Harsh realities of women’s cycling, part two: Expectations and control

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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.

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 second instalment in a multi-part series, Weaver talks about the expectations that were placed on her and how some teams’ efforts to control their riders extend well beyond the bike.


In part one of this series I spoke about how much money I was paid to be a “professional” cyclist. I’ve put the term “professional” in inverted commas as, quite rightly, much debate has ensued over whether or not riders can call themselves professional if we aren’t paid enough money to live on.

However, I think an equally important part of the debate is perhaps not how much we are paid, but what is expected of us on a daily basis for that money (or lack thereof).

Each time I signed on the dotted line of a UCI contract my entire life changed. On some teams this was a positive thing, while on others it was unnecessarily negative.

In an industry with no regulation of the working day, and no clear definition of what the job requires of you, the scope for exploitation is vast. The lines are blurred when it comes to working hours, time off, professional boundaries, and so much more that is usually clearly defined within employment. The issues surrounding this are only exacerbated by the lack of salary for a lot of riders.

I entered the sport, and each team along the way, with the naïve view that people’s motives would be honourable. That results would matter and winning would be everyone’s ultimate goal; but that overall the journey to get there would be a happy one. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.

People first, riders second

When I first ventured into the world of professional cycling I was 18, and had no real idea what to expect; as is the case for most young riders entering the UCI peloton.

I was offered a contract on Matrix Pro Cycling, a UCI team based in Belgium, and I left university to pursue my two-wheeled dream.

Leaving my ‘normal’ life behind and moving to a different country, and into an industry I knew little about, was daunting. I knew the riding would be hard, but I hadn’t fully appreciated how much more this job would entail than simply racing my bike. I put all of my trust in the team director, and wider team structure, to have my best interests as a person as well as a rider at heart. In this team, that trust was fully repaid.

The treatment here was fair and the culture within the team was very good. Throughout the winter months I was supported, but ultimately I was also in control of my own training. And when the season came around, I felt that my wellbeing was fully considered alongside my performance as an athlete.

We were people first, and riders second.

Reflecting back on this time now I can see how important the motivations of my team director were. He wanted us all to succeed, and wanted the team he had built to succeed, but not at the expense of his values.

It wasn’t perfect, and resources were sometimes limited, but it was an environment where I was able to thrive. I was treated with fairness and respect, and even when there were differences of opinion I knew that I would be able to have my voice heard.

This experience was mirrored in the final year of my career as well. But by this point the damage had been done, and I don’t think anything could have prevented me from retiring from the pro peloton. But when my life fell apart around the bike, I was supported as I picked up the pieces.

Business first, people second

When I signed my first contract for a bigger team, I was easily sold on all of the advantages. Not only in terms of potential career progression, but also for all of the added benefits a more affluent team could provide. More bikes, more kit, a flashy bus, and a team of staff that comfortably eclipsed the number of riders.

I didn’t hesitate to consider what I might be losing along the way, as it seemed logical to me that treating riders well was a given. Not only for the improved performance that positivity brings, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.

It became apparent very quickly that this wasn’t an opinion we shared. I was prepared for a more serious and structured working environment, but not for one where my life beyond the bike wasn’t even a consideration.

I moved from a team where I was trusted to train hard, and dedicate myself to race performance, to one where this was so closely managed that the working day was literally never over.

I was expected to be available all day, every day. And to record and justify everything I did, and where I was at all times. If I dared to not respond to a message immediately, then I was disciplined for that. In my entire time on this team I can’t remember a single day that I wasn’t stressed that I might have done something to upset my team director. The potential for further criticism loomed over everything I did.

This state of perpetual anxiety wasn’t healthy, in any sense of the word.

Once the season began, my race calendar was also out of my control. I obviously didn’t expect to be able to pick and choose races that I wanted to do, or be allowed to miss those that I didn’t. We all had to race events that perhaps weren’t our favourite, or at times when we were tired or underprepared. But being a domestique exacerbated the issue of when my time was my own.

I was a reserve for a lot of races throughout a season, and constantly dropped and then put back into race schedules at a moment’s notice, regardless of any other plans, personal commitments, or events going on in my life. This is entirely understandable on occasions throughout the season. But not repeatedly, for months on end.

I was cut from the Giro Rosa line-up one year at a train station right in front of my teammate, which, aside from anything else, was fairly humiliating. I was gutted to be dropped from the team, but I didn’t want to remain in limbo about it for months, and have the fact I was still a reserve and on standby held over my head.

I had requested not to be put back in it at a later date, so that I could take a small mid-season break during that time. I needed a moment to reset, and made plans with the friends and family I hadn’t seen in months. Predictably, though, I was put back in the team at short notice after I performed well at The Women’s Tour. I cancelled all of my plans and of course travelled to the race.

Regardless of personal opinion on whether or not a rider should have some control over their race programme, or be allowed time off, the experiences above impacted more than just my personal life. They also made it almost impossible to pursue other work that would supplement my meagre income. It was complete dedication to cycling, or nothing.

Protocols

It’s understandable to wonder why I allowed a lot of the things I speak about in this series of articles to happen. And I often ask myself that question. It’s easy to view it all with objectivity now, but at the time it wasn’t that simple.

