Pat McQuaid breezes into the hotel foyer, unruffled by the mayhem of Christmas shopping.
His coat is wide open and his scarf hangs loose.
Last-minute shopping in Dublin can’t be too dissimilar from racing in the peloton, ducking and weaving, jostling for position, picking good lines and getting to the head of the queue.
McQuaid, in his day, was a sprinter of note and efficient to boot. His time-keeping is spot on as we convene one minute before the scheduled meeting time.
The sport of cycling has endured the most difficult year in its much-maligned history, and over the last four months the man opposite me has had emails, letters, phone calls and faxes telling him to “get the fuck out and resign”. That final piece of advice came from three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, no less.
The Irishman has batted away accusations and allegations of corruption and impropriety since August when the US Anti-Doping Agency released their document on widespread drug-taking in the Lance Armstrong-led US Postal Services team during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
One can only wonder how much of a toll such vitriol can have on a man.
Ordinarily, searching for signs of strain or pressure isn’t a difficult thing to do but judging by McQuaid’s appearance, he has the look of a man at ease with himself. Poke at him, just a little, however, and it soon becomes apparent the gun is always cocked, even in a salubrious setting where Christmas carols and teapots are the only other sounds.
“Paul Kimmage says you should be behind bars for the deaths of up to 30 young cyclists during the ’90s,” is the opener.
“That irritates me,” retorts McQuaid. “It’s way over the top. It’s a personal vendetta he’s got against me and the only way he can pull me down is to associate me very closely with my predecessor Hein Verbruggen, doping and Lance Armstrong. That’s the only way he can see to bring me down. This year hasn’t been easy for me. It’s been difficult and I’ve put up with a huge amount of criticism, most of which is unjustified but that’s the way the media operate.”
McQuaid must often wonder has someone put some cruel curse on him. Here’s a man who’s been besotted by cycling since he was winning races in the early ’70s but all the while, it’s been a tale of unrequited love.
Picture the scene. The 1986 Nissan Classic took years of planning and persuasion. McQuaid was in the hot seat as race director. In the height of a recession he had the drive and desire to source sponsors, teams, riders, a route, media coverage — and do it all on the cheap.
There were 16 teams in that edition of the race; 12 pro-teams from Europe as well as amateur teams from Ireland, England, France and Holland. LeMond, Kelly, Roche, Vanderaerden and Bauer were all on the start line in Dublin. The who’s who of world cycling — all in Ireland, all because of McQuaid. This was going to look very well on his CV in years to come. But all was not well inside the sport’s poisonous underbelly and the toxic ‘D’ word entered his domain for the first time.
“Stage one was a 135-mile trek straight across the country, finishing in Eyre Square. A young Dutch rider, Johannes Draaijer, took off out of the bunch coming out of Lucan, in an orange jersey on his own, and built up a lead of 12, 13 and then 14 minutes by Athlone. He was in my rear-view mirror the whole day because I was driving the car out front and I was delighted for him, to see an amateur beating all the pros — some of the best in the world.
“As a sports fan you love the underdog. He didn’t win the stage but he got a pro contract out of it. But a year or so later, he was found dead in his bed, at 23. That’s EPO.”
Draaijer had injected himself with so much of the then legal substance that his blood literally thickened to the texture of mud, putting an impossible strain on his young heart. There would be plenty more like him.
“I knew how Draaijer died, he died because of EPO,” recalled McQuaid. “That had a huge effect on me — the fact that drugs will do that. This guy I had watched that day perform so well... I was so thrilled for an amateur starting his career. Out of that result he got a pro contract. It’s just not acceptable and I didn’t find it acceptable. That, plus the [lack of] fairness of it and all that has conditioned my attitude towards doping and my attitude is as strong, if not stronger than a lot of these critics telling the UCI how it should be done. And when I became president in 2005, I laid out two objectives; the fight against doping and the globalisation of the sport.”
Though the Nissan would fade away after seven glorious years, McQuaid, whose “ambition outweighed talent”, went after the biggest race of them all, the Tour de France.
“I was on a committee set up by Gay Mitchell at the time in the Dublin Sports Council and he was looking to bring a big international event here — he thought he’d get the Olympic Games once so that would make two ambitious people! We sat around the table and I said, ‘the Tour de France would come to Ireland’ and everyone there went, ‘what!? But that’s in France, how would it come here?’ This was in 1992 and I said, ‘well, in actual fact, I’m currently working on a project to bring the Tour to England in 1994 so if they’re prepared to come to England, maybe they’d come to Ireland,’ I said.
