The UCI Question: Martin Whiteley
December 10th, 2012
If there was one person that could give a well rounded view on the UCI, it would have to be Martin Whiteley, a man who has been involved in the game for almost as long as there’s been one. With a career that started in racing, to then setting up the Australian Mountain Bike Association and then working for the UCI, to running and managing some of the most successful teams and riders the sport has ever seen. He is one of the sports key players, constantly pushing things and with a seemingly uncanny ability to spot up and coming talent and bring success to every project he works on…
His latest success story has to be the Trek World racing team and of course Aaron Gwin, but there is a lot more to Martin Whitely than just that. So here we are, asking the main man about the UCI, Greg Minnaar, Honda DH bikes, Aaron Gwin and everything in between, giving a great insight into not only to the UCI, but also some amazing moments in mountain bike history. This is the first in a series of UCI based articles here on
Words: Tom Shilvock | Photos: Trek World Racing Media Pool & various provided by Martin Whiteley
Factory Jackson: You have a long history in in the world of mountain bikes, from being a racer your self, all the way to being a Team owner of Trek World Racing and an athlete manager at 23 Degrees Racing. In that time you worked for the sports governing body, the UCI – how did that come about and what were they like to work for?
Martin Whiteley:Way back in 1989 I was asked to join the newly formed Mountain Bike Commission the UCI had set up to create rules for the sport, and specifically for the debut World Championships of 1990. They wanted representation from all the regions of the world and as I had founded the Australian Mountain Bike Association, they asked me to be on the Commission representing the Oceania region. After helping to write the initial rule book and continuing to work on the Commission, and officiating at some international events as a Technical Delegate, I was asked by the UCI to come and work for them as the new Mountain Bike Co-ordinator. I was asked at the end of 1994, and took nearly a year to accept. I wanted to see out a complete 10 year term with Cycling Australia as their CEO, so I started with the UCI officially in early 1996.
Did you feel constricted working for them or were they open to ideas?
No, not at all. You have to remember that when I joined the UCI staff, I was employee No. 13. The Sports Department was the largest department. I sat between the Track guy and the BMX guy, and across from the Road Guy and the World Rankings guy. There was one Anti-Doping staff member and a part time lawyer! In fact, we would all go out to lunch at the same time, except for whoever manned reception, and shared ideas and issues. It was a young and dynamic group of administrators. Back in those days I did the job that 4 people do now. I was on the on-site Technical Delegate for Worlds and World Cups, I was the rules and admin guy, I coordinated all the Commission meetings, and I had no secretary like they have now. It was a lot of work, but it was an exciting time. Ideas I introduced still exist today, for example the 80% rule in XC, the Hotseat in DH, the course marking and safety guidelines, and even the 4X qualifying grids. It was great having a blank canvas to work with in those earlier days
At what point did you leave the UCI and what was your favourite memory of working for them?
During the Sydney 2000 Olympics where I was privileged to be the Technical Delegate for MTB, the sport I love, in my home city, for an Olympic Games, well, I knew I could never top that. Five years at the UCI was enough and it was time for new blood and ideas, so as the plane took off from Sydney I wrote my resignation letter, not fully knowing what the future would hold. Being TD in Sydney was a great memory, but also the collaboration with the riders and teams over that 5 years was really important to me, and I thrived on their input and advice and really learned from them. Together we grew the sport in those magical 90’s.
You have run some very successfully teams in the past, do you feel that the experience you gained from working with the UCI helped in setting up those teams and bringing success?
For sure it helped in some way, I mean I got to understand the inner workings of the World Cup, and learn from some of the best Team Managers in the business. Ultimately though, being exposed to that is only one aspect, you still have to have the ambition and organizational skills to pull it off. Global Racing was put together in 10 weeks, which when I look back on it now, I have no idea how that was done. One part foolhardiness, one part bollocks and one part luck.
