Maja Leye is at the centre of a social media storm that crashed over her and race organiser Flanders Classics last week after fans expressed their dismay at the large pay disparity between the pro men and pro women at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The story, spurred on by a simple pie chart showing that Anna van der Breggen won less than 1/16th the prize money of men’s winner Davide Ballerini, led to increased calls for equal prize money and even a crowdfunding effort to level the prize money at Strade Bianche.
Leye has been part of Flanders Classics for nine years now and is partially responsible for the organiser’s women’s events. She shares the same desire for equality, heading up the organisations Close the Gap initiative, but says getting there will take time.
“This has actually been the weirdest discussion I have been in because we all want the same outcome: more attention and equality in women’s cycling,” Leye tells CyclingTips. “We all agree! And the fact that apparently so many people now care about women’s sport is huge.”
This isn’t the first time Leye has found herself at the centre of public outcry. She gained worldwide publicity as the podium hostess pinched by Peter Sagan, but her role at the organization behind the biggest classics in Belgium has always been much bigger than ceremoniously handing flowers on the podium.
“I joined Flanders Classics on a full-time contract and they just asked me to do the flower ceremony but it’s only a small thing of what I do. I am working as project manager on the start and finish locations, the accreditations for teams and officials, the contact with local authorities, the COVID testing and everything that can happen on race days,” she explains.
“I do understand how this looks from the outside, and they are correct,” she says of the prize money disparity. “It’s inequality and it’s unfair but the mechanics of women’s cycling are so much more complex than a simple pie chart. I think we missed a chance to explain what we already did for the women’s races because to us it feels normal. We didn’t want to toot our own horns and say: ‘look at us doing all these things for women’s cycling already’ but we underestimated the discussion.”
Leye sees four pillars in the equality discussion of which prize money is only one, albeit the most visible one.
“We organize six races and offering equal prize money is not as easy as giving Davide Ballerini and Anna van der Breggen the same amount. You have to give everyone in the women’s top 20 the same amount as the men’s prize scheme. We can’t give some of the men’s money to the women’s either because those are UCI mandated amounts. Extra money for the women needs to come from us or our sponsors. For our six races [Omloop het Nieuwsblad, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem In Flanders Fields, Scheldeprijs, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl] that is €179,090. That is a lot of money.”
The other three pillars are start fees, media exposure and the calendar.
“We want to gradually upgrade our races that are not yet included in the Women’s World Tour. We did this with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad from 1.1 to a 1.Pro. This means all Women’s World Tour teams get a start fee of €2.250 and the Continental teams €1.800 instead of zero. We never did zero though so we already gave a small start fee when it was a 1.1 race. The second pillar is media exposure. We want to offer a great product to watch worldwide and is attractive for new sponsors. The third one is the calendar. There are many races that don’t have a women’s equivalent and their calendar is already so much smaller. We now already have six out of six, so all our men’s races have a female equivalent,” Leye explains.
She stresses that Flanders Classics has been working on equality for years now but maybe should have made the efforts even more visible.
“Only a few years ago there was not a lot people at the finish of the women’s Tour of Flanders. They had their ceremony straight after the race and went home. That triggered me, maybe because I am a woman too. Now we have joint start and finish ceremonies with media attention. I was so thrilled that the final of the women’s race and both Omloop podiums were live on tv, that there were interviews with riders and that Anna van der Breggen even went to Sporza’s Karl Vannieuwkerke’s post-race talkshow. This all felt like a great achievement and therefore I was excited after the Omloop so seeing the discussion only single out the prize money did hurt a bit.”
Flanders Classics aims to close the gap between men’s and women’s races and focuses on those four pillars: prize money, start fees, media exposure and the calendar. To achieve this, they set out to find new partnerships.
“The partnership we have with KPMG is for the women only. Thanks to them we can already afford higher start fees because the race category is higher and we have more media exposure. We could also already add Scheldeprijs to the calendar,” Leye says.
She feels there are many more companies out there who want to improve equality and who share the same values. It’s now important to find those.
“We have had the equality discussion within Flanders Classics for years and found a partner in KPMG going through the same process. They share our values and are striving towards maximum equality as well. We found each other to achieve what we want – equality in 2023”
Leye hopes and thinks that the current discussion will lead to more people thinking about inequality in sports and will hopefully get more companies involved. She feels the women’s side of cycling has so much to offer and is personally driven to change the current situation.
“I hope that by 2023 we can offer equal prize money to men and women,” she says. “I also hope that all the words written and exposure given to this discussion will also be given to the sport side of things. When the women race Strade Bianche this weekend or our races later this Spring, let’s hope there will be as many words written about those races too. The women’s races are always great to watch, spectacular and exciting. Let’s hope all the attention focuses on that as well. Use this energy and momentum.”