Health Mate, a company that manufactures infrared saunas, will end its title sponsorship of the Health Mate Ladies Team at the end of the season, as the UCI Ethics Commission investigates multiple complaints of abuse levelled against the team's general manager, Patrick Van Gansen. Health Mate CEO Jan Vandenhoeck told Cyclingnews that the company does not tolerate such behaviour and that the investigation has been negative for the company.
"I confirm that the sponsorship is still valid until the end of 2019," Vandenhoeck told Cyclingnews. "We decided not to sign for 2020."
Cyclingnews reported in early June 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 by 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, seven more riders have come forward to corroborate the 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.
A 10th rider, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote a letter to Cyclingnews that detailed an unsettling environment during her time on the team this year.
The UCI announced at the end of June that its Ethics Commission had begun a formal investigation into the complaints of abuse filed against Van Gansen. The governing body acknowledged that it had gained additional information regarding the case that indicated breaches of the Code of Ethics.
"The UCI has received confirmation from its Ethics Commission that proceedings have formally been initiated in the case of Mr Patrick Van Gansen, General Manager of the Healthmate-Cyclive Team. By this decision, the Ethics Commission confirms that based on a prima facie examination of information at its disposal – most of which has been received in the past few weeks – there is an indication that breaches of the UCI Code of Ethics may have been committed," the statement from the UCI read.
"The Ethics Commission will now conduct its investigation through written and oral questioning, as determined by the Chairman of the panel that has been appointed to deal with the case."
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.
In an email interview in June, Vandenhoeck indicated that Health Mate would wait until the investigation was complete before making any decisions on the future of its sponsorship. However, he was also clear in his position regarding the allegations of abuse.
"We deeply regret the recent revelations in the press," Vandenhoeck said. "It is very clear that we do not tolerate cross-border behaviour. 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."
Vandenhoeck told Cyclingnews Tuesday, however, that the company had instead decided to make its decision not to renew the title sponsorship before the outcome of the investigation was known because of the negative impact it has had on the company.
"People, in general, don't make the difference between sponsor and team, they think that Health Mate is involved with this investigation. So it is negative branding," he said, adding that Van Gansen had no partnership role within the Health Mate company.
When asked if the company had intentions to stay within the sport of cycling, Vandenhoeck said Health Mate hasn't decided where it will spend its marketing funds, though he suggested the company might move on to a different sport.
"For sponsoring in 2020 we decided nothing yet, everything is possible. Another team, another sport…," Vandenhoeck said.
Van Gansen: Whoever wants to leave can go
The UCI Ethics Commission confirmed that it had started an official investigation, but the Belgian Cycling Federation president Tom Van Damme had earlier stated that he had not yet received formal complaints regarding Van Gansen.
In June, he told the Belgian press that Van Gansen "would be better to put a step aside until there is clarity about his role".
Van Gansen told Cyclingnews at that time that he had no intention of stepping down as the general manager of Health Mate Ladies Team. The team is scheduled to race at the BeNe Ladies Tour in July.
Van Gansen also said that he would discuss the future of the team with the current financial backers, before making any further decisions.
Cyclingnews reached out to Van Gansen for an interview after learning that Health Mate had decided to end its sponsorship of the women's team. He did not reply before this article was published.
Van Gansen told Het Nieuwsblad, however, that Health Mate's decision to ends its funding doesn't mean that he will stop running the women's cycling team. He said that there was a plan to continue the programme under a new structure and sponsors.
"We will see if the team continues, and there are already plans to continue in a different structure with other sponsors," Van Gansen said.
He also said that any of the current riders who wish to leave are welcome to do so at any time. "Whoever wants to leave can go."