Brian Cookson’s hopes of serving a second term as president of cycling’s world governing body have ended in embarrassing fashion as he was beaten 37 votes to eight by French rival David Lappartient.
The former British Cycling president has run the International Cycling Union (UCI) since 2013 and wanted another four-year spell in charge before retiring at 70.
The heavy defeat is a reflection of what many observers have described as a lacklustre campaign and the damage done to Cookson’s reputation by the negative headlines that have dogged British Cycling, the organisation he ran from 1997 to 2013.
All the indications coming into Thursday’s vote in Bergen were that it was too close to call, although both camps claimed they thought they had enough to win.
Clearly, many of those promising votes to Cookson were doing so out of politeness, having already decided to back the 44-year-old Lappartient.
President of the European Cycling Union, Lappartient was always expected to win a large chunk of Europe’s 15 votes but his charisma and energy have travelled much further than that.
Having put ambitions in domestic politics on hold, the Frenchman must now deliver on the wide but often vague promises he made during an acrimonious campaign.
While Cookson’s appeal was based on steady progress and his attempts to restore the UCI’s relations with key partners, such as the World Anti-Doping Agency, Lappartient promised a lot more, a lot sooner.
He also benefited from Cookson’s difficulties at home, as allegations of bullying and discrimination at British Cycling while he was still in charge were aired in the British media and parliament.
As if the fallout from the Shane Sutton affair was not damaging enough, British Cycling and its professional off-shoot Team Sky have also been under a UK Anti-Doping investigation for alleged wrongdoing for a year.
Having helped launch the team, the sport’s most dominant outfit, Cookson’s credibility on anti-doping issues, however unfairly, was affected.
This all played very badly for him, particularly as some within the sport already bristled at what they considered an Anglophone takeover at the UCI’s Aigle headquarters.
Another area of vulnerability for Cookson was his relationship with the sport’s biggest race organiser, French firm ASO.
As the company behind the Tour de France, Vuelta and several other major events, ASO has often been at loggerheads with the UCI over the federation’s attempts to create a more cohesive, global calendar, and spread revenues more evenly – Cookson’s relationship with the family-owned business was no different.
ASO has made little secret of its support for Lappartient, although he has denied he is effectively ‘their man’, just as he has had to deny Cookson’s claims that former UCI president Pat McQuaid was lobbying on his behalf in return for an honorary post.
It was McQuaid who Cookson beat after a bitter battle in 2013, when the Englishman’s stock was high and he looked like the only man capable of dragging the sport out of the doping scandals and personal squabbles that had marked McQuaid’s tenure.
Scandals and squabbles at home have now conspired to scupper Cookson and Lappartient is the sport’s future. Once the dust has settled, he may admit he is taking over a UCI in considerably better shape than his predecessor found it.
In a statement released immediately after the vote, Cookson congratulated Lappartient and thanked his team for their “tireless work” in improving the UCI’s standing in world sport.
“The UCI I leave behind is unrecognisable from the organisation I took over in 2013 and I depart with my head held high,” he said.
“Someone needed to stand up and take on the previous regime, who had dragged cycling into the gutter, and I leave the UCI knowing that I have delivered all the promises I made four years ago.
“Our beloved sport of cycling is in a healthier condition than for generations. Our relationships with key stakeholders such as the IOC, WADA, sponsors, race organisers, teams, riders and, most importantly, our fans, is stronger than it has ever been.
“Our work to promote gender equality, our drive to broaden the appeal of our sport and ensure greater opportunities and support for developing nations means that cycling now inspires and excites millions more around the world.”
Acknowledging his “tremendous disappointment” at not being given more time to “complete the work” started four years ago, Cookson said he hoped Lappartient “will continue to move cycling in the right direction”.
He added that he will remain available to “serve my sport in any way I can” and said he will be on his bike at the Manchester velodrome or in the Lancashire hills in the weeks to come.