Q&A: President of The Cyclists' Alliance
Inside the union for female pro cyclists. And what can be learned.
This week, we’re talking with Iris Slappendel, who is president of the The Cyclists’ Alliance (known as TCA) and was one of the original co-founders. The Cyclists’ Alliance is the organization that represents female pro cyclists.
While they may be best known for the annual rider survey they publish, which makes widely known the issues these athletes deal with, TCA also does a number of other things and advocates behind the scenes for female riders. We talked about what it means to be a recognized union v. an association, why the UCI won’t recognize them right now, how they’re able to work on key issues anyway, and what those issues are for female cyclists as opposed to the male riders. That includes things like the collapse of high-profile teams and how to deal with contracts, equipment, insurance, salaries, and races that never materialize.
Iris was, herself, a professional rider for 12 years and won the national road race title in the Netherlands in 2014.
(A thanks: This issue was brought to you by Precision Fuel & Hydration. Get 15% off your first order here.)
First off, I don’t know that a lot of our readers really know any of the history. I’m hoping you can start by just telling us how The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA) got started. You guys previously were part of the UCI.
So, historically there’s been no women’s union or union that represents the female athletes within professional cycling. There’s been a traditional men’s road union called the CPA, but they didn’t represent women at the time that I was racing from 2004 until 2016.
During the last phase of my career I was elected as a rider-representative on the UCI Riders Athletes Council, to represent women cyclists. You’re then in a few different commissions too, like the road commission, where I represented men and women. And I thought, ‘Great!’ Now, my peers elected me, but how do I actually communicate with them? There are very important topics that we discuss here, but I don’t actually know how they all feel about these things. So I just thought it would be better if I would be able to talk to them and be more prepared. For me, I really felt that I was sharing the voice of the peloton and not just my own opinion.
That was one thing and, another, I also had some struggles in my career—with team managers, for example—and I realized that there wasn’t anyone you could go to for help. I’ve always lived on a very small salary, even when I was on really good teams. So you, as a rider, don’t have the financial capacity to hire a lawyer whenever you’re in it with your team manager about something small. I never had an agent or someone looking at my contract, all these kinds of things.
That’s when I thought: ‘It’s kind of weird, there’s a group representing male cyclists, but not actually female cyclists.’
And the last thing that was really important was that, especially for those last few years I was racing in 2015 and 2016, a lot happened in women’s cycling. For example, the UCI announced the introduction of the women’s World Tour. And, at that time, I was also on the women’s road commission. We were talking about salaries and other things that would be put in place. And, again, I thought, ‘It’s strange that the sport is progressing, things are changing, but the main people—the athletes—they don’t have a united voice in this.’
For me, those were the three most important things in my own experience: the lack of influence, the fact that there was nobody representing women cyclists, and the progress of the sport.
Why couldn’t the CPA represent female athletes? It’s supposed to represent all the riders, right? So why wasn’t that sufficient?
At the time, I had some discussions with the CPA and their opinion was like: Well, if the women don’t earn a salary and if they miss certain things, like insurance and certain levels of contract, then we don’t consider them professionals and therefore we don’t represent them.
That was their opinion. I do need to say the CPA was, at that time and maybe still is a little bit, a dinosaur organization with a lot of old school cyclists.
The second thing: I also felt it was not a nice environment to be in as a female, to be a part of those meetings, for example.
And the whole system, the structure of the CPA, is that it’s a union of unions. It’s an international union and their members are actually the national unions: the French union, the Spanish union, the Italian union. At the time, they had eight members and I think now they have five. As a rider, sometimes you’re a member of that national union, sometimes your country doesn’t have a national union, and sometimes you’re sort of an automatic member of the national union (which is legally also not allowed). So it’s a very indirect system and it’s really hard, as a rider, to have direct influence. I also thought that was really weird that as a rider you don’t have direct membership, but all riders do pay the CPA because they take a part of everyone’s prize money.
This system, to me, was really broken. We thought, first of all, we want to make our own organization because we have our own issues. We want to be taken seriously. And it needs to be a future-proof organization, not with such an old-fashioned set-up.
So when did you all start the TCA? And how is it structured: Is it officially a union or more like an association?
