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According to a report in Le Monde, the Doltcini-Van Eyck Sport women’s team is under investigation after two riders came forward with allegations of sexual abuse.
American Sarah Youmans alleged that the team’s manager, Marc Bracke, acted inappropriately during a contract negotiation in 2019. Canadian rider Maggie Coles-Lyster alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a team assistant who was responsible for rider massages, in April 2017.
Youmans, 24, filed a report with the UCI’s Ethics Commission in October 2019 against team manager Bracke, after he reportedly asked Youmans to send images of herself in “panties and bra.” They had been in the middle of a contract negotiation and were communicating on Facebook Messenger.
Le Monde confirmed seeing the messages from Bracke. “Send me a picture of you in a bikini,” his message reportedly continued. “Don’t be shy … It’s the start of a relationship of trust.”
Even after Youmans repeatedly told Bracke that she was uncomfortable with his requests, Bracke offered Youmans an unpaid contract, which is common in a second-devision women’s team. “I didn’t want to put myself in a dangerous situation, having no friends or family in Europe,” Youmans told Le Monde.
“If he was ready to behave like that on the internet, I was afraid of being in a training camp, where the balance of power would have been in his favor.” Le Monde reports that the Belgian Cycling Federation initially issued Bracke a warning, “reminding him ‘to strict respect for integrity’ of the riders.” The UCI is now formally investigating Youmans’ complaint.
Le Monde reports that some other riders who wished to remain anonymous have confirmed similar conversations like this, while others have not seen or experienced this type of behaviour.
While Bracke denies the allegations against him, he does, however, claim to have asked for photos. “For professional reasons, yes, but only the legs,” Bracke told Le Monde. “I am not interested in pictures of women in underwear.” Bracke suggests he wanted photos of riders legs to determine their level of fitness. “To find out if someone is sharp, they are asked for blood tests or training records,” Youmans suggested. “It happened to me, but not with him.”
Maggie Coles-Lyster alleges that she was mistreated by an assistant who provided massages.
“We were all between 16 and 18 years old. It was my first massage with him,” Coles-Lyster, now 21, told Le Monde. “He climbed up my legs, very high, and ran his finger over my vagina all the way. I was wearing [underwear], it wasn’t on my skin, but it seemed like a strange practice to me.
“I was uncomfortable but I did not want to pass for the one who complained when I had just arrived … it was my first opportunity in Europe.
“He started taking pictures of me during group meals and sending them to me. He would take me by the arm before the races, send me more intimate messages.
“In an e-mail to the sporting director, I only said that I felt uncomfortable with him, that he had overstepped the line, that I no longer wanted to live in the same house as him or receive [massages from him].”
According to Le Monde, team manager Bracke claims to have asked the staff member to “distance himself from the [riders]”, to have asked Coles-Lyster not to “be afraid of it”, and to inform him of a possible recurrence. Coles-Lyster told Cyclingnews that she never addressed the sexual assault with Bracke, but that she felt the team manager had been dismissive of her plight.
Coles-Lyster told Cyclingnews that she has not filed a formal complaint out of embarrassment for the situation, and feared the issues it may cause within the team. She added though that she is considering filing a formal complaint after learning that the soigneur is currently working with another women’s cycling team.
“I was 18 at the time and I really just didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It took a long time for me to come to terms with what happened. I was young, naive and innocent. By coming to terms with it and understanding what happened – part of it being youth – it’s awful for this to happen to anyone but especially a junior who has very limited worldly experience, and that is the hardest part.
“It’s also your career on the line. You have a fear of being someone who brings up issues and as a female cyclist it feels like there is so much on the line and you feel like anything you say or do could jeopardize that.”
Doltcini-Van Eyck Sport isn’t the only team to be investigated recently for alleged inappropriate treatment of riders. In June 2019, Belgian team Health Mate-Cyclelive’s manager, Patrick Van Gansen, was also investigated by the UCI Ethics Commission. Van Gansen was accused of behaving inappropriately with the riders who lived in the team house.
Riders were typically not receiving a salary, and those that did weren’t making enough to live off. As finding their own accommodation was not an option, riders would reportedly stay in their rooms as much as possible to avoid interactions with Van Gansen. That investigation is still ongoing.