There are two women’s cycling unions; only one is supported by the UCI

How did women's cycling go from having no union, to have two in the space of six months?

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The Cyclists’ Alliance is widely considered the de facto union for women’s cycling. Why then, does the UCI only recognise rival union CPA Women, which it also provides funding for? 

Historically, trade unions have come into existence to fight unfair working conditions and inadequate pay. The women’s pro peloton, existing within an archaic and, at times, downright misogynistic culture ought to have been the perfect environment for a labour movement to establish itself. But before 2017 there was nobody representing female cyclists’ interests to the UCI.

A union for the men, The Cyclistes Professionnels Associés, or CPA, has existed since 1999. The CPA’s original aim was to unite pre-existing national associations under an umbrella union to represent riders on issues which transcend national interests. The CPA has provided the men’s peloton with a ‘transition fund’ for when they retire, and represents them on issues such as safety.

In early 2017 a women’s union was finally founded by retired pro Iris Slappendel and fellow riders Gracie Elvin and Carmen Small, called The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA). Describing the function of TCA, a statement on the union’s website reads: “Run by former and current pros, The Cyclists’ Alliance provides holistic support to female cyclists during and after their careers. Funded purely by donations and subscriptions, our aim is to level the playing field and help the hard-working women of today’s peloton make a living from the sport.”

After decades of female riders being treated like second-class citizens, with nobody to represent their interests to the UCI, the women’s peloton would finally have their voices heard. 

In April 2017, Slappendel presented the UCI — whose 18-member management committee contains just two women — with the results of a rider survey conducted by TCA. The survey, which collected more than 100 responses, revealed that less than half of the riders surveyed received salaries, and many were asked to reimburse teams for costs such as mechanical support, travel, and equipment.

With this proactive approach, it would seem like TCA should have become the default union. But like the old adage about buses, you wait decades for a union to come along and then two come at once. In July 2017, three months after Slappendel presented the UCI with TCA’s rider survey, the CPA announced the formation of CPA Women, a dedicated branch of the association aimed at assisting female riders. 

CPA Women, however, only became formally recognised as a separate arm of the CPA at the group’s most recent general assembly on March 8, 2021. In mid March the CPA announced that Christine Majerus would represent the women at the UCI Safety Commission for the first time. It’s not exactly clear why the UCI opted to start its own women’s union rather than supporting an existing union that was steadily gaining popularity.

While TCA issues regular press releases and updates on its website and is prolific on social media, CPA Women is far less vocal about what it’s working on. However, Marion Clignet, former pro and deputy director of CPA Women, insists that this is due not to a lack of action but because the CPA is too busy working for the women’s peloton to issue public statements.

“They’re more vocal, about what they’re doing, they communicate more,” she says of TCA. “That, in the public eye, makes it look like they’re more popular, but they can’t do anything, because we’re the ones who are representing the riders.” 

Technically, Clignet is right. Despite ostensibly being less active in its lobbying of the UCI, the CPA is the only riders’ union to be officially recognised by the governing body, while TCA remains independent. 

“Sometimes it slows it down,” says TCA’s operations officer, Lexi Brown, “and it would just be easier to have direct comms with the UCI. But we’re not recognised and therefore, I don’t think the UCI technically do have to engage with us.” 

In February, the UCI announced that it had officially recognised and made financial contributions to both CPA Women and the new women’s teams union, UNIO. The UCI did not mention TCA in its statement.  

Asked whether she considered it a potential conflict of interest for the CPA to receive a financial contribution from the governing body which the CPA petitions on behalf of riders, Clignet insisted that it was “not a payoff or a buy-off of any sort,” and “that’s not going to make us petition any less.” She maintained that the money was “a small amount”.

I approached the UCI for comment on how it ensures its funding of CPA Women does not constitute a conflict of interest, and why it will not recognise TCA. A spokesperson for the UCI said that any financial contributions have “always been construed as a contribution towards their administrative costs and, in particular, for participation in the committees and working groups of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).” 

The organisation added that, “the recent decision to provide a financial contribution to the CPA Women, the recognised interlocutor of the UCI for the representation of the women’s peloton, is consistent with what has been in place in men’s cycling for many years.” 

The UCI also confirmed that “the funds are managed at the discretion of the beneficiaries, without interference from the UCI” but that “recipient entities” are asked to submit yearly accounts to ensure that the funds are “used appropriately”. The spokesperson did not define what the UCI considers “appropriate”. 

While the UCI addressed the funding of CPA in its statement, it did not explain why it refuses to recognise TCA. The UCI’s insistence that recognising and providing funding for CPA Women is an extension of “what has been in place in men’s cycling for many years” seems to overlook the general consensus among those involved in women’s cycling that following in the men’s footsteps is not necessarily conducive to progress.

Brown poses rider membership numbers as a possible cause for TCA being overlooked. She stated that, at 160 members, TCA represents only 15% of the total road peloton of 931 riders. What this number belies, however, is the fact all of these members have actively approached TCA for representation and paid a €50 membership fee, whereas CPA membership is automatic through national associations.

