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Brian Cookson pens outspoken critique of British Cycling at "crisis point" thanks to people "with no real knowledge" of cycling

"I'm not going to beat about the bush. It's time for straight talking," former UCI and British Cycling president writes in start-of-year blog...

Former president Brian Cookson has pulled no punches in a start-of-2023 blog, saying British Cycling is "clearly at a crisis point" thanks to damage by people with "no real knowledge or commitment to the sport".

The blog post, published on his own website, titled 'Some thoughts on British Cycling at the start of 2023' appropriately begins: "Let's get straight to the point," before addressing the fact "many members" feel their governing body is "failing its membership, and failing the sport".

Cookson — who served 17 years as British Cycling's president and chair of the board between 1996 and 2013 before taking the top job at the UCI until 2017 — stressed that he is "happily retired" and hopes only to "stimulate debate and discussion" but "will not stand by" while the organisation is "damaged, diminished or destroyed".

Saying it is "time for straight talking", Cookson believes the situation "can be fixed" but cited failing membership targets, hiring a third CEO in less than six years, involvement of recruitment consultants, a "multi-rooted crisis of confidence in the organisation", various controversies — including Shell's partnership, transgender policies, advice not to ride on the day of the Queen's funeral — and a "brain drain" hollowing-out of the organisation since 2016 as evidence of its decline.

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"What has happened that has led to all this senior staff turnover, and why?" Cookson asks. "Let's look at this a little more closely. I'm not going to beat about the bush. It's time for straight talking.

"The problem, in my view, starts at the top. The widespread view, which I share, is that British Cycling has been damaged by people who have been parachuted into the organisation with no real knowledge of, or commitment to, the sport and pastime, and have no empathy with the people who participate and make cycling happen.

"British Cycling is clearly at a crisis point. Of course all sports have taken a hit from Covid and the cost of living crisis, but membership numbers are a good indicator — in British Cycling's current strategy, the target is to grow from 150,000 members in 2021 to 250,000 by the end of 2024.

"Currently, in fact, numbers are about two per cent down on the baseline at the start of 2022. To gain 100,000 members in two years is going to be a huge challenge, so the organisation is going to have to be absolutely fit for purpose in every respect. Plus the strategy and prioritisation of the organisation needs to be targeted in the right places.

"Once again, right now, British Cycling is hiring a new chief executive officer, the top paid official of the national governing body. This one will be the third in less than six years – quite some turnover in this important position, given that the previous three CEOs served a total of 28 years!

"Apparently the shortlisting has been carried out – by recruitment consultants – and an interview panel has been established. I say 'apparently' because all of this is being carried out in confidence and, as I no longer hold any position in British Cycling other than past president, I am not privy to any inside information on this, or indeed any other aspect of what goes on in the governance or management of the organisation these days.

"The main challenge that the new chief executive, whoever he or she may be, will have to face is how to deal with this multi-rooted crisis of confidence in the organisation.

"A crisis that has developed over time and is now abundantly clear to many, inside and outside of the organisation. And this is why the interview panel of the board of British Cycling, who will no doubt be advised by key stakeholders like UK Sport and Sport England, must ensure that the right person is appointed."

"A number of controversies"

Cookson goes on to mention the various controversies that brought British Cycling widespread criticism in 2022.

"You will probably be aware that there have been a number of controversies over recent months," he continues. "Including, but not limited to, Shell sponsorship, transgender policies, advice not to ride on the day of the Queen's funeral, and so on. I'm not here expressing an opinion on any of those specifically, what is concerning me is how and why these and other controversies arose and how they have been handled.  

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"Further issues have clearly arisen in the last few weeks within and between British Cycling's governance and senior management. First there was the departure (after less than two years) of the CEO Brian Facer.

"Then it was announced that the interim CEO, Danielle Every, is also to leave the organisation in Spring 2023. Dani has held the position of cycling delivery director for four years, itself obviously a key critical position in the organisation, so she will also be a huge loss. 