We’re registered as an association. But our structure is that every UCI female rider in every discipline, basically from 18 years old on, can become a member. They can just subscribe at our website. Generally, these are riders who are part of UCI Continental or World Tour teams, or they’re racing internationally in track, mountain biking, or some other discipline. We have a board, which decides on strategy, and the board is elected by the members. We work with three-year terms on the board. And then we have a rider council, which is also elected by the members and consists of 11 riders across different disciplines and levels of the sport—we also try to have it as globally diverse as possible to get as much information from the different corners of the world. The President of the Rider Council is Ellen van Dijk and she, with Leah Kirchmann, also sit on the TCA board.
With the TCA board we really try to have a group of people that have certain expertise, legal or commercial, and then the rider-representative part. And then we have a team with all different skills sets—like we have two legal staff members, we have our executive director, Jean-François Reymond, who has worked for different player unions before.
How are you funded? Is it dues?
The dues are €50 a year, and they get free legal services, they can be a part of our mentor program, we have a nutritionist, an independent medical advisors. We have a duty of care framework, so we have different educational webinars. That’s basically the benefits they get as riders. I know it’s not a big deal, but for it is for some riders, who already earn no salary. Of course, it’s not enough, we can do more.
The first four years we worked on a budget of maybe €6,000 a year. The last few years, we have some funding, most from industry partners. For example, Strava is currently a big sponsor. We have Zwift and some other partners. Some of these are linked to a dedicated program and that makes it a little bit easier for them, because they can give workshops, have access to riders who are retiring out of the sport and can offer work experience. (There’s also, in the cycling industry, a lack of women, so in that way it’s also a bit of a win for them.)
But, I do see us as a union, because we represent the female peloton.
Here in the U.S., I’m used to unions negotiating and representing, like, a contract with an employer. Do you all do that?
Not yet. I should say, what we do at this moment is more advocating for change. Thanks to a yearly survey we’ve done since the beginning, we get a lot of data on the economic situation of riders, their salaries, their education, reasons why they leave the sport, safety. And with the results of that we can go to the UCI, we can go to teams, and we can say, ‘The problem is here, or here; this is where we should work on things, etc.’ Thanks to those hard figures, we’ve been able to advocate for minimum salary, and at the World Tour level for maternity leave, for example, for an improved ethics procedure and some other things.
Because we are not officially recognized by the UCI, we are not a party at the table like the CPA is. On the one hand, that’s a little bit annoying because it is difficult for riders to understand the whole system and to see the differences between the different organizations. On the other hand, though, of course we do get quite a lot of things done through working directly with UCI staff members.
At this moment, there is no collective bargaining agreement for women in cycling. There are just regulations put in place by the UCI—thanks to us advocating for them. Yes, it would be amazing if we could negotiate a collective bargaining agreement for the riders and we believe we can do that, even without being recognized by the UCI; it’s all about being recognized by the teams.
But I do think it’s kind of strange that the UCI says, ‘OK, we recognize you because you represent a big part of the peloton, but we don’t want to sit with you at the table because there’s already a union and, secondly, we fund that union and we don’t want to fund two unions.’ And even if I say that we don’t want your money, because that makes us dependent on the UCI and that’s not something that is really favorable for a union, they still don’t want us.
On the whole, cycling is such an old-fashioned sport, especially the governing bodies and big race organizers. They prefer to keep things as much as possible as it is right now, because then they have the most power.
It seems like you’re able to get a lot done, though.
I do think that sometimes, because we are independent, we don’t get money from those stakeholders, then we don’t have to be afraid for…well, it’s not even a job, I’m a volunteer, I have my own day job. But, that’s still a very good position to be in: If you really want to make change, you don’t make change by being friends with everybody.
We were talking before we started about triathlon. Have you looked at how other sports do it, running or triathlon or swimming. Obviously, the big sports in the U.S., football or basketball, have collective bargaining, but even sports that are more similar to cycling: Have you talked to them on how to get this all done?
It’s one of the reasons that we got Jean-François Reymond on board last year as a director, because he comes from basketball and has worked with EU athletes. He’s been working way more with those kinds of sports that have collective bargaining agreements. We have also talked with different sports as well. For example, the Surf League I think is really interesting. Another one where it’s maybe a little bit similar is the PTO, though it’s more a league than a union of course.
There’s also a very big difference between Europe and the U.S., like how we look at sports. And it might also be hard to change a sport like cycling—I mean I love it, but it’s such an old-fashioned sport.
I think there is an opportunity for women’s cycling to do it differently, because women’s cycling doesn’t have the history men’s cycling has and they can do things in a different way. Everyone tries to keep copying men’s cycling into women’s cycling, but then we will just make the same mistakes in the end. That’s a bit of a missed opportunity.
