UCI’s reputation.
Cookson will view his handling of this as one of his main accomplishments. He fulfilled a campaign pledge by establishing the Cycling Independent Reform Commission, which produced a report investigating the sport's troubled past. Published in March 2015, it outlined what it considered to be key challenges facing anti-doping efforts in cycling. The 227-page document was critical of the previous UCI leadership which led some to criticise it, including Verbruggen. The Dutchman labelled it an "anti-Verbruggen report" and opposed several of the conclusions until his death in June.
Many viewed the report to be a more serious version of the truth and reconciliation effort under McQuaid. While the previous leadership of the UCI had often found itself in conflict with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Cookson has been able to forge a greater working relationship, fulfilling another manifesto pledge from 2013. Officials from those organisations have endorsed his re-election campaign.
The Briton believes the efforts of the UCI, under his leadership, have led to the governing body enjoying a growing reputation within the Olympic Movement. He highlighted the addition of BMX freestyle and madison competitions to the Tokyo 2020 programme as evidence.
"The result we have got is a demonstration of the successful relationship we have built with the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and the growing reputation we have developed for our sport after where we were four years ago, when we were being threatened with removal from the Olympic programme altogether," he told insidethegames.
"We need to be thankful and deliver a great programme in Tokyo, I am sure we can do that. I believe that will give a good incentive for the IOC to support our sport as it moves forward.
"We have never been in such a strong position with the Olympic Movement. I met with IOC President Thomas Bach in June, where he acknowledged the great progress we have made in cycling, in particular our efforts regarding anti-doping."
The addition of events to the Tokyo 2020 programme is arguably at the top of Cookson’s list of achievements since taking office, with cycling disciplines removed from the programme under his predecessors. While Lappartient has vowed to make the UCI a"strong and well-respected federation by improving its governance and regaining its capacity of influence in the Olympic Movement", the Frenchman is going to find it hard to convince delegates he could have done a better job than Cookson in this area.
It could prove a key area when it comes to the final vote, with the delivery of additional cycling events at the Olympics likely to be a big draw for Federations.
While Cookson will have been dealt a significant boost by the Olympic events, Lappartient will hope to woo votes with the promise of major changes to road cycling. While he has sat on the UCI Management Committee, the governing body’s executive, the Frenchman claims to have voiced his concerns over Cookson-led reforms.
"Professional road cycling is the highlight of our sport, however, the recent reforms have unfortunately failed to meet the challenges we are faced with in this discipline," Lappartient said when launching his campaign. "In collaboration with different stakeholders, I will put in place fundamental and ambitious changes to improve road cycling."
Under the initial reforms, outlined in September 2015, 18 men’s professional teams would have been awarded three-year WorldTour licences, rather than awarding them annually. WorldTour races would have also received licences for the same period of time, while a limited number of races were due to be added to the existing calendar.
Following a threat by the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) to remove their races from the WorldTour, including the Tour de France, an agreement was reached between the organiser and the UCI. Backed by Lappartient, the deal saw ASO races remain on the WorldTour, while teams were awarded licences for two years. The number competing in the 2017 season was set at 17. The UCI eventually added 10 events as part of the expanded series, although the Tour of Qatar was eventually cancelled due to a supposed lack of financial backing.
It has been argued by some that the "watered down" reforms have done little to address issues which affect riders and teams, but instead have seen the UCI back down to cycling’s most powerful race organiser. Cookson has admitted the changes in the WorldTour are a work in progress and rejected Lappartient’s view that they have failed, claiming he was trying to seek a balance between all stakeholders.
"We have a very balanced calendar, we respect the heritage of our sport, but we have started to build around that," Cookson said. "We have some new events like the Strade Bianchi in Europe and successful events in other parts of the world, we are seeing those develop. The WorldTour is now becoming more of a genuine WorldTour.
"If David thinks the reforms have failed, I am afraid he has been the President of the Professional Cycling Council for the last four years. That is almost an admission of failure on his own behalf. I do not think those changes have failed, we have got a work in progress to do. We have very productive meetings of the Professional Cycling Council and we have support from the organisers, teams and riders. We collaborate, discuss and reach consensus in those meetings. I am baffled as to why David should think that is a failure."
The added intrigue around this potentially key battleground comes with Lappartient being viewed by many to have a close relationship with the ASO. While this could be perceived as an advantage, as a close relationship might give him freedom to push through ambitious reforms, there are fears that the organiser could gain even greater influence in cycling, perhaps to the detriment of teams and riders.
Lappartient has denied that this has been the case, with the UEC President claiming he would be prepared to oppose ASO should the need arise. He argued that he would stand up for all stakeholders in cycling if elected, not bow to the powerful race organiser.
"I do not think a war between ASO and the UCI would be good for cycling," said Lappartient in July. "I have been the only President in the history of the French Cycling Federation who has fought strongly with ASO. It was after my first election as President, at the time their position was not acceptable for the French Cycling Federation. I am happy to say no to ASO if I do not agree."