"There are also rumours of further imminent departures from the organisation. In the last year or so, BC will have parted company with a finance director, a company secretary, a CEO, and a delivery director/acting CEO. Almost a full house of the executive leadership team!

"To that number, in the last four years of the current chair's tenure, can also be added a corporate services director, a commercial director, a cycle sport director, and of course the last-but-one CEO, Julie Harrington. 

"Of course, organisations need to renew from time to time, people move on in their careers and so on, but this is a rather worrying trend, I think you'll agree.

"The last year or so has also seen the departure of several of the most senior and experienced coaching staff from within the Great Britain Cycling Team element of the organisation. 

"Successes have continued on the world stage, which is reassuring, but the key element here is that the pathways that identify, support and develop talented young athletes must be continually maintained and refreshed. That will need major continuing investment and sound management support."

"Hollowing-out of the organisation since 2016"

Promising to not "beat about the bush", Cookson blames the "continued 'brain drain' and hollowing-out of the organisation since 2016" as "little short of disastrous" and says the impact is "clearly beginning to show".

"For instance," he explains. "In the dramatic fall in the number of cycling events scheduled for 2023, which I understand is 28 per cent down on 2022, across all disciplines.

"These events are of course largely organised by volunteers in cycling clubs of all types around the country, and it is here where the demoralisation of those people and their commitment to British Cycling is most obviously and seriously failing. Add to that, of course, the disruption that all these management changes in culture, strategy, objectives, etc, have undoubtedly caused to staff morale."

Blaming those "at the top" without knowledge or commitment to the sport, Cookson suggests the constitutional changes that were "in effect forced on British Cycling by UK Sport and Sport England" in 2016 are the root cause.

"Of course those bodies have a duty to ensure that the huge amounts of funding they continue to channel into British Cycling are properly handled," he admits. "And I welcome their involvement, now and in the past. The huge amounts of Lottery and other funding have helped to transform the organisation and bring about its successes.

"But, after 2016, in order to continue to receive that funding, British Cycling had to accept certain changes, in line with the then newly-introduced UK Governance Code for Sport.

"There is a lot of good stuff in that Code. It was needed, not just for cycling but for all sports. But there is one element that has, in part, contributed to the problems noted above, in my view. Despite it not being a mandatory requirement, those bodies nevertheless insisted upon an unelected appointed independent chair of the board.

"This was alongside the mandatory requirement for a number of unelected appointed independent directors, together with a cohort of directors elected (via various routes) by the members.

"In theory, the numbers still favour the elected board members, but it seems clear that the end result is that the board has been, in effect, dominated by the unelected independent chair and those unelected independent directors.

"I have no problem with bringing in outside expertise at board level. On the contrary, I welcome it and it is something we began in my time as president and chair of the board.

"The root of the problem, in my view, is that with an unelected independent chair at the head of the organisation, the balance of power has shifted too far away from those people who have a total commitment to the sport and pastime that they are governing. That factor is at the heart of the damaging situation that we now face."

What can be done?

But how to fix it? Cookson suggests there are "two vital factors" that "must now be addressed as a matter of urgency".

"As noted above, the closing date for the recruitment of the new CEO passed recently. As it happens, I am aware in confidence of a number of potentially excellent candidates who, alongside the other necessary qualifications and experience, have a good background in, and understanding of, the sport and pastime of cycling – something that has been conspicuously lacking from recent senior appointments.

"The single most important thing that the current board, supported and advised by UK Sport, Sport England and their recruitment consultants, could do at this point is to ensure that the new CEO is someone who can fully demonstrate that element of their capabilities. 

"With the challenges they will face, it is clear that the overall strategy and the prioritisation of investment of financial and human resources into the sport needs to be targeted in the right places. To achieve that, they will have to have a strong empathy for the sport and pastime.

"And this leads me directly to the second vital factor. The position of chair of the board must revert from an appointed independent position to an elected position. The board needs to be led, as it has been for most of the 63 years of its existence, by a person elected from within the ranks of the people who make the sport and pastime happen – the members.

"That way there would again be direct accountability for the leader of the governance of the organisation, to those members.

