Another rider has come forward to corroborate the initial complaints of abuse and inappropriate behaviour levelled against the Health Mate Ladies Team general manager Patrick Van Gansen. The rider, who wished to remain anonymous, detailed an unsettling environment that included shouting, abuses of power, and unprofessionalism.
Cyclingnews reported last week that three former Health Mate Ladies riders - Esther Miesels, Sara Mustonen and the father of Chloë Turblin - separately filed complaints with the UCI Ethics Commission reporting abuses against Van Gansen. Their complaints centre around the UCI Code of Ethics: Appendix 1, which covers protection of physical and mental integrity, sexual harassment and abuse.
In the wake of that report, six more riders have come forward to corroborate those allegations; Tara Gins and four riders who wished to remain anonymous wrote an open letter describing their experiences to the Dutch news outlet WielerFlits. In addition, Liz Hatch confirmed similar experiences while racing on a team he sponsored in 2013 in an interview with Het Nieuwsblad.
All riders have alleged that Van Gansen was verbally aggressive and made sexually inappropriate remarks toward them. Cyclingnews understands that the UCI Ethics Commission has received three reports of complaints. That number may have risen after Gins and the additional riders who wrote the open letter to WielerFlits indicated that they would also take their complaints to the UCI.
In the aftermath, Cyclingnews received an email Saturday from a 10th rider who raced with the Belgian-based UCI women's team between February and May. The rider requested to remain anonymous but wanted to express her support for the cyclists who have come forward with their claims along with her concerns about the environment at the Health Mate Ladies Team.
"I was also a victim of the Health Mate Ladies team farce," she wrote. "I quit my job and my life, which had some stability, to race. I signed a contract with Patrick Van Gansen, a person who appeared passionate about women's cycling, who opened a door for me [to compete]."
The rider said that when she arrived at the team house in Ekeren, Belgium, she was surprised to learn that Van Gansen was the owner and also lived in the home. She said that some of the foreign riders lived at the house for longer periods and that other teammates would also be at the house but only for shorter stays during blocks of races.
"He lived there in the same house with us [the riders], he got up in his underwear, and there was no absolute privacy," she wrote. "I'm a very serious person. I like to just go and do what I have to do, I got up and trained, but he was always there, always in a bad mood most of the time for one thing or another."
Van Gansen told Cyclingnews in our initial interviews following the first three complaints, that it was common for some of the riders to stay in his home and that he provided them with a place to stay as necessary. He elaborated on that subject in an interview with WielerFlits, saying: "I own a home with six bedrooms and a living space. Enough space. Both foreign and Belgian ladies of the team are welcome here. Yes, I live here too. When you ask me whether I am not looking for the problems in this way, I am sure: no! On the contrary, this is the best team building."
Cyclingnews asked Van Gansen for a comment regarding the situation in the home, to which he replied: "I never walk in underwear! I am always dressed and this is the code we ask also from the ladies if they come out of the room or if they are not on the third floor where they have a complete living room where I never come."
The rider who wrote to Cyclingnews said that Van Gansen did not pay her a salary to race on Health Mate Ladies Team, and on occasion made remarks as to why she didn't get paid. "He said that to pay me, I should have cooked for him, washed his cars and cleaned his house, among other tasks."
Van Gansen told Cyclingnews that he had an agreement with a rider to do some household work in exchange for €200 per month, but that he did not have the funds to pay this rider as a member of the cycling team. Cyclingnews understands that two other riders had half-time working contracts within his company. Cyclingnews asked Van Gansen if he had similar agreements with other riders and if the money paid to them came from the team budget or personal funds, but he declined to comment, suggesting the questions were not relevant.
Van Gansen told Cyclingnews that only one rider, Mustonen, received a salary at the team. He also told WielerFlits that the team's annual budget was roughly €120,000 and that much of the other team staff such as mechanics and soigneurs were volunteers.
"I don't have a sponsor who can put a million euros on the table. And cooking costs money. Fortunately, I can count on a staff that works on a voluntary basis. But still, I don't get the costs. That ensures that riders - with one exception - are not paid. They know that when they sign their contract. But my team gives them the chance to prove themselves at the highest level and to grow. In addition, they receive free material and - whoever wants - costs and accommodation."
In her email to Cyclingnews, the rider detailed an environment that she considered unsuitable and inappropriate for cyclists to train and race and that professional cycling didn’t appear to be one of Van Gansen's priorities. She also said that she felt anxious and uneasy given Van Gansen's temper and his interactions with some of the women. For all those reasons, she left the house and the team and did not return.
"What mattered least was our condition on the bike," she wrote. "Patrick's priority was to be surrounded by women who would smile and bow down to him. And in his defense, he just said that we were not good cyclists."
Van Gansen has rejected all allegations of abuse and inappropriate behaviour and has indicated that he intends to take legal action to clear his name in a full statement published on the Health Mate Ladies Team website.
Regarding the anonymous rider who wrote to Cyclingnews, Van Gansen said: "This is so clear what is happening … But I will try to prove the real truth for court! I hope she has put a complaint at the UCI in her name, because if so then I will take her for court too."