“But there were huge logistical things to consider,” he continued. “It would have to be the start of the race here. We couldn’t start in France, come to Ireland and go back to France. So immediately everyone said ‘do you think you could follow up on it?’ and I said, ‘well, I know [race organiser] Jean Marie LeBlanc very well, I know he loves Ireland because he used come over to the Nissan for a week every year. I think I could sell the idea to him’.
“So the following year, in the rest day in Andorra during the Tour, I was covering it for RTÉ and I met Jean Marie and I said, ‘I’ve a proposal for you — a Grand Depart of the Tour de France in Ireland’. ‘Have you thought about this?’ he said, and I replied, ‘yes I have. We can’t do what we’re doing next year [with England in 1994] but a Grand Depart can be done.’ And I’ll never forget his words, ‘look, I’ll tell you this, and you can go back to your people and tell them this — if it’s possible, it’s possible’.
“And then he qualified it and said, ‘if it’s logistically possible, financially possible, and if the political will is there, then we’ll do it’. So they were the three things. And that’s all I needed to hear. So that meant talking to the government and it took me a few years of talking to them. Enda Kenny was Minister for Tourism then and I spoke to him about trying to get £1.5m to make it happen.
“Now, the Irish government had never invested in a sports event up until then so there was a lot of convincing to be done. I brought Jean Marie over with Tony O’Reilly and had a function down in his house. We brought him to rugby matches to keep the Tour de France warm while I was trying to get the conditions right with our government.
“Then, Enda Kenny said to me, ‘the way this has to be done is, we’ve a cabinet that meets and when something goes to cabinet, it’s not generally discussed there. All the discussion takes place beforehand, when it goes to cabinet it’s rubber-stamped and that’s the way it’s dealt with, that’s the way things go’. So they came to me in 1995 and they said, ‘we’re good to go’. It went to cabinet, it was approved and that was it. That gave me two years’ work and it was me just sort of following a path, one thing leading to another.
“Also I had the intention that the start of the Tour de France was to be the catalyst to a new Tour of Ireland and that’s what me and Alan Rushton went about doing. It gave us a chance to show sponsors that cycling was great to promote a country and that was to be the case... but then Festina came along and fucked all that up!”
Ah, Festina. Team manager Willy Voet caught with a car-load of performance-enhancing drugs at the French border bound for Dublin effectively ruined any chance of the Tour of Ireland coming back. A golden opportunity wasted. McQuaid was disgusted by the scale of doping in the peloton. Just a year previously, he was elected to the board of the UCI and was made president of the road commission where he remained for eight years [until 2005] — charged with overseeing juniors, U23s and women — from his base in Asia. But those years were the dirtiest in not just cycling, but sport.
If those two incidences didn’t make him question why he was getting in so deep with the world governing body, then the Armstrong affair and all it encompasses surely must have.
When he took over from Verbruggen in 2005, the horse had bolted and with it, took seven Tour de France titles, not to mention millions of US taxpayers’ money.
But did McQuaid see anything, ever? Did he hear anything? Could he have stopped the Texan’s drug-fuelled reign before it grew into the greatest sporting myth of all time?
“Look, we’ve said this over and over and over,” he interjects. “The UCI tested Armstrong and his team so many times, it was always negative. WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] tested him, always negative, USADA [US Anti-Doping] tested him, always negative. AFLD [French National Doping Agency] tested him, always negative, CONI [Italian Olympic Committee] tested him, always negative. So the fact that the results were always negative, you ask could more have been done? No it couldn’t, simple as that.
“It’s very easy, and a lot of people fail to see this, but look at anti-doping today and it’s a totally different landscape to what it was 15 years ago. When we knew guys were using EPO and dying, the UCI introduced a haematocrit control because there was no test for it. We invested in the money to create the EPO test, we knew guys were using EPO because they were dropping dead but all we could do was put a control on it, but in doing so, we were creating a situation where teams were then buying centrifuges, and testing blood themselves and keeping their riders below the limit. So they were using EPO to a certain level but there was no test to show it was being used until it came in and once it came in it changed the landscape. There’s been a lot of that as time goes on; the UCI introduces new tests and then the landscape changes.”