"British Cycling's structure at the moment is closer to a quango than it is to the democratic membership organisation that it had been until 2016. Changing the status of the chair of the board to an elected position would be a key improvement in that situation.

"It could be done, with the correct preparation and procedure through an emergency general meeting. And it wouldn't mean that British Cycling was non-compliant with the UK Governance Code for Sport, because an appointed independent chair is not a mandatory requirement anyway.

"This is a critical moment in the history of British Cycling. Morale of volunteers, members, and indeed the many excellent staff who are still in post, needs to be hugely improved and strengthened at this difficult time.

"I am sure that this also applies to the riders on the Olympic and Paralympic elite and development programmes, where our future Olympic, Paralympic and World Championship successes will come from. 

"There are other important issues which need attention, I have views about them too of course, and plan to write more in the coming weeks, but these two factors are key.

"In writing and publishing this blog, I am hoping to stimulate debate and discussion. I hope everyone who reads this understands the seriousness of the situation and can help do something about it."

Dan joined road.cc in 2020, and spent most of his first year (hopefully) keeping you entertained on the live blog. At the start of 2022 he took on the role of news editor. Before joining road.cc, Dan wrote about various sports, including football and boxing for the Daily Express, and covered the weird and wonderful world of non-league football for The Non-League Paper. Part of the generation inspired by the 2012 Olympics, Dan has been 'enjoying' life on two wheels ever since and spends his weekends making bonk-induced trips to the petrol stations of the south of England.

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19 comments

Avatar
Biker Phil | 11 months ago
5 likes

Brian Cookson talks a hell of a lot of sense, and has the experience and knowledge to back up his comments. He did a hell of a lot for cycling in the UK, world, and here in Lancashire. The sport would be a lot poorer without him.

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Doctor Fegg | 11 months ago
9 likes

"the ranks of the people who make the sport and pastime happen"

And here's part of the problem.

British Cycling should concentrate on the sport, not the pastime. Its attempts to get into leisure and utility cycling are risible and inevitably lead to nonsense like "don't ride during the Queen's funeral".

Cycling UK, Sustrans, and local campaigns like London and Cambridge do everyday cycling just fine. British Cycling should stick to the knitting and recruit a CEO who knows about sport, rather than trying to get a jack-of-all-trades and satisfying no one.

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LeadenSkies replied to Doctor Fegg | 11 months ago
6 likes

Exactly this. I joined BC as a leisure cyclist, with no interest beyond that of occasional spectator in the competitive side, because BC make out they are invested in that sector but they aren't really. My opinion after a few years as a member, now ex since the Shell debacle, is they are invested in the extra income that members from the leisure cycling and noncompetitive cycling sectors would give them but they only ever intend to do the absolute minimum required for that. They should be more transparent about who they really cater for and allow other better placed organisations to campaign and cater for the leisure and utility sector.

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Flintshire Boy replied to LeadenSkies | 11 months ago
2 likes

.

Agreed. Apart from the then CEO's condescending response to an email from me, I left 'cos they had basically nothing within 100 miles for someone like me - i.e. a leisure cyclist.

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hawkinspeter replied to Doctor Fegg | 11 months ago
9 likes

Doctor Fegg wrote:

"the ranks of the people who make the sport and pastime happen"

And here's part of the problem.

British Cycling should concentrate on the sport, not the pastime. Its attempts to get into leisure and utility cycling are risible and inevitably lead to nonsense like "don't ride during the Queen's funeral".

Cycling UK, Sustrans, and local campaigns like London and Cambridge do everyday cycling just fine. British Cycling should stick to the knitting and recruit a CEO who knows about sport, rather than trying to get a jack-of-all-trades and satisfying no one.

Totally agree.

I'm a member of Cycling UK as I'm not interested in the sports side of riding and most of the time, it's embarrassing hearing the various announcements of British Cycling. It makes far more sense to have one organisation focus on the sport and one to focus on everyday riders. Even if British Cycling got their commuting act together, it would still have the effect of reducing the clout of Cycling UK who invariably have a very sensible and informed view on cycling matters. (Similarly, Cycling UK shouldn't get involved in the sports side either)

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Secret_squirrel replied to hawkinspeter | 11 months ago
5 likes

Another agree here. Joined BC realised they had no interest in recreational cycling so moved to CUK. 
A gain of 100k subscribers not only confuses their purpose it shows they haven't given any though to why they need those people apart from extracting funds from them. 

