Derek Bouchard-Hall was in trouble. He hadn’t trained and admitted he didn’t even know all the rules. He was far behind as he pulled into the pits. But those weren’t even his biggest issues. It was the doughnuts that were really giving him problems.
The new president and CEO of Colorado Springs–based USA Cycling, bike racing’s governing body in the United States, Bouchard-Hall was informally presiding over the 2016 National Cyclocross Championships last January by entering the doughnut race charity event, which is exactly what it sounds like: Racers do circuits and can pad their lap counts by chowing Homer Simpson’s favorite breakfast treat. Forty-five-year-old Bouchard-Hall is a talented cyclist and has two national championships to his name—but doughnuts can slow even the most gifted athletes.
As a camera-wielding journalist peppered him with questions in the pits, Bouchard-Hall gave a mock groan as he stalled out on a glazed round. “I’m doing well on the riding,” he said between labored bites. “The doughnut eating, I…I don’t have it. My competition is killing me.”
“Do you feel like this race is too loosely regulated?” his interviewer asked in jest. “Should there be stricter enforcement?”
“Yeah, some people were out of the pits after having their two doughnuts…just too fast,” Bouchard-Hall replied with a shake of his head. “I just don’t think you can do that naturally.”
For anyone who’s followed bike racing over the past 20 years or so, the subtext of Bouchard-Hall’s joke would have been instantly clear. In the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal (and many others), pro cycling’s past hangs over the present and future of the sport at all levels. Anywhere you look in cycling today, you’ll find people—from mechanics to coaches to team managers to television commentators to officials at the highest level—who’ve seen, and done, things they’d rather forget, or at least rather not talk about. People with that kind of past don’t joke about doping.
Although Bouchard-Hall raced professionally at one of the worst times for the sport, he is not of that time. He’s baggage-free in a sport that’s got enough of it to fill the newly covered velodrome in Colorado Springs. When Bouchard-Hall got the job as CEO, much was made of his racing history and his noteworthy business career; even more was made of the fact that he managed to escape cycling’s doping era without being tainted by it. There are very few people in the American cycling community better qualified for the job of running the governing body for bike racing in the United States. But there are even fewer people in that circle who can make that joke without nervously glancing over their shoulders, and that might be Bouchard-Hall’s best qualification of all.
When Bouchard-Hall was named CEO in April 2015, the news was greeted with something approaching universal approval and excitement by the American bike-racing community. That wasn’t a huge surprise: Almost anyone would have been good for an organization whose favorability seems to rank somewhere between that of Congress and the ultra-low-cost incarnation of Frontier Airlines. “We were not a beloved organization that is seen as a force of good,” Bouchard-Hall says.
USA Cycling essentially runs bike racing in America in almost all its forms and at all levels, from developing Olympic-caliber track riders to licensing amateur racers to issuing permits for races to officiating hundreds of local events. The organization has existed in its present form only since 1995, but vestigial versions of it date to the 1920s, when bike racing in America was as big as baseball and Madison Square Garden hosted sold-out six-day track races. Its more recent history, though, is far from those glories. In the wake of Lance Armstrong’s admission that he doped for all seven of his Tour de France wins, the organization, and chiefly then CEO Steve Johnson, had to defend itself against accusations that it had been far too cozy with Armstrong and his cohort during the boom years. That included a regrettable episode during which USA Cycling appeared to try to undercut the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation that ultimately brought down Armstrong.
In truth, the crumbling of the Armstrong era exposed deeper, more foundational problems at USA Cycling: It was less financially stable than it had been and was seen by a growing number of its own rank-and-file members as arrogant, inept, and focused on headline-making elite events like the Olympics at the expense of its constituency of 60,000-odd amateur racers. By December 2014, it was clear USA Cycling needed major changes, and the organization announced Johnson would retire.
At various points, USA Cycling has been so disliked that at least two local associations, the state-based member bodies that run and organize local racing, split off entirely. One was the Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado, which broke ranks in 1999 and came back in 2011 only after a closely divided member vote. Other race promoters and even whole organizations simply ignore USA Cycling altogether.
For all of his qualifications for the job, Bouchard-Hall might have had the least traditional path to it. He grew up in Norton, Massachusetts, outside of Boston and mostly played ball sports as a kid, sometimes at an all-state level. “I did well in school, but sports were my passion,” he says. Bouchard-Hall focused on running and found he had the aerobic engine for the sport, but a foot injury right before his freshman year at Princeton forced him onto the bike for rehab. “I had every intention to go back to running, but cycling had the training and hard effort and added the dimensions of the speed and tactics. I fell in love with it.”
