Team Sky, Chris Froome, fighting doping and doling out diplomacy: UCI president David Lappartient’s rocky start

Lawrence Ostlere
David Lappartient’s tenure has been hamstrung from the start: Getty Images

Emblazoned on the brochure which set out David Lappartient’s bid to become president of world cycling, there was an image of the 44-year-old wearing a crisp suit and polished shoes, riding a bike around a velodrome. Perhaps it was just the awkward scene, looking like a dad on a skateboard, which provoked his forced smile, his uncomfortable hunch, but it has become his default body language ever since taking charge of the troubled sport.

Six months have passed since Lappartient won the UCI’s election, ousting his rival Brian Cookson. We now know the Frenchman was served something of a hospital pass, which he gainfully caught only to have the wind knocked out of him, several times, and he is still trying to catch his breath.

His tenure has been interrupted by controversies, big and small, old and new, gently pummelling him while he works. The first blow was almost immediate: we don’t know exactly when Lappartient was informed of Chris Froome’s adverse sample for the asthma drug Salbutamol, but it was probably around his election night, a grave whisper in the ear shortly after popping the champagne.

The Froome case has run like a murky stream through Lappartient’s tenure, and as the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France approach, Lappartient’s "disaster" scenario of Froome taking to the start line of a grand tour under the threat of a potential ban seems inevitable.

Two weeks after the election, another controversy surfaced. On an anonymous tip-off, French police stopped a 43-year-old amateur cyclist racing on the streets of Perigueux in the Dordogne, and discovered a rudimentary motor connected to his bike, the first time one had ever been seized in a race in France.

Lappartient is constantly answering cycling’s critics (AFP/Getty)

The cheat, Cyrile Fontaine, later ominously told a French radio station: “I’m not the only one doing it.” There were also serious allegations made against retired Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara in a book which claimed he used a motor during his career – something he denies. It intensified the spotlight on Lappartient’s key election pledge to tackle mechanical doping, and the following day he hastily announced the appointment of his new commissioner specifically tasked with taking on the problem.

Then, in November, came a minor diplomatic incident when organisers of the Giro d’Italia giddily announced the 2018 race would begin in Israel, labelling the first stage ‘West Jerusalem’. The term angered the Israeli government and forced an embarrassing climbdown. Lappartient stayed quiet on the matter but presumably followed it closely with his head in his hands.

And then there was the British government’s damning report on Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, which brought Lappartient out to face a difficult interview with the BBC.

The irony was that although the seasoned election winner and political maneuverer gave frank and honest answers, his attempts to show strength in condemning Team Sky only served to highlight his own limited powers to intervene or speed up Froome’s case, or do much other than launch another investigation into Wiggins and Team Sky. There he was again, crisp suit and polished shoes, a forced smile, an uncomfortable hunch.

It is not all doom and gloom and there are some promising signs from cycling’s new leadership: Lappartient on Wednesday unveiled new technology to tackle mechanical doping. But he has been hamstrung from the start by the legacy he inherited. Four years ago, Cookson was supposed to be a breath of fresh air after Pat McQuaid’s toxic era, but he was always too close to Team Sky and became tarred by British Cycling’s bullying scandal, departing under a cloud as the only president to have served just one term.

Lappartient was supposed to bring change too, but instead he has been caught in a twisted take on Team Sky’s old mantra: when all the little things run in one direction it becomes impossible to stem the flow. For better or worse, he has three and a half years to try.