Reports of sexism and abuse in women’s cycling have been trickling out for some time – and now a body of work based on evidence from 12 anonymous riders shows plenty more have stories to tell.
The report, published by The Outer Line, is based on interviews with women who represent a cross section of UCI Women’s World Tour (WWT) riders. Comments from those who prefer to remain nameless back up the reports we’ve heard from the small number who felt brave enough to risk their careers to speak out.
The twelve riders represent five nationalities. Three come from current or former top 5 UCI teams, 4 come from the lower half of the WWT, and the others race or have raced for lower ranked teams.
"Rather than being rare exceptions, abusive behavior and rampant harassment actually define the standard working conditions"
The investigators behind the study - Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell – opened with their overarching conclusion: “A legacy of abuse and sexism unfortunately continues to simmer just beneath the surface of women’s professional cycling – and particularly within the smaller and more thinly-supported teams. This negative culture puts many cyclists at risk, and severely undermines the sport’s reputation and potential for long-term economic growth."
They added: “Rather than being rare exceptions, abusive behavior and rampant harassment actually define the standard working conditions faced by many women racing today."
The pair investigated three key themes: financial manipulation, psychological control, and physical abuse.
The report states that the women came with “many similar accounts of contract negotiations being deliberately changed or sabotaged" and that the riders felt “they are valued less or dismissed more quickly because they are women in a male-dominated sport".
It was stated that of the 41 women’s elite and pro squads registers with the UCI, the top half-dozen alone have the budget to professional support a team. Riders confirmed that: “team finances can be very shady, and a contract is often not worth anything in the end."
Of the 41 women’s elite and pro squads registers with the UCI, the top half-dozen alone have the budget to professional support a team.
Riders said that managers would refuse to pay wages, and “punish" riders for offences such as being “overweight". One responder said she was charged €2000 for a pair of wheels that were damaged in a race-related crash.
Contracts, it seems, are changeable – as one rider explained: “I was promised a specific contract, in writing, during the summer. But a few days before the signing deadline, when I received the official contract, they had changed everything! I would only get salary for part of the year, and essentially at only half the rate I was promised in the emails. And by then, it was so late in the year that most other teams wouldn’t return my calls, because I had already told them I wasn’t interested."
"The DS gave her a gift in front of everyone at a team meeting... inside was a fake penis mounted on a trophy base"
Yelling, manipulative behaviour and “fat shaming" are prevalent. One rider shares a shocking in story, in which a DS (director sportif) presented a rider with a ‘present’ with the singular aim of embarrassing and shocking her.
She says: “One of my teammates had put up with so much yelling from our DS, that one day she finally started crying and announced she was quitting. Before she left, however, the DS gave her a gift in front of everyone at a team meeting. When she opened it, inside was a fake penis mounted on a trophy base, like an award. Then he congratulated her as she held the open box, and told her she earned it, because she was the first woman on the team that he had made cry."
Another adds: “The team manager refused to let me race again unless I moved into a team ‘house’ and allowed him to ‘monitor’ me. He said if my training met his expectations, he’d let me race again and pay me. I didn’t know exactly where the house was, and no one could tell me who else would be living there. I was seriously concerned about my safety in that situation."
A rider who did take the plunge and move into the ‘team house’ recounts the experience: “I was isolated – I wasn’t allowed to use the team car, my food was essentially rationed, and he even had one of the neighbors spying on us to tell him if we returned too early or late from training rides. I was nearly held prisoner – on the promise of racing in the WorldTour."
The abuse goes beyond words and manipulation – too – as well as occurrences of violence, the writers state: “riders are expected to perform even when injured or sick, often under the threat of withheld salary or a monetary fine."
Body shaming and fat shaming seem to be worryingly prevalent. We’re used to hearing these terms bandied around on social media, but in the case of these athletes sometimes the shaming went further than words typed on a screen. One riders says: “The DS constantly demanded that I lose weight. He even restricted my food intake on endurance days during camp! The lack of proper nutrition got so bad that the soigneur had to sneak me energy bars whenever I was fading."
Recounting a story from a training ride, one pro says her DS once drove “erratically" alongside her, “hurling f-bombs" after she and a team mate dropped their pace after a hill climb effort. She comments: “my teammate truly thought that he was going to hit me with the car and she feared for both of our lives."
“I am legitimately scared of some men in this sport."
Sexual abuse is currently being investigated by the British and Dutch governing bodies – and the report states: “it is a definite concern within women’s cycling". Two riders repeated the same phrase around men currently working in UCI pro women’s cycling: “I am legitimately scared of some men in this sport."
The women in the pro peloton are tough – reporter’s state: “despite these pervasive cultural problems, all of the riders interviewed indicated a desire to stay in the sport, particularly as the wave of optimism for the WWT [Women's World Tour] grows."
What they need is more regulations, more rules, and somewhere to report abuse aside from anonymously to a group of researchers. Currently their only option is emailing the UCI Ethics Commission - where Article 21 of the UCI Code of Ethics states:“the person submitting the file shall have no entitlement for proceedings to be opened, to be a party to proceedings or to be informed of any decision passed."
One rider commented: “We don’t have any association who will back us up when we have a problem. The men’s riders have the CPA [Cyclistes Professionnels Associes]; but if we speak out individually, we can get blacklisted and likely not get another good contract. The standards are only on paper, and it seems like no one at the UCI or the Federations really keeps the women’s teams in line. We can’t afford to not to be on a team, so we just don’t speak up."
Most seemed hopeful that the newly created WWT would mean more TV time, more funding, and fewer cases of abuse. More women are being encouraged into management, too – which may reduce the risk of women feeling ‘legitimately scared’ of DS’.
The report makes somber reading. Though it concludes that the situation is on the up, that “the level of professionalism in the top-ten teams is notably improved from just a few years ago" – clearly action needs to be taken now to protect those still at risk.