Some 18 years after the Professional Cyclists Association (CPA) was created, the rider association has announced that it will have a women's section. It will be run by Alessandro Cappellotto, a former road race world champion and a vice president of the Italian riders' association (ACCPI).
Following the announcement, Cyclingnews sat down with Cappellotto to talk about the origins of the move and what the organisation hoped to achieve. It is the first time that women's cycling has had a body solely interested in the riders' interests and Cappellotto believes that a united voice will help push the sport along quicker than it has been over the past two decades.
Cyclingnews: How did the women's section of the CPA come about?
Alessandra Cappellotto: I was a rider so I think I know really well the problems of the women and the system also. How women's cycling works. After I won the World Championships in 1997 in Spain, after that I was the first woman who made an international team. I built a team and 20 years ago that was something new. It was something revolutionary in Italy and in women's cycling. We were the first women's team to have a truck for the bikes and a van and to have the bikes with the same sponsor as the team.
I loved being a rider, but I was always busy trying to do something. When I went inside the men's association ACCPI, I wanted to do something for women. Then, a few years ago, came the idea, why don't we help other women [internationally]? At last, after lots of work, the CPA gave us the ok to have this women's section.
CN: How long were you talking with the CPA before it was all agreed?
AC: Quite long. I have been promoting a women's CPA for more than a year. I started with the basic idea last winter. It is complicated to make a good programme with a good base to help women. The CPA is such an important association that I really wanted to build something that was really good and strong and not to make the CPA weaker.
CN: Did you have full support from the teams? Did you have discussions with the teams?
AC: I spoke with a lot of riders from a lot of teams. What I found was that many riders did not have any idea what the CPA was. I spent a lot of this year explaining to the riders that this sort of organisation existed for the riders. I also explained to them that it was a really great opportunity because they can help us to bring out our issues, to explain to the rest of the world what we want and what we need.
CN: There were discussions regarding having a women's association away from the CPA. Was this something that you were aware of?
AC: That was also an idea that we were thinking of at the beginning, but I don't think that we can stay alone. I don't think that women's cycling is strong enough to be alone, at this moment. I believe that if they are inside this organisation, women can really show what they want with a strong organisation. What I explained to the riders, we have to use the experience of the men and their power and their know-how to help us. To build something new, separate from them, I don't think that it would have worked.
CN: A lot of the issues that women's cycling faces are different to that of the ones the men face. Are you confident that a joint association is the best way?
AC: Yes. I was racing in the Tour de France when men and women were riding it at the same time for a few years. I was one of the riders there in 1988. During that time, the women could race doing the same stages as the men, just shorter. It was great to race with the men. I was quite young but I remember it quite well.
After that, women's cycling then was really popular, especially in Italy. It was a time when I was world champion and Fabiana Luperini was Giro d'Italia and Tour de France champion, and on the track Antonella Bellutti was twice Olympic champion. [Eventually] I retired, and for a while I was far from that world and when I came back, I was expecting that I would find something much better and stronger, and maybe richer. But when I see the cycling world now and I compare it to 20 years ago, I think that it has not really gone forward in that time.
CN: What do you think went wrong in that time?
AC: I think that the problem is that a lot of people busy trying to build something, like me with the GAS team, but we were not connected we were not together and I think that was what we were missing. I think to make women's cycling bigger, we really need to collaborate with the teams, the organisers and all the people that are in women's cycling. We must be really close and work together. It is not one against the other. We must work together.
My first experience of this was at the Giro d'Italia this year. I went out to see what it was like following the race and I was there to help support the riders. It was a tough job to be there, but this is really necessary so that the girls can feel safe and if they have a problem like their room is not good enough then they can call me. Even these little things, to help them so that the girls don't have to go to their managers or the organiser for an easy problem that maybe we can arrange in advance.
I give you one practical example. One rider sent me a picture of their room where they were sleeping. The rooms had three beds, so they were sleeping with three people in a room and it was really hot and it wasn't so big. I went to the organiser to say that they couldn't do it, but they showed me the reservation and they had followed the UCI rules where the riders must sleep maximum two riders per room. It turned out that the director of the team had made the arrangement so that he could save money by putting the mechanics in the spare room. We also have to speak to the teams about these problems. They seem small but it's like when you have a stone in your shoe. It's small but it's always there.
CN: Will it just be you doing this role?
AC: The CPA has only just given its support for this project. So now we have to start the next part. We want something that is not too big and that can move fast. Each team will have one athlete that speaks for the whole team, or sometimes it might be two because of the languages. Normally, each team will have one who will speak with me about problems and tell me what they want. Then with the CPA president, Gianni Bugno, and I, we can go everywhere.
CN: You have said that women's cycling was not as strong as you'd expected when you came back. What are your thoughts on how the UCI has developed things in the last few years?
