When Canyon-SRAM Racing announced signing Chloé Dygert on a four-year contract that would see their mutual partnership from 2021 through to the end of 2024, it created a stir; after all, it was one of the biggest and most surprising transfers in cycling.
However, the honeymoon period didn't make it into the new year after a horrendous and debilitating crash in the time trial at the 2020 Imola World Championships resulted in an 80 per cent laceration to Dygert's left leg. The injury nearly cost her career and required the entire first year of her new contract for recovery.
Dygert's relationship with the team and its sponsors suffered an additional hemorrhage when it came to light that her social media activity appeared to support, using the 'like' function, racist and transphobic sentiments that caused an uproar within the sport. She apologized for her actions, but it was deemed "insufficient" by the team's clothing sponsor, Rapha, which publicly condemned her conduct.
In what has been a controversial signing, which came apart at the seams almost before it began, Cyclingnews asks: What's next for Chloé Dygert and Canyon-SRAM?
Dygert did not speak directly with Cyclingnews for this story despite several requests for a one-on-one interview through her team, agent, and onsite at the USA Cycling Professional Road Championships in June. She has also remained largely absent from the team's press communications and social media platforms, and largely unavailable for media opportunities.
Cyclingnews reached out to Canyon-SRAM manager Ronny Lauke, who offered to shed light on Dygert's injury and recovery, along with her social media misconduct that prompted the team to create a Diversity and Inclusion programme and a new development team. He also spoke about how Dygert and Canyon-SRAM plan to move forward for the remaining three years of her contract.
'We committed to the duration of Chloé's contract'
A 23-year-old powerhouse from Brownsburg, Indiana, Dygert had already staked a claim on the sport with seven elite track world titles and an Olympic silver medal in the Team Pursuit, all earned between 2016 and 2020.
She signed her new contract with Canyon-SRAM in September of 2020 as the reigning time trial World Champion, having blown Dutch compatriots Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten out of the water in the discipline at the Yorkshire Worlds in 2019.
The prospects looked promising for both parties. Dygert made the long-awaited step up to the Women's WorldTour after spending her entire career track racing with USA Cycling and road racing with the Twenty20 development team in North America. Canyon-SRAM was on the hunt for the next big cycling champion, and they appeared to have succeeded in that effort, from a performance perspective, when they signed Dygert.
"When we started talking with Chloé and then eventually hired her, we had a young woman in mind who was performing well on the track and performing well in American races, and we saw huge potential in her as a healthy young rider. We thought, OK, she's a perfect rider that we need to become a stronger team and a rider to have options at the races," Lauke said.
At the Imola Worlds in 2020, after signing her new contract, Dygert crashed on a descent while racing to defend her world title in the time trial.
The images circulated on social media callously showed a gaping, deep gash across her left leg, above the knee, as she lay on a grassy hill on the opposite side of the road barriers receiving medical treatment before being transferred to hospital.
The seriousness of her injury cannot be understated. After multiple surgeries and a lengthy rehabilitation, it took more than nine months for her to recover just enough to compete in the road race (31st), time trial (seventh), and Team Pursuit (bronze medal) at the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer.
Dygert was supposed to race a late-season European campaign with Canyon-SRAM, however, she called an early end to the season to continue her recovery process. She had only competed in one race under the Canyon-SRAM banner in the first year of her contract, which was in the time trial at the USA Cycling Pro Road Championships, a title she won just before the Olympics.
Canyon-SRAM provided Cyclingnews with a comment from Dygert that addressed the first year of her contract, her injury, and how it may have affected her relationship with the team.
"This is a perfect example of why I chose to be a part of the Canyon-SRAM program. They have shown in previous riders that they don't only support you on the bike but off the bike as well. The injury I had from my crash in Imola wasn't as simple to recover from as it might have seemed. It's now been over a year, and things off the bike are just now starting to feel normal again. There are still restrictions, things I will have to deal with the rest of my life, but I am healing.
"The goal was to get to the Olympics, I got there, but I wasn't ready. Canyon-SRAM supported my wishes to make the Olympics the goal. They supported my decision to end the season after the Olympics as I just needed more time to heal. They have supported me at my worst, so I can be at my best the next years to come," Dygert wrote.
Canyon-SRAM and USA Cycling had confirmed that they fully supported Dygert's decision to end her season early and complete her rehabilitation, with the intent to join the team in January 2022 to start a full road season in Europe.
"As we all know now, she had a nasty crash at the [Imola 2020] World Championships that almost cost her a career, and at that moment, we had to readjust completely. We had committed to four years of working with Chloé, and this commitment was made for good and bad times. When we commit to working with one rider, then the duration of the contract is the timeline, and we make our plans," Lauke said.
"It is now the most important that she can come back fully recovered, and her leg is fully functioning again. As you can see, at the Olympic Games, she was still running in the state of recovery of her leg. It was important to give her more time after the Olympics to make sure that we don't push her too hard or too early, causing more trauma in the end and maybe costing the career of a young woman. We decided to let it go, give her time to recover, do the rehabilitation and then hopefully, we have three full years to work with her and race together.