With such a seemingly impossible war on his hands, did he ever consider resigning? “Not for a second,” he affirms. “I’ve done nothing to warrant resigning. All I’ve done since I became president is fight doping as best I could. All I’ve done is fight doping, promote the sport, working 365 days of the year for the sport, travelled the world developing the sport, introduced the Biological Passport, introduced a no-needle policy, introduced a rule whereby athletes caught in doping can never come back into the sport as part of the entourage. I’ve introduced all those regulations and if somebody comes to me with another regulation which I can introduce, which will strengthen the fight against doping, I’ll introduce it straight away. That’s as much as we can do. We’re not a police force. My attitude since day one is ‘do whatever it takes’. I don’t see any reason why I should step down, to let somebody in [who] maybe doesn’t know as much, or is as capable, or isn’t as passionate, or as dedicated. I think I am the best man.”
But why is cycling in such a mess if all these measures are in place?
“Look, I cannot as such, speak for the UCI between the period 1999-2005. I can talk about the UCI from 2005 onwards but the UCI that I know from 2005 onwards, if they worked the same as they did prior, which I do believe they did, then the UCI has nothing to fear. And a lot of what was said was political — the USADA report was a novel. I accept everything that’s in there but the way it was presented, it was presented as a novel, you know? It was written for public consumption and the sad part about it is the whole process was done in the public arena.”
Listening to his tone, vendettas are never far from the surface. Begrudgery and spite. “Mischievous reporting” is mentioned several times by him. Like the time it was reported they didn’t interview riders who put up red flags about doping.
“Not true. We’ve interviewed riders, the UCI had Tyler Hamilton in the office in 2000 or 2001 and he lied through his teeth. Our medical doctors said, ‘we’re looking at your parameters and we can see that you’re up to something and you’re going to be caught’, ‘Well your machines must be calibrated wrong’, he said. Floyd Landis is another one.
“At the end of the day, the UCI caught Tyler Hamilton and Landis. One thing I do remember is Landis. I got off a plane in Munich and I was in transit to Switzerland and I switched my phone on and there was an SMS from our lawyer saying ‘ring me when you get this’. This was early August. ‘Are you alone,’ he said. ‘You better sit down because we have a positive on the Tour de France’. And he didn’t even have to tell me and I knew who he was talking about.
“The 48 hours after that was like hell on earth. My phone never stopped ringing, people ringing from all over the world calling me in the middle of the night. I had to switch it off in the end. It was a huge story. But the UCI caught those guys. Then those guys each spent a small fortune of their own money plus other people’s money. I know for a fact of a guy who was quite friendly with Tyler Hamilton and Tyler was going through this process of appeal after appeal after appeal and he spoke to Tyler — this guy is a millionaire — and he said, ‘did you do drugs? Look me in the eye and tell me’. And Tyler says, ‘no’. ‘Right, here’s US $1m to help your case’, the man said.
“But eventually the truth came out. He came up with such a cock-and-bull story about a twin that was never born. But that’s their life and they’ve done that but what I question is the real motivation behind them coming forward with this information. I’ve no problem with Landis giving information to the Feds which eventually brought Lance Armstrong down because if it helps cycling, then that’s a good thing. But where do these guys stop lying and start telling the truth? Where is the divide? I don’t know.”
Since the Armstrong affair exploded, an independent commission has been set up to investigate claims the UCI were complicit in what he did during his rise to the top.
“The next step is seeing what the independent commission come up with,” continues McQuaid. “But, by the way, there’s more mischievous reporting there. That commission was set up to investigate us and how we handled the Lance affair. There’s been mischievous statements coming out from the likes of Jaime Fuller saying the UCI set the terms of reference and gave them to the commission — the UCI did not set the terms, the commission themselves set the terms of reference. The first I saw the terms of reference was an hour before they went public by the commission!”
He’s animated now. “There’s nothing to hide from my point of view. I do believe, either way, come 2013, Lance will be forgotten anyway. The sport will move on.
“Look at Wiggins this year. I think the sport is in a very good position. Cycling shouldn’t be judged on the Lance Armstrong story. It should be judged on the Olympic Games. 1.5 million people for the road race, the Velodrome was the hottest in terms of atmosphere. The BMX was hugely successful, the mountain biking was hugely successful. The sport is in a great place and is growing. Look at the development in Africa, South America is growing and will grow further because of the Olympic Games in Rio. Asia is growing with new teams cropping up so the sport globally is going very well.
“So I don’t think this is going to have any huge negative effect on the sport. Things are going in the right direction.”
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