Van Gansen: I will do everything in my power to prove my innocence
According to the UCI Code of Ethics, once a complaint is reported to the UCI Ethics Commission email address [firstname.lastname@example.org] the Secretariat will register a file and send it to the President of the Ethics Commission and inform the UCI President of the registration of a new file. The President of the Ethics Commission will proceed to a 'prima facie' examination of the case [the sender will receive a letter via email from the President of the UCI Ethics Commission informing that the complaint has been received - ed.].
The President of the Ethics Commission will then determine whether there is any indication that a breach of the Code may have been committed. The President of the Ethics Commission may later request additional information and documentation from the sender of the complaint or denunciation or any person bound by the Code, before deciding to initiate proceedings. (Code of Ethics, Article 27)
Cyclingnews understands that the UCI Ethics Commission is free to arrange multiple complaints into one procedure if there they are all against the same alleged offender.
Van Gansen has denied all of the allegations levelled against him and told Cyclingnews that he has only been notified of one official complaint with the UCI Ethics Commission, to which he has responded. He told Cyclingnews that he intends to clear his name by taking legal action against the women who have accused him of abuses and inappropriate behaviour.
Het Nieuwsblad reported that it had contacted the president of the Belgian Cycling Federation Tom Van Damme, who said that he has not yet received official complaints regarding Van Gansen. However, he told the Belgian publication that Van Gansen "would be better to put a step aside until there is clarity about his role."
Van Gansen told Cyclingnews that he has no intention of stepping down as the general manager of Health Mate Ladies Team. He will also discuss with the financial backers of the team whether the team will continue in 2020.
Cyclingnews reached out to co-title sponsor Health Mate, a company that manufacturers saunas, for a comment regarding the allegations made against Van Gansen.
"As the main sponsor of the Health Mate ladies team, we deeply regret the recent revelations in the press," a representative of the company replied. "It is very clear that we do not tolerate cross-border behavior. In order not to harm the integrity of the cyclists and Mr Van Gansen, we do not wish to take a position until the results of the investigation are known."
You can read Van Gansen's full personal statement below.
"As the manager of the Health Mate Ladies Team, I went through a real hell the past week. Former riders from my ladies cycling team, the Health Mate Ladies Team, recently accused me of cross-border sexual behavior and psychological abuse. These unjustified complaints affect me to the depths of every fiber in my body. I can only deny the allegations against my address in the most formal way.
"All the ladies in question, four of whom do not even have the courage to mention their name and tell me what I would have said to them, are riders who in one way or another failed to be a member from a UCI Team like ours. Some struggled with more than 12 kg of excess weight, others often completely ignored team orders and still others did not train when it rained a little bit and did not even show up several times when they had to race a course. All these ladies were given several warnings before talking about stopping in the team.
"I leave the conclusion of what happened to me this week to anyone who wants to judge, based on what has been published. However, my trial was completely conducted in the press, without being able to provide any evidence. And even that is the world upside down, because I now have to prove my innocence, while in normal circumstances the guilt has to be proven! Fortunately, I have enough evidence and witnesses that will prove that all the allegations that I have been accused of in the press are completely untrue.
"Moreover, to date of today, I have not received any legal complaint from a rider against my person and only one complaint has been forwarded by the UCI to which I have responded. I have not yet received any other complaints from the UCI. So my process currently only goes through the press and I'm going to stop that now! Further polemicizing this issue in the press is pointless, because I cannot win that fight. Evidence is not shown, words are twisted or omitted, things I have never spoken are added and interviews on TV are cut up.
"In order to clear my name, I have decided - in consultation with my lawyer – to lodge a criminal complaint on account of defamation. This complaint will be filed with the competent authorities within the next few days. From now on, I will refrain from further comment on this subject in the media.
"At the express demand of the riders of the team I will also remain as sports director during the period ahead. The team will keep going until the end of the season. Whether or not the team will continue its activities next season will be decided in consultation with the sponsors.
"Over the past few years, I have been working unconditionally, full of passion and dedication at the service of the riders! My name is now known worldwide as just the opposite of what I have done for women's cycling! Instead of the respect that I deserved, I am smeared, kicked, spit and nailed to the cross worldwide. Every day I receive messages from all over the world, telling me what a fat bag, dirty butt, bastard and so much more I am not. Thanks to the frustrated riders who want to blame their own failures on someone else, because otherwise they will suffer loss of sight with their crowd of followers on social media."
"And most probably everything is orchestrated by one person who has sworn to put me on the cross and who texted me this literally by sms a few months ago.
"In any case, I will do everything in my power to prove my innocence and to clear my name to the fullest.
"And in my last word spoken about this matter in public, I want to thank the many encouragement messages I got the past days from people who are standing behind me. Without all these messages and the unconditional support of my team I would not be able to pick up my life again. Thank you so much!
"It’s because of you all, I will go on Sunday to the race and look everyone straight in the eyes. I hope to meet some of the ladies who accuse me falsely…it will be them who look away when I look into their eyes!"