Op-Ed: The Institutional Sexism in Cycling Needs to End
Former pro road rider Iris Slappendel founded the first labor union for women cyclists with one goal: getting team managers, sponsors, and riders to treat male and female cyclists with equal respect, 'cause that sure isn't happening now
I first realized I could be a great professional rider when, at age 18, I won bronze at the 2003 Junior World Championships. My coach said I was the strongest cyclist in the race, but that I still had a lot to learn about skills and confidence. I loved the idea that with enough hard work, training, and patience, I could rise to the upper echelons of my sport. But what I didn’t realize then was how many challenges I’d face throughout my career because of my gender.
There is widespread institutional sexism in cycling culture. Women in the sport are groomed to believe that we don’t deserve as much media attention, prize money, or sponsorship investment. Take salaries, for example. The UCI, cycling’s international governing body, requires that WorldTour male cyclists get paid at least $37,000 annually. There is no such mandate for women. According to recent research, half of female pros earn less than $11,800 per year.
I experienced much of this discrimination firsthand. A former team manager once kept me from eating at a training camp because he thought I looked too fat. I’ve had prize money withheld for violating unwritten team rules, such as wearing the wrong socks with my uniform and competing on my own during a gap in the team’s schedule. I’ve had teams not pay me at all.
My first real contract negotiation was an important lesson in self-worth. At the time, I was on a combined top men’s and women’s professional team. It was great to have an equal level of support, but the top men were paid 10 to 20 times more than the top women. My male teammates could make up over $500,000. When the team asked me, “What do you need to be able to live?”, I estimated about $1,000 monthly. That became my salary. Now I see more clearly that the real question isn’t about what I need—it is what I deserve.
Those paychecks are a crucial part of establishing equity in professional cycling. Many people have told me, “Oh, you’re much better off than the men, they’re just in it for the money.” These fans purport to celebrate women’s dedication to the spirit of the sport, and they claim that our love of cycling is a better reward than money. But I’ll tell you what: Love does not pay a living wage. If all we receive in exchange for our pain, dedication, and skill is a bike, some racing clothes, and a handful of Euros each month, are we being treated equally as professional athletes? Or are we being defined as pretty women riding bikes?
Today, after years spent arguing with our national federations and other agencies about remedying these economic, sexist, and sometimes even physical abuses, there is still very little organizational support for women. There is almost no follow up after we lodge formal complaints, about pay or harassment, we have no protections from retaliation, and as a result, almost no sanctions are ever carried out against managers, support staff, or even officials. No major sport for men or women has been successful without the athletes having seats and votes at the decision-making table.
I want to help make that happen.
The greatest progress in women’s racing will come when our athletes truly understand their power as a group of talented professionals.
Late last year, I and a small board launched the Cyclists’ Alliance, the first global labor union for women pro riders. We want to help change the sport’s culture, its business model, and its public image. Negotiating a minimum salary is one of our early goals, but that's just one small step forward. When we define what we deserve, the business of the sport has to evolve economically as well.
We hope that the Cyclists’ Alliance will change the culture of women’s cycling in partnership with the sport’s governing bodies, teams, race organizers, and sponsors. We will help shape what women’s professional cycling looks like competitively on the road and how it is run in the boardrooms, so that the equality of opportunity, athlete treatment, and the minimum wage can progress hand-in-hand. Cycling isn’t just about breakaway speeds: it’s about telling a authentic story and connecting with fans. We have amazing stories to tell. Now we have a union to represent those voices at the very top levels of our sport.
The greatest progress in women’s racing will come when our athletes understand their power as a united group of talented professionals. The reforms we're seeking are the building blocks of a healthy, global team sport. We can be owners through business negotiations and governance votes. We want to make our athletes strong ambassadors for cycling and to help our teams be more successful when it comes to tracking down sponsorship dollars from a diverse group of new investors. So far, we've started creating athlete-development programs that connect experienced professionals as mentors for young riders.
By backing ethical integrity and anti-doping policies, we can help change the global perception of cycling. We want to increase leadership roles for women in cycling not because of gender-equality rules, but because our education, experience, and professionalism can create lasting change.
Most of all, I would like the world to appreciate the beauty and power of women’s cycling. We are more than just women who ride bikes. We are professionals and role models, women of strength and conviction, and by joining together, we can change women’s racing today and for generations to come.
Iris Slappendel was a professional road cyclist for 12 years, and was the 2014 National Road Race Champion of the Netherlands. She is a UCI-certified Team Director and will be a part-time Director for the men’s Delta Cycling (Continental) team in 2018. Slappendel founded the Cyclists’ Alliance in 2017 along with former pro Carmen Small, and current pro Gracie Elvin. She currently resides near Rotterdam.