AC: I wouldn't say that it is worse than 20 years ago, but I am sure that if I compare 20 years ago to now, it is not so far in front. It seems to me they are in the same place. When I came back to the cycling world four years ago, I thought that women's cycling would be so much better, that the teams would be stronger and richer. I remember when I made that GAS team, I used a huge part of the budget, most of it, to pay the athletes and every rider had a salary, even the ones that were really young. That was 20 years ago. What I have heard now, is that there are some big teams where there are riders who don't have a proper salary. That is unbelievable, in my opinion. It is completely out of order.
This is one point, but the other point that is really important for us to work out straight away is the insurance. In Italy, we cannot say to the teams that they must have it but we are always in discussions with the broker to get special insurance for professional riders. Every year we ask the teams to use this insurance. We ask them to buy it because it is really cheap if they get it through us, but they have good coverage for the riders.
We always wish that a rider does not crash, but when it does happen it is really important that they have our insurance so that they are covered in hospital and the recovery clinic. This is something that the UCI needs to arrange. Until now, the insurance that the UCI suggests is not good enough to cover an athlete in a good way if they have an incident.
CN: What are the other priorities for the CPA?
AC: The ethical regulations for the teams. Each team must follow some ethical regulations. There are too many teams where the girls are afraid or where they are subjected to psychological pressures from the coach. The riders must have really good contracts. The agreement must be strong, because when they have that strong agreement, they don't feel so afraid about the team manager, or being fired or moving to the team. It must be a really good and safe contract for the girls.
CN: Earlier this year, one of my colleagues looked into sexual abuse within cycling and there were riders who reported instances of sexual abuse. Is that something that the CPA section will look into and prevent from happening?
AC: Inside the ethical regulations, of course, we will look at this point. It is difficult to write down these kinds of ethical regulations, but it must be done. We must also educate the riders. When you are in a team and your directeur sportif is a man, your masseur is a man, or your mechanic is a man, you spend the full year with these people together, of course sometimes what people say is not quite clear. Sometimes, as a man, you might say something joking or whatever. Things like that must never cross the line.
The rules about this sort of thing must always be clear. It is difficult to write down a regulation with all these kind codes of conduct. For this, the issue for the CPA is to make sure there is a minimum of two meetings a year where we talk to them about what they can accept and what they absolutely can't accept. It is something that really must be explained to the girls. I believe that if there had been this organisation before, the riders would be stronger and less afraid to talk about this sort of thing, and to be able to bring up problems like these so that we could stop people that do bad things.
CN: How would the CPA go about dealing with a team or an individual who had done something inappropriate, such as made a sexual advance, or a team that wasn't perhaps paying a rider on time?
AC: The CPA has professionals such as lawyers that can do this work for us. In my experience in Italy, and until now we have done really well with ACCPI, talking with the teams is best. I have resolved many problems between riders and teams, for example, with payment of the salary, and fighting between riders or a team.
The best way to resolve problems is to talk. Afterwards, if that doesn't work, then we can write a really nice letter from our lawyer where we say "this has happened, do you want to go to court or can we make a deal?" The CPA works in this way. First of all, we have all the professional people that can work for us, but I really believe that when you have the association the teams are more alert to doing things well and not making these mistakes or they will have a problem.
CN: What other aspects is the CPA hoping to deal with right away?
AC: Something that we have to speak with the national associations about, because the UCI has done some work on this, is that there must be a bigger prize money pot. The Giro d'Italia can't have such low prize money. That must be increased. The only really good race for this is the London Classic which has a really good prize money pot. [The women's Tour de Yorkshire also has a similar prize pot – ed]. When I was a rider, there was a race in Idaho which was organised by Hewlett Packard and that also had a huge prize fund. It was the richest along with the Philadelphia World Cup race. It was something where you could have a lot of satisfaction.
In this Women's WorldTour, there are also points for the teams. I really believe - it's a little far from the CPA's point - but the UCI must give the WorldTour teams more support. It is really expensive to travel to the races and when the UCI is trying to help women's cycling they must help the teams. The teams can then have a bit more money to make things better and have more for the salary too.
CN: What are the longer-term goals for the CPA?
AC: First of all, we want to make sure that the basics are good, such as insurance, the ethical regulations, the contracts and the increased prize money. After that then we need to look at increased exposure on television. This we can only ask from the UCI with the CPA. We can demand that a certain amount of hours on television. There must be a balance and I believe that the only way to be strong is to be with the CPA. Television will really make a big difference.
When you look at sports where men and women compete close to each other, like tennis and golf, the big difference is that they are both on TV at the same time and the same hours. Of course, it's a long way to go, but that is the goal. The public likes women's cycling. There isn't much difference. Ok, the men are a bit faster, but the fight is the same.
Women's cycling is something that is really special and it has to be shown to the world. We deserve it. I started more than 20 years ago, it is too long for women's cycling to be where it should be. It is too long. I am angry when I think about it. They deserve it, it is time.