What were your goals for your first team Global Racing? You had a lot of talent on that team was it hard to get it off the ground and people to invest?
After Greg Minnaar attained his first World Cup podium in Vail, in 2000, we went to dinner and I told him of my idea to put together a team that truly demonstrated that MTB is practiced at a really high level on all 6 inhabited continents. Something road cycling after 100 years could not say. So we sat together and looked at what riders would be the logical choices for each continent. I had previously met with the owner of Arai Mountain, in Japan, where the World Cup had been just before Vail, and had put this idea to him. He was a visionary and loved MTB. He’d agreed in principle to supporting the idea, but wanted a further meeting, which we did…ironically in Vail, in late November during his skiing holiday. We met, made a deal, and then the ball started rolling. Originally we looked at riders like Fabien Barel and David Vazquez as our lead rider, but I had a hard time convincing established riders that this would work. I mean, I had no track record as a team owner, no bike company for factory sponsorship. It was a new model being funded by a benefactor with very different goals. We weren’t selling product, we were selling the sport in 6 continents. I had one investor and the rest of our equipment came from product suppliers who didn’t pay any sponsorship fees. We chose the equipment we wanted to run and went to them for their support. After we signed Missy Giove, a huge name in the sport, the product suppliers were eager to sign on. We weren’t popular with some other teams because we weren’t asking for money from the likes of RockShox, Shimano and Michelin and they felt this was a scary precedent that would upset the typical financial model for teams; but on the other hand, we had yet to prove ourselves and needed to be creative. Greg stepped up to be the lead male rider and at just 19 in our first year he beat Nicolas Vouilloz to win the 2001 World Cup overall, we took 2nd in the Women with Missy, and we won the team title. More than I could ever have imagined, and we were on our way.
How did the Team G-Cross Honda Team come about and how did you get the job as Team Director?
One of our ex-Global Racing riders, Naoki Idegawa who is easily the biggest name in Japanese DH riding these days, became part of the G-Cross Honda project shortly after leaving Global Racing at the end of 2002. They had this bike in development and had started racing in Japan but in 2003 they decided they wanted to take it to the world and race internationally by 2004. When the project leaders asked Naoki who would be the best people for them to work with, he kindly recommended Greg Minnaar and me. They came to Mont-Sainte-Anne in 2003 with their Japanese team, including Naoki, and I was there with a scaled back Global Racing team which I was funding personally. I arranged a dinner where we could all meet, and things went from there.
Honda is such a massive company and I think we all felt a bit honoured that they chose our sport to spend three years in. What were there ideas behind setting up the team and building a bike?
They were with us internationally for 4 years, and too right, I think we should all be grateful for the attention they gave to us. Equally though I know many people were saddened and surprised by their departure. The RN01 project was originally, and in fact mainly, a challenge exercise for their engineers. They have a number of these, some go for a short period of time, and others for longer. Ideas such as Robots and Jet Planes are some examples. Some may have commercial potential, and that was explored for the RN01, and some are just showpieces demonstrating the capabilities of the engineering minds at Honda. The project was definitely pro-longed thanks to Greg and Matti’s success on the bike and the passion that the Honda Racing Corporation has for racing, but in the end, higher powers put a stop to racing, saddening many within the project.
How do you think they perceived the DH World Cup Series and the UCI?
In all my dealings with Japanese businesses and businessmen I don’t find them ever demonstrating strong emotions one way or the other when it comes to political situations they cannot control. The UCI was never a discussion point, but they definitely changed their view on the World Cup. Initially they were adamant that we focus our racing success in America due to Honda’s strong brand presence there, but after reviewing the media interest after our first season, they saw how much more important the World Cup was. It was hard for Greg in 2004. After winning the first World Cup he entered on the RN01, by a big margin at Fort William, he had to miss other rounds while we raced in the US. He never complained though and understood that certain things had to run their course.
You are now the main man behind Trek World Racing which is a registered UCI team, what is the importance/benefits of registering a team with the UCI?
