Brian Cookson is confident he's beating fear factor in UCI's race for the top

British Cycling President believes he is on course to convince voters to unseat McQuaid
  • @RobinScottEllio

"I think," says Brian Cookson in his soft Lancastrian burr, "relations are pretty strained between us, it's fair to say."

Cookson and Pat McQuaid were once friends – not close friends, according to Cookson, but on good terms, having spent years crossing paths as they worked for the sport to which each has dedicated a sizeable chunk of their adult lives. Then Cookson decided he would challenge McQuaid for the presidency of cycling's governing body, the UCI, and everything changed.

The latest barb fired from the 64-year-old Irishman's camp suggested that Cookson, two years McQuaid's junior, was looking to run the presidency as some sort of part-time pipe and slippers role, a kitchen cabinet operation from the former landscape architect's home in the North-west of England. Many elections have been mired with whispers of mysteriously hoarded funds but this is the first Cash in the Attic election.

"To have read some of the bizarre allegations coming up…" says Cookson, shaking his head. "This thing about me running the UCI from a retirement home in Lancashire, watching Cash in the Attic or something, it is just bonkers.

"I am really disappointed with the way things have panned out. I am determined to maintain some dignity and not get involved in this mud-slinging. I haven't engaged in any mud-slinging, but when somebody starts chucking mud at you, then you have to respond, not in kind, but you have to at least give a fair account of yourself."

And Cookson, president of British Cycling since 1996, neatly lands his own blows as he sits in the stands of the Manchester Velodrome, a venue he helped save from closure. There is an obvious message here: this is the house Brian re-built – British cycling has never had it so good – and that stands in stark contrast to the ruins of cycling's global reputation.

Blow one, cycling has been severely damaged during McQuaid's stewardship; blow two, he has run the UCI as almost his own fiefdom, refusing to reveal his salary, and fostering a "fear" among confederations to oppose him; blow three, he has been confrontational and alienated other sporting bodies, most notably the World Anti-Doping Agency.

"My style is not about confrontation," Cookson claims. "My style is about consensus, partnership- building, and in a way that is not aggressive and argumentative and that, I think, has been part of the root of the problem, frankly."

Cookson had not intended to stand but as cycling reeled in the aftermath of the shocking US anti-doping report into Lance Armstrong and nobody came forward to challenge McQuaid, he finally responded to urgings to put his name forward.

"The feedback I get is that [federations] felt, or did think, his position was unassailable. Therefore they didn't want to cause upset or damage any relationship or commitments that UCI have made. I think that's a bit strange in itself. For people to be afraid of who they are going to vote for in a democratic organisation for fear of losing some commitment of resources – that's appalling. People don't need to fear whether they are going to vote for me or not. Absolutely there is fear of people coming out and saying they want to support me and want a change."

Both sides claim to have the support required to win the 22 or more of the 42 votes at the congress a week on Friday. Cookson has the declared support of Europe and Oceania – 17 in total – while the nine Pan-American votes also appear to be largely heading in his direction plus some of the seven from Africa. But, as England's disastrous 2018 World Cup bid discovered, a vote promised is not always a vote delivered.

"I'm confident that I will get a vote that is at least in the high 20s," says Cookson, recently returned from Miami, the latest call on a whistlestop tour that has taken him to Australia and South Africa as well as across Europe. "I'm confident but it's not guaranteed. Elections can be won and lost in the last few days and it's very important that we don't take any of that for granted."

There does appear to be a swell of support for Cookson, although how much of that is a pro-Cookson vote and how much an anyone-but-McQuaid movement is open to debate.

"I am sure there is an element of that but there is a massive appetite for change, there is no doubt about that," he says. "I am the only candidate that's put their head above the parapet. But I think I am more than just the 'not Pat McQuaid' candidate; I have been very clear what my policies are, I have issued my manifesto very early on in the process, so I think people have a good understanding of where I am coming from."

Cookson has promised a prompt independent investigation into allegations of corruption within the governing body, including strongly-denied suggestions that Armstrong's cash was stored in the UCI attic in return for a doping cover-up; he has also pledged to bring independence to the UCI's own doping set-up. In cycling it keeps coming back to doping, and here there is no shortage of mud.

"If I look back at all of the history every time there has been an opportunity for something positive to have been done about doping in cycling it's been fudged," says Cookson. "We got all these scandals that still keep coming back to haunt us. On every occasion when there's been an opportunity to do something about this and a real need to do something about it, the UCI has fudged it and lost the plot."