While CPA Women receives funding through the UCI’s grant and the wider CPA organisation— which is funded mainly through men’s prize money — TCA relies on external support as well as membership fees. The alliance recently received a $75,000 grant from the Rapha Foundation, part of which, Brown says, was used to hire an Ethics Officer, lawyer Judith van Maanen, to support riders who bring abuse claims such as in the recent case involving HealthMate manager Patrick van Gansen

In light of failings in the UCI’s complaints procedure — including not updating complainants on proceedings while keeping the accused informed— Van Maanen sent a series of recommendations to the UCI’s Ethics Commission, which was also published on the TCA website. “They haven’t responded yet,” she says. “And normally, the responses are not really fast.”

Clignet, the deputy director at CPA Women, described Van Maanen’s recommendations as “spot on,” saying, “we agree with them wholeheartedly and I really believe that being a united front will help us in this battle.” 

Van Gansen was given a meagre and retroactive three-year suspension by the UCI and required to take “a course addressing the matter of workplace sexual harassment to be provided by a recognized professional institute” should he wish to return to the sport, which he is eligible to do as early as December 2022. The disgraced manager was accused by multiple riders of sexual harassment and found guilty of breaching the UCI Code of Ethics by the organisation’s Disciplinary Commission. 

In a statement communicating the decision, the UCI wrote that it welcomed the paltry sanction which, in the UCI’s view, “sets an important precedent with respect to sexual harassment.” 

Clignet was unequivocal in her stance on the sanction: “He should be forbidden to come back into the women’s peloton, end of story, period,” she says. “The whole ethical thing [changing the Code] they said, ‘yeah, that’s on the top of our list,’” says Clignet. “But, you know, nothing has been done, and they won’t get around to it until next year. So we’re gonna push harder.” 

TCA has said it will also use funding from its grant to retain recently retired riders such as Gracie Elvin and Claire Rose, who were previously involved on a voluntary basis. “We want to keep them in the programme but they obviously need income,” says Brown. “At the end of the day, they have the experience and the direct link to the current women’s peloton. They’ve got those relationships, people trust them, they’ve spent their years in the racing scene. And riders feel way more comfortable coming directly to the riders.” 

TCA’s reach extends beyond its core membership. Its rider survey — which this year will be canvassing riders separately on economic and employment conditions, legal and ethical issues, and team culture — now receives over 130 responses annually.  

Despite not having a direct seat at the UCI table, TCA is still able to carry out its role as a union effectively. TCA was instrumental in bringing about the minimum wage requirement for the newly established Women’s WorldTour at the beginning of 2020, within which riders also benefit from basic working rights such as maternity leave and health insurance.

Beyond its role in petitioning for better working conditions for riders, TCA also explained that it provides free-of-charge legal advice and educational support as well as services such as a rider agent approval system. Recently, TCA offered free support to British riders struggling with Brexit-related visa complications. “What sets the TCA apart,” says Brown, “is that it’s not just representation at a basic level, it’s support every step of the way.”

The men’s peloton has taken inspiration from this independent model. In an interview with Eurosport on the newly established independent men’s Riders’ Union, board member and rider agent Andrew McQuaid cited TCA as his reason for wanting to get the initiative off the ground. The Riders’ Union launched in October 2020, just one month after UCI president David Lappartient dismissed rumours of an independent riders’ union using the uncannily familiar phrase, “fake news”. 

They may be rival unions, but CPA and TCA do cooperate with one another, particularly on wider issues such as sexual abuse and rider safety. “At the end of the day, we all want the same thing,” says Clignet of CPA. “There’s no better or worse union, it’s really now working together to move the whole peloton forward as a whole.”

Brown says TCA is equally happy to collaborate. “We don’t really need the UCI to recognise us,” she says. “It would be nice, especially when riders are proactively choosing us. But equally we would be really happy to work with the CPA to achieve goals together.” One advantage of being independent, she says, is that “we can, impartially represent the riders’ interests.” 

Clignet described her optimism for the future of women’s cycling as well as promising that the CPA is “working on communications and going about it differently.” She revealed that CPA Women is in talks with ASO about the promised women’s Tour de France “to ensure that the course will have some mythic [sic] climbs and that it will be up to par.” 

For both the CPA and TCA, ensuring better rights at Continental level is a priority. “We’d like to also move forward on the UCI Continental teams, because that’s where it seems to us to be sort of a free-for-all,” says Clignet.

Van Maanen’s assessment echoes Clignet’s. “There’s nothing at the Continental level,” she says. “There’s just not enough money. You want to have them at the same level, and with minimum wages and conditions, and not those weird contracts.”

Similarly, both unions are working towards ensuring riders are supported in their life after professional cycling. “One of our future projects is to create a transition fund for women,” says Clignet at CPA Women. TCA, meanwhile, is working on a mentoring programme to connect retiring riders with industry partners, as well as establishing its own retirement fund.  

The UCI might not recognise TCA, but riders increasingly do. The union has worked on making membership easier through donations and a rider sponsor scheme wherein supporters can buy a rider’s membership for them. “Our overall ambition as an organisation is that 100% of female professional cyclists have a stable and safe working environment,” says Brown. “Essentially, that comes down to pay and working conditions. But so much goes into making that happen.”

Given the CPA is the only union with a direct line to the governing body, TCA has no choice at the moment but to work with CPA to achieve its goals. “Ideally, we would like to have a transparent open dialogue with them [CPA],” says Brown “and especially on those issues that we can work together on.” 

The women’s peloton can rest assured that whether the UCI – with its 90% male Management Committee, obtuse jargon-filled statements, and protracted processes – decides to officially recognise TCA or not, TCA will continue to fight for riders’ rights.

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