Cycling and the unspoken
Anyone who’s been a cycling fan for more than five minutes has had to confront the doping question, explaining to friends & family why we still follow the sport, explaining Lance Armstrong, looking at Tour de France performances and questioning them even when it’s riders we love. But sometimes I think the doping question is used as an excuse to hide every other issue. There’s a feeling out there in the media and some fans, that once we conquer doping, cycling will be sorted. As a women’s cycling fan, of course I know that’s not the case, but there’s a whole range of things that aren’t talked about in the media or on fansites – or at least publicly – and that make me angry. I love this sport, so much, but there are so many issues that worry me, enrage me, and make me feel helpless, because how can fans change things?
1. Why is cycling so white?
I’m British, so I’ll focus on the UK for a moment, but professional cycling in this country is overwhelmingly white. Yes, we have Shanaze Reade, in BMX, but the UK population is 11% Black and Asian, 14% if you include mixed-race people and other non-white categories, so why is it she’s the only recent non-white rider who’s come through British Cycling? When I look at who rides bikes in Bristol, where I live, I know that cycling isn’t segregated on the streets, and yet there isn’t that jump into the sport.
I don’t know if, in British Cycling’s case, it’s an overt thing, where they have decided cycling is a “white” sport, or if it’s an institutional thing, where selectors are unthinkingly favouring people who remind them of themselves (note, not that that’s forgiveable to me, it’s still the same result). I can’t imagine, when the stories of riders like Lizzie Armitstead and Jo Rowsell begin with “British Cycling came to my school and I tried out instead of going to a maths lesson” that the try-outs are unattractive to any kids – but maybe they are consciously or subconsciously targeting schools in very white areas? But that makes no sense, the velodrome’s in Manchester, a hugely diverse city….
There could be a case, I suppose, that British Cycling are spotting talent among Black kids, but they look at the sport and don’t see a place for themselves, and choose a sport like athletics or football or rugby, where they have role models and a place for themselves – but if that’s the case, BC should be working EXTRA hard to keep them in. After all, when an organisation is supported through the Lottery and public funding, they have a duty to develop cycling across all of the UK, and not just in certain groups, like white men.
France do a bit better that the UK, with Grégory Baugé and Olivia Montauban on the track, and Manon Valentino, who came 3rd in the 2013 BMX World Champs this weekend – but Europe is a diverse continent – while I am for the development of cycling in “non-traditional” nations, I don’t want to think that there’s more of a chance of a black kid from an African nation getting to be a pro rider than a Black kid from the UK, the Netherlands, the USA.
Of course, there is a lot of evidence that the men’s pro peloton is very, very unwelcoming to riders the majority don’t think “belong” – and that when there’s a loud assumption from a section of the fanbase and commentators that “All Spanish dope”, or that a rider who comes from Colombia must be inherently dodgy, and fmk tells me that “In terms of pure racism, I think JRB at Europcar has said he had to complain abt two top level teams’ attitude to his riders.” – and given the famous stories of how much bullying there was in the peloton over riders who didn’t want to dope, cycling seems especially unfriendly – and not just in terms of race…
2. Why are there no openly gay men in the peloton?
I’m in about three minds about this, because on the one hand I can think of a load of gay women in the peloton, but they don’t talk about it publicly so much – maybe because they’re not interviewed so much? – so there is a chance there are a load of happy, openly gay men and we just don’t know about it. But men’s cycling is so ridiculously heteronormative – you win kisses from podium girls as part of the prize, ffs, and then there’s the attitudes of riders and team managers. I’ve unfollowed a load of the young men because they use homophobic insults on twitter – and then there’s the whole other level of Oleg Tinkov, the sponsor of Saxo-Tinkoff, whose twitter is this cesspool of homophobia, sexism and all kinds of nasty. It really upset me, when Tinkov came to prominence during the Tour, how many fans and journalists I followed who were talking about him as “hilarious”, the best thing about the Tour, a breath of fresh air – again, if there’s a young gay lad who’s good at cycling, why would he start this sport?
Honourable mention here goes to AA Drink-Leontien.nl, when they existed. I liked the way their team profile included men and women, and in their rider Q&A sections, they asked something like “What’s your ideal man/woman like?”. If a rider specified a gender (“He’s got a sense of humour”) they changed the Q to that gender, which was great, seeing gay riders acknowledged as normal alongside their straight collegues – and if they didn’t, eg answered “Got to be funny” they left the Q as “man/woman” so it didn’t make assumptions. I loved that!
3. Eating Disorders in the peloton
This one has been bothering me for a long time. Cycling has an obvious issue here. Mara Abbott famously took time out from cycling because of her eating disorder, Marianne Vos spoke in her autobiography about how she nearly developed anorexia last year, Aussie rider Grace Sulzberger talked about how pressure to lose weight from a coach tipped her into life-threatening bulimia, and when Marta Bastianelli was caught doping, her coach talked about how she did all that climbing eating only salad, as if that’s was a good thing.