The reasons for accepting contracts on low pay, and riding for a team that perhaps didn’t treat me as well as they could have, are complex. There was the promise of future reward; the love and passion I have for this sport; the manipulation; and the culture that exists within some areas of the cycling industry.

I would describe the culture I experienced on this team as one of fear. Every time my phone went off I felt uneasy, not wanting to look at what the message said. It was rarely a good thing.

I managed my behaviour closely to try and fit in with what was expected of me. I felt as though I was constantly scrutinised and analysed, and if I ever did something that my team director didn’t approve of then I was accused of not being ‘serious’ enough about my career.

I’m still not sure what he defined as ‘serious’. I was never paid more than £15 a day, and for that I trained hard, committed all of myself to race for the team, and tried to represent the sponsors well. I don’t know what more could reasonably have been expected of me, but I was made to feel inadequate nonetheless.

The threat surrounding this lack of ‘seriousness’ was always that I would be forced to live in the team house in Holland. That I would need to leave my home in Girona, so that I could be more closely watched and managed.

Providing accommodation can be a perk that’s provided by some teams, but not if it’s forced upon a rider. This was more than a lack of trust; this was an overwhelming need to assert their control.

There were strict protocols governing every element of life on this team, whether cycling related or not, and we were expected to adhere to them at all times. There was no flexibility to allow for the unique challenges of women’s cycling.

Relationships

I understand that the issue of working hours, and job requirements, is a difficult area to navigate in such an unusual line of work. There were no rules surrounding how much of my time I was supposed to give to a team, and the more dominance they had over my daily life the better it was for them.

However, the impact of their control went far beyond taking over my schedule.

Each year we would have multiple evaluations of our performance, both on and off the bike. As I sat down for mine, in the middle of one season, I was informed this was ‘not a conversation’. There was to be no debate around anything they said, and I would not get the opportunity to argue for myself, or even to voice an opinion.

There were a few points along the way where I had wanted to respond, but I held my tongue. If my director and coach had an opinion on me as a rider, whether I agreed with that or not, I could accept it. But then it went beyond performance, and began to move into areas I feel weren’t theirs to judge me on. Into everything from my personality to my friendships.

In the category of relationships, I was at least relieved at the prospect of getting one of my first positive marks of the evaluation. Every good memory of that season revolves around the bond we had as teammates, and the success that resulted. But that wasn’t enough.

I looked down at the low score, confused. The issue they had was not that we weren’t close enough, but that myself and one teammate in particular were too close. Not specifically at races, but also in our daily life. Apparently, our friendship gave the impression of division in the team.

She was my best friend both on and off the bike. We lived in the same town, and we trained together almost every day. Up until this one.

Regardless of how much I was being paid, the fact that an employer got to choose my friends is ridiculous. But I did as I was told. We stopped training together, at least publicly. We stopped posting as much on social media together, and started managing our relationship to please our director.

We were kept apart at races and training camps, and were expected to keep ourselves apart the rest of the time.

The hierarchy

I don’t know if my experiences were shared with everyone on the team, as it was rarely discussed. The riders I spoke to about these things were always those I felt were equals. But from what I witnessed, the power imbalance and internal inequality impacted the way we were treated as well as our pay.

An example of this took place after I raced RideLondon. I hadn’t seen my parents for a long time, and they made the five-hour journey to watch the race. Although I wasn’t allowed to see them before or during the event, I had told them I would be able to go to dinner with them that evening.

I mentioned it to my team director, but he presented two problems. The first was that the team had already paid for dinner at the accommodation, and the second was that we needed to eat together as a team. I provided a solution to both of these. I offered to pay the team for the cost of the meal, still spend this time with my teammates, then go out with my parents afterwards.

The answer was still no, and a reason wasn’t given. But I called my parents and sent them home without seeing them.

Given past experiences, it shouldn’t have surprised me that I turned up to dinner later that evening and my teammates weren’t there. Riders further up in the hierarchy than myself had wanted to go out in London to eat, and our director expressed no issue with that.

I stayed and ate with the team staff, returned to my room, and it was never spoken about again. As was always the case.

The future is fair

I don’t think I will ever understand the thought process behind some of the negative treatment I experienced in my career, and I don’t think that matters anymore. All that matters is that it doesn’t continue to be accepted, the way I accepted it.

None of it served a purpose in my mind. Strong mental health is as important as strong legs, and it’s a well-known fact that happy riders perform better.

There are many issues within this sport, and more specifically women’s cycling, that are extremely complex and difficult to address; but this isn’t one of them. Riders being treated fairly and with their wellbeing and happiness in mind, as well as their athletic performance, isn’t an unattainable goal.

It was something that I experienced myself, on teams which on paper were working at a disadvantage.

This is an incredibly hard sport, and we’re all fighting against inequality, but it can also be an overwhelmingly brilliant and beautiful experience when those with authority allow it to be.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out part one of this series in which Weaver talks about the financial realities of being a female professional cyclist.
 
The unnamed team mentioned by Weaver in this story issued the following statement when contacted by CyclingTips: “The team decided not to comment. They have fond memories of their time with Molly and wish her all the best for the future.”

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