Avatar
Awavey replied to Secret_squirrel | 11 months ago
1 like

I think it belies a focus on a commercial strategy thats not cycling based, its business based, and theyre talking about doubling the membership base, which took most its history to get to 100,000 in the first place, so its a dumb strategy.

but Im still happy to be a BC member, theyve shown more interest with things like the Breeze rides locally to me than Cycling UK have ever done.

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eburtthebike replied to Doctor Fegg | 11 months ago
4 likes

A big part of the problem that BC is a sports body not a utility/leisure organisation and not capable of dealing with those aspects, is that they were given a lot of money by the government some time ago, to grow utility/leisure cycling.  CUK, or CTC as it was then, didn't get the money because they'd ruffled far too many government feathers, so they gave the money to the nice, placid organisation that didn't make waves; the fact that BC had no idea what to do or how to do it was no barrier to getting lots of money from the government to do it.  Sound familiar?

So it's not just BC's fault, they were ably assisted by our lords and masters, who didn't really care who the money went to, as long as they could say it was spent on encouraging cycling.

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Awavey replied to eburtthebike | 11 months ago
2 likes

the whole purpose of government funding of sports is to grow utility/leisure fitness as an activity to the population through sporting success & achievement, its not about how many gold medals or world champions go in the record books, its specifically about getting couch potatoes inspired to move and adopt a healthier lifestyle by following their heroes who have attained success.

thats the role BC have and whilst you can argue they werent terribly functional when they received the funding even on the pure sporting side, and its a bit of an awkward position to adopt across all of cycling, thats the circle they have to square.

CyclingUK will never be that organisation, not because they ruffle governments feathers, but because they do not have, except when randomly complaining about Strava or following whatever the latest social media spat is, that ability to connect with the wider population at large through media exposure of their activities, most of which barely gets reported outside of their own inner circle.

walk on to the eponymous Clapham omnibus and ask which organisation anyone has heard of on it,and BC will get far more name checks than Cycling UK.

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eburtthebike replied to Awavey | 11 months ago
1 like

Awavey wrote:

CyclingUK will never be that organisation, not because they ruffle governments feathers, but because they do not have, except when randomly complaining about Strava or following whatever the latest social media spat is, that ability to connect with the wider population at large through media exposure of their activities, most of which barely gets reported outside of their own inner circle.

Maybe that's because BC got all the money, a lot of which was spent on advertising.  Until then, I'd guess BC had significantly less public recognition than CTC and if CTC had got the money, they would have had a much higher public recognition too.  Lots of people still think that Sustrans is a cycling organisation because they got the lottery money all those years ago.

The fact remains; BC is woefully ignorant about leisure/utility cycling, and that is where we need change; we need people to swap leisure/utility driving for cycling.  I can't imagine sports drivers swapping to sports cycling in any numbers and it wouldn't matter much if they did.

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Tom_77 replied to Doctor Fegg | 11 months ago
5 likes

Same for me. Had British Cycling "commute" membership, ditched it in favour of Cycling UK. As someone who doesn't race, I felt Cycling UK were doing a much better job representing my interests.

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Awavey | 11 months ago
1 like

interesting piece,hard to find anything to disagree with what he says there, though I still think the Queens funeral advice was just misguided, not evidence of the wider more serious issues & breakdowns within the organisation.

the depressing thing I guess is it just documents the problem, theres no guarantee even with a newly appointed CEO with the depth of experience and passion for cycling he suggests is among some of the candidates, anything will change.

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Legin replied to Awavey | 11 months ago
6 likes

I don't agree "The Queens Funeral" advice was an example of an organisation that has lost its way. They are the governing body of cycle sport in the UK yet had not planned how to deal with the passing of the Monarch (an inevitable event, as will be the passing of King Charles). The result was knee jerk policy, that embarrassed the organisation and annoyed the membership. As a minimum it was sloppy, it smells more like incompetence!