I’m starting to wonder. The original concept of creating a more structured way forward for professional teams and ensuring that certain benefits were delivered by the UCI and organizers in return for our professional presentation and conduct, all made good sense. It’s true that as UCI Elite Teams we receive free entry for our riders in all UCI Calendar events, a certain amount of free space at World Cups to place our Team Set-Ups, and the ability to register our riders directly on-line and not go through National Federations. Our name appears beside our riders in result sheets, we get listed on-line at the UCI website, and we get some priority with registration on site. The cost is around 3500 Euros, and if you add up the free entries and the fee Tech Space, yes, you save some money. In reality though that money is coming out of the organizers bank balance since they no longer get our entries or parking fees. Despite all these offers, the UCI is not winning favour with the teams who generally appreciate some of these benefits (though in reality most feel it should be happening anyway since we collectively are the biggest investors in the sport and bring the stars to the events), but feel completely excluded from key decisions that have a major impact on our businesses.
Trek World Racing was also a XC and DH team in 2012, why have you chosen to concentrate solely on the gravity side of racing in 2013?
Well, it was more of a decision by Trek who looked at what they had in play in international XC racing and decided to consolidate things. Apart from Trek World Racing’s XC program, there was the factory team owned by Trek, that’s Subaru-Trek with Emily Batty and her team mates, and there was the Wild Wolf Trek team based in Spain that was also getting podiums. I feel very proud of what we achieved and at the 2012 XC Worlds we ended up as the number 1 Trade Team, winning a medal of every colour.
Did you find any differences working along side the UCI with a XC team compared to a DH team?
No, not in any major way. I mean there are differences due to Olympic qualifying criteria and all those rules, but I never felt that our XC team got super special attention and the DH team was ignored, nothing like that. I feel both disciplines of my team were dealt with pretty similarly.
A lot of people say that the glory days of a DH World Cup series are behind us. If you were to look around the time of the Grundig world cup there were big outside sponsors, major TV coverage and the pits were alive with big rigs. Do you think we will ever see this happen again or has time moved on?
There are several key factors as to why that was the boom time. Extreme and new sports were taking off in the 1990’s. The World Cup was essentially run by an outside agency and not the UCI Events Department, and that agency was super motivated because the success of the series was do-or-die for them. That agency had super close ties with TV (especially Eurosport) as they had other key properties that TV wanted, like Snowboard World Cup. With the guaranteed TV came the sponsors. I believe the only way for us to return to that type of popularity is for the UCI to finally stand up and admit that their focus is on road when it comes to marketing and they simply do not have the man power or the right people in place to run this internally. The recent departures of Chris Ball, Will Ockleton, and now I’ve stood down from the MTB Commission, are signs that things are not well and that the Marketing Department, in all honesty, has no clue when it comes to MTB. The week that Rocky Roads was announced as the new title sponsor, also happened to be the week of the World Championships in Champery, only 30 mins drive from the UCI Offices. Where was the Marketing Manager? Absent, she chose that weekend to have her wedding because ‘there was nothing else on’. The UCI date for Champery was known more than 1 year in advance, and the Worlds are always on that September weekend. That’s how much the UCI Marketing Manager cares about the discipline that she’d just signed a relatively unknown title sponsor to. To me that speaks volumes. I’m sure Rocky Road’s sponsorship was well intentioned on the part of Rocky Roads, but to me it’s like Table Tennis being sponsored by pingpong.com in that it just makes us look small and introspective as a sport.
Do you think outside sponsors are more willing to sponsor a UCI event compared to a non affiliated UCI event?
That’s hard to say as I haven’t tried selling both in recent times. What motivates a company to sponsor something can vary. There is no question though that an official series under the auspices of a world governing body can give a property some added prestige, but on the other hand, many companies dread dealing with the bureaucracy of a political beast like the UCI. They’d rather deal with a private company that has no political constraints.