"She technically hasn't raced in a long time. I have no idea whether there would be the chance to say 'we don't want to work with her' because that simply is not our approach. When we sign riders, we want to work with them, and we committed to the duration of the contract."
It isn't the first time Lauke and Canyon-SRAM have worked with a rider through a long-term injury, and the team fully understands that injuries are inherently part of the sport. Riders are also have protections within their contracts in case of such injuries.
Multi-discipline World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot spent four seasons with the team, and for several of those years she struggled with double iliac artery endofibrosis, and underwent two surgeries. Ferrand-Prévot departed from Canyon-SRAM at the end of last year and now races with the mountain bike team Absolute Absalon BMC.
"Every injury is particular and very unique, in my opinion, relating to the situation and to the person. I have to admit that we have a lucky hand in recruiting top talents or bringing riders back from struggles in their careers to bring them to move up again. I wish it would have been different and that we could have helped Pauline for the road season and the same with Chloé, but it's the way it is. I'm not crying about it. Injuries happen, unfortunately, and it's part of it, as much a part of cycling as it is to win bike races," Lauke said.
"Luckily, we have reliable partners, and everyone sticks to their agreements, so we didn't have to deal with any struggles, and that's the same with the riders. When they have an injury, recovery and rehabilitation are very demanding. We are blessed with the selection of sponsors we have because, and I admit, sometimes we are running behind our expectations in terms of our performance.
"So far, they have never put extra pressure on us, and they believe in our approach and know how injuries can affect our performance. It is rare and unique, and I have to say that I'm very thankful to these partners for letting us do the work and never putting any pressure on the management or riders directly. It's a very human side of the business that I have experienced."
The discussion around Chloé made us think: Who are we? What are we doing? What is the sport doing?
Sports and being a champion are not only about performance and winning. Dygert's social media misconduct appeared to support attitudes that were both racist and transphobic. It wasn't the first time racism and transphobia have reared their ugly heads in cycling, which has a broad and historical problem of systemic racism, discrimination and abuse, in its highest echelons.
Such attitudes on social media had also been in the spotlight after Dygert's fellow American Quinn Simmons was suspended by Trek-Segafredo last September for using an emoji with black skin tone - a practice that has been highlighted as racist and termed 'digital blackface'. Trek-Segafredo labelled Simmons' public comments on social media as "divisive, incendiary, and detrimental" but lifted his suspension after two months and seemingly took little to no further action.
The sport's governing body has been criticised for not stepping in to sanction or punish those who have violated its code of ethics regarding racism and discrimination. Black athletes have described their experiences with racism in cycling, including French track sprinter and Olympic medallist Grégory Baugé, Natnael Berhane, Teniel Campbell and Kévin Reza.
Riders who have committed racist actions and abuses have faced almost no punishment in the peloton. Gianni Moscon (Team Sky in 2017) and Michael Albasini (Orica in 2014) racially abused Reza in two separate incidents. Branislau Samoilau (CCC in 2015) was accused of being racially abusive toward Berhane (then MTN-Qhubeka). The UCI chose not to issue punishments in these cases citing apologies, which were widely thought to be insufficient, and agreements were made between the riders and their respective trade teams.
Reza, the only Black participant at last year's Tour de France, deplored the lack of solidarity in cycling in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and said that nothing has changed in cycling's response to racism.
All of these riders have been allowed to retain their jobs, salaries, contracts, positions, and cycling opportunities. None have received more than what amounts to a slap on the wrist as consequences as a result of their actions, offences, incidents or abuses.
In Dygert's case, Canyon-SRAM expressed that they were committed to regular training and support for all their riders to ensure they are fully aware of and align with the team's values. While Rapha released a statement to its customers saying that it 'wholeheartedly condemns' Dygert's actions, the company also said it has spoken to Dygert about her misconduct and believes that she has the capacity to learn and change.
Canyon-SRAM are one of the only top-tier teams to have taken more long-term actions. They hired expert Christine Kalkschmid to build a comprehensive and long-term diversity and inclusion programme that focuses on dialogue and education. The programme was created as part of an action plan highlighted by the team and Rapha following Dygert's social media misconduct.
Lauke confirmed to Cyclingnews that Dygert has not met with Canyon-SRAM's management or teammates in person throughout the first year of her contract in 2021. However, he said that Dygert has participated in all of the team's Diversity and Inclusion sessions led by Kalkschmid, and that she also attended one-on-one sessions with Kalkschmid, all virtually.
"Chloé participated in all of the sessions that we had with Christina. If she was not available on those workshops that we had spent together during any training camps, then she had the very same sessions through a video call afterward, or we could dial her into the same sessions so she could be part of the conversations throughout the physical conversations that we had as a group. Chloé was not left out of these conversations or the entire process," Lauke said.
Cyclingnews asked Lauke if the team management and sponsors felt confident that they could move forward with Dygert for another three seasons, given that her past personal views have appeared to support attitudes that are inconsistent with the team's commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment.
