The weekly spin: A conversation with E3 organizers about that poster

by Neal Rogers


Two women, nearly nude, covered in body paint and wrapped around one another to form the figure of a frog. The tagline: “Who shall crown himself prince in Harelbeke?”

What is this, you ask? What does it mean? And what does it have to do with bike racing?

It was the visual campaign for the E3 BinckBank Classic, the race formerly known as E3 Harelbeke, a Belgian semi-classic held on many of the same roads used at the Ronde van Vlaanderen nine days later.

I use the past tense because on March 1 — five days after the race’s 2019 marketing campaign was launched — the UCI issued a statement ordering E3 organizers to pull the visual promotion from all of its communication channels.

“In the case of non-compliance,” the statement reads, “the UCI will envisage initiating proceedings with its legal bodies.”

It’s a fairly strong stance to be taken by the international cycling federation, which rarely interferes with the marketing efforts of event organizations. Then again, this is not the first time the E3 event has drawn fire over its marketing efforts.

First, a little background on the event.

The race began in 1958, and was named after European Route E3, a series of European highways stretching from Lisbon to Stockholm that has since been renamed. The Belgian section of the former E3 connects Antwerp and Kortrijk, near Harelbeke; it’s now called E17, but the race name has remained.

A UCI WorldTour event since 2012, recent winners of the race include Niki Terpstra, Greg Van Avermaet, Michal Kwiatkowski, Geraint Thomas, and Peter Sagan. Tom Boonen holds the record, with five victories.

E3 is one of the only Belgian spring classics that is not a part of the Flanders Classics organization; it’s a smallish but important event somewhat dwarfed by an enterprise that runs nearly every other important one-day race held in Belgium.

Perhaps because of that, efforts have been made in recent years to bring the E3 event to the forefront, so that it might stand out from the others.

Flanders Classics was founded in 2010, The following year, the E3 event used an image of Belgian Playboy model Gaelle Garcia Diaz, lying nude in a field of grass, as miniature silhouettes of cyclists traversed along the contours of her body.

In 2014, they ran an image of three women dressed in white, bodies contorted into the shape of a bicycle, with what appears to be a topless woman atop them, adorned in a jersey painted onto her body.

More recently, the 2015 event ran an image showing a cyclist’s gloved hand poised to squeeze a podium presenter’s behind, an obvious reference to Peter Sagan’s incident after the 2013 Tour of Flanders, when he did just that and later apologized, promising to act “more respectfully.”

The tagline for that 2015 promotional image: “Who squeezes them in Harelbeke?”

The UCI was extremely unhappy with the promotional poster of the 2015 E3 Harelbeke, and demanded that the event remove it from all communication platforms. Four years later, it’s happened again.

That ad campaign prompted the UCI to step in, saying that it was “extremely unhappy” with the promotional poster, that it had “reminded the organizer of its responsibility,” and that they agreed to “take off the poster from all communication platforms.”

It also led to scathing criticism, including an editorial in The Guardian comparing the PR team behind the E3 event to “a bunch of little boys giggling at a glimpse of boob or arse, virtually masturbating over the idea of their campaigns going viral.”

The organization issued an official apology over that 2015 image  to “anyone who might find it intimidating, discriminatory or sexist,” saying, “The organization launched this campaign as a playful nod to the stage incident two years ago in which a rider got ready to squeeze the buttocks of a flower girl.”

That 2015 image was referenced in the UCI’s statement Friday, which added, “The UCI has already intervened on several occasions in the past to remind the race’s organizer of its responsibilities with regards to the image of cycling conveyed by its communication campaigns.”

ART VS. OBJECTIFICATION

So, this is just another example of E3 organizers courting controversy, right? If so, mission accomplished.

However that wasn’t the objective, according to Dieter Verhaeghe, who handles communications and marketing for the E3 BinckBank Classic.

I spoke with Verhaeghe on Monday about the messaging of the ad, the event’s history of using sexist imagery, the UCI’s reaction to the latest image, and the cloud of sexism that has hung over Belgian cycling during the first few months of 2019. A full transcript of that conversation follows below.

The image, he said, is an homage to the fairy tale “The Frog Prince.” Yep, got that. One woman’s right hand is the crown, I see that.

