Former and pro riders Iris Slappendel and Carmen Small, and Gracie Elvin (Orica-Scott) have announced the formation a new riders' union called The Cyclists' Alliance. The new women's cycling group is looking to provide contract and educational support, career advice, and legal and retirement assistance.
The Cyclists' Alliance was the brainchild of the recently retired Slappendel - who spent 13 seasons as a professional – spurred on by some of her own experiences as a rider and a UCI representative. The project has taken more than a year to put together and was originally due to be announced at the end of November as the group, which also includes Marianne Vos in an advisory role, tried to get all their ducks in a row.
"There are always more and more things that you want to include but we said that we just needed to get out there and start getting the riders on board," Slappendel told Cyclingnews. "It was my initiative to start something like this, but I didn't aim it to be so big. In the end, we took a year to prepare it. I thought that it would be much smaller. Also, we focussed more on certain things and we've created a plan for the future of women's cycling."
Slappendel, Virtu Cycling directeur sportif Small – who was still a rider at the start of the project – and Elvin make up the current executive board, with Slappendel the director, Small the vice director and Elvin the communications director. This is just an interim board, with a vote on new members due in the next 18 months. Setting up the board was a balancing act between those that have the ideas for improving women's cycling but also the confidence and position to make that stand.
"I have worked with many riders who have ideas, but when I think of riders who can say to their sports managers, 'what the fuck are you doing', or 'this is not the way I wanted', or 'this goes against my values', there aren't so many. I was looking for riders with specific values that I thought had an opinion and lived up to their opinion or values," explained Slappendel.
"There are a lot of smart girls in the peloton and I don't know them all personally. We are also an interim board, we will vote for a new board within 18 months. I'm really happy to have riders on board, or recently retired riders, that want to make the effort and want to help."
Some surprising statistics
At the outset, the group sent out a survey to 450 riders to ascertain their primary concerns. Around half of those sent the survey responded and it threw up some shocking, but perhaps unsurprising, results. When it came to salary, a whopping 50 per cent of the riders surveyed earned less than €10,000 per year, 29 per cent earned €5,000 or less and as much as 17 per cent had no salary at all.
Of those that did not earn a salary, only 5.6 per cent of them had contracts that included health insurance and 21.4 per cent had travel costs paid for. Some 52 per cent of riders had been made to reimburse a team for costs such as mechanical assistance, medical testing and travel at some point in their career. That same percentage also said that they had a second job in order to earn enough to "make ends meet". Some 91 per cent of riders said they had signed a contract without having a lawyer look at it first.
"I have been in so many teams and in some teams there is a very different way of working than in others. If you grow up in a certain team then you think some things are normal and then I might come from a different team and think this is really wrong, what's going on here," explained Slappendel. "I think that there are small things that can have a big impact on riders. We need to educate them, support them, and these are things that we can do immediately that will change their situation.
"I think it is important that we keep that close connection with the riders and be that trustworthy person."
The survey also showed what issues were most important for the women's peloton with 52 per cent of riders pinpointing health and personal insurance as their top priority. Second on the list was post-career job placement and education to prepare for life outside of cycling. According to the survey results around 65 per cent of riders are getting some form of education already.
"We've created a mentorship programme and now we are working with different national associations who want to be part of it to create education or job opportunities for riders," Slappendel said. "We've looked at a retirement fund, but first you need the funds to provide it. That's something that we want to create in the future and that is all part of our bigger business plan, but at the moment, it is mainly about education and certification. To provide a pension fund, the whole economic model needs to change."
The name of the group was carefully thought out, with a conscious decision not to use the word women in its title. It was not deemed a necessary addition because, according to Slappendel, "we are all cyclists". Leaving women out of the name also opens the door to having men as part of the organisation further down the line, but that is not high on the list of priorities at the moment.
The Cyclists' Alliance's first major goal is to build up its membership and be recognised by the UCI. They already have a closed Facebook page with 160 members but that needs to be converted into full membership and expanded. Work is being put into developing a standardised contract that riders can use as a template or a comparison with their own existing contract.
They are also in talks women's teams, who they hope will form their own organisation so that both can work together for the advancement of women's cycling.
"Once the riders form an organisation then the teams need to form one and then we can sit together and work on minimum working conditions, minimum salary, team ethics and those kinds of things. We've been in touch with some team managers and we've asked them to start forming their own team organisation so that is in the making," said Slappendel.
"We will continue our meetings with team managers and our first goal is that we will be recognised officially and the teams will form an association at the 2018 World Championships and we can start speaking about a joint agreement.
"The team managers that I've spoken to have been positive, they don't see it as a threat. If you have good intentions for your teams then you won't be worried that your riders are well represented."