This one bothers me personally, because I never know what to say about it. Last year, Vos really looked far too skinny, and there are riders I’ve seen this year who worry me, when their knees look like the widest parts of their legs – but eating disorders aren’t something to gossip about, they’re serious things, and it can be as body shaming to accuse naturally skinny people of eating disorders as it is to shame people for being overweight. Ultimately, though, I feel helpless, because I look at these riders and worry and care about them, and want to know the people closest to them are making sure they’re ok. Marijn de Vries blogged about how riders feel the same, watching riders in the peloton – and also about the pressures to stay skinny. If anything, eating disorders are more openly discussed in the women’s peloton than the men’s, which mirrors how it is the the real world – but what, as a fan, can I do when I see a rider who looks ill on the bike? Talking about it feels wrong, saying nothing feels like it’s condoning it.
If there’s pressure to lose weight from team management, there seems like there’s also, in a small minority of teams, pressures to sleep with them too. Bridie O’Donnell wrote a couple of blogs alluding to this, and how on one of her teams, there was a clear message that sex = more races (I’d link to it, but her website is down at the moment, but it does exist, I promise!). I’ve heard (possibly apocryphal) stories about team managers who give preferential treatment to those who’ll sleep with them, or riders who were doped by their coaches who had been their lovers, starting when the riders were very young. I do wonder what protections there are to stop the young women being exploited? Especially if they’re in a foreign country, where they don’t speak the language etc. I stress, this seems an issue with a small minority of teams, but it shouldn’t happen to anyone.
(I am aware this might sound gossipy, but part of the issue is that with so much that’s publicly unspoken, it’s hard to know what’s gossip and what’s truth. I trust Bridie, and the people who’ve said things to me in conversation, but of course I don’t have “proof”, it’s unspoken!)
5. Riders not getting paid
Part of the problem with this is that there seem like there are no regulations and oversights of teams – and this often manifests in riders – men and women – not getting paid. Nicole Cooke was very vocal about this when it happened to her (see her retirement statement on her website or on the Guardian) – and again, I’ve heard stories of riders who went to the UCI to complain about not getting paid, and the only result was getting sacked from their team – and there’s one team where as far as I can tell, they haven’t paid or have delayed paying riders for at least three years in a row!
Because this remains unspoken, people continue to sign to these teams – but what really needs to happen is that there’s a system in place for National Federations and the UCI to protect riders – so if a rider isn’t paid, even for a month, there are systems in place, and riders aren’t penalised for using them. Women cyclists are notoriously underpaid, if they’re paid at all, but how are they supposed to live, if they have been given a contract that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on?
There are a lot of solutions for all of these issues, and the best ones start at the top. The UCI and the National Federations need to really examine their work, and see where they can improve – and to talk about these issues, and put into place plans for making things better. There is no shame in saying “We haven’t done enough to encourage Black or Asian riders, and this is what we’ll do about that” etc – in fact it can be admirable to recognise and admit issues and make changes.
Teams need zero-tolerance policies for racism, homophobia and bullying, and plans in place for what happens if they’re worried about their riders – as I know the best women’s teams already do.
And the UCI needs to put systems in place so riders can raise issues in a confidential way that won’t impact on them. I’ve heard over and over again that riders are worried about rocking the boat in case it impacts on their careers, and that should not be allowed to happen. When the “riders’ union”, the
AIGCP CPA only represents men in the World Tour, and has been headed by team owners, that’s not going to help – there need to be real structures in place that make it clear riders should be allowed to complain about issues like contracts being broken. ( I never understood what happens in the AIGCP, if complaints are made about the team managers/owners who are leading the group. Had that question answered in the comments – I’m confusing my organisations! Thanks Roger!). A rider who isn’t being paid can’t afford rent, let alone a lawyer! And if they’re from one country, based in another and riding for a team based in a third country, where do they start with the law?
Another solution is one I’ve suggested for other reasons before – introduce a “professional” level of teams for women, one with a minimum wage, and a set of clearly defined standards to abide by, so riders with multiple offers have an easy way to tell which teams are the “pro” ones – and if riders aren’t paid etc, that “pro” status is stripped from them.
I’ve thoroughly depressed myself, but I do think the solutions are relatively easy. I think it’s important that these things don’t remain unspoken, and that we hold the sport we love to high standards. Cycling is beautiful and brilliant, and together we can make it better.
UPDATE! I was interested to see this British Parliamentary Inquiry into Women & Sport announced. It opens on 1st August, and anyone can contribute, so if you’re in the UK and want to comment on women’s cycling, including it being shown on tv etc, you’ll be able to.