By Shane Stokes
This week’s news that Brian Cookson will ensure that the UCI looks into the matter of a long-running appeal for compensation from the widow of a pro rider who died in a race in 2005 is encouraging, even if the final outcome is not yet certain.
The Italian Alessio Galletti competed for Lampre, Saeco and Domina Vacanze during his career, and was in the colours of the Naturino Team when he collapsed during the Subida al Naranco event. He suffered a heart attack and died, leaving behind his wife Consuelo, their nine-month-old baby Marcus and their-then unborn son Manuel.
The insurance company which had backed the team refused to pay out compensation, claiming that only accidents were covered and not death from natural causes. In 2007 the Italian riders’ association wrote to the UCI appealing for its help, pointing out that the governing body had signed a convention dealing with the insurance riders should have.
The UCI answered by saying its legal department was looking into the matter. However, according to the Italian Professional Cyclists Association (ACCPI), it then ignored all further correspondence and has done precisely nothing in the six years since.
After the ACCPI issued an open letter to the new UCI president Brian Cookson, he moved swiftly.
“Many thanks for your email and the information you have provided about the sad death of Alessio Galletti in 2005 and the impact on his family,” he replied the same day that letter was publicly released. “Professional riders are central to our wonderful sport of cycling so please be assured that I do take this very seriously indeed.
“I will make sure that the UCI investigates the details and we will get back to you with a more substantive response in due course.”
The final outcome to that will become apparent over time but the fast response and tone of his answer suggest that the UCI might finally be moving to resolve the matter. If so, it will add to other encouraging signs which have been seen since Cookson took over from former president Pat McQuaid at the end of September.
Others include the news that the Briton had a team of investigators on standby outside the UCI headquarters in Aigle and, minutes after his election, directed them to enter the building and to lock down computers, documents and any other information that could be of value in the planned Independent Commission investigation.
Reports suggested that a computer belonging to McQuaid was seized, although the Irishman contradicted this.
A second sign of decisive action was the decision to end the services of the UCI’s longtime lawyer, Philippe Verbiest, who had been part of both the McQuaid and earlier Hein Verbruggen presidencies. Also shown the door was UCI director general Christophe Hubschmid, who along with Verbiest had appeared to try to ensure McQuaid’s re-election.
Thirdly, Cookson came through on a number of election promises. At the end of October he published the salary he will draw from the UCI (340,000 Swiss Francs [approximately 275,000 euro/$379,000], and 110, 000 Swiss Francs less than he said McQuaid was receiving). He also confirmed an Independent Commission would be formed in consultation with WADA, with the purpose being a full investigation of the UCI, claims of wrongdoing by it and how it tackled doping in the sport.
At the same time, he and the UCI also pledged their support for the new women’s commission, headed by UCI vice president Tracey Gaudry, which has the goal of developing that area of the sport. That goal will include one hour highlights of the women’s World Cup races, to be distributed free of charge to broadcasters.
In addition to those measures, Cookson has confirmed that the UCI is working on setting up a new and apparently completely independent anti doping commission, thus separating the roles of policeman and promoter of the sport.
This measure is one which many feel is necessary for the credibility of cycling, and should lead to greater confidence in testing results.
So far so good, then. Cookson has been in office two months and has ticked off several of his pre-election promises.
Other goals such as reforming road cycling and developing a structure that increases long-term financial stability in the sport will take more time to tackle.
However Cookson told Bloomberg this month that he was opposed to the so-called World Series Cycling project which had been proposed by some as a way of introducing that financial stability.
He said he had concerns about the effects the planned new races could have on cycling’s traditional events; under the original proposal, some key races would be shortened, while other long-standing events could be reduced in status below those which would be introduced.
“The heritage of cycling is very important,” he was quoted as saying. “You could have, say, a race from Paris to Lyon but it wouldn’t be as exciting as Paris-Roubaix.”
It remains to be seen what measures will be adopted in the medium and long term.
There was however an area that some may have been curious about; while the World Series Cycling proposal had been waved away, Cookson said that the UCI was still speaking to a number of organisations, including BSkyB.
The company said in a statement that it “maintains an open mind about whether there’s an opportunity to extend its relationship with cycling as a broadcast partner.”
It is also a long term supporter of British Cycling and is the prime backer of Team Sky, two bodies which Cookson has had an association with. He was president of British Cycling from 1997 until earlier this year, and was also previously on the board of the company which owns Team Sky.
If BSkyB does indeed assume a bigger role in the sport, that could in theory lead to questions about potential conflicts of interest.
One question that fans would have is if the involvement of BSkyB could mean that cycling would become a sport visible via that company’s satellite channels only. If so, this would potentially reduce the exposure cycling would have, and could force those who are not Sky subscribers to pay out a large sum each year to watch the sport.
This is all conjecture, of course; it remains to be seen if BSkyB does indeed get involved in a bigger way, and how that would impact on viewing habits and requirements.
It is however a reminder that Cookson’s presidency will be judged on what happens months and years down the line, not in the first few weeks.
It’s impossible to predict the outcome, even if signs are encouraging thus far. McQuaid too had promising beginning to his presidency before things started to become complicated with the UCI-ProTour spat, various doping scandals and Lance Armstrong’s red-carpet return.
Time will tell if Cookson’s honeymoon period is akin to that of a couple that grows closer and stronger over time, or if it will be the initial rosy glow of a marriage which descents into something far less enduring.
The sport deserves the former, and so here’s hoping that’s how things play out.
Shane Stokes is the editor of VeloNation.