Esther Meisels is the third rider to leave the UCI women's team Health Mate Ladies Team this season, with the Israeli alleging abusive treatment and inappropriate behaviour from the team's general manager Patrick Van Gansen. Cyclingnews understands that Meisels, along with Sara Mustonen and Chloë Turblin’s father, have separately lodged two other formal complaints against Van Gansen with the UCI Ethics Commission, all within the last 12 months.
"I have decided to leave Health Mate Ladies Team due to abusive treatment and inappropriate behaviour by the team manager," Meisels wrote in a post on Instagram. "The UCI already has several complaints stacked against him, and I hope they take action. Until then, I know I have to distance myself from it. My happiness, mental well-being, and self-worth are more important than any bike race will ever be."
Van Gansen has rejected all claims of abusive and inappropriate behaviour towards the riders on Health Mate Ladies Team.
Meisels, 23, is a professional cyclist from Israel and started competing internationally in 2017. After a successful season last year where she was seventh at the UCI White Spot Delta Road Race, she joined the Belgian-based Health Mate Team at the start of 2019.
At the start of the year, Meisels moved to the team headquarters in Ekeren, Belgium, and into the team house that was owned by Van Gansen. Meisels told Cyclingnews that during her short time on the team, Van Gansen frequently showed a bad temper that made her feel frightened.
"I think what most people can back me up on is his bad temper," Meisels said. "You can deal with it a few times, and maybe if you are only interacting with him at races, then one could go home and forget about it. He is very, very hurtful, and he gets real personal and makes you feel worthless.
"I experienced two things: abusive treatment and inappropriate behaviour that were specific to me. Although he can be inappropriate with everyone, I had it much more severe."
Meisels told Cyclingnews that the team house in Ekeren was also Van Gansen's primary place of residence – something she was not made aware of before moving to Belgium. She said that because she was a foreign rider with nowhere else to live in Europe, she was there much of the time alone with Van Gansen. She said that other riders would stay at the home for shorter lengths of time during blocks of races.
"He wasn't paying me a salary, and so I couldn't afford to live anywhere else," Meisels said. "I don't have a house in Europe, and so I was forced to be there. It was all right when there were other riders there. Some riders who were from Europe would come to stay a few days around the races and then go home, so I ended up being there a lot more than everyone else."
Meisels alleged that Van Gansen frequently made sexually suggestive remarks about her body during her time on the team, mainly when they were in the house. She claims that he used his position of power as the team's general manager to make deals in exchange for unwanted affections.
"It started in late January or early February. I had already moved into his house. I made it clear that I was not interested or available for any kind of relationship," Meisels said.
"He was very touchy, always wanting hugs before I would go to bed. They were not friendly hugs; they were way too touchy. He would kiss me a lot on the forehead and even ask me to kiss him. This is where I think he uses his power over the riders because he knows we are all there on an opportunity to race for a UCI professional team. He would always make deals to put me on the roster. I would ask to race a specific race, and he would say, 'We'll see.' There was this race where he put my name on the roster, working on his computer, and he said, 'Come and see: I put your name on the roster. Now give me a kiss.'
"It got worse when I was there at the house alone. He felt very comfortable commenting on my body. He would tell me what a beautiful butt I had, how sexy I looked, and make me feel very uncomfortable.
"He would argue with me about everything. English was not his first language, and so sometimes he didn't understand what I said or hear me, and every time it was a massive fight that would go off topic and get personal, and I'm embarrassed to say that he made me cry so many times, and I'm not a person who cries often. I tried to avoid him at all costs. I was living in the house, and he lives and works in the house.
"I didn't know when I came here that I was going to be living in his home. I didn't know if he owned the house or not, but I didn't realise that he was living there. He is single. He has a showroom in the house for one of the sponsors, and he stays there so that when customers come in, he's there all the time.
"I found myself trying to avoid him at all costs by staying in my room all day. I wouldn't go down to make food if he was there in the common areas. It felt completely out of hand, and I was scared of him. I didn't want to get into any confrontation with him."
Meisel's said that when she confronted Van Gansen about his behaviour in May, he became nervous, and that her situation on the team became unbearable.
"He was trying to make me feel like it was my fault. Somehow at the end, I was the one at fault, and I was the one wrong for even bringing it up," Meisels said.
Meisels started the season at the Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana Feminas, and then returned home to compete in the Scorpions' Pass TT and the Tour of Arava. She then competed in a spring Classics campaign but didn't finish the races, and her last race was Gracia-Orlova held from May 2-5 in the Czech Republic.
"To all those who noticed my absence here – thank you, and I'm sorry I didn't respond to everyone's messages," Meisels wrote in her post on Instagram. "I needed some alone time."
Van Gansen rejects allegations
Cyclingnews reached out to Van Gansen through email for comment regarding Meisel's complaint about his alleged abuse and inappropriate behaviour towards her during her time on the team. Van Gansen rejected all claims of inappropriate behaviour or abuse made by Meisel and Mustonen.
"I have a very close relationship with my riders, but with Sara [Mustonen] and Esther [Meisels], this was not the case. I never touched them and never made suggestive remarks," Van Gansen wrote.
