Opinion: Van Gansen's suspension in multi-complaint abuse case isn't enough

Health Mate Ladies Team (UCI Women's Team)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A month has passed since former team manager Patrick Van Gansen was handed a near three-year ban from cycling by the UCI Disciplinary Commission for harassing several female riders at his teams, including Esther Meisels, Sara Mustonen and Chloë Turblin. 

The ban is largely retrospective, as Van Gansen chose to remove himself from the sport prior to the guilty verdict back in April 2020, and he will be eligible to work within a team on December 31, 2022, once he has completed a course on workplace sexual harassment.

The sentencing closes a door on a three-year process that began when the first accusation was reported to the UCI. It is great news that a person who has behaved in this manner has been removed from the sport, albeit temporarily. However, the length of the punishment and its timing also opens up many questions about how the case was dealt with and how serious the governing body’s Disciplinary Commission perceives the offence to be.

Van Gansen is not the first person within the sport to be accused of abusing people within their care. Indeed, Marc Bracke has been found guilty guilty of violations to the Code of Ethics following formal complaints of harassment alleged by two female riders, and is awaiting his punishment. He most likely won’t be the last. 

Bracke has denied the allegations of harassment that were included in the formal complaints.

However, Van Gansen's case is one of road cycling’s most high-profile cases of a team manager abusing their position, and his punishment was an opportunity to send a message that abuse and harassment will not be tolerated within the sport.

Instead, the two-year and seven-month sentence leaves a sour taste in the mouth and a feeling this type of behaviour is not deemed to be as serious an issue as it should be by the sport. Team managers can hold a significant amount of power and influence over a rider, particularly at the smaller end of the scale where there is much less oversight. 

Van Gansen abused his position and authority as a team manager to harass, over several years, a string of young female riders who were hopeful of making a name for themselves in cycling. The case against the Belgian detailed a man with an explosive temper that often terrified his staff and riders. Sexually inappropriate behaviour, such as unwanted touching and hugging, and suggestive remarks, were also a recurring theme throughout the accusations laid against him.

In total, 11 riders made serious accusations against Van Gansen and four of those submitted official complaints to the UCI Ethics Commission. This was by no means a couple of isolated incidents; the Belgian was a persistent and relentless abuser. In her testimony, Meisels said Van Gansen had made her feel "worthless" at times and spoke of his insistence in kissing her and asking her to kiss him. She also spoke of living in his home, also used as a team house, with nowhere else to go, and becoming afraid to leave her room in case she might see him.

Mustonen accused him of being psychologically abusive and detailed how he purposefully stood by and watched her getting changed following a race. Van Gansen’s behaviour was such that Turblin’s father also filed a complaint against the team manager, citing illegal working conditions and inappropriate behaviour towards the then 23-year-old rider. Meanwhile, as part of an open letter to the media with several other riders, Tara Gins wrote of how he would become verbally aggressive and how he would often body shame riders.

Several riders also detailed how he would use roster spots as leverage for his abusive behaviour. Many of the riders were away from home with little or no salary to fall back on and the Belgian maintained a position of power over them and their career. Some of his accusers said they were afraid of him and had feared losing their contracts if they said something. When the riders did finally feel able to speak out, Van Gansen continued to lash out at them, victim blamed, threatened them through the media with legal cases, and attempted to belittle them and their experiences.

The Disciplinary Commission had a wide scope to punish him, all the way up to a lifetime ban. Had he been a rider found guilty of using EPO, he would have been handed a much harsher sentence of at least a four-year suspension. His punishment ultimately sends the message that abuse and harassment are not among the most serious offences, and diminishes the experiences and bravery of riders that speak out.

Van Gansen’s behaviour will leave a lasting impact on many of those upon whom he inflicted his behaviour, much longer than he will be banned from the sport. Though he has decided to put his career in cycling behind him, for now, it is entirely possible his victims will come face to face with him at a bike race in the future.

The length of time that it took the Disciplinary Commission to reach a conclusion on the overall sentence following the guilty verdict also needs to be addressed. It took some 10 months between verdict and sentencing in the Van Gansen case.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted a lot over the last 12 months, but even taking that into account and the commissioning of any relevant reports and pleas of mitigation from a lawyer, this is an excessive amount of time to determine a sentence. The Disciplinary Commission needs to address this turn-around time, for the sake of both victims and those who have been accused.

Meanwhile, it is four months and rising in the case of Bracke - who is still currently able to operate within the sport. It is disgraceful that a person who has been found guilty of harassing riders can be allowed to work within the sport while his punishment is being decided.

If Van Gansen chosen to persevere and continue managing a team, he would have been free to do so for 10 months. Once again, we find ourselves comparing the offence to doping and the way in which it is treated. Had Van Gansen tested positive for a performance enhancing drug, he would have faced a provisional suspension while the case was being dealt with.

Though it is a positive development that a person who has been abusive towards riders has been removed from the sport, the Van Gansen case leaves a lot to be desired in how these incidents are dealt with. The Belgian may have ultimately been removed from the sport but it is a small and temporary measure following a drawn-out process.

While I hope the fact that Van Gansen was punished will lead to more riders speaking out against perpetrators of abuse, the difficulties it took to achieve this paltry punishment may have the opposite impact. Meanwhile, those looking to get into sport may well be dissuaded from going any further due to the limited protection the UCI appears to offer against abusers.

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