Bidons, littering and sock length — but why isn’t the UCI focussing on the issues that really matter?

by Jeremy Whittle

Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo:

In the aftermath of the littering incidents that led to disqualifications and debate in the past few days, there has been much discussion about the unfair and draconian nature of these new UCI rules, and of how ruthlessly they have been implemented. 

If you are Kyle Murphy, Letizia Borghesi or Michael Schar, all of whom were disqualified and fined under the UCI’s new littering rule, you might feel harshly treated. At the same time, the world governing body are responding to growing concerns over cycling’s eco footprint. Pressure is growing to ensure there is no disconnect between the greenest machine — the beautiful, wondrous bicycle — and the gas-guzzling bubble, tossing its detritus into the countryside, that accompanies all major races. 

Last September, there was open derision in France towards the Tour de France’s lack of green credentials, with several cities and regions making their feelings plain. The Tour, cycling’s flagship race, was described as “macho and polluting,” by Gregory Doucet, mayor of Lyon. Other city mayors weighed in too and called for greater environmental awareness within cycling. 

The need to respond to those expectations fits with the vision that current UCI President David Lappartient set in place when he was first elected. Greener, cleaner, and more inclusive, cycling under Lappartient would become more modern and reflect the values and sensitivities — both ethical and political — of a younger and more diverse audience. 

What is the biggest challenge for international cycling?
Greater diversity or discarded bidons?

But were those mayors really calling for action on bidons and gel wrappers, or as many think more likely, throwing their hands up in horror at the bigger picture: the proliferation of luxury buses, team vehicles, guest cars, media vans, TV helicopters and short haul flights, ferrying the entourage back and forth across Europe.

In fairness, the ‘autumn’ Tour of September 2020 was a far smaller event, with a reduced footprint. Travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic forced change and Racing in the Time of Covid generally proved more eco-friendly than in the past. Transfers for example, were usually executed by bus, rather than by air.

At the same time, it’s increasingly apparent that the UCI under Lappartient are at a crossroads. 

They can tinker with their sport — gel wrappers, sock length, descending positions — or they can be progressive and actively promote real and lasting change on sportswashing, racism, gender equality and environmental impact. 

When he stood for Presidential election, Lappartient’s manifesto cited these key goals:
– Strengthening the authority of the UCI with a President ensuring real and effective leadership
– Placing the UCI at the service of National Federations
– Making cycling a sport of the 21st century
– Developing an ambitious vision for professional cycling
– Ensuring credibility of sporting results and protecting athletes

Those objectives — let’s call them KPIs or key performance indicators — have a somewhat vague air. What does ‘making cycling a sport of the 21st century’ really mean in practical terms? What exactly is his ‘ambitious vision’? Where are the specific and measurable objectives for his goals?

While all this has been going on, a rider whose biggest fault is his occasionally reckless and impetuous sprinting has this week been forced out of a major race due to the mental anguish of serial racial abuse. There has been a trickle of support for Nacer Bouhanni, but like most athletes who have been victims of racial abuse, those in positions of power and influence have sat on their hands. 

On Wednesday, Bouhanni, exhausted from fending off the largely racially motivated attacks of trolls on social media, withdrew from the GP Scheldeprijs. Ironically, this came as the UCI belatedly posted a statement condemning the abuse he had received. The Frenchman had raced on Sunday at Roue Tourangelle, but admitted he had come close to pulling out of that race also. 

“I told the team manager that I couldn’t do it anymore, that psychologically I couldn’t go to the Roue Tourangelle,” he said, later adding: “It feels like no one is listening to me, that no one understands me.”

You might reasonably think that ‘Making cycling a sport of the 21st century’ would include exiling racism from the sport you governed and that such an issue would, by some distance, have precedence over dropped gels and bidons. 

And, after the events of the past few days, you might also ask, what are the UCI really for? Disqualifying riders for accidental littering, or rejecting discrimination and hate? What is the biggest challenge for international cycling? Greater diversity or discarded bidons?

To many working in cycling, the UCI need to achieve clarity on what really matters, on how they can promote and achieve a genuine and healthy growth of cycling’s appeal. Yet they seem confused. 

For example, the governing body will point, as will other champions of diversity, to the Tour of Rwanda as a shining example of the sport’s multi-racial appeal. But there is a significant problem here, too, one that the UCI seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge. 

The Tour of Rwanda is widely seen as a sports-washing event, supported by a President whose ‘democracy’ has been criticised in the international media and by Amnesty International. In September last year, for example, the Washington Post wrote of its President Paul Kagame:

“He has remained firmly entrenched in power, often winning sham elections that would make the likes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Un blush. He routinely wins nearly 100 percent of the votes cast in national elections; his ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, acts as a rubber stamp for his increasingly authoritarian directives.”

Kagame’s critics disappear, their bodies dumped, their deaths unexplained and uninvestigated. However, in 2019, UCI President Lappartient travelled to Rwanda and started the first stage of the race. Maybe he doesn’t read the Washington Post. Or maybe the UCI needs to work on its due diligence.

“Dictators such as Kagame — and those who show a repeated disdain for human rights and the rule of law in practice — do not deserve the plaudits or the financial support that they often receive,” the American newspaper continued in its September 2020 report. 

At the same time, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither the UCI, nor ASO can change a century old sport overnight. But they could certainly do better. 

They could publish, in collaboration, a coherent three year plan that sets out specific and measurable KPIs, on eco footprint, on diversity of race and gender, on ethical practice and appropriate relationships, that they and their stakeholders can measure their performance against. That then, might be something that the lifelong fans, many of whom are so invested in the sport, both intellectually and emotionally, could at last really get behind.

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