I’ve looked at your survey every year, so I can probably guess the answer to this, but what do you think are the biggest issues you see in women’s cycling? What were they when you were a rider, and what’s gotten better?
The financial situation is probably still the biggest issue for riders and what we see is that at the top of the sport it’s really improving, but on the Continental level, with riders getting into the sports, basically nothing’s changed.
People always like to compare men’s cycling and women’s cycling, but I believe in women’s cycling the issue is more about the disparity within the peloton. We should not have a top-down approach, but the other way around. Look at how can you improve things for the girls who come into the sport, to make sure they stay in the sport and have a safe working environment, that they’re not constantly disappointed by empty promises. It’s a very similar problem in men’s cycling, but in men’s cycling you have three tiers so there is a little bit more of a stepping stone career path, and it’s so much bigger. In women’s cycling, because it’s so much smaller, there’s also less talent coming into the sport of course. We have to be way more careful with that talent.
Is that what you all are focusing on? I know in the survey this year it said 25% of riders still don’t get paid. Is that going to be your focus for next year?
It’s really the working conditions on the Continental teams. The salary on those teams is not even the biggest issue for riders, or prize money. Really the biggest issue is to be able to have a safe working environment, to make sure that your team and yourself are insured, that you have a race program, that you have proper equipment, that you have professional staff with you at the races. That if you have a contract all the parties stick to that contract.
Because at the beginning of the year, when riders sign contracts, the sky is the limit, but at the end of the season we see, especially on some Continental teams, that riders get disappointed time and time. Sometimes they’re even in dangerous situations. It’s stuff like not capable staff members or 10 riders in a team house with two bedrooms. It all sounds amazing if you’re from the UK or Australia, you think ‘Oh, I have a contract with a Spanish team, I can race in Europe!’ But if you’re in the middle of nowhere, in a team house with no salary, no team car, there’s nowhere you can go; if you crash out of a race and you have a concussion, and you get no medical care, you’re not insured. Those are the situations that really worry us.
This is really the first priority. There are a few regulations in place, but not enough. And then it’s important that the stakeholders, like the national federations or the UCI, make sure that if a team doesn’t stick to a regulation or their contract that there are consequences.
Then, the next step is having a salary, being able to live off your sport. There are definitely riders who still are able to live at home or to study. It’s not realistic to say every Continental riders should have a $50,000 salary a year; that money is not available now. We have to do it step by step. Really the safety, the working conditions, it’s the most important.
Another thing we’ve been really active about is visibility, of riders, of races. We have seen that increasing a lot in the last few yers and that means there’s more money going into the sport. Obviously, it’s not just cycling, but all women’s sports—but women’s cycling is growing. More money, more visibility, more attention.
Has it gotten better since you were a rider?
Yeah. In my best days, I made €20,000 a year, maybe €24,000. I think if I was that same kind of rider now, I would make maybe €70-80,000. That has increased a lot in just 5, 6, 7 years.
And there are a lot more opportunities now, because the races are more visible. There are more opportunities for riders to work on their own brand. In my time, when I was racing, people only knew Marianne Vos, basically because she won everything and was in the newspaper. Now, this year, I did commentary for some women’s races on Eurosport, and if we have a three-hour broadcast I can also talk about the other riders in the peloton, in the early break, etc. So there is more story you can tell.
There are all kinds of studies showing that female athletes are capitalizing on building their brand, and they’re doing a better job at connecting and delivering value for sponsors.
I think that’s also probably because brands see an opportunity where they get with a different kind of role model. Trek is a good example. They hired Lizzie Deignan when she was still pregnant with her first kid. They gave her a multi-year contract, and it was a big experiment because almost nobody had done it before. They didn’t know if she would be the top rider she was before but they knew she had a great story that would appeal to a lot of their customers. I think it’s a good example of looking at branding athletes in a different way.
Is there anything else you wish other sports knew about female cyclists?
It’s important that we keep working closely with the athletes, so they always know ‘we have the TCA backing us.’ That makes a big difference compared to when I was a rider and I felt often like I was on my own. I think it’s a really powerful thing.
What I really appreciate about the women’s peloton is that, since we started, we’ve been able to unite in one association and be really vocal and strong. And, I would say, in general, female athletes are pretty smart. The level of education in the peloton is quite high, and it’s really special to see that if you are united a sa group there are a lot of things you can get done.
This issue was brought to you by Precision Fuel & Hydration. Get 15% off your first order here.