Bouchard-Hall’s journey to the pros was different than those of many other young racers, mostly because cycling was for years a sidebar to his academic career. An undergrad degree at Princeton led to a master’s program in structural engineering at Stanford. “The rest of us are scraggly bike racers, sleeping in vans, and Derek is off going to Stanford and racing his bike every once in a while,” says Jonathan Vaughters, an ex-pro who raced domestically against Bouchard-Hall and is now the CEO of the Boulder-based men’s Cannondale Pro Cycling Team, one of 18 teams at the sport’s top level.
After completing his master’s at Stanford in 1994, Bouchard-Hall faced a choice: He had a job offer, but he also had interest from a top amateur team. “I never saw cycling as a career possibility,” he says. “But I said, ‘I gotta give this a try.’ So I delayed the job, thinking I’d do it for a summer.” One season led to another, and after a couple of years he was earning enough to race full time.
A powerful sprinter who excelled on the velodrome, Bouchard-Hall won two national championships, one on the track in a team discipline and another on the road in criterium, the short-course format popular in the United States. He raced at the Sydney Olympics in the team pursuit (the team finished 10th). And he even signed a pro road contract in 1999 with Mercury, an American team, with whom he would enter top-tier races like Paris–Roubaix, the fearsome French race that takes place partly on cobblestone roads.
But a medical issue called iliac artery endofibrosis, which reduced blood supply to one of his legs and affected his power output, required surgery before the 2000 Olympics. After a comeback season that year, the issue reappeared in 2001. Sensing
the end, Bouchard-Hall retired. But the former cyclist had a problem: He didn’t want to be an engineer anymore.
So began the third and final installment of Bouchard-Hall’s educational trifecta: He joined Harvard’s MBA program. “In cycling I saw people who built and managed organizations, and that was a cool idea for me,” he says. “And quite honestly, an MBA was also broadly applicable and gave me a year and a half to think through my options.” After graduating, he worked for Ernst & Young and McKinsey & Company. Then he bounced around a bit before taking a job running international operations for Wiggle, an online cycling and triathlon retailer with more than $250 million a year in sales worldwide.
When he was at Wiggle, Bouchard-Hall caught USA Cycling’s eye. Bob Stapleton, a former telecom entrepreneur who is now chairman of USA Cycling’s board, says his goal for the organization is to “be a force for progress and positive change in the sport,” adding, “I don’t think USA Cycling has ever had that aspiration.” That meant finding the kind of person who could lead that transformation. “I didn’t want a bureaucrat,” Stapleton says. “I wanted someone from an entrepreneurial background to run the business, not administer it.”
The sum of USA Cycling’s challenges make Bouchard-Hall perhaps the ideal person to turn things around. He has the business experience, and he listens. His email address is public, and he invites feedback—and personally responds to every comment he gets. “Derek has an odd combo of a clinical analytical view and a deep personal desire to make things better,” Stapleton says. And perhaps most critical in this era is the fact that he has zero ties to doping. For more than two decades, doping was so pervasive in cycling that almost anyone in the sport during that time was, and is, tarnished by it. Not Bouchard-Hall. Because he was a late bloomer; because he raced only fleetingly in Europe, where the problem was most deep-seated; and crucially, because he had an education that gave him options not available to many other racers, Bouchard-Hall says he was almost never tempted by doping and was never even approached with an offer. “I think people knew I was not that kind of guy,” he says.
Bouchard-Hall speaks with a quiet, focused anger as he describes competing against riders he knew were on drugs. “You had to be happy just participating,” Bouchard-Hall says. “I regret that I had to compete in that period.” He pledges that “no one will question [USA Cycling’s] intention” on fighting doping. “The only question is: Can we do it?”
Which raises what may be the most pressing concern of Bouchard-Hall’s tenure. If his challenges were limited to fixing how USA Cycling balances its Olympic dreams with serving the needs of junior and veteran racers, that would be a big enough task. But he takes over at a time when public trust in sports institutions is low. Fans see how the NFL has botched everything from concerns over head injuries to its handling of domestic violence issues. International soccer is reeling from this past summer’s indictments of longtime senior officials on corruption charges. And track and field’s international governing body is struggling to contain the damage from ongoing revelations about systemic doping in Russia.
Bouchard-Hall has a window of opportunity to promote change, and he has, for now, almost universal support and goodwill for his efforts. But he knows that opportunity is fleeting; a similar revolution more than two years ago, which resulted in the election of a new president for the International Cycling Union, saw a flurry of promising early reform that has since begun to stall in the headwind of entrenched interests and infighting.
The enormity of his challenge is laid bare when I ask him: What organizations does he look to as models? Who out there is doing what he wants to do, the way he wants to do it? After fumbling around for a few moments, he says that there are only a couple. Bouchard-Hall is well-acquainted with winning. But if USA Cycling is going to transform from a maligned governing body into Stapleton’s force for cycling good, it might be Bouchard-Hall’s most hard-fought victory.
Joe Lindsey is a Boulder-based contributor to Bicycling. Email him at [email protected]