The women in the image are the race’s podium hostesses — the “princesses” who will kiss the race’s winner and turn him into a prince. Okay.

The body paint, he insists, was simply meant to produce an optical illusion, a device to catch the eye. That it does.

So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that when you combine all of these factors — two women’s nearly nude bodies wrapped around each other with language suggesting a prize for the winner who is “crowned prince” — it becomes very suggestive. Perhaps not on par with the blatant sexual assault found in the 2015 poster, but sexually suggestive nonetheless.

“I can understand people don’t approve of our ad in 2015,” said Verhaeghe, who was also involved with the race four years ago. “This year, I don’t see the problem.”

One thing is certain — if the point of the campaign was to tie into the fable of the Frog Prince, it really wasn’t necessary to paint two women and present them in a pose that very much resembles a sex act. Either way, it has nothing to do with a professional bike race contested across the hills of East Flanders. Yet nowhere is it written that a race must market itself in such obvious ways, only that it must not “damage the image of the UCI or the sport of cycling in general.”

Verhaeghe said the image was reviewed internally and found to be unobjectionable — artistic, even. The reaction, he believes, is more tied into past ad campaigns. And on that point, he’s not alone.

As Chris Fontecchio, founder of cycling website Podium Cafe, wrote on Twitter, “Isn’t the frog piece art? Does female nudity in art (as opposed to blatant objectification as in past E3 posters) automatically lead to inequality? I think the UCI may be punishing them for their reputation, not the frog poster.”

At the campaign’s February 25 launch, Verhaeghe claims, there was no backlash. It was only later that day, when cycling fans in the United States caught sight of the image, that the protestations began on social media, with some, including CyclingTips contributor Peter Flax, calling for an all-out boycott of the event.

Among those airing their displeasure was Atlanta-based amateur racer Lauren Giles, who wrote on Twitter, “Remember that story where the water keeps getting hotter and the frog doesn’t realize it until he’s boiled alive? It’s funny, isn’t it, dear friends at E3, how the world could be changing all around you, and you might not realize it until it’s just too late for you?”

More than anything, my first reaction was confusion. What is the message this ad campaign is trying to convey? Is this boiler-plate objectification of women, or something else? It’s easy to make assumptions, but it’s also only fair to reach out and ask for an explanation.

I was surprised to receive a quick reply from Verhaeghe, who was happy to chat — even following the UCI’s decision. After some back and forth via email, the first thing he said when we spoke was that he was “quite happy that someone called, to hear our side of the story.”

And that’s what the interview below is — their side of the story.

For what it’s worth, throughout our email correspondence and phone conversation, Verhaeghe was pleasant and open, in no way defensive about the image in question. For what it’s worth, he appeared to be genuinely surprised by the negative feedback.

Before we dive into that conversation, I want to present a few facts about the E3 BinckBank Classic that may or may not be relevant to this situation — or at least to the perception of the event.

Though it’s been in existence since 1958, E3 is also one of the few Belgian spring classics that does not offer a women’s race; there is a junior race and an event for recreational cyclists. By contrast, Flanders Classics organizes a women’s edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Brabantse Pijl.

(Other spring classics and semi-classics that run a concurrent women’s edition include Le Samyn, Strade Bianche, Ronde van Drenthe, Nokere Koerse, Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Notably, there is no women’s Milan-San Remo, nor Paris-Roubaix.)

Also: There are four women who are part of the E3 race organization — two on the technical commission, one on the VIP commission, and one as part of the general organization. None of them sit on the event’s 11-member board.

The interview has been edited, for length and clarity, with one round of revisions due to a few minor misunderstandings.

•••

CyclingTips: I want to understand the image, and the message behind it. In the past, there have been visuals from the race that have been controversial, or just plain sexist, and it’s unclear if the image with frog, and the painted ladies, is in line with that, or what exactly the intended message was.
Dieter Verhaeghe: This year we wanted to create a story that started with our communications campaign, and ended on the day, with the winner. We had the idea to create something around the fairy tale, with the frog and the princess. That was the basis of our thoughts. The basis of our promotion campaign is always to give a big communication campaign around our event date. To be honest, I think some of the visuals we’ve had in the past were maybe too far, or too direct, that’s true, but the times have changed, so the visuals we used 10 years ago, we can’t use them now. The times are changed. But the idea was to work around the fairly tale — the frog and the prince — and to create a new prince in Harelbeke. Our idea was to create an image with our two podium girls and in that matter make a campaign around turning the frog into the new prince, and the fairy tale around it. That was the basic idea. To be honest, in Belgium, and France, and Germany, everybody was positive. We had our press conference around 11am, and until 7pm, reactions were very positive. And from 7pm on, we started to see some negative reactions from America. So I think there are two things happening — not everyone knows the fairy tale, or there is a big cultural [difference] between Belgium and some other countries, or other continents.

