Harsh realities of women’s cycling, part one: Money
Molly Weaver raced as a professional from 2015 to 2018 on several teams based in the UK and Europe. She was a trusty domestique who spent much of her career riding in the support of others. Weaver stepped away from the sport in mid 2018 after “a lifetime’s worth of misfortune” in one year — she’d been hit by a car, she’d broken 13 bones, she’d suffered a series of concussions, and she was battling depression. As she wrote then, “time healed the physical wounds for me [but] it was the mental scars that burnt ever brighter.”
Now retired for almost two years, Weaver is keen to shine a light on some of the darker parts of women’s cycling, to stop others falling into the same traps she did, and to help create real change. In this first instalment in a multi-part series, Weaver reveals how little the average female professional gets paid, and the tough reality of contract negotiations.
I enjoyed being a professional cyclist. There are many parts of it that I loved, and that I still miss. But there were also aspects that were unnecessarily difficult and damaging. Things that I saw hurting other riders, cutting promising careers short, and that ultimately contributed to the unravelling of my own. I don’t want others to follow me down the same path.
These are also the things that people rarely talk about, and it’s easy to see why. During my career it didn’t seem advisable to rock the boat I was desperately hoping stayed afloat, and in retirement I wanted to forget them. They’re not memories I enjoy revisiting.
However, I believe that more transparency is needed to create real change, and I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t practise what I preach. My silence didn’t protect me at the time, and it certainly isn’t helping anyone now.
This will become a series of articles focusing on different aspects of the sport, but I’m starting with perhaps the most glaring issue in women’s cycling: money.
This is something I’ve spoken about in private before, and everybody I’ve discussed it with has been shocked. This in turn has shocked me. The issues surrounding a rider’s worth, and subsequent salary, have always been obvious to me. I not only lived it, but teammates and friends talk. My experiences were in no way unique.
I shouldn’t have been surprised though. If an entire industry wants people to see it as richer than it is, then that’s what people will believe. A flashy bike, bags full of kit, and a fancy team bus can do a lot for your image. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know the truth about my own situation. It’s hardly something I was proud of.
I’ve decided not to name teams in this article, although it wouldn’t be difficult for people to work out the details. Publishing my wages, and the details around negotiations, is revealing enough without pointing fingers and enabling quotes to be taken from this with only that intention. That’s not what this is about.
This is about sharing an experience, and putting numbers to a problem, that will hopefully help influence positive change. Or at least shine some light on the darker corners of the sport.
I have also only included teams for which I rode a UCI calendar, and which would be considered professional. I haven’t included elite domestic teams; however, I’ll say now that none of these paid a salary.
So, here goes. This is a list of the money, not necessarily in date order, that I was due to earn throughout each year of my career:
For two of these teams I didn’t complete a full season; one due to a mid-season transfer, and the other due to the ending of my career. I have also deducted money I was required to pay out of my salary for health insurance while on one of these teams.
I’m going to start with the teams that I rode for on the lower end of the UCI rankings, because here the issue is fairly obvious.
Even if they had wanted to, which in my case I believe was true, these teams simply didn’t have the budget to pay a living wage. Or, in most instances, any wage at all. There was no negotiation to be had. It was usually a pretty honest and open conversation, and I always knew what I was getting out of it.
While I know that this isn’t everyone’s experience, I was lucky to find myself on lower level teams that were genuinely invested in the success and development of their riders, and the stepping stone they provided to the top teams.
I personally always saw these teams as an internship of sorts, a platform to gain results or recognition in order to progress. The ability to race at the highest level with relative freedom is a necessary step on the ladder for most riders. It was never easy to earn nothing, and the challenges on these teams were clear, but I never blamed them for this. They were as much a victim of an industry that is far from equality as I was.
I want to be clear that although I understood the lack of money in the industry, that doesn’t make it OK. Team managers spending their own money to make a training camp possible, riders paying to get to races, everyone ending a season at a net loss — these things are not sustainable, and not acceptable. But if we took all of these riders and teams out of the peloton at both a national and international level, there would be very few left competing.
Putting aside any personal feelings I have about riders in the UCI peloton not being paid, it doesn’t bode well for the long-term success of women’s professional cycling if this doesn’t change. The entire base of an industry can’t be resting on the shoulders of outside money. Whether it’s part-time jobs, or the financial support of parents and partners, having a bike and being a talented rider isn’t enough if you can’t afford to eat; let alone get to races.
There are still riders lining up to sign professional contracts with a salary of zero, and as long as this continues so does the self-perpetuation of the problem.
Before I entered the world of professional cycling I believed that talent and hard work were all that mattered, but without money many riders never stand a chance. I know plenty of examples of one rider progressing over another purely based on personal privilege.
We often talk about equality when comparing women’s cycling to other sports, or to our male counterparts, but I hope that someday there will be a tipping point where we can start discussing internal equality as well.
Moving on up?
As I moved up to one of the top 10 teams in the UCI rankings, logic would dictate that this is when I would start to be paid back for the investment I’d put in to get to this point.
However, when the baseline you’re working from is zero, it becomes more understandable that this wasn’t the case.
When I first took this step up I was one of the top riders on a lower level team, and therefore was offered a ‘promotion’ mid-season. I was coming out of the enormous pool of riders being paid nothing. Therefore, I took a contract on very little money, and I was happy to do that.
