Sexism and abuse in women’s cycling: A dozen pros share their experiences, anonymously
As we’ve heard from Genevieve Jeanson and Bridie O’Donnell in our recent articles, there is a dark legacy of abuse and sexism in the sport of cycling. Once a few brave women spoke out, more and more women came forward, making it apparent that this cycle of sexism and abuse continues today and sadly, it’s universal.
Thus far we have heard from several top riders in the UK, Australia’s Bridie O’Donnell, Canada’s Genevieve Jeanson, retired Dutch riders Petra de Bruin and Marijn de Vries, and American track rider Missy Erickson.
But most riders aren’t comfortable to go on record publicly, and so Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell of The Outer Line recently asked 12 pro cyclists about the sexism and harassment still occurring in women’s cycling. Protected by anonymity, the women shared their personal accounts, insights and some of their recommendations about what needs to change inside the sport in order to break these cycles of abuse.
The group of cyclists interviewed represented five nationalities, and among them, three women are current or former members of top-five UCI teams, four race in the lower-half of the top-ten UCI teams, and the others race or have raced at lower levels of women’s pro cycling.
In sharing their experiences, the athletes revealed three types of common abuse: financial manipulation, psychological control and physical abuse.
“While some of these abuses have also been noted in the men’s sport, for the women these problems are pervasive, and they reinforce a culture which is indisputably sexist. This culture frequently puts women into situations which would not be tolerated in any other professional workplace,” Harris and Maxwell stated.
Here are some takeaways from the riders’ accounts and The Outer Line’s conclussions:
Changed or sabotaged contract negotiations, management failing to honor specified contract terms, contracts being cancelled without due process, and non-payment for services under the contract are all alarmingly commonplace occurrences.
“I was promised a specific contract, in writing, during the summer. But a few days before the signing deadline, when I received the official contract, they had changed everything! I would only get salary for part of the year, and essentially at only half the rate I was promised in the emails,” one rider said. “And by then, it was so late in the year that most other teams wouldn’t return my calls, because I had already told them I wasn’t interested.”
Few teams have the funding to fully support riders, travel costs, staff, equipment, etc and so riders are often charged for ‘team services’. Some riders reported being fined repeatedly for “infractions” of rules with no previous documentation of those rules, and in one example, a rider was even charged for damaging a pair of sponsored carbon wheels in a race-related crash.
“I am still trying to get unpaid wages and expenses from 2015,” explained another rider. “My team manager refused to pay some wages and expenses, and the DS (Directeur Sportif) used any excuse he could find to punish me and the other girls – for being overweight, for going against team rules, for whatever – things which were never spelled out in any conduct guide.”
“A disturbing pattern and range of psychological abuses also emerged in the interviews,” Harris and Maxwell said, sharing that body-shaming is often used to manipulate vulnerable riders, or even as an excuse to fine a rider, or to create other monetary, behavioral or performance repercussions.
“Fat-shaming was cited by nearly every woman interviewed as something they had either experienced or had seen others experience – and at every level of the sport.”
Verbal abuse –in the forms of yelling, tirades and public humiliation– is also commonplace, and one rider shared the following appalling story.
“One of my teammates had put up with so much yelling from our DS, that one day she finally started crying and announced she was quitting. Before she left, however, the DS gave her a gift in front of everyone at a team meeting. When she opened it, inside was a fake penis mounted on a trophy base, like an award,” the rider shared. “Then he congratulated her as she held the open box, and told her she earned it, because she was the first woman on the team that he had made cry.”
Several riders a team manager’s demand for complete control over his riders by insisting the riders move into the team house.
“The team manager refused to let me race again unless I moved into a team ‘house’ and allowed him to ‘monitor’ me. He said if my training met his expectations, he’d let me race again and pay me. I didn’t know exactly where the house was, and no one could tell me who else would be living there. I was seriously concerned about my safety in that situation.”
One woman who did move to a team’s headquarters commented on how awful it was for her. “The level of mistrust, not knowing what would set the DS off when you said anything, it just made me paranoid. Even the other riders living there would hardly speak to each other. I was isolated – I wasn’t allowed to use the team car, my food was essentially rationed, and he even had one of the neighbors spying on us to tell him if we returned too early or late from training rides. I was nearly held prisoner – on the promise of racing in the WorldTour.”
