INTERVIEW: DAVID LAPPARTIENT
The UCI’s President, Frenchman David Lappartient, is standing unopposed for re-election in September this year. In an exclusive interview, Procycling asks him what he has achieve in his four years so far, and what he hopes to achieved in the future
An exclusive interview with the president of the UCI, who is standing unopposed for a second term
When David Lappartient took over the Presidency of the International Cycling Union (UCI) in the autumn of 2017, he had surfed a wave both of political infighting and antiBritish sentiment that secured his success and hastened the exit of predecessor Brian Cookson.
In 2015, 2016 and on, into 2017, the Anglo-Saxon ‘takeover’ of cycling – Cookson as UCI president, Team Sky dominating the Tour de France, the confirmation of Yorkshire, not Flanders, Piedmont or Brittany, as a perpetual heartland of cycling – had seemed complete.
In a very short space of time, though, everything changed.
There was Chris Froome’s adverse analytical finding for Salbutamol, the painful Culture, Media and Sport hearings in the British parliament and the Jiffy Bag mystery, Shane Sutton’s comments on the tactical use of TUEs, Cookson’s dramatic exit from the UCI, the looming fall from grace of Welcome to Yorkshire CEO Gary Verity. By January 2018, Britannia, heading inexorably and painfully towards Brexit, wasn’t looking quite such a cool prospect after all.
Put into that context, it’s hardly a surprise that Lappartient ousted Cookson so emphatically the previous autumn. “I knew delegates were ready for change,” the Frenchman said after he was elected in 2017. “I knew I had more than 35 votes. The day before the vote, I told my wife, ‘I will get around 37, 38 votes.’”
Lappartient’s success in the UCI Presidential campaign left Cookson reeling. “It was a big shock for Brian. He still thought he could win,” Lappartient told me afterwards. “We talked about it. He expected at least 30 votes.” It turned out to be a thrashing: Lappartient won 37-8.
This autumn, Lappartient fully expects to be re-elected as the head of world cycling for another four years. This time around, the UCI Presidential election will be a whitewash. That’s because the 48-year-old from Pontivy in Brittany is running unopposed, a situation that Lappartient himself shrugs off.
“In sport it’s a little different from politics,” he said, when we talked over Zoom midway through the 2021 Tour de France. “In sport, if the stakeholders, or at least most of them, are happy with the leadership of the UCI, they can continue to support an unopposed candidate.
“That’s also been the case with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with President Thomas Bach, so I take this as signifying that they are happy with what we have done over the past four years.
“We have done what we promised,” Lappartient said. “We had a manifesto and when you read that you can see that what has been delivered is what we promised. I believe that’s why there were no other candidates. I was comfortable for there to be another candidate, and to have a debate the same as we had four years ago.
“Sometimes when you have two candidates that’s good for democracy,” he added. “But it can also divide the family. So, you can take the glass half-full or halfempty. I will take it half-full.”
David Lappartient is a precise, neat man. He has been the Mayor of Sarzeau in Brittany since 2008, until he climbed higher in French regional politics this summer. He is almost always clad in the same dark blue suit. The tie changes and every now and then, when it’s hot, the jacket comes off. There is a grey suit too, but in almost every public appearance, he is sporting the blue one.
On July 1, 2021 he was elected — again unopposed — as sole candidate for the presidency of the Morbihan department council, in Brittany. As Breton newspaper Ouest-France wrote, Lappartient “continues to climb the rungs of a double political life, finding a subtle balance between local commitment and international
ambition.” He is also a former President of the French Cycling Federation. Some say he has greater ambitions still, and that after the UCI, he has an eye on the Presidency of the IOC.
Assuming his re-election runs smoothly, he will be UCI President during the 2024 Paris Olympics. His second term will also see the fulfilment of a promise from his first Presidential manifesto — the reintroduction of the women’s Tour de France.
“I’ve always been pushing for the comeback of the women’s Tour de France. It’s really great for cycling. I met several times with ASO (the Tour de France’s promoters) and I said that it was very important to the UCI to push for gender equality. Having a very strong organiser will really help to develop and increase women’s cycling worldwide.