As far as sponsors go do you think the sport lost out from not having a race in the USA for so long, Windham certainly seams like a welcome return to racing in the USA?
Well, I just feel that in general we as a sport are losing out by not racing in the US. Most of our teams have one or more sponsors from the US, the consumer market is huge, and the sport has its birth, childhood and adolescence rooted in the US. The fact we have had very few US venues in recent years stems from the fact that organizers are not easy to come by because the World Cup financial model favours venues and cities that can access tourism marketing dollars from local and regional governments. That is not a typical funding source in the US. But finally when we do get a venue that has a willing organizer, like Windham, we should be falling over ourselves to make it happen and not be Eurocentric with our thinking. This was a huge mistake for 2013 and I feel some people in the UCI know that now. They are already intimating that Windham will be back if they want it, in 2014. The UCI should have a salesman knocking on the doors of key owners of ski resorts and mountains in Pan-America and making things happen. We also need to be in Asia and South America.
If you could implement any ideas to the DH World Cup series what would they be?
Essentially I think the rules and format are pretty good now. No real technical changes needed, just a better structure to the season, more American venues and faster steeper courses. I think the steps forward with Red Bull Media House have been solid, but at the end of the day, getting more TV stations to take the footage would be ideal. The UCI should drop the rights fees for TV stations and look more long term and just welcome anyone ready to cover it. Rights fees can come later once the coverage is in demand and there are solid title sponsors. Get UCI Marketing out of the business of MTB and work with an outside agency.
What were your thoughts at the time when the UCI decided to drop 4X, could you see that happening?
I don’t agree with the way it was dropped from the World Cup. I think there were some valid arguments about the lack of growth and the UCI presented some compelling numbers. But when you have teams and riders in multi-year contracts, you need to give more notice out of professional courtesy to those that had built their careers and business models around a UCI property. It’s true that without UCI, 4X would never have existed, but its exit from the World Cup could have been handled better. We as teams were told that the organizers had all agreed that it was too expensive and they all agreed to let it go. This turned out to be a complete falsehood. I regret I wasn’t in a better position to do more on this, but it was presented as a fait de complete.
Do you think the 4X Alliance have done the right thing is setting up the 4X Pro Tour to ensure a future for there sport?
Of course. If there is demand for 4X at that level and the governing body has opted out, why not. The UCI have also blessed this tour and I’m sure they’ll watch it carefully, but as I understand it the number of 4X events registered with the UCI calendar for 2012 was still just a lowly 20 or so, compared to 100’s of XC and other events.
What are your thoughts on the World Cup Eliminator and do you know were the concept came from?
Personally I’m not a fan. It came from the idea of creating an extra ‘inner city’ show to bring crowds out to the often remote locations where XC races are held. We did this in the 1990’s with time trials, relays and short track. Eventually it ran out of steam. The UCI does what it has been doing lately when it needs to push something along they give it rainbow stripes (World Championship status). All that does in my eyes is water down the real original disciplines like Cross Country and Downhill. At one point it was painted to me as a way to get an extra event at the Olympic Games without adding athletes. The existing 50 men and 30 women who were there to race the Cross Country could also enter a second event. Look at swimming, some of those athletes have 8 events or more, with some being less prized than others. At that point I saw the logic. But then it was said to me that they were trying to develop a new breed of MTB star, the sprinter. That’s when they lost me. Marathon, Dual and 4X have all had World Cup status and now that’s gone. Now they want to turn a side event into a World Title and World Cup, I just don’t see it having the legs and being around in 10 years. Hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see it.
Along with running the Trek World Racing team you also run 23 Degrees which is a sports management company. You look after a lot of talented successful riders. In managing them do you talk about the UCI and how to work together?
No, not really. I just ensure that our contracts with them ensure they follow the relevant rules and anti-doping practices. I also ensure that they sign onto a team that is UCI registered as it provides the client with more protection should their team eventually try to screw them over.
