Cervelo-Bigla owner accused of bullying, fat shaming, and abusing female riders

Former riders have spoken out against Cervelo-Bigla owner Thomas Campana, accusing the German of abusing his power as the head of the team; bullying, fat shaming and intimidating riders.

In an article published by the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, Iris Slappendel, Carmen Small, Vera Koedooder and Doris Schweizer reveal a tense atmosphere within the team where riders would often walk on eggshells to avoid Campana’s anger. Campana has denied all the allegations.

They also accuse Campana of insulting riders in front of other team members, pulling riders from races if he didn’t like something they had done, ignoring medical concerns and trying to control riders' diets.

The incidents detailed in the article took place, predominantly, during the 2015 season when the team brought on a large number of new riders. Koedooder had already been on the team for a year at that point, while Slappendel and Schweizer were new signings. Small would not join until midway through the season.

One incident highlighted in the article detailed a team training camp where Campana is accused of telling two 19-year-old riders that they were not allowed to eat carbohydrates because they were 'fat' and that they could only drink water while training.

"After three days, one was sick, she could not ride for the rest of the camp. She was a weak person according to him," Slappendel told de Volkskrant.

Speaking on Thursday, Slappendel told Cyclingnews that she and some other riders were also asked to cut out bread but she refused. Slappendel added that incidents such as these were not unique to Campana and his team.

"He also told me not to eat bread any more but I'm Dutch, I always need bread. Me and some other riders just joked about it and we ate it anyway," Slappendel told Cyclingnews. "I didn't feel like my career depended on Thomas Campana. For other riders it was different. I think the year after it was worse, but I had left the team already. This isn't something particular to him, this happens in other teams. Team managers try to interfere with everything even if it is something they don’t know anything about."

Another incident came at the Giro Rosa later that year when Schweizer crashed heavily, hitting a wall. The Swiss rider was sweating heavily, suffering from blurred vision and a suspected concussion. Schweizer says that Campana told her it was ‘because of the heat’ and she took to the start of the following stage, and finished the 98-kilometre route.

"He made jokes about it. Then I gave up. The only thing I wanted was to sleep,” Schweizer told de Volkskrant.

It took a phone call from the team doctor for Schweizer to be given permission to leave the race. It would be two years, the article says, before Schweizer would be free from the after-effects of the crash. Ahead of the 2016 Tour of Flanders, Small says that she reported an irregular heartbeat but only with repeated complaints that she was allowed to visit the hospital and was eventually removed from the start list.

Slappendel says that she tried to rise above the issues but she was angered by how her teammates were treated.

"At some point, I was also able to lift my shoulders and say ‘well, this guy has a problem himself. It’s not about me or my teammates’. I tried not to take it too personally. That can be a lot harder for riders who were 19," she told Cyclingnews.

“I think those made me a lot more angry than my own experience because, in the end, my own experience was just arguments with him. He tried to fire me at one point. He fined me, or he didn’t pay my prize money. He didn’t really screw with my mind. I think he did that with other riders.

"Every time I see a rider signing for that team, my heart breaks a little bit. I wish he wasn’t a team director anymore."

Cyclingnews reached out to Annemiek van Vleuten, who rode for the team in 2015, about her experiences. The double time trial world champion agreed with what had been reported, saying "everything in the article is 100 per cent true."

In the original article, Campana denied any wrongdoing and said that he had followed medical procedure and accused Schweizer of hiding her concussion. "The indicted team manager Campana denies all accusations," the report in de Volkskrant said. "He thinks it is important that the riders have an environment in which they feel good. He denies that he gives advice to cyclists about their health or nutrition," the report stated.

He briefly spoke to Cyclingnews saying that there was more to the story, and official documentation, but would not comment further.

"What has been written is definitely not our side," Campana told Cyclingnews. “There is a lot of confidential documents that have to be reviewed in order to understand the story. To understand the whole thing and to be fair, it is important to have a look at the paperwork, and our side of the story. It not only affects me but other team members."

Cyclingnews reached out to the UCI for a comment regarding this story, however, we did not receive a reply before it was published.

Better working conditions

Three years on, Slappendel is keen to use her experience for the benefit of others. She joined the UCI's Athlete Commission in 2015 and since her retirement from professional racing she has started up The Cyclists’ Alliance with Small and current rider Gracie Elvin.

"For me, it wasn’t a great year but I learned a lot that year and maybe it was the source for me for starting The Cyclists’ Alliance. So, it also brought some positive things," Slappendel told Cyclingnews. "I learned a lot from that year and for me personally it wasn't a great year but there are some riders in the team who had a much tougher year than me.”

Over the last year there have been a number of changes made within women’s cycling, including improved insurance and maternity leave. In 2020, the UCI is set to implement a two-tiered system with those in the top tier required to pay a minimum salary. To gain entry to the top tier, teams must apply through the UCI, which has set down a number of requirements – including ethical.

Currently teams only need to apply directly to the federation that they are registered to and the level of requirements vary wildly and sometimes contracts don’t follow the guidelines properly.

"In the top tier the registration will be truly UCI so it will be monitored by the UCI," Slappendel said to Cyclingnews. “The way it is now, every federation deals with it a little bit differently. I think that will make a difference but that will only be for a few teams."

A code of conduct is also due to be introduced in 2019, which all team members must sign. However, complaints submitted to the ethics committee – which is independent from the UCI - are currently not anonymous. In 2016, 10 riders and staff members took their complaints about Campana to the Ethics Commitee, but half withdrew when they found out that their names would be public knowledge to Campana.

In addition, the de Volkskrant article noted that "all the events in the indictment happened during the old code of ethics, in which team managers are not mentioned. Because of this, Campana could not be held liable. A new ethical code was published a few days after the events, but that did not matter."

In the end, no action was taken against Campana, and despite a new code of ethics being published a few days after the event, the new code could not be applied. While the complaint was not upheld, Slappendel says that it did prove revealing to some within the UCI and made them “open to our ideas of making the sport safer for riders. No one likes to complain or give any kind of negative attention to our sport but we do hope that riders realise not all behaviour has to be tolerated."

Slappendel would like to see the reporting procedure changed and that team staff members can be better held to account.

"We would also really love to see the UCI install an ombudsman because with the UCI ethics committee you can't make a complaint anonymously," Slappendel told Cyclingnews. "Every complaint you file is sent to the person that you complain about. It takes a lot of courage to file a complaint like we did because it's a very personal story and you put yourself in a very vulnerable position.

"The UCI haven't yet decided to install an ombudsman but they made an improved code of conduct that every person who works for a team has to sign. I hope it raises awareness with staff members that they are aware of their role and that they can be held accountable for what they do."

Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*

Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets

After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59

Join now for unlimited access

Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1