The reasons for moving onto a bigger team were made very clear to me, and the lack of salary was justified in a number of ways.
At the time I didn’t pause to consider the advantages of being on a small team that I would be leaving behind, or the disadvantages of a big team that I would be stepping into. This seemed like a massive opportunity, and all I could see was the good. The chance to theoretically live my dream. I’ll save the realities of this trade-off for another time.
I re-signed with this team through three new contracts, and three one-year deals that were sold to me as in my best interest for career progression, and all I’ll say is that my highest salary was not earned here.
For all intents and purposes I remained worthless to them in financial terms throughout each new season. Whether or not this should have been true, a broken system allowed it to be that way. I became a pawn in the business of cycling.
This money game was one I’d never been taught how to play, so maybe it’s no surprise that I emerged the loser in more ways than one.
The powerless and the profitable
There are a few moments in my career that I see as pivotal. They’re moments that I would have handled very differently if I’d been more prepared, and if I’d felt able to stand up for myself. Or, even better, if there had been someone to advocate for me.
My final contract negotiation on this team was one of those pivotal moments.
It was the night before the final stage of the Giro Rosa, and I got called into a meeting with my DS. In theory I should have been happy that this conversation was happening, but I knew it was only coming now to put me on the back foot. We’d had a really hard tour fighting for GC, I still had a job to do the next day, and I was tired.
I’d been fairly confident I would get offered a contract renewal. I’d consistently done my job well, and I’d been a key domestique in a lot of races. I’d improved a lot over the previous two seasons, and numbers confirmed this.
I’d also sacrificed a lot of myself on and off the bike for my teammates to be in this position. I naively believed that this would be worth something.
The first half of the negotiation put me at ease. I was given all the reasons why I was being offered this contract renewal. All the things I’d done well, all the ways in which I had shown I could be a great rider, and all the ways in which this team was going to make that a reality. It wasn’t only about what I would be bringing to them, but also what they would be giving me.
Then came the second part of the conversation. The one in which it became very clear that money wasn’t one of these things. And where I learnt all of the reasons why.
The one that was repeatedly drilled into me was the fact that I was worth very little financially to other teams, and that I wasn’t irreplaceable on this one either. If I didn’t take the contract, then there would be a dozen other riders who would be willing to take my place. It didn’t matter if I was better at my job if they were free. There was a peloton of riders waiting to unwittingly undercut me.
I was told that any money they gave me would be my best offer, and I still really have no idea if this is true or not. My ability to negotiate was fairly non-existent as this isn’t information I ever had. They held all of the leverage.
Next came the assassination of my personality, and the dismantling of every weakness I had as a rider. This would have begun the process of undermining any confidence I had coming into the meeting, but most of that had already been stripped away from me during my time on this team.
Where my strengths had been briefly mentioned in order to make me feel appreciated, the tactic of making me feel as though I didn’t really deserve my place was clearly more effective. It was made obvious that no amount of good days could make up for a bad one if that fitted their narrative better.
The final weakness that I’ll mention here is perhaps the most ironic. The fact that, as a domestique, I had few UCI points and this brought down my financial value in the marketplace. Less so to this team, who already knew me as a rider, but certainly to others. It gave this team more power over me once again, but it also felt like an unwinnable position to be put in.
All I’d ever done was my job, and I’d given all of myself in order to be the best domestique I could be. I trusted in the fallacy that if one of us won then we all won. I never held back a match at the end of a race for myself like I saw others do.
I see riders who choose to do this being rewarded time and time again, but of all the things I would change about my career this isn’t one of them. All I ever wanted was to be the best teammate and domestique I could possibly be; it’s just a shame that this job wasn’t really valued.
By the end of the conversation I felt myself agreeing with everything that had been said. There’s only so many times you can be told you’re worthless before you start telling yourself the same thing.
I was then given two days to make a decision or the offer was off the table. Those two days consisted of the final stage of the Giro, and a day travelling back to the team house in Holland. I had no time to discuss this with anyone, no time to explore other options, and to be honest I had nobody who could have fought for me anyway. It was this, or the possibility of nothing. And they knew that.
I naively believed that I would be treated as a human being and as an equal, but this was simply a business transaction to them. It didn’t matter that I was an outnumbered and powerless young woman at the time of this negotiation. Nobody ever said it would be fair.
[Editors note: When contacted by CyclingTips about this story, the team referenced above opted not to comment.]
The current, and future, state of women’s cycling is an article for another day. I want to speak in more detail about the hard work that’s already being done to fix a broken industry, and that which has yet to begin. But I also want to end this one on a positive note.
I’ve watched things move forward since I retired from professional cycling. With the help of The Cyclists Alliance I now see an environment where power is gradually being re-distributed more fairly. Where riders now have people fighting for them, even if they can’t fight for themselves.
The introduction of a minimum wage, no matter how small, and the emergence of a few teams that are willing and able to do more than this, has improved the situation at the very top. But on so many levels this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s not make mine the narrative for the next generation of young riders as well. Nobody should enter an already difficult industry with no information, no support, and no leverage, while those in power have all three.
Professional cycling is full of grey areas. It’s up to all of us to fight for one less.