“Of course it was good to have La Course, but I didn’t believe it was enough. Now we have the women’s Tour back after many years and also the Giro Rosa (women’s Giro d’Italia), which I hope will be back in the WorldTour next year. So the WorldTour next year will be a great success, I’m sure.”
He agreed though that it took far too long to get the women’s Tour de France off the ground.
“It was not fast enough of course, but looking positively, we will be at the starting line in 2022. It took some time, however now we are back. The organiser is not only thinking of gender equality, but they’re also thinking of the potential of women’s cycling — to reach a new audience, to have new business, to enlarge the sport. I really believe the lights are green for women’s cycling. “
Live TV coverage, he says, will also be key to that success, despite serial issues with races such as the Giro Rosa, now the Giro Donne. “We want to keep to our specifications, which are clear, of having a certain level of TV coverage to be part of the Women’s WorldTour.
“This was not the case in the past and we said, ‘No, we can’t continue like this.’ But the organisers are very focused on being part of the WorldTour. I believe that finally the pressure we put on last year will serve to have this race with a high level
of TV coverage in 2022. It will be great, in 2022, to have the Giro Donne, the women’s Tour de France and the women’s Tour of Britain, plus other beautiful races.”
The steady growth of women’s racing has been a success during his presidency, but progress in other areas of diversity — highlighted by the impact of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in other sports — has been stark in its absence. Asked what — assuming that riders on the start line of races can’t, or won’t, take the knee — cycling can do to help this, Lappartient seems to skirt around the issue.
“We have to be proud of what we have done and what we are doing,” he said. “My predecessor Brian Cookson moved really positively and we now have the same prize money for all the World Cups, for all the World Championships for both men and women, we have the same quotas for men and women for the 2024 Olympic Games, and we decided that the minimum salary would be the same for both men and women.
“We were the first sport to have specific allowances, for example, when you are pregnant. This was really something new coming from cycling that is now in other sports so we were one of the leading sports regarding this.
“In 2023, we will have 15 WorldTour teams with the same minimum salary as the men. That’s really a big, big step. I had a look at the salaries this year between men and women and the gap was still big, but we have divided it by four in two or three years. We have a bigger audience, more power in women’s cycling and we will continue to do more and reach the same salaries for men and women. I look to the future with very positive feelings.”
The Tour de France is not the time for the UCI President to take holidays,” David Lappartient said, appreciative of perhaps one of the best known gaffes by a former UCI President, Hein Verbruggen’s ‘Indian Summer’ in the July of 1998. As the aftershocks of the Festina Affair took the Tour and even the entire sport to the brink of collapse, Verbruggen refused to come back early from a holiday in India.
It’s certainly true that Lappartient has been tougher on some forms of cheating than his predecessors. Video technology — VAR by any other name — plus the UCI’s efforts to manage the suspected growth of technological fraud have gained ground.
His critics might argue that the UCI has been over-zealous at times and playing to the gallery at others — examples of that would be the post-hoc disqualification of Dutch rider Nils Eekhoff at the 2019 World Road Championships for drafting behind his team car in the U23 race and the laughable eviction of Michael Schär from this year’s Tour of Flanders for ‘littering’, when he tossed a bidon to a fan.
In general though, cycling’s biggest problem remains credibility — not littering, drafting or sock length — and when the Tour de France champion of the past two years, Tadej Pogacar, is managed by a team fronted by Mauro Gianetti, Lappartient is not naive enough to think that eyebrows won’t be raised. He’s very clear, however, that, for now at least, people should have faith.
“I gave an interview to a French newspaper, and what I said was that of course I trust Pogacar’s results and what we are doing directly at the UCI, regarding technological fraud.
“I have the pictures of Pogacar’s bike and everything is clean, regarding the results of the Xray machine,” he said. “On antidoping, as UCI President, I trust the international anti-doping testing agency in Lausanne and what they are doing.”
“The only limit is the capacity of the laboratory themselves to detect —not only in cycling but in all sports — some substances. We have a very solid and robust testing programme in cycling for both anti-doping and technological fraud and there is no reason to have doubts,” Lappartient said.
“At the UCI we are always careful about what we can do to have dedicated testing programmes, to target more riders because they have very good results, to test the bikes every day. However, zero risk doesn’t exist, as you know. That’s why we always want to keep the light open to ensure the credibility of the result.”