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Awavey replied to Legin | 11 months ago
0 likes

well ime those kinds of decisions are the result of cock up, not conspiracy, their plan to deal with the passing of the Queen was to suspend all officially sanctioned events,races, rides & activities.

but as BC members then began querying them if they could still ride on the day of the funeral,which they probably hadnt thought about previously, they mistakenly felt they need to take somekind of official position on it.

so extended it to all cycling activity, they got it wrong, apologised for it and we move on, but people like to make drama, especially on the socials, out of minor things and so it gets lumped into things which are far more the result of a disfunctioning governing body.

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Legin replied to Awavey | 11 months ago
1 like

Awavey wrote:

well ime those kinds of decisions are the result of cock up, not conspiracy, their plan to deal with the passing of the Queen was to suspend all officially sanctioned events,races, rides & activities.

They did not have a plan, nothing, zero, in a country where the head of state was a nonagenarian Queen, they had made no plans for her passing. All decisions were made on the hoof, hence the cock-up.

In my view that is incompetent.

This isn't supposed to be some mickey mouse organisation, this is the Governing body that represents UK Cycling globally and as a long standing member I would expect them to have had a plan, most competent organisations did. 

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OnYerBike replied to Legin | 11 months ago
1 like

I get the impression that many organisations were caught slightly unprepared by the extent of the pressure to carry out "performative mourning".

I don't know to what extent BC did or did not have a plan, but any plan made in advance could have understandably focused on actual foreseeable impacts - e.g. changing the route or postponing of events that might conflict with funereal processions.

But they might not have imagined cancelling anything and everything that might be deemed "fun" as being inappropriate, and yet that seems to have been the zeitgeist and BC felt the need to conform.  

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Legin replied to OnYerBike | 11 months ago
1 like

OnYerBike wrote:

I get the impression that many organisations were caught slightly unprepared by the extent of the pressure to carry out "performative mourning".

I don't know to what extent BC did or did not have a plan, but any plan made in advance could have understandably focused on actual foreseeable impacts - e.g. changing the route or postponing of events that might conflict with funereal processions.

But they might not have imagined cancelling anything and everything that might be deemed "fun" as being inappropriate, and yet that seems to have been the zeitgeist and BC felt the need to conform.  

I understand the argument, but there was always going to be a period of mourning for the Head of State, most competent organisations had a plan on how to deal with that and implemented it.

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Awavey replied to OnYerBike | 11 months ago
2 likes

Id agree thats exactly how that situation developed, remember you had the football authorities postponing football games right down to grassroots level, so even kids werent allowed to play in organised games as some kind of national mourning period, so Im not surprised BC (who did have a plan it just didnt include the best not to go ride on the day of the funeral part) sort of flinched and did a we cant be seen to promote people having fun at this time, and need to show we do the right thing.

that kind of mistake is made under the best organisations and leaders, the difference is its not then held up as a permanent blame game against them in those organisations, whereas badly run organisations people like to build it up as a piece in their little blame puzzles.

not recognising signing up with a major petrochemical sponsor is a sign of bad leadership, providing mistaken advice for something no-one under the age of 70 had ever experienced before is a completely different kettle of fish.

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AlsoSomniloquism replied to Awavey | 11 months ago
1 like

I agree. You also have to look that the Footballing authorites canned the football games "in respect", but Rugby and Cricket carried on their sporting calender "in respect". I'm guessing the decisions were not fully planned on either side, but the football, like the ToB, needed additional Police presence which was suddenly not allowed. (Why was every single Police person suddenly recalled from leave? Did the authorities think there would be mass riots?)

I don't blame any organisations for not having a full planned out "What to do" for an event which hadn't happened in 70 plus years and with now having a modern, connected and less Royalist society. I was shocked about the queue size and length for example. I know plenty of people who stated "I'm not a fan of the royal family but I will watch the funeral" and then watched it crying.

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