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by Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris
April 27, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a longer piece, written by Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris, who run The Outer Line, a site focusing on the sport’s governance and business models. Read the full article here.
Between 2000 and 2014, Dutchman Bobbie Traksel had a long and distinguished pro cycling career, with victories at the U23 Tour of Flanders, Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. But Traksel now faces perhaps his greatest challenge, and one that he might never have imagined when he started his pro career over 15 years ago — representing the professional peloton, and seven other cycling disciplines, as the newly elected president of the UCI’s Athletes’ Commission.
Traksel’s election to the post, in December, puts him in a powerful position at the forefront of the sport. The Athletes’ Commission was originally convened by former UCI president Pat McQuaid, in 2011, though it played a somewhat passive role in its first years. Skeptics viewed the effort as essentially throwing a bone to placate the riders, or even as an effort to dilute the already limited influence of the CPA (Cyclistes Professionnels Associes, the professional cyclists’ association).
Strengthening the role of the Athletes’ Commission was a specific component of Brian Cookson’s election platform in 2013, as a way to help build transparency and trust between UCI leadership and riders across all cycling disciplines. According to UCI documentation, the Commission will “provide input and representation to UCI governance processes regarding… the views and expectations of the athletes…. ensuring that good practices are applied and promoted.”
Beyond these generalities, however, the Terms of Reference for the new Commission are thin on details, which leaves Traksel with the tasks of both steering the process and helping to define a function which is still evolving. And these terms also constrain Traksel’s influence and power by making clear the Commission is only a consultative body, and that it “does not have any executive or decision-making powers.” Traksel is invited to attend UCI Management Committee meetings, though he doesn’t have a vote.
In terms of the key challenges facing pro cycling, Traksel runs down the list of today’s familiar hot topics, underlining how quickly riders can lose their jobs when a team loses its sponsors. “We have to make the financial situation more stable for the teams,” he said. “This will help make life more stable for the riders. We are very anxious right now about [Oleg] Tinkov and the situation for his riders; they say they are announcing a new sponsor later in the year, maybe at the Giro, but we don’t know.”
Safety issues are another obvious concern, and there is a harsh spotlight focused on this area after the tragic death of Antoine Demoitié at Ghent-Wevelgem. This is clearly a major concern for the riders, and has recently been the focus of increasing efforts by the CPA riders association, and its North American affiliate ANAPRC.
Historically, it has sometimes been difficult to get these kinds of concerns out on the table.
Riders still fear retaliation from their teams and sponsors, or from event owners, if they speak out about controversial issues, or suggest the need for a stronger rider’s union.
As an example, some have surmised that after Fabian Cancellara spoke out for riders at the Tour of Oman in 2015, during extreme temperatures, his Trek-Segafredo team was not invited to the 2016 event, as retaliation. A rider of Cancellara’s stature may be able to get away with speaking out like that, but many riders worry they could suffer debilitating punishment for publicly making those sorts of remarks.
Funding is one of the biggest challenges Traksel foresees for the Athletes’ Commission going forward. He doesn’t believe that the Athletes’ Commission will be able to fulfill its intended role with the budget it has today.
“Funding and rider rights go hand in hand,” he says, “and it feels like we are starting from the very beginning, from almost nothing.”
A UCI spokesman told The Outer Line that members of the Athletes’ Commission are provided with a small daily allowance and coverage of their travel expenses, but declined to give any specific figures regarding a budget for the Commission’s efforts.
Another obvious question is how the Athletes’ Commission will interact with the CPA. Considering that neither group has taken strong or decisive action yet regarding many of the critical issues facing pro cycling, it may be some time before there is a unified platform involving riders’ rights.
However, Traksel may find himself in the right circumstances, and with the right audience, to be a catalyst for exactly these types of changes. Traksel is also president of the Dutch riders union, which has a strong voice within the CPA.
One thing is certain for Traksel: Even though the Commission and his position are nominally supported by the UCI, he says he is committed to operating the Athletes’ Commission as an independent body, and to acting in the best interests of the riders.
And he firmly believes that UCI management is sincere about listening to athletes. “My opinion is that Brian Cookson really wants to listen and work close together,” he said. “I believe he wants to have the riders’ voices finally mean something.”
Traksel has a difficult road ahead, but also a great opportunity to become the riders’ leading advocate for change. He’s determined to leave the sport in better condition than he found it.
“I think about once a week, ‘why I am doing this?’ There is so much to do, and so much that is wrong, and I really don’t make any money for all this extra work. But I do this because I love cycling.”