Former rider turned directeur sportif Carmen Small says that her new venture with The Cyclists’ Alliance is about creating something for women's cycling and not just “bitching about what we're not getting." Small is one of three members on the board of The Cyclists' Alliance alongside founder Iris Slappendel and Orica-Scott rider Gracie Elvin.
"We want to create a better environment for the riders to be able to negotiate and know what their rights are. We can’t just sit here and complain and say this isn’t right, we have to do something about it,” Small told Cyclingnews. "We need to look at the economics of the sport and how we bring in more sponsors, what is the value.
"Our value isn't going to be the same as the men, and it's about understanding that and how to bring more fans and sponsors and partnerships into the sport. It's bigger than just a normal union, it's not just about bitching about what we're not getting. It's about creating something that's ours."
After more than a year’s worth of work, The Cyclists' Alliance was announced last week as the first women’s-only rider's union. The door has been left open for men to join in the future, but its primary focus is to push on the women’s side of the sport. In its press release, Small made a bold statement, saying that she believed women's cycling was on the verge of becoming one of the most commercially lucrative women’s sports. She expands on that for Cyclingnews, saying the sport needs to utilise its stories as it finds its own path.
"I think we are moving in the right direction, but we have to do it in our own way and it might not be how the men do it. I think that is the million dollar question because we don't have the answer to that yet. I think we will progress to that point," explained Small.
"Women’s cycling isn’t about the cycling, it’s about the empowerment and the inspiration. The racing is fun to watch and it's exciting, but it's also the background to it and the stories."
Small spent almost a decade as a professional rider before she was forced to retire earlier this year after struggling to recover from a concussion she suffered as a result of a crash at the Ronde van Drenthe. She had long planned to remain in cycling after her career and moved into a part-time role as a directeur sportif with the Danish Veloconcept team.
"When Iris approached me, it was pretty fitting because maybe I'm a bit opinionated and I'm not afraid to speak my mind. I'm older, I'm 37, and I've had another career besides cycling so maybe I have a different view about what is OK,” Small said. “At the time, I had just had my concussion, and I was having to take a step back from racing, and I was never able to race again. I was able to really help her a lot initially and be a sounding board for her so she could figure things out.”
At present, Small’s role within the organisation is as a liaison between teams, race organisers, the UCI and riders. She is also working behind the scenes with sponsors and with Slappendel on the organisation's "key platform issues." With some roles still to be filled, she is also helping out with a lot of the administration work.
Fighting for your rights
Putting together the organisation was a steep learning curve for all three involved, as they felt their way through a completely different set of challenges to what they had ever experienced before. "There were times when we were like, 'Oh shit, we have no idea what the answer is or what the question to ask is'," Small laughed. They brought in help from Marianne Vos as an advisor as well as people such as gender rights activist Kristen Worley, legal advisor Eric Vilé and business consultant Joe Harris.
In the process of building the organisation up, they sent out a survey to over 400 riders and it is the results of that which form the backbone of their focuses in the coming year. Issues such as salary were little surprise to Small, who says that she wasn't paid at all for the first two years of her career. There were a number of issues that were highlighted more so than that of salary, including health insurance and legal advice for contracts.
A whopping 91 per cent of those surveyed said that they had signed a contract without a lawyer looking over it. A large number of riders also pointed to health insurance as the most important issue for them.
The Cyclists' Alliance is trying to put together an insurance package for riders whose teams don't provide it, while Small is using her experience as a teacher and a directeur sportif to educate riders about their rights.
"I read through my contracts, but I never really knew what they meant and I'm an educated person. I would think they were all the same. Sometimes I would get my coach to take a look at it and see if there was anything weird. I was really lucky because I had good people around me,” Small told Cyclingnews. "Now I am a director, I sat with some of the girls and I went through the contract point by point with them. I don't think many of the directors normally do that but, I was thinking to myself, how are they supposed to learn?”
Small's concussion injury, which she is still struggling with to this day, has also given her a heightened interest in looking after the health of the riders and empowering them so that they can ensure the best for themselves.
"We need to educate the riders to know that they have some right to say no to their team. Riders don’t think that they have the right to say that. I am very passionate because it definitely affected me in my career,” she said. “I still get headaches every day. I've started a new eye therapy that I think is really helping. Luckily I have been in one place consistently enough that I can get some work done on my head and jaw. It's quite painful still, it’s not in the best way.
"I have to take something from it, it happened for a reason. It's really important to pass this onto the girls. Louise got a concussion in Norway and we told her ‘No, you’re not pushing to come back, you're done for the season'. We didn't mess around with it and I think that is really important because we need to make sure everything is 100 per cent."
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