Having been part of the UCI’s Management Committee, the Frenchman has been unable to attack the reforms too strongly, as he has played a part in the changes.
Lappartient has instead focused a significant part of his campaign discussing the issue of technological fraud and the use of substances such as corticosteroids and tramadol.
The 44-year-old has repeatedly insisted the UCI have not done enough to tackle technological fraud, which enjoyed a spell as the hot topic in cycling following the detection of a motor on the bike of a rider at the 2016 Cyclo-cross World Championships.
While the motor was detected by a mobile scanner used by the UCI and no further cases have come to light, Lappartient has called for thermal imaging and X-ray devices to be more widely used.
He has also vowed to introduce mandatory medical monitoring, independent of teams, along with a complete ban on corticosteroids and tramadol. The former can be used to treat a variety of ailments but a Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) must be sought to ride. Their use has been the subject of controversy, with some claiming the TUE system has been exploited with riders experiencing performance-enhancing benefits. The painkiller tramadol has been blamed for causing some crashes in the peloton.
"Corticosteroids must be banned from competition and these substances should therefore fall under anti-doping rules," Lappartient has stated. "If a rider needs cortisone treatment for an illness, he or she must be put on sick leave like any other ill person and must not take part in competitions until his or her cortisol level is back to normal.
"I think the UCI could have been more keen on applying this rule, which is not the most difficult to implement. Tramadol must also be banned in cycling. We must continue to push for the WADA to include tramadol and corticosteroids on the list of illegal products."
An area Cookson may believe he holds an advantage is women’s cycling, following the launch of the Women’s WorldTour in 2016 under his leadership. While a manifesto pledge to introduce a minimum wage for women was eventually scrapped, after claims it could hinder the growth of the women’s cycling, Cookson has vowed to make the series more economically sustainable in the coming years, if re-elected.
"We have made a great start there, a lot more events are in the calendar and there are more racing opportunities for women," Cookson said. "We need to get the sponsors coming in more and make it more economically sustainable and viable, so we can increase the remuneration and prize money for riders to get a better balance between men’s and women’s professional riders. There is a long way to go yet, we have started on the journey."
While Cookson can point to the UCI’s improved reputation, a boost in Olympic events and the growth of women’s cycling as tangible achievements, his first term has not been all plain sailing. The difficulties in pushing through WorldTour reforms has been one particular sticking point.
Concerns over the governance of British Cycling in the final years of his 17-year Presidency there have also emerged in the past year. Although they might not have registered too greatly outside of Britain, difficult questions about TUEs and the British Cycling Board not acting on bullying concerns have proved awkward for the UCI President at the start of an election campaign.
This is especially so as Lappartient has presented himself as an impressive candidate, citing his work and re-elections at the FFC and UEC as signs he can deliver on promises. Delivery of the French National Velodrome, the base of the FFC and a venue for the recently confirmed Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is also a feather in his cap.
"It is crucial that we have at the UCI, a President with real leadership, who is truly engaged and with a clear vision for cycling," said Lappartient. "I have these qualities and the credentials it takes to lead the UCI.
"As a two-term President of the FFC, I was able to modernise thisFederation and bring to life the creation of the National Velodrome, that France was waiting for. With the UEC’s support, I launched some profound transformation in our Continental Confederation.
The campaign had largely been fought with a good nature, but relations soured last week with Cookson having claimed McQuaid had been actively campaigning for Lappartient to win the election, with suggestions that the Frenchman had offered him the position of UCI Honorary President.
Cookson said he had seen proof of McQuaid’s alleged lobbying, stating it was of “grave concern” and asserted by not renouncing his support, it showed the "devastating direction" Lappartient would take the UCI in, should he be elected.
Lappartient hit back by stating the emails were a personal act of McQuaid and were not done on his demand. He accused Cookson of making "false statements" and "unsportsmanlike behaviour". McQuaid has reportedly claimed suggestions of such a deal was "absolute rubbish" but admitted he had sent an email to UCI voting delegates in support of Lappartient.
Heading into the final days of the campaign, Cookson has clearly been the more vocal of the two candidates publicly. He expressed his confidence that he will secure the second term when stating at the IOC Session in Lima last week, that he was confident he had support of 30 of the 45 voting delegates.
"There are 45 voting delegates and I think I have got 30 on my side," Cookson said. "I think if I talk to anyone about the big picture in the UCI, I get a good response and they want me to carry out my plans for another four years. I promised to do things four years ago and I am confident I have pushed things in the right direction. There is a track record that anyone can examine."
Certainly, as the incumbent, Cookson has had the advantage and has clearly been on the campaign trail for some time, judging by the number of photos he has had with various officials from across the world. Having been seen by many to have steadied the ship during his tenure, it might prove enough for the Briton to secure a second term.
As the UEC President Lappartient would expect to enjoy strong support from across Europe. It is notable then, that the number of delegates Cookson is uncertain of happens to be identical to the amount of voters from Europe. It could be a coincidence, but should the largest voting bloc vote on masse or in significant number for Lappartient, he could prove that Cookson’s confidence may have been misplaced.