CT: So, to be clear about the message conveyed in the ad, there are two women who are body painted…
DV: They are not nude, that’s the first thing that’s very important, they are not nude. They have pants on, but they are body painted. They aren’t just girls, they are the girls who are going to kiss the winner on the 29th. In the fairy tale, it tells the story about a princess who kisses a frog, who changes into a prince.

CT: For those who aren’t familiar with the fairy tale, or even for those who are, it seems to be suggested that the prize for the winner would be the two women who are covered in body paint, versus the prize being a kiss and being turned into a prince. Or at least that’s one interpretation.
DV: Onstage, we’re going to crown the winner, and those same two girls — not body painted — are going to kiss the winner. And at that moment, we’re going to give the winner a crown, so he becomes the prince of Harelbeke. This is like we’ve done in the past, we’ve done something similar in the past. To be honest, we hadn’t thought to have such a negative reaction this year. Three years ago, to be honest, I think we went too far with the hand and the [backside], I think three years ago, it was too far. This year we didn’t expect a negative reaction, and certainly after we launched the campaign we thought, okay, everybody is positive about it. It’s going to be a great campaign. Until 7pm, the time that America wakes up, and from that moment you saw the cultural [difference] in seeing the advertising.

CT: Did the E3 Harelbeke hire an outside company to put the image together? Who do you work with to come up with the idea and put together the visual?
DV: The idea is always from ourselves. But of course we have an ad company who helps to really create the advertising, but the basic idea is always from ourselves.

CT:When I first saw the image, two women wearing not much clothing, wrapped around each other, and the use of “who will be crowned prince?” I thought it was some sort of suggestion of a threesome for the winner — it seemed very sexually suggestive.
DV: That was not at all our goal to communicate that. Our goal was really the fairy tale. I can even show you the presentation used at our press conference, we showed some images from the fairy tale, we used some designs from the prince and the frog. That was not at all our idea. Our first goal, to do it like that… in Belgium we have big advertisements of that frog, and the first idea was that if you have two people in the car seeing the advertisement, the first person might say the visual isn’t all that good as of the past years. And then, after one minute, the other person in the car might say, hey, pay attention, you have already seen the movie, it’s not just a picture, it’s two people that make up the frog. That was our main goal, but it’s a little bit changed now.

CT: Can you tell me about the communications with the UCI, about the image — what the UCI said to the E3, what the E3 said to the UCI, and if it was a surprise to hear from them?
DV: I prefer not to talk about that, that is something between the UCI and our organization. I prefer not to communicate about how intense, or not intense, that communication was.

CT: Was the E3 surprised by the UCI’s reaction?
DV: I prefer not to talk about it.

CT: I do wonder if some of the promotional images the race has used in the past led to this action from the UCI — whereas if this was another organization using the same image, or if E3 had not run very sexually suggestive ads in the past, perhaps this image would have not come under the same level of scrutiny.
DV: I think this year, we have a lot of negative reactions because of what we did three years ago, eight years ago. If we hadn’t done that, I don’t think we’d have so many negative reactions this year from Americans and from other countries. So I think it’s a little bit a reaction from what we’ve done in the past, and not what we’ve done now.

CT: It has been an interesting beginning to the cycling season for issues like so far in Belgian cycling, with what happened with Iljo Keisse in Argentina. Does it feel like there is a culture clash happening in Belgian cycling right now? Do you feel like some of the movements that are happening in other countries are starting to be felt in Belgium?
DV: I really think it’s a sort of cultural [difference], because in Belgium we almost got no negative reaction. All the reactions were positive, everybody thought it was even stylish, nicely created, a very well done visual. Before we showed it to the press, we showed it to different people, and everybody was positive, so we thought okay, we can launch it, no problem. So I really think yes, the thoughts about how advertising is done is a little bit different here than in America, Australia, the Middle East. I think the basic problem is a cultural [difference].