Chris Ball has just announced the Enduro Mountain Bike Association and the Enduro World series. Do you think that the Enduro discipline could take off?
I think it has already. The industry, media and many riders are paying a lot of attention to it. There will come the day however where the potential to cross the line arises. By that I mean it’s inevitable that something that starts out as a relatively organic participation based sport has the potential of losing its innocence once World Titles are offered, TV gets involved etc. I may be wrong and I know Chris Ball is extremely capable of treading that line, but at some point there will be tough decisions to be made on what makes Enduro successful and where it needs to go in the future. For now though I’m enjoying watching the emergence of the 2013 Enduro World Series and seeing how the next season pans out.
Why do you think the UCI pulled out of the Enduro series?
I don’t think pulled out is the right expression. They simply didn’t pick it up. On one hand some people tell me that it was presented as so far down the line and ready to go, they didn’t have a chance to really evaluate it and what the implications on National Federations, calendars, licensing or whatever. On the other hand, and I tend to believe this more, it simply got pushed off the agenda of the UCI Management Committee’s September meeting because they had too much other stuff going on, you know, Lance Armstrong and his exploits. Either way, it’s a huge missed opportunity but as I read it, there is always the chance that something can be done in 2014.
Would you ever think about adding an enduro rider to the Trek World Racing team or does it not interest you as it won’t be a UCI event?
Doesn’t have to be UCI for us to get interested. We are for sure considering an Enduro rider. We’re excited about the direction of Enduro.
Do you think that the future of our sport might be going in the direction of individual associations for a given discipline, for them to set up their own series and rules but still governed by the UCI for points and insurance?
Not as you describe it. The UCI won’t give up ownership like that. One thing that has to be remembered despite all the hate that MTB forums lump onto the UCI is that without the UCI there would have been no World Cup or World Championships, the two properties that all of us are mostly invested in and that the fans like the most. The UCI loses a lot of money on the MTB discipline each year. The profits it makes from Road it shares among the other disciplines. If MTB was run at the UCI as a stand-alone entity trying to survive on its own income, it would be dead. So for a new association to start and run things for MTB gravity, away from UCI, it would need a sugar daddy with a massive wallet and a longer life expectancy than a few years. Right now MTB doesn’t pay for itself at the international level.
Do you think DH will ever break away from the UCI?
Not right now, but you never know. If things keep going the way they are with the UCI having a dominance of staffing in the Anti-Doping and Legal Departments, a shrinking Sports Department and a clueless Marketing Department, the incentives to invent a new model will rise. Personally I love the tradition of the World Cup, 20 years in the making, but what saddens me is the people at the helm of the organization who just don’t get that heritage. When it was 100 World Cups of DH, did the UCI celebrate that? No. It was me contacting Fort William to let them know and then they made a big deal of it. Did the UCI celebrate the 20 year anniversary of World Cup racing in 2011? No. Now the UCI want to get rid of 5 rider podiums which have been the tradition of our sport since 1994. Why? Because it bothers them that it’s not 3 like other sports. Instead of focusing on things that really need to get fixed in our sport, they’re opting to pick a fight with those that invest personally in the sport and who love the traditions of it. These are the type of issues that push people like me to try and find a way out from the UCI’s control of our sport.
What does the future hold for Trek World Racing, any new riders for 2013?
The future is bright for sure, and yes, there will be a line-up change. We’ll announce that in good time…
I would like to thank Martin Whiteley for taking part in this interview. His answers have given a great insight into the UCI. One of the biggest things that stood out for me was that yes I am right in thinking that they are a road biased organisation but they use that wealth of the road to help fund the mountain bike side of things. I also get the impression that the UCI are not all bad and a very useful tool but there weakness is in how they market MTB. If that could be changed then the future for MTB could be even bigger.
Has this interview changed your opinion on the UCI and where do you see the future of our sport going?
Keep you eye on Factory Jackson for more interviews on this topic in the future.