Concerning Meisel, he acknowledged several instances that were performance-related and admitted to raising his voice, which he said led to the breakdown of the rider-team relationship.
"Esther Meisels was several times not at the races where she would have to be. Also, her attitude was not the most motivating for the team," Van Gansen wrote. "I want to point out that Esther got all the chances to be in a UCI team and that she failed in showing she is a real UCI rider. She doesn't listen at all to the tips the staff is giving.
"Sometimes it comes to a word that's said a bit harder than normal. But it is because we want the riders to pick up and do what they have to do. You can say things in a normal way, but if she always puts the fault in others' shoes, I have to be clear sometimes. Abusing is not the word for that I think.
"I think that the problem with some ladies is that they want to do cycling as men do, but that they have a problem with accepting that they have to do things differently.
"To me, it shows how people who fail for themselves try to put it on someone else and to save their own face towards their supporters have to blame someone else for it."
When Cyclingnews asked Van Gansen if he could point to a scenario that Meisels might deem as being inappropriate behaviour on his part, he highlighted one instance that took place inside the home.
"Yes, I can imagine what she is referring to," Van Gansen wrote. "At a certain moment, she came down from her room in a very short pant and with a shirt knocked up under her breasts with naked belly. She came standing like that before my desk and asking me some things.
"After answering her questions I told her: 'Esther, it’s very sexy what you are wearing, but it’s maybe too sexy, I could get something from it, who knows?'
"On this, she reacted: 'Patrick, you make me feel very uncomfortable saying this, you do this all the time.' Me: 'Oh yes I do this all the time?' She: 'Yes last week you mentioned about my nice pants and I don’t like this.' Me: 'Than maybe go dress yourself properly now!'"
Meisels told Cyclingnews that she intentionally tried to stay away from Van Gansen before eventually leaving the house and the team altogether. She also stated that her reason for filing a complaint against Van Gansen with the UCI Ethics Commission had nothing to do with her training or her race performances, but only to make sure the sporting authorities were aware of his inappropriate behaviour.
"Clearly my concern is not my performance," Meisels said. "It's unfortunate that he blames my performances. I don't expect him to take responsibility for his actions. He never has, and he has never admitted that he was wrong.
"When I decided to leave the team, I didn't even have a discussion with him about it because he's not a person you can reason with. I tried, but I always hit a brick wall. He doesn't realise how hurtful he can be and forgets when he yelled at you or degraded you. He moves on quickly."
Mustonen and Turblin
Cyclingnews understands that riders Sara Mustonen and Chloë Turblin officially left the Health Mate Team in April and May, respectively. Turblin’s father filed a complaint with the UCI Ethics Commission in February. Mustonen separately filed a complaint against Van Gansen with the UCI Ethics Commission in May, citing the UCI Code of Ethics: Appendix 1 that covers protection of physical and mental integrity – sexual harassment and abuse, and she specifically pointed to Article 2.1 concerning psychological abuse and Article 2.3 concerning sexual abuse.
Mustonen, 38, joined the team this year, and her experience in the sport gave her a leadership role while she was also there to support the younger riders. She turned professional in 2008 and has raced for teams Liv-Plantur, Hitec Products, Team Virtu Cycling and Experza-Footlogix.
Mustonen said she immediately sensed that there were problems on the team but signed a release form in April after encountering situations with Van Gansen that she considered psychologically abusive.
"Many things are concerning in that team but comments that qualify as sexual harassment and psychological abuse made me want out of that environment," Mustonen told Cyclingnews. "I filed the complaint hoping something can be done to put a stop to him."
Mustonen told Cyclingnews that although she witnessed scenarios of abuse and inappropriate behaviour during her time on the Health Mate Team, she filed her complaint with the UCI solely based on her own experiences with Van Gansen.
"He’s the big boss and does everything in the team," Mustonen said. "I’ve been a professional rider for 13 years. I’ve been through quite a lot of teams and I know how things are supposed to work and how they are not supposed to work. His behaviour is completely unprofessional.
"I found there to be specific things that happened that were directly related to the Code of Ethics: screaming, swearing, making comments towards me and other riders that were completely inappropriate."
Mustonen said that in her formal complaint, she wrote to the UCI about two specific instances that concerned her the most. The first was at a team presentation where Mustonen had to change her jersey behind the staging area, where Van Gansen commented, "That’s what I wanted to see and now your contract is secure for next year," referring to the moment she was briefly without a jersey on while changing.
The second instance involved an argument between Van Gansen and Mustonen about her race programme, which she said lasted for hours. She said that he told her that if she didn’t change her attitude he would not select her for races. "It was nothing constructive and there is no reasoning with him," Mustonen said.
Mustonen filed her complaint with the UCI Ethics Commission in April and she said that she received a reply from the UCI that stated the process of investigating her claims has been started.
"Some of the other riders are not ready to speak up yet because they are still depending on him," Mustonen said. "That’s what is problematic in this situation. He is feeding off of these girls’ dreams to be professional. They are scared to lose their contracts."