CT: Obviously the E3 Harelbeke is not responsible for anything that happened within the Deceuninck–Quick-Step team, but what happened with Iljo Keisse — both what he did and the reaction from team manager Patrick Lefevere, alleging that the waitress in Argentina was looking for money — reflected a very old-fashioned point of view that some would say is reflected in the E3 ad campaign.
DV: I prefer to connect it with what we did, the big difference with the ad we did four years ago, with the hand of Sagan and the ass, if you see that ad, you can say okay, you are promoting that you may touch the ass of a woman. This year we don’t [encourage] people to do something. For me, it feels a little bit weird, all of the negative reactions. Three or four years ago, I agree, it was too far. The visual was too direct. This year, to be honest, I don’t agree.

CT: How will the decision by the UCI affect E3 Harelbeke? You have three weeks until the race is held. The image was created, and shared, it’s already part of promotional material. What steps does the organization need to take now? Will there be a new image?
DV: There is some output from this campaign. You have a visual output in Belgium that is very, very big, in advertising. Sometimes the visuals are 15 meters width and four meters high, printed visuals. Big, big screens with that visual, that’s something physical we need to change. We need to reprint it. That’s a big investment for us. Of course online, the website, Facebook, that’s not a visual, you erase the old one, and replace it in an hour. Internationally, we can change it quite fast. Here in Belgium it’s not that easy. We have four teams of two people with a truck who are driving around to big factories, so we need one week to change everything, so for us, that’s quite a big problem.

CT: Is it possible to put a cost, in terms of euros, on the UCI’s ruling?
DV: It’s a big cost for us. In hours, four teams of two people — eight people times five days, that’s already a cost. And you need a product, you need other advertising, other print, so that’s quite a big cost of course.

CT: Are there any women who are part of the E3 organization who were consulted around the decision to choose this image?
DV: Of course, of course. That’s something else I want to say. The two women in the visual, we don’t force them to do it. Every visual we communicate to the world, they have seen, and they have said, ‘this one is okay, this one is not okay.’ If you look at the YouTube video, the making of the visual, you see we blur a little bit the screen, so you don’t see too much. We do everything with an okay from them. It’s also two well-educated girls, so… to be very direct, it’s not a bimbo we picked up, it’s well-educated girls who are very okay with what we do, and they also find it a little bit a pity what’s happened right now.

CT: Is there anyone other than the models, within the organization, involved in the decision?
DV: Of course, of course. There are four women who work within the organization. Of course.

CT: Will there be any official statement from the race, about the UCI’s decision?
DV: We have some meetings, that’s something we need to talk about, maybe [Tuesday]. We don’t know yet.

CT: Dieter, thanks for sharing E3’s side of the discussion. 
DV: I even try to understand how we ended up in a situation like this, because we did [show the image] to some people in Belgium, to see how what they think about the visual, if we can do it, and everyone was positive, so this year we really thought it’s not going to get a negative reaction. We also think it’s not good, we want to create positive hype, a new style of image for the cycling world, but not negative, and that’s really nothing we thought would happen this year.

•••

Was the 2019 E3 Binckbank Classic visual campaign offensive? Arguably so, yes. It certainly straddled the line between provocative and objectionable.

Was the E3 Binckbank Classic harshly penalized for the cumulative sins of past campaigns? Arguably so, yes.

Did the image in question have anything to do with a 200km WorldTour race held in East Flanders? No. But that’s not a requirement.

Ultimately, it was a marketing effort deemed regrettable by both fans and the UCI. Whether it has damaged, or cemented, the event’s reputation all depends on how one viewed the E3 prior to last week.

My takeaway from the conversation with Dieter Verhaeghe is that the rate of progress surrounding gender issues varies in different parts of the cycling world, and that’s reflected in these E3 advertisements. It reminded me a little of this scene from This is Spinal Tap. That doesn’t excuse it, but it does explain it.

As with Sagan after the 2013 podium incident, if so desired, there are steps that can be taken toward reconciliation, and redemption. The E3 organization could make the effort to put on a women’s event, or add a woman to its board of directors, or both.

The race will be held on March 29. Perhaps we’ll have our first indication then.

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