When British track cyclist Jessica Varnish opened up about sexist behaviour and discrimination within British Cycling in April, a number of renowned British cyclists soon followed suit.
While the controversy surrounding Sutton and British Cycling seems to have quieted down, another cyclist is opening up about sexual harassment and intimidation in cycling.
Triggered by recent revelations of sexual abuse in British football clubs, former Dutch pro cyclist Marijn de Vries admitted to being intimidated and even inappropriately touched by soigneurs in the past.
In a column for Dutch newspaper Trouw, she wrote: “There was the mechanic, who regularly pressed me against the wall and shouted at me for no reason. There was the soigneur who managed to touch my ‘lips’ every once in a while during massage.”
She continues: “I doubted myself. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want any fuss. And I was 30! I had a lot more life experience than my 18-year-old teammates, who lay down on his massage table too.”
With the publication of De Vries’ column, the Dutch cycling federation KNWU, of which De Vries is member of the board, announced to have started preparations for a large-scale investigation into (sexual) intimidation.
In a statement, the KNWU announced that the recent developments in British football was an extra incentive “to do proactive research on this topic within the Dutch cycling sport”.
Anne Loes Kokhuis, KNWU’s commercial affairs manager, told Ella CyclingTips that the initiative for this investigation was taken months ago, but that De Vries’ column provided the right opportunity to go public with it.
“The events at British cycling, with the track riders specifically, was our motive to start this investigation. But the CIRC report of February 2015, which describes ‘(large-scale) acts of intimidation within women’s cycling’ was also a very pressing reason for the KNWU to start a similar investigation in the Netherlands.”
The investigation will be closely monitored by Instituut Sport Rechtspraak (the ‘Sports Law Institute’).
“We will start with a pilot, sending out questionnaires to some of our members. After any necessary changes have been made to the questionnaire, we will ask all of our members to give their feedback,” Kokhuis said.
“This investigation isn’t aimed at women only. We are targeting each and every one of our members. We’d like to hear from our 5- to 8-year-old beginners – or their parents, as we need parental consent with minors -, right up to our professional cyclists. It’s not just about sexual harassment either. Intimidation can occur in many ways.”
The tricky thing with intimidation is that it might not be recognised as intimidation straightaway.
“It’s the receiver who decides whether something is intimidating. If it wasn’t meant to be intimidating from the sender’s end, it is our job as the KNWU to educate those people about their behaviour and explaining to them that, while they might not intentionally aim to intimidate someone, it does come across that way as the riders are in a dependency relationship,” said Kokhuis
“We don’t know the exact scale of the investigation yet, since it will all depend on what comes back to us through the questionnaires. On the one hand, we are hoping to hear no-one has ever experienced anything like this. On the other, that will get us wondering whether everyone has felt free to speak up.”
What the riders say
Multidiscipline world champion Marianne Vos says she’s “glad that it is possible to discuss this topic now, and that it is done by an independent research organization.”
“Personally, I have never experienced anything along the lines of harassment, but for those that have, there is now a real opportunity to speak up,” Vos said.
In speaking to Ella CyclingTips about this topic, Riejanne Markus, who will be joining Vos’ WM3 Pro Cycling team in 2017, said that while she has never experienced harassment or intimidation herself, it’s not an uncommon topic.
“It’s a very difficult subject and it frightens me whenever new issues come to light. Personally, I believe things happen less when you have regular soigneurs, as they often work with certain protocols,” Markus said.
“I find this a very important subject and understand that we as riders are vulnerable when we are on the massage table, especially if it’s someone you might not know so well. I think it’s important for us to set limits, for example asking for a towel – as men do during a massage. But I understand this might be difficult if you’re new to the sport or if it’s your first massage.”
Another Dutch rider, who wants to remain anonymous, said small teams in women’s cycling are often an enabling factor in intimidation or harassment.
“There’s usually only one directeur sportive in a women’s team, while there are several in men’s teams. If you, as a woman, don’t see eye to eye with your DS, there’s nowhere you can turn to,” she said.
The KNWU aims to change just that and will start sending out its first questionnaires in the new year. We will follow up on this topic as the investigation continues.