A few months ago Brian Cookson was the most powerful person in world cycling.
Controversially ousted as the president of the UCI, the sport’s governing body, Cookson said that voting delegates had lied to him having promised their support.
“Now, I am a nobody,” he tells City A.M.
Four years at the top was preceded by 17 years as British Cycling’s president. But Cookson’s bid for re-election last year was hampered by being out-politicked at home as well as at the UCI’s Swiss headquarters.
In June, MP Damian Collins, the chair of a high-profile Commons committee probing allegations of bullying at British Cycling, denounced UK Sport’s financial backing of Cookson’s re-election campaign.
The findings of a controversial review into British Cycling meant it was not right for Cookson to hold office on a global stage, Collins said.
As the UCI leadership contest hotted up, the flames were fanned by Irishman Pat McQuaid, Cookson’s controversial predecessor, who backed his rival David Lappartient – a Frenchman who would romp to victory by a margin of 37 votes to eight in the September vote.
With everything that has happened, it would not be unreasonable for the 66-year-old to put the sport behind him.
But that could not be further from the truth. Amid criticism of Team Sky for investing only in the men’s side of professional racing, Cookson is hunting for financial backers for a top-level women’s team.
And he is publicly backing a campaign to build a velodrome in Birmingham, the host of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Commonwealth track cycling events are currently slated to take place at the London’s Olympic Velodrome in 2022.
“I do think the West Midlands and Birmingham needs a velodrome,” he says. “Whether it gets it in time for the Commonwealth Games is another matter.
“What we’ve got in the UK now, as is the case of many other developed nations, is an epidemic of lack of fitness, obesity, health problems – all related to that lack of exercise.
“Investing in these kind of facilities is expensive. But it is even more expensive to be treating people all the time in the NHS for problems of lack of fitness, lack of exercise.
“When I was in school you might have one kid in the entire school who was overweight. I am sorry to say that now a large number of kids in schools are overweight.”
Football, sailing and House of Fraser
Earlier this month House of Fraser boss Frank Slevin was announced as the chairman of British Cycling.
His appointment completes an overhaul of the major governance positions at the sport. Alongside him, ex-Football Association operations director Julie Harrington is chief executive and Stephen Park, credited with leading Britain to Olympic sailing success, is performance director.
British Cycling’s top trio have attracted criticism for a lack of cycling experience and Cookson agrees it is a “very good point”.
“I think the proof of the pudding is going to be in the eating,” he says.
“Cycling has been through quite a turbulent period in Great Britain, as have a number of other sports.”
As for Slevin, Cookson was due to meet him for the first time at the end of January.
“I think he has got what appears to be a good track record in business,” he says.
“There are many similarities between running major businesses and running a national governing body of sport but equally there are many differences as well. I don’t think the skills are necessarily transferable. But they can be.”
Cookson’s diplomatic responses are less those of a straight-talking Lancastrian and more of someone who has spent four years balancing the demands of French, Italian and Spanish delegations as UCI president.
But he rejects Collins’ suggestions of wrongdoing last year.
“[During] the 17 years of British Cycling and I was chairman of the board, I can tell you that we absolutely followed the guidelines we were given by UK Sport and by Sport England,” he says.
“We made many changes during that period to keep best practice and keep in a good situation with regards to the governance.”
And he admits to “reservations” about a wider UK Sport governance overhaul, in particular with reference to capping the amount of time those involved with sports can serve at the top level of national governing bodies.
“In governance and in management and leadership, when you have been around a bit – as I have – you see ideas come around and ideas being recycled and so on,” says Cookson.
Change at the top can be good, he says.
“But equally I think there is something to be said for those people within sport who make a lifetime commitment to sport,” he adds.
“Are we really saying there is a time limit on the amount of time and experience that people give to their sport and their organisation? I am not so sure that in a few years’ time we won’t see a little change in that.”
Nevertheless, Cookson is optimistic British Cycling’s golden days can be replicated.
What about a return to British Cycling? He is not prepared to go cap in hand to them and his current focus is on the women’s team launch, among a number of other smaller projects.
But he adds: “I have a little bit to give. If the sport asked me to come back and get involved in governance, perhaps I would consider that.”