2014 was a really exciting year for women’s cycling, with a lot more video of races, new teams appearing, and I genuinely believe that the UCI women’s commission is doing it’s best to try to change the culture around women’s cycling. So it’s depressing to read this article on La Bicicleta México, alleging Mexican riders on Estado de México-Faren not only haven’t been paid, but also have faced discrimination within the team and unacceptable treatment from team staff.
These stories are depressingly familiar. Every year I hear off the record reports about riders just not being paid, or being treated badly, and when they complain, nothing happens as a result. When I tweeted about this, some people justifiably asked me why riders don’t talk about this publicly, but there’s something incredibly insidious about these situations, because riders who ‘rock the boat’ by complaining then face the inherent risks in being seen to be ‘difficult’.
Within cycling, reputation is really important – it is a team sport, after all, so if a rider is seen as ‘difficult’, even if she’s raising issues she’s got every right to complain about, she has less of a chance of getting a berth on another team, and could end up blacklisted. And then you hear about riders going to the UCI to complain about not getting paid, and the only result being the team sacking her, taking her bike away and denying her the opportunity to ride, and that can be the end of a career she’s sacrificed so much for, gone in an instant.
There are exceptions, of course – Nicole Cooke, in her retirement statement, talked about taking FOUR different teams to court over failure to pay her wages, and I love that she didn’t back down over it. But Cooke was a World and Olympic champion, and god knows she had tenacity, so she was in a position where she could do that – and she still had to do it over and over again. What upsets me about these stories is that, as in the Estado de México-Faren story, it’s more often riders at domestique levels complaining, riders who know there are tons of others just as good as them – and in the Mexican riders’ case, riders who are on another continent, facing a language barrier, trapped in really scary, precarious situations, who have given up everything to ride, feeling abused and if they rock the boat, might not be able even to get home.
And of course Cooke didn’t have things easy when she did speak up. We’ve seen how, for example, British Cycling responded to criticism by both Cooke and Pooley by labelling them ‘difficult’ publicly (examples where Cooke and Pooley have been criticised – those are the first I googled, there are many more). If World Champions can’t speak up about issues they face, who can?
I’ve heard genuinely frightening stories – and even more “just” depressing ones too. For example remember Emma Pooley talking about being phoned at midnight by Jonathan Vaughters’ lawyers? Or Bridie O’Donnell talking about being treated really badly, being accommodated in a shared room with a 9 year old, or Carmen Small being expected to make team staff lunch and do their washing? This is not how professionals should be treated, definitely not how pro men are treated. In so many stories there’s literally nothing a rider can do, and for everything I’ve read like those accounts where a rider talks about these issues, I’ve heard at least ten “off the record” reports, where riders know if they go public, things will be worse. It’s crazy that the same team names come up over and over and over again, and yet we see them continue to get UCI registration.
And of course, as Shane Stokes pointed out on twitter, the whole threat of being labelled “difficult” is unfair in itself. It’s fine for men in cycling to be high-maintenance, that’s a symptom of them being passionate about cycling. Of course, it helps that the media is not just open to their stories, but actively encourages confrontation. Remember the Contador v Armstrong Tour de France media war? Or the Froome v Wiggins public battles, the soap operas endlessly being played out over every media platform? Riders who literally get into fights during and after races, in front of tv cameras. There is no way that kind of behaviour would be allowed from the women, even if the cycling media did enable it. The only story I can think of that’s vaguely similar for the women is “Lizzie Armitstead and British Cycling criticise Nicole Cooke over the Worlds“, and that’s from 2011, and of course has BC taking a key role and a clear side, rather than watching as the Sky guys got more and more vitriolic over years. I guess Wiggins didn’t get to race the Tour de France, but that was excused by his form, not his personality, and there’s no question that Wiggins or Froome don’t get to race Commonwealths, Worlds, the Olympics, despite the public conflict.
So why is this a problem? Well, of course, this isn’t only a cycling issue. John Stevenson sent me a link to just one recent report about the difference in men’s and women’s performance reviews in business – and how men are never referred to as abrasive, and this is just one of hundreds of such studies. Women are seen as “difficult”, where in the same situations, men are “passionate”, “determined”, “single-minded”. It’s this socialisation thing, but also tied into power, and we know how much women have of that in cycling. The World Tour men have rider representation, as well as a voice in the media to help whip up outrage – and the UCI has been so busy with doping and corruption scandals, things like riders not being paid have been way down their list of priorities. You can argue that maybe more women should make a fuss, but while a rider complaining publicly and being seen to be sacked as a result may be useful in the long term, it doesn’t help her at all.
I am hopeful for the future, however. If these allegations are true, messing with government funded riders is a big mistake, and I love that La Bicicleta have reported this. I truly believe that the people on the UCI Women’s Commission would be outraged by the allegations and get an investigation, and will do all they can to change systems.
I’ve said this before, the UCI and Federations could easily put into place processes where riders with issues can raise them, and get support, so that if a team tries to take petty revenge, there are consequences. It should be simple – teams already have to put down an €20,000 deposit for UCI registration – if a rider isn’t paid her contracted wage, the UCI can take the payment out of that, and not let the team re-register until they can prove this won’t happen again. And where riders feel they are being treated badly, provide some kind of arbitration/support, as workers in businesses can get. Expand the riders’ union to include women, and track what happens to riders if they do complain, making it clear that retribution is not an option, not if teams want to compete at the highest level. There can be change, it’s simple – let’s see it happen!
(It’s been said to me on twitter that there are legitimate reasons why teams can’t pay riders, and yes, I’m sympathetic to that, but I’m always going to be more sympathetic to the rider who can’t pay her rent, or feed herself, as a result of a team trying to operate at top levels on shoe-string budgets. Again, these situations are what the €20k UCI bond should be for – if a team’s in that much trouble, use that money for pay. It sounds harsh, but if a team is so up against it that they are in danger of not being able to pay riders their contracted wages, for months at a time, I don’t think they should be in professional sport. Yeah, it might mean that one or two teams go under, but if they’re only surviving at the expense of riders, that’s no loss, in my view. Harsh? Maybe. But the bottom line is no one should be expected to race in a UCI-level team for free, especially not if she was promised a wage.)