The context, Lappartient acknowledges, is important. The UAE Team Emirates operation is run by Gianetti, team principal and CEO. The Swiss former pro, who spent three days in a coma in 1998 after being taken to hospital during the Tour de Romandie, has been connected to a series of incidents over the past 25 years.
The most infamous would be the Saunier Duval scandal of 2008, when the Gianetti-managed team quit the Tour after their star rider Riccardo Riccò tested positive for a new generation EPO. Riccò was also fired, along with his teammate Leonardo Piepoli.
Gianetti and the Saunier Duval team manager Matxin Fernández — working for UAE Emirates at the past two Tours — later moved on to the Geox-TMC team, which included a rider called Juan José Cobo. The Spaniard had also raced for Gianetti at Saunier Duval.
Cobo burst through the ranks to win the 2011 Vuelta a España but, in 2019, was stripped of his win and found guilty of “a violation of the anti-doping rules [use of a banned substance] based on irregularities found in his Athlete Biological Passport in 2009 and 2011”, when racing for Geox-TMC.
Questioned about how comfortable he was with these team personnel being part of Pogacar’s entourage, Lappartient said, of Pogacar’s management, that “for all these guys it was before 2011, so they have the right to be involved in a team.
“Under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules and UCI rules, if you had a disciplinary procedure or sanction after 2011, you can’t be part of a team, or leading a team. That’s the international rule, but of course we are always very careful, specifically with team managers who in the past have been involved in negative stories.”
It would be foolish to underestimate David Lappartient. He retains a youthful air, and there’s a little of the boy scout about him at times, but he is a fast learner and over the past four years he has developed a thicker skin.
When his Presidency was in its infancy, it was easy to pick up the phone and call him spontaneously, for reaction and opinion. In some ways, he initially seemed a little unaware of the weight of his words. Now however, as he prepares for a second term, he is building a sharper comms and advisory team around him.
It’s hard to imagine now that he would be so tactless as to again use the term, “fake news”, when describing division in the peloton, or that he would get drawn into a spat similar to the memorable 2018 slanging match with Dave Brailsford, in the aftermath of Chris Froome being cleared of wrongdoing by WADA.
“Froome had more financial support to find good experts,” Lappartient said.
Brailsford wasn’t impressed: “He has still got the local French mayor kind of mentality. If you want to be the president of an international federation then protect everybody in that international community.”
But Lappartient bit back: “The last one who called me a ‘Breton mayor’ was not brought any luck. It was Brian Cookson. By insulting me as mayor, Brailsford insults the 35,000 French mayors and the French in general.” Eventually, the pair recognised that they needed to be on speaking terms and buried the hatchet.
For all his focus on the growth of women’s cycling, other issues have faded into the background. The initial statement of intent over financial fair play as Sky and Ineos budgets mushroomed each year, has ebbed away as Brailsford’s team struggled to continue their Tour dynasty. If Ineos dominate once more, it’s likely that it will once again become an issue.
As for BLM in cycling, and any public acknowledgement of institutionalised racism in a sport that regards such issues as a taboo topic, when I asked this follow-up question — “How does David plan to make cycling more multiracial in response to the BLM movement?” — I was sent a link to a UCI statement on diversity in cycling that concluded by saying that “Cycling is open to everyone, regardless of their origins.”
So what about his second term? What is next on his agenda?
Lappartient said that over the next four years, the UCI will make women’s cycling bigger and will close the gap with men’s cycling; it will make the 2023 World Championships in Glasgow, the first with all the disciplines together, a great success; he will “secure” the UCI’s position within the Olympic movement and the Olympic programme for Paris 2024 and beyond to Los Angeles, 2028 and will “continue to push for the credibility of cycling, and to reinforce anti-doping”.
After that? Who knows? Lappartient will be 53 during the Paris Olympics, which still makes him comparatively young in the world of international sports administration. The current IOC president Thomas Bach is almost 20 years older than the Frenchman and is expected to stand down in 2025. Perfect timing, perhaps, for Brailsford’s ‘local French mayor’ to make his first bid for the top job. Certainly few who have followed his progress until now would be surprised if he threw his hat in the ring for the top job of all.