Cyclingnews also reached out to Van Gansen regarding Mustonen’s complaint to the UCI, of which he refuted claims of sexual harassment and psychological abuse. He said that he was not aware of her formal complaint with the UCI Ethics Commission.
He said that they mutually agreed to end the team-rider contract early after racing- and goal-related disputes surrounding the spring Classics, citing a specific discussion on team selections for the Ardennes Classics. He admitted that he got upset during that discussion.
"I did say this not in a nice way and I admit that I shouted to her over the phone that I didn’t want to see her in the house at that moment and that I would not select her for the next five races," he wrote. "I also said that she only is thinking about herself and not at her teammates and that it is the opposite for what I gave her a contract.
"I also told her being professional is being professional towards the team and not only towards an individual who doesn’t know herself what she wants. My voice raised clearly and maybe you can call it shouting over the phone because when I talked normal she didn’t want to listen.
"After the [Ardennes Classics] we would talk and see how we would go further. A few days later, she sent me a mutual agreement to stop the contract, which I was willing to do immediately."
Cyclingnews also reached out to Van Gansen regarding Turblin’s father’s complaint, which was initially filed citing bad treatment and illegal work conditions, but then escalated to include inappropriate behaviour.
Van Gansen denied all allegations, telling Cyclingnews that he believed the case to be closed and that he has not received any sort of punishment or warning from the UCI Ethics Commission. Cyclingnews understands, however, that the UCI Ethics Commission has the freedom to assemble multiple complaints into one investigation if they are all centered around the same alleged offender.
Van Gansen said that Turblin, 23, was a rider that also had a half-time working contract within his company and that she was fired because her work in that area was not done well. "That matter had nothing to do with the team itself," Van Gansen said.
In his written defence to the UCI Ethics Commission, Van Gansen referred the case as being a 'love story', citing that he and Turblin had been involved in a relationship and that her father was not aware of such details.
Cyclingnews spoke with Turblin, who denied that she was involved in a relationship with Van Gansen. She said at first she felt ashamed to be involved in such a case and didn’t want to speak publicly about it. She said that she was surprised to learn that two other riders had filed similar complaints.
"I feel better because I am not alone," Turblin said. "When you are the first to make a complaint, you always feel guilty or ashamed. I think that a lot of riders are afraid to speak. I don’t want it to happen to more people."
Cyclingnews reached out by phone to the current riders on the Health Mate Ladies Team and asked what the atmosphere was like on the team and if they had ever witnessed inappropriate behaviours or abuses by Van Gansen towards the riders. Two riders responded by saying that although they did not live at the team house, they had not witnessed any problems between Van Gansen and any of the riders. A third rider declined to comment on the subject.
Cyclingnews also received a collective email signed by the remaining riders on the team that stated they had not seen or experienced first-hand situations of abuse or inappropriate behaviour towards them on the part of Van Gansen.
UCI Code of Ethics and Ethics Commission
The UCI updated its Code of Ethics last November to better protect athletes in cases of harassment and abuse. The three main changes included: 'anonymity of plaintiff' to protect the victim's privacy, allowing for dedicated reporting channels for filing complaints, and teams are now encouraged to identify a person of contact who has the right to collect information relating to situations of sexual harassment and abuse, and take action with the UCI Ethics Commission on behalf of a team or rider.
The need for amendments was spurred on by the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) introduction of the Safeguarding Toolkit that aims to assist National Olympic Committees (NOC) and International Federations (IF) in the development of policies and procedures to safeguard athletes from harassment and abuse in sport.
The new amendments were announced last year, after the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant detailed accusations of abuse laid out against Cervelo-Bigla owner Thomas Campana. The allegations included bullying, fat shaming, intimidating riders, insulting riders in front of other team members, pulling riders from races if he didn't like something they had done, ignoring medical concerns such as a concussion and an episode of heart palpitations, trying to control riders' diets and not paying prize money.
In 2016, 10 riders and staff members of Cervelo-Bigla, including Iris Slappendel, Carmen Small, Vera Koedooder and Doris Schweizer, took their complaints about Campana to the UCI Ethics Committee, but half withdrew when they found out that their names would not be anonymous and that they would be public knowledge to Campana.
In addition, the events in the indictment happened in 2015 and under an older version of the Code of Ethics that did not include teams or staff. The updated Code of Ethics now applies to teams and staff.
Schweizer detailed her experiences while on the Bigla team and under the direction of Campana in a blog post earlier this year, writing, "I was scared but I wanted justice for myself and especially for my teammates."
Slappendel has since formed The Cyclists' Alliance. The organisation's mission statement is to represent the competitive, economic, personal interests of all professional women cyclists. It also helps riders with the process and procedure of filing formal complaints with the UCI Ethics Commission.
Meisels told Cyclingnews that the Health Mate Ladies Team does not have a designated person for the riders to file a complaint. She filed a complaint with the UCI Ethics Commission directly on June 3. She said that she hopes more women will speak out if they are faced with unprofessional, abusive or inappropriate behaviour on their teams.
"Specifically in Patrick's case, I hope that he's removed from professional cycling, especially from working with women's teams," Meisels said. "It's a good thing that people are speaking out now, talking about it, and recognising that it's a problem is already a step in the right direction."