"What I see is a curious young woman who wants to learn and who wants to understand our philosophy better, and who is listening to our conversations and to the topics that, in this case, Christina is bringing up," Lauke said. "Therefore, I remain confident that she will be a rider that the team can benefit from and that she can benefit from the team."
Canyon-SRAM also launched a new Continental development team - Canyon-SRAM Generation - to support a diverse and inclusive environment. It will be a feeder squad for the Women's WorldTeam and recruitment will focus on "but not limited to" Africa, Asia and South America. The team recently confirmed that 239 riders from 62 different nations applied for spots on the eight-rider squad.
"The entire situation and discussion around Chloé made us think; Who are we? What are we doing? What is the sport doing? I have to say that I was always under the impression that we stand for diversity and we have an international group of riders, and that we are open to any ethnicity, every human being. We are still a performance team and we look for strong riders," Lauke said.
"I have learned that the riders on a team that consists of around 20 people, which come from 10 or 11 different nations, is still not enough when you stand for integrating people and making [the sport] open for everyone. We had to look at what we could do.
"To make sure that we take it from the roots and develop from the bottom, to be able to create depth, and not only taking one rider to the WorldTour team and then saying that we are doing something. Our idea was to create depth and have a lower entry-level that would create some situations where athletes can grow through having the experience of winning.
"The idea is for the development team is to [go to] smaller races, to give a chance to learn, to be tough the technical side, that they can create situations to win without having the best riders in the world around. To create situations for themselves, to celebrate and grow confidence through what they achieve together as a group and as a team."
Canyon-SRAM confirmed that they will continue supporting Dygert in her development as an athlete over the next three seasons into the 2024 Olympic Games, and through their long-term diversity and inclusion programming.
"The idea to hire her was to have a full-time member of the road programme, and mix it with her track ambitions. That was the initial idea in getting her on the team. We want her to win bike races for Canyon-SRAM. That is why we have hired her," Lauke said.
"I want her to join the team and to be integrated into the team. That is my biggest wish because I try to believe that when she experiences the different personalities and the dynamics within the team, when she is physically present in the team, this will lift her ambitions."
Dygert to join Canyon-SRAM for the first time in January ahead of full road season
Lauke and Gary Sutton, USA Cycling's women's track endurance coach, confirmed that Dygert has undergone two additional and successful surgeries this fall. The aim was to remove excess scar tissue along the initial injury area and fix cartilage and meniscus problems in her left knee.
"Doctors operated on her knee to take shavings out, worked on her meniscus, removed a lot of tissue on the leg, and worked on the cartilage. It looks really good. We have a good medical team [at the Olympic Training Centre in Colorado Springs] who have done a good job. Since the Olympics, she has had the opportunity to recover more and have these operations because she didn't need to start training right away," Sutton told Cyclingnews.
"Now that it's 100 per cent, she starts back up with training on December 3, which is good, and it will be all systems go from there. She has looked after herself well, and she's fit, healthy and ready to go. We are still trying to hold her back."
Sutton confirmed that Dygert is no longer working with her former coach and three-time Olympic gold medallist Kristin Armstrong since her move to Colorado Springs, and that her coaching team now consists of himself and Jim Miller. They are in communication with Lauke regarding her road racing schedule.
"My coach, Jim Miller, and Canyon-SRAM will decide my schedule based on my goals and the goals from the team, and I plan to do whatever they tell me is best. I have full confidence in Jim, Ronny Lauke, and Gary Sutton to get me back to my best level."
Lauke confirmed that Dygert will join Canyon-SRAM at a January training camp and that he expects her to be ready to race at the Spring Classics, along with select stage races throughout the season.
"We see her physically at the training camp to see how she does and how her movements on the bike are and how she is dealing with five- or six-hour training rides, how she deals with intensity. Especially having a 12- to 14-day training camp, that is physically demanding, how she comes out of it. It will define more her exact entry to the spring season, whether she starts early or we push it to a few weeks later," Lauke said.
"The first goal is to see her competing in the Spring Classics and see how the performance goes; how she fits into the European racing, how she deals with small roads, a more technical approach and more skills needs, especially the Belgium Classics races. After April, we will reevaluate the remainder of the season and the programme.
"Up until her injury, it would have been realistic to see her at those kinds of big races [Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Tour de France- ed.] and that is where we would like to see her. I believe we will have a more definite answer to this question after the first races."
Sutton maintained a more realistic position in saying that he expects Dygert to be back at her best towards the end of 2022. She will compete in the new Track Nations Cup calendar and aims to beat her own world record in the Individual Pursuit. She will also look to compete at the Road World Championships in Australia.
"Chloé will need to be better, and I think she will come back. She is motivated at the moment. Nobody has a better work ethic than Chloé when she puts her mind to it. I think she will be back better than ever, but it will take time, maybe toward the back end of 2022, providing she stays healthy, you'll see a new Chloé," Sutton said.
"Road, time trial, team pursuit, and the individual pursuit is a big target for her. She holds the existing world record, but she wants to shave a few more seconds off that world record, and that will be a big goal toward the end of 2022."
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.
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