The physical abuse comes in many forms, the riders shared, be it over-training and performing while injured to outright sexual abuse.
“The DS constantly demanded that I lose weight. He even restricted my food intake on endurance days during camp! The lack of proper nutrition got so bad that the soigneur had to sneak me energy bars whenever I was fading,” one ride stated.
Several recent high-profile stories of sexual abuse and physical intimidation have led to the Dutch and British cycling federations to investigate prevalence of abusive and intimidating behavior, and world-wide governing bodies are under scrutiny for failing to protect its athletes or even provide safe reporting processes.
One rider described an incident where her teammate, fed up with the verbal abuse by their team manager, tried to step past him in a hotel hallway and he pinned her by her shoulders against the wall to finish his abusive statements, and then walked away as if nothing had happened. She chose not to challenge the manager again, because in her words, “If we need to report abuses, who can we call?”
Breaking the cycle
Many will wonder why these women are tolerating these kind of behaviors, and the answer is two-fold: a desire to achieve their lifelong athletic objectives, and the acceptance that there is very little they can do right now to improve control or oversight.
“There just isn’t any other option – so we just have to put up with it. We tough out the bad situations because we see it all as a possible stepping stone to being picked up by a better team to further our careers,” said one rider.
“We don’t have any association who will back us up when we have a problem,” another rider stated. “The men’s riders have the CPA; but if we speak out individually, we can get blacklisted and likely not get another good contract. The standards are only on paper, and it seems like no one at the UCI or the Federations really keeps the women’s teams in line. We can’t afford to not to be on a team, so we just don’t speak up.”
Maxwell and Harris found out that despite these pervasive cultural problems, all of the riders interviewed want to stay in the sport. And much of that desire is spurred by the optimism behind the creation of the Women’s WorldTour.
“The Women’s WorldTour is providing team owners and entrepreneurs with more leverage to seek new and bigger sponsorships. In turn, this creates opportunities for new races in the calendar, and for riders to switch teams and earn a higher salary,” Maxwell and Harris reasoned.
“There are also more women entering team management, reducing the risk of sexist influence in some teams. Many of the interviewees say that the level of professionalism in the top-ten teams is notably improved from just a few years ago.”
One rider added that the growth in women’s cycling makes her feel more secure. “Everything is way better today than in my first years. The top teams are at a higher level of professionalism, and I feel it is getting better with more investment. We need the WorldTour, and the UCI for this sport to succeed.”
The UCI’s responsibility
Many things need to change for that success to happen, but as mentioned above, having a reliable and attentive reporting channel to the UCI for abuse inside some of the national federations is a necessity.
Currently, the only available reporting channel is an anonymous email inbox for the UCI Ethics Commission’s secretariat.
However, many riders are keenly aware that if the Ethics Commission investigated their claims by contacting the allegedly involved parties, and if it decided not to pursue a hearing, the abuser would be able to identify the accuser. As a result, riders are often refraining from filing complaints to protect their safety and their spot on a team.
“Why would I cry ‘wolf’ directly to the wolf?” one rider pointed out.
Maxwell and Harris call on the UCI to fully acknowledge this prevailing culture so that better governance controls can be put in place to protect its riders.
“Furthermore, the UCI should begin to exercise the same level of review and accountability for women’s teams as it does for the men,” Maxwell and Harris declared.
“It must be willing to exercise judgment on team employees who do not meet the basic requirements to work in professional cycling, and who do not pass – as Cookson has previously described it – a “fit and proper” ethics standard. There is a valid concern that many teams might fall out of the UCI and disband altogether if these standards were rigidly enforced, which in turn could put riders and staff out of work. However, without basic standards like a team financial deposit or ethics being enforced, the aforementioned abuses will probably continue to occur.”
“Just as the men’s sport staggers every time an organized doping or cheating scandal comes along, women’s racing will be similarly and